Tuesday, January 01, 2019

The Death of Expertise

My friend eyed the books on the end table and asked if they were mine. I said they were. Are they any good? he asked. Maybe he was just making polite conversation.

The one I'd just finished was The Death of Expertise, by Tom Nichols, a lifelong Republican, and professor at the U.S. Naval War College. Its subtitle is "The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters." Much has recently been written by well-known intellectuals about our being in a "post truth" society. Such commentators include former CIA and NSA director and retired Air Force general Michael Hayden, among many. Hayden recently wrote The Assault on Intelligence, subtitled "American National Security in an Age of Lies." I wonder if he intended the title to be a pun.

Hayden opens his book about our "age of lies" with lies by President Trump—lies that were publicly repudiated in Congressional testimony by Trump's own FBI director and NSA director. Even Rex Tillerson warned, in a commencement address, about "alternative realities," an obvious rebuke of the president who had recently fired him (by tweet, of course). The term is reminiscent of presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway's reference to "alternative facts," which set an early anti-truth tone for the new administration as a follow-on to a mendacious Trump campaign. Because the adjective "alternative" does great damage to the word "fact," Conway's unfortunate pairing of them aptly illustrated the strained relationship between the administration and empirical reality. To say the relationship remains strained is a gross understatement. Trump himself, who famously rejects all manner of expertise, has continual difficulty with the truth on a scale unprecedented in the American presidency.

So the problem pervades top to bottom, and all the way through. Nowadays many of us, from the president on down, have a profound difficulty understanding what is real. That's in large part because we no longer listen to experts, and because many of us don't know how to gauge expertise. Too many seek "experts" who tell them what they want to hear rather than what is objectively true. Increasingly, experts are even disparaged as "elites;" their learning somehow makes them worthy of disdain, as if we imagine they think they're better than everybody else. Unfortunately, ours is an age not just of lies but of intellectual egalitarianism, where facts are reduced to opinions, and one opinion is as good as any other. On top of all that, there's a generalized ignorance about almost everything, despite whole libraries of knowledge at our fingertips, and a serious deficit of critical thinking skills to go with it. All told it's a pretty dismal picture.

Nichols discusses in successive chapters what he sees as primary causes of society's disdain of expertise, but for me the most important point was just his affirmation of the disturbing new intellectual landscape as I've been observing it, where objective fact is continually subordinated to poorly informed opinion in our discourse. No longer do we have mutually agreed touchstones against which to gauge claims of fact and construct a common understanding of reality.

I highlighted this failure in my most recent blog post, about the Republican tax cuts of a year ago, where expertise—such as from economists, the Congressional Budget Office, the Joint Committee on Taxation—was utterly ignored in favor of an irrational, unsupported belief that tax cuts in some overriding sense pay for themselves.

This way of thinking constitutes a sort of Republican tax cut "religion" that takes precedence over genuine expertise. Such rejection of expertise was demonstrated with the legislation in question by the complete absence of congressional hearings, where experts would normally be asked to present their analysis prior to passage of such an important law—a law, after all, which massively and fundamentally overhauled the U.S. tax code. Such lack of hearings and public debate is almost unthinkable: an abdication of legislative responsibility and certainly of regular order. Everywhere you look, including in government, the norms of intellectual inquiry are breaking down.

Republican leaders, who already "knew" everything they needed to know as a matter of faith, weren't interested in anything an actual expert had to say about their tax cuts. In fact, they did everything possible to suppress expert judgement, such as the CBO scoring required by law and which would have been front and center had any hearings been held. Even so, the relevant authorities such as CBO and JCT, though shut out of congressional deliberations, projected the tax law would add around $1.5 trillion to the national debt over 10 years—a debt which Republicans previously claimed to abhor.

And so it has happened that in one short year under the new tax law the deficit has exploded, with corporate tax receipts down a jaw-dropping $92 billion over the previous year despite a growing economy. (Think how many of Trump's walls that would pay for.) Corporations were the single largest beneficiaries of the tax law.

So expertise, which elucidates objective reality and provides a best-available explanation of things we've learned, is having a pretty rough go of it. Even so, you'd presumably still want the most expert radiologist to read your CT scan, and the most expert geologist if you're going to drill oil and gas wells, and the most highly trained and experienced engineers to design your jet airplane. Funny how we don't rely on intuition and opinion and "common sense" when it comes to our aircraft.

Such special cases aside, expertise of all sorts is routinely discounted, a symptom of the epidemic of the credulous ignorance and irrationality ravaging modern society. Which is pretty ironic when you consider that we got to be "modern" by cultivating expertise and thinking rationally. Amidst all the learned knowledge that's available to all, many of us now routinely dismiss experts in favor of our own uninformed opinions and prejudices—typically dictated by our tribe, and poured into our heads with our own acquiescence and even invitation—on the most important and (indulge me) most interesting questions of our time.

Questions such as climate change, of course. Death panels. (Have you met with yours yet?) Or the risk/reward calculation on vaccines, which experts tell us overwhelmingly works out in favor of reward. The age of the universe: 13.8 billion years. Of our own solar system: 4.6 billion. Evolution through natural selection, the foundational principle of modern biology.

Questions such as the prevalence of in-person voter fraud, which experts, who have studied the matter repeatedly, say is essentially non-existent in the U.S. (The current president suggested there were 3 million illegal votes in 2016, all for his opponent, and by remarkable coincidence the exact number by which he lost the popular vote. His short-lived commission headed by the vice president and conspiracy theorist Kris Kobach went looking for those votes, but quickly disbanded without issuing a report.)

Questions such as whether there are Ebola-infected terrorists swarming across our southern border: a concern primarily, it seems, of Fox News viewers. (Those alleged swarms notwithstanding, there has not been a single credible demonstration that either Ebola or terrorists have ever crossed the southern border.) About whether any material agreement has been negotiated with North Korea on nuclear disarmament. And questions about the fiscal and macroeconomic effects of tax cuts.

I'll add one more, for the Catholics with whom I sometimes argue: the non-existence of the historical papacy in the first few centuries of the Church, as affirmed even by the most esteemed and expert Catholic scholars.

On the question of the early papacy, a Catholic friend complained quite literally that I was bringing "experts" (his word!) such as historians into a matter that is rightly resolved by Church "teaching." Which is to say by faith. At least in some spheres we're supposed to divine even historical happenings by faith—evidence and reason notwithstanding. My friend's objection succinctly illustrates why our discussion was doomed, thanks to an irreconcilable understanding of what constitutes authority on empirical questions. If only we could confine the problem to matters of pure religion, and set it aside as a one-off human evolutionary quirk that stands apart from other kinds of understanding, then perhaps all would not be so dire.

But we can't, it seems. A lot of us fundamentally don't know how to think, and that deficit of thinking pollutes everything. But why? Nichols has some ideas, and he describes the failures of certain important institutions such as higher education, journalism, even experts themselves. Whatever the reason, critical thinking skills are sorely needed but mostly absent. Tribalism is ascendant. "Motivated reasoning" and "confirmation bias" derail rational thought and logical analysis. Myths proliferate wildly over the Internet to a dim and undiscriminating populace; apparently the intellectual gatekeepers of yore were more crucial than we realized. Facts are waved away, reduced to a smorgasbord of opinions, from which you can pick whichever you prefer to construct your own version of reality.

So this is where we've come: reality itself is up for grabs. Unfortunately for the weak-minded, and thus for all of us bound together by societal institutions (not least democracy), the ability to reason logically is prerequisite to understanding that a world where facts are fungible is a world where objective reality doesn't exist. What an unfortunate place to be.

Happy New Year

Copyright (C) 2019 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

The latest from Does It Hurt To Think? is here.

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