You Should Know Better

An Interview with Tom Nichols

Respect for expert knowledge seems to be at a historical low. Political populism is on the ascent; social tribalism looks like an unconquerable force. How to combat the plague of low information? Tom Nichols, a professor at the Naval War College, has chronicled both this problem and what he sees as its solutions in his new book The Death of Expertise. In this interview, he explains how we got here and how we can move forward.

Is the age of Trump the age of dumb?

Flickr. Is the age of Trump the age of dumb?

Octavian Report: Can you talk about your background and about the genesis of your book?

Tom Nichols: I’ve been a Russia expert for thirty years. I worked in Washington, I worked on Capitol Hill, I worked with classified information, I’m a former consultant to the CIA. One of the people who was my partner in the argument the book advances was somebody who had worked in NSA for a lot of years. When random people on the internet started lecturing me about Russia in the wake of the Snowden affair — lecturing me about the intelligence community and about how Russian intelligence really works — I stepped back and said “What fresh hell is this?”

It’s not that they were asking me questions. I welcome that. That’s one of the reasons I’m on social media: I think it’s a scholar’s duty to be out there answering questions. But the lecturing is what started me off writing about this and starting to make the case for listening to experts. The next thing that happened was that people in all kinds of different fields — doctors, lawyers, teachers, diplomats, military officers, you name it — started writing to me or speaking to me, often reaching out to me quietly and saying, “Thank God someone is finally saying this.” And I think that’s partly why the book has found an audience. Because I think there were a lot of frustrated professionals out there who got tired of being lectured in their own fields. A doctor said to me while I was writing this, “I’m so glad you are writing this, because I’ve gotten to the point where I just want to put all the instruments and medications on a tray and slide it across the table to the patient and say, ‘Fine, you do it.’”

OR: Why do you think expertise is losing its credibility?

Nichols: I think the underlying problem is actually a social and cultural problem, which is the growth of narcissism in American society. The proliferation of technology, the wide availability of education, and the segmenting and explosion of the media have all been serving and reinforcing that social and cultural trend.

As I say in the book: remember Cliff Clavin from Cheers — the man who thought he knew everything? Why did we laugh at him? Because there was only one of him. Then, suddenly, everybody in the bar is that guy. And that turns into misery.

OR: Can you talk about the link between American democracy and this kind of narcissism?

Nichols: My touchstone for this was the great C.S. Lewis, who warned us decades ago that when people come to understand democracy not as a system of political equality but as a condition of actual equality, then democracy itself is really in danger.

Unfortunately, that sense has always been, particularly in the United States, deep in our DNA. De Tocqueville talks about it. But, nonetheless, the United States, Canada, and Europe are also cultures that have respected achievement based on tangible results. No matter how much they may have resented the “eggheads,” it was at one point commonplace for Americans to say, “Well, they put a man on the moon, right?” People also have taken for granted how much has happened since then. The same people who now decry the state of the economy, for example, are completely unaware of the nature of the way the globalized system created by experts supports their fantastically high standard of living. Because this narcissism says, “If I’m not happy, then the world is not properly organized.” I think this creates a sense of resentment against experts, one that helps incubate the notion that the world around us was created by everyone equally — when in fact that is demonstrably not true. Electricians wire electrical systems, people who know how to create roads lay out roads, diplomats who know how to keep the country at peace keep the country at peace. The world we live in is the sum total of the division of labor.

Part of the reason I step forward to defend expertise is because people now equate expertise with elitism, when in fact what they ought to equate it to is the division of labor itself.

Attacking expertise is really attacking the division of labor. And Lewis talked about this corroded sense of democracy in which everyone says, “I’m as good as you.” Well, if that were our organizing principle, we’d be the Soviet Union, not the United States. Lewis makes a great point that I quote in the book: “No one who says ‘I’m as good as you’ truly believes it. The St. Bernard never says it to the toy dog, the scholar to the dunce, the employable to the bum.”

There was once a time when we accepted that people are good at different things. A very small number of people are good at a lot of things and a very small number of people are good at nothing. We accepted that there was a differentiation of skills and abilities in modern society.

Now, after 50 years of a culture that is built on affirmation and self-esteem — I call it a therapeutic culture, one organized around constantly taking the temperature of our own feelings — we see this attack on experts, primarily as a cry of wounded ego more than anything else. I know where you are probably going: people who would object to my argument would say, “Look, experts have made some terrible mistakes. There have been some things that have gone really wrong.” They argue that experts should have prevented the 2008 housing collapse. They should have stopped us from going to war in Iraq. They shouldn’t have encouraged us to be in Vietnam. They shouldn’t have invented thalidomide. And on and on and on.

There’s some truth in all these charges. Experts are going to make mistakes. But the fact of the matter is, and I emphasize this in the book, experts are not usually the deciders. Experts are the people who give the advice. Every time somebody blames the Iraq war on experts, I remember there was not a whole lot of popular resistance to the idea of going to war until after things went south. In fact, I think experts bowed too easily to public pressure here, to find a reason to go do something that the public wanted to do. The experts weren’t the ones telling people that Saddam did 9/11. We were the ones who said there was no connection.

Even with WMD the experts were wrong — but we had (so to speak) good reasons for being wrong. We made our best guesses given the difficulties of collecting intelligence. We are in an era not only of blaming experts but scapegoating them. I think that is part of the reason I wrote the book. I got tired of experts being scapegoated for things that a lot of experts disagreed about in the first place.

OR:  What does the election of Donald Trump mean in this context?

Nichols: Trump caught this wave. Trump did not create this. Let me say here, by the way, that I do not represent the government. These are my own personal views. Trump didn’t create this. He caught this wave and he surfed it very effectively. He reached out to people who are genuinely hurting and he gave them someone to blame. It was a classic scapegoating. He blamed bankers. He blamed scientists. He blamed academics. He blamed celebrities. All the people that are far away, that a lot of these folks who voted for Trump think are lying to them or oppressing them.

And the media most of all. Now, the media has earned some of that anger. But in my experience with journalists, even working in politics years ago, I found most of them are actually trying to get things right. Yes, they have biases. Yes, sometimes they are more biased than they are willing to admit or can see themselves. They are normal human beings trying to do a difficult job.

I think that Trump’s attacks on journalism and on the whole idea of knowledge are really among the scariest parts of that campaign. It played to people’s innate bias to only believe the things that make them happy in the first place. That’s treating the voters like children, like ill-tempered children. And it worked.

I’ve met people who were not economically poorly off, were not suffering in any tangible way — and they’d be the first to admit it. And yet they were convinced after the 2016 election, or by the time of 2016 election, that America was a hellhole.

I’ll give you an anecdote here, an example. I had a conversation with a good friend. He said, “Unemployment is huge, it’s massively out of control.” We were having this discussion in Massachusetts — where unemployment is 4.5 percent. I said, “Let’s assume the official numbers are lies and it’s twice what we think it is, that it’s eight or nine percent. Even in that case, you and I as kids lived through a worse unemployment situation than that.” And he said, “No, it’s never been this bad.”

For a lot of reasons, including all of the usual dissatisfactions of middle age and other things that are just part of getting older and realizing that the world you grew up in doesn’t exist anymore, he is convinced that America is basically in the grip of a great depression. A coming race war, a governmental collapse — you name it. He believes all that stuff, and he’s not alone.

We can argue about policy, but what Trump did was to remove the argument from policy and move it onto an argument about the nature of reality itself. And that’s where I draw the line. I’m a conservative by temperament and by party. I have worked for politicians from both parties, and I’m willing to have every fight there is about policy outcomes. I am not willing to start compromising on whether gravity exists.

OR: So is expertise in fact dead, or is it merely dying? How do people fight back against its current condition?

Nichols: Expertise is alive and well among the people who are willing to take advantage of it and rely on it. My concern is that it’s in trouble among laypeople and ordinary citizens who need it more than anyone. The people who understand the informational economy, who understand the role of expertise — they are going to be fine no matter what happens. This is part of the dread I have about where this is going. That the people who resist expertise the most are the ones who are most likely to suffer from rejecting it.

I’m sure, for example, the anti-vaccine fad will end sooner or later. I just hope it doesn’t end during a pandemic. And the notion that government should be run by a bunch of amateurs will seem like a really good idea right up until the next terrorist attack or major international conflict. But by then it’s too late. Because the whole idea of professional diplomacy, to take but one example, is to make sure that you never get to that brink.

OR: On that subject: do you see something in the offing with Russia? Does it feel that way to you, as a student of U.S.-Russia tensions?

Nichols: Yes. I think the Russians believe that America is now the most vulnerable it has been since the early 1970’s — and this is not something for which I blame Trump; I think there has been a steady decline since the end of the Cold War in the quality of American diplomacy. I think there is plenty of blame to go around. I think Clinton was too focused on the economy. Bush was too focused on terrorism. Obama was too focused on the notion of his own legacy. Trump, I don’t think, ever expected to win the election.

So Russia has fallen through the cracks, over and over and over again. And I think Putin and his mafia see a golden opportunity here to reduce American influence in the world. To divorce America from Europe and maybe even to break apart NATO. At some point they are going to throw the dice. When that happens, we are going to need cool, professional men and women who are calm, experienced and have deep expertise. The American people are going to have to trust them, rather than give in to this populist knee-jerking that has no understanding, really, of what Putin is about.

OR: Do you see there being a Balkan gambit?

Nichols: I’m concerned that they may, either through design or accident, try to test Article 5.

It may be something they just stumble into — the Russians are not that competent at this game either. But they are outplaying us very well. As anyone who’s ever been in a casino can tell you, the worst gambler is the guy on a winning streak.

OR: How would you recommend dealing with haters of expertise in your personal and professional life?

Nichols: I have a recommendation — and it’s not a popular one. In the book I call it “the revolt of the experts.” Experts, I think, have shirked their duty to engage with the public, in part because they are cowed by how angry the public can get and because the public will not accept even basic terms of debate or the rational use of evidence. And so they have simply withdrawn from the public sphere and choose instead to talk to each other.

My answer is that experts need to re-engage with the public forcefully and to hold their ground on things they know they are right about. I brought this up recently at a group of very accomplished scientists and intellectuals. One objection was raised that my solution was too confrontational and condescending. But it’s the opposite position that is condescending. I think that the American people respect people who stand their ground. I still believe that, and I think that we’d get a lot farther by saying, “You’re wrong and here’s why,” rather than saying, “That’s a good idea; let’s agree to disagree.” I hate that expression. I hate that expression with a passion.

OR: How should general education change in our era of intense specialization?

Nichols: We’ve had 40 or 50 years of experimenting with the idea that school exists to build the students’ self-esteem. It’s time to abandon that project. Some of the best teachers I’ve ever had were the teachers who put me in my place, right in the first day of class. I think that we need to return to that.

Critics of what I’m saying will point out that there a lot of bad teachers in the world. There are. But I would say there are a lot more bad parents in the world then there are bad teachers. And that makes teaching difficult because — I talk about this problem in the book — of overprotective, helicoptering parents.

We need to return to teachers being able to correct students and not worry about whether it hurts their feelings. The real world is full of moments when you have to make corrections to what you think — and the world doesn’t care about your feelings.

“Being a voter in a democracy is hard. It’s not an easy thing.”

—Tom Nichols

OR: Do we need to make changes in our political processes, and in our public institutions more broadly, to combat epidemic low information?

Nichols: No. Because the Founders got it right, and I really am weary of the institutional fixes to try to remedy what is a problem that really rests among the voters rather than the institutions. You can fiddle around with the institutions all day long, but if the voters still believe that 50 percent of the U.S. budget goes to foreign aid, there’s nothing you are going to be able to do about that. Unless you want to institute a test that asks people what the government spends on foreign aid before they vote on foreign aid — and I don’t recommend that either.

I think we have to return to some notion of civic virtue. Because that has fallen under attack for 40 years. The same people who are complaining about the technocratic rule of experts live in a country where, in the most heavily divisive election in recent memory, only six out of 10 people voted.

You can’t complain that experts are running things by default and then not show up at the polls. Or worse: show up at the polls and have no idea what you are talking about.

Another problem is that such citizens are constantly presenting experts with the need to square the circle. Cut government spending and increase my entitlements. Cut my tax rates and spend more on defense. Make me safe, but don’t engage with the world. I was giving at talk at a university recently and I actually asked the audience, “How many people think we have too many nuclear weapons?” Many of them raised their hands. I said, “How many of you know exactly how many nuclear weapons we have?” And all the hands went down.

Again, we see this notion that “I’m a member of democracy, I have rights.” Okay, you do — but you also have obligations and responsibilities. If I could put one idea forward to people who are reading this, it’s to remind them that being a voter in a democracy is hard. It’s not an easy thing. I spend quite a long time in the voting booth. I read every single one of the bond issues and other things I’m asked to vote on. It takes time. Usually I try to read up on them before I get there (they are published in the local newspaper).

The same people who complain about the state budget being out of control have no idea what’s on those ballots most of the time. Or you look at the turnout for votes on whether or not to float huge amounts of public debt in states like mine: people just aren’t showing up for the polls.

In the end, I think what populists don’t understand is that after all the shouting is over and everybody goes home, somebody still has to run the government every day. The marching and yelling and shouting do not actually deliver the mail or keep the roads open.

OR: To what extent has that kind of populist politics eroded the international system?

Nichols: I actually think that this kind of populism is going to increase the inequality in the international system. Because what people don’t realize is that while globalization hurts some communities, it lifts others. We have a standard of living globally beyond what anybody would have expected 40 years ago. Then, we were all watching movies about how by this time we were going to be eating Soylent Green — the famous foodstuff from the eponymous Charlton Heston movie, a product made from the bodies of elderly people forced to undergo euthanasia. By 2020, we were supposed to be eating that. Instead, we are actually subsidizing food prices because we have too much of it. If the global system of cooperation starts to collapse, I think what you are going to see is an acceleration in the trend that is happening now: the people who are winners in the information economy are going to prosper and the people that are being kept afloat by things like international trade are going to suffer.

I think that could bring an end to this populist phase. It would only happen after a lot of misery and would require a rebuilding of that order. I understand why people think the 21st-century international order hurts them. Because when you are out of a job, you want to believe that that job is gone, not that it has gone somewhere else. There is no way around the fact that this is going to increase with things like automation. To some extent the people who are fighting against the globalized international economy are like the people who want to keep making buggy whips.

With that said, there is one knock on experts that I think is quite legitimate. Because they deal in data, because they deal in abstracts, because they deal in macro-level issues, they have a tendency to lack empathy on the micro level.

I think better governmental policy can cushion the blow of globalization. But anybody who thinks that they are going to reverse globalization is living in a fantasy world. The only question is whether or not the benefits of globalization can be spread around a little more equally. If populism undoes a big chunk of that, as we are seeing with Brexit and the E.U., the elites are not going to suddenly have an attack of conscience and start redistributing the fruits of an international economy. That’s not how that happens.

OR: Is the extreme erosion of respect for speech rights among young people in any way connected to these impulses?

Nichols: It gets connected to that cultural problem of narcissism. Defending speech you hate requires really stepping out of yourself and taking a much bigger view of the world. It’s something that requires an immense amount of maturity and patience, as well as a faith in the dictum that the answer to bad speech is more speech.

The reaction against speech rights by young people — things like speech codes and protests and shutting down speakers — that’s juvenile. That’s how children react to things that they don’t want to hear. They cover their ears and they shout. Adults understand that it’s not free speech unless it’s free for the most odious people in the group.

Despite being conservative, I’m a civil libertarian and a free speech extremist. I shouldn’t say extremist: I’m a heavy free speech advocate. I am uncomfortable with almost any limits on speech, other than those necessary for public safety. I don’t think advocating violence or the overthrowing of the government is free speech. I don’t think advocating harming children is free speech. But I also think that the presumption should always be in favor of more speech rather than less. I think that requires passionate understanding of free speech rather than an emotional and narcissist reaction to things you don’t happen to like.

OR: Is there any final advice you would give to people who want to take up the fight against all these forces?

Nichols: Stay engaged. Don’t back down in the face of the crowds. The most ignorant voices are actually not a majority. I think most people in the developed world are actually looking for some sign of sanity and reasonability among their fellow citizens.

When intelligent and engaged people step back and dig a moat and disengage, you are abandoning public space to the least informed and most aggressive elements in a democratic society. I don’t advocate shouting back at the same volume, but staying engaged, staying steady, and insisting on the things you know to be true and real. Whether you are a scientist or an ordinary engaged voter, I think it’s really important. Because one way this can end without disaster, without the pandemic or war, is for reasonable people who believe in things like data and evidence to show that they are actually a functional majority again.