Sunday, November 4, 2018

Review: Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise

(Crossposted to Goodreads.)

“And for what purpose? Why are we encouraging the spread of this lunacy? I mean we here, in North America. I don't mean […] the richest people in the world battening on the poorest. That's just greed, which is a comparatively clean kind of vice. I'm talking about perversion, horrible, disgusting, systematic, deliberate perversion of the power of reason to destroy people without killing them, to strip them of their initiative, their joy in life, their hope, […], their last ultimate irreducible human resource, hope. Out of sheer desperation millions of people are abandoning the use of reason, bankrupting themselves to buy [new age junk], in a last puerile attempt to outdo the bastards who've made "reason" a dirty word.
“They've done it, you know—it's the dirtiest word in any human vocabulary right now. And it's been brought about in my own lifetime, almost entirely. Cold rational decisions, every step leading to them perfectly logical, underlay the wars in Asia […] and at every step we lost. Not just the wars, but bits ourselves. Compassion. Empathy. Love. Pity. We systematically chopped ourselves down to the measure of a machine.
– Fictional psychologist Xavier Conroy, from John Brunner’s The Jagged Orbit

I decided to go and read Nichols The Death of Expertise, since he is a prominent never-Trump figure whose public persona I rather like.
Oh. My. God.
This is a book of excuses by, I think, an enormously guilty man. Somewhere in the back of his mind he probably knows that it is conservatism that mounted the huge attack on knowledge and expertise that began in the last quarter of the 20th century. Somewhere in the back of his mind he probably knows that this was done to defend the policies which his political faction supported: the relaxation of financial law, widespread war, ecological destruction as a way to gain wealth. There’s some good material here on the genuine disrespect for knowledge and the problem of the value of intellectual authority when the basics of many subjects are widely and quickly available. (Anyone who has tried a home repair based on YouTube videos has something to say about this matter.) I read this just after Lanier’s Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now and the books have something to say to each other.
But this is an arsonist fighting the fire he helped feed. The vast amount of distortion that has been introduced into public discourse and is maintained by huge spending on propaganda is almost entirely from Nichols’s own political faction. It was “conservative” experts who rationalized the policies that killed millions through pointless war. It was “conservative” experts who rationalized the lawless financial and economic policies that destroyed the savings of the American middle class. And it is “conservative” experts who are still attacking the knowledge of scientists to defend the continuing destruction of the earth’s planetary environment.
Congratulations, Dr. Nichols. Your side won. And now you are surprised and angry that your victory has turned to ashes? This is a start. I am glad that at least you at least are willing to acknowledge that it is ashes. But it is time to look back at your intellectual sources, to, as economist Brad Delong says, mark your beliefs to market.

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