I was in the lobby at the car wash, killing time, when I noticed a birthday card on sale depicting the U.S. Capitol dome with these words: “For a relaxing birthday, take a tip from Congress.” The answer inside was predictable: “Do nothing.”
Yes, to many, politicians are uniformly worthy of scorn. The card brought to mind a passage I had just read in a long essay in the magazine Foreign Affairs.
“Americans have developed increasingly unrealistic expectations of what their political and economic systems can provide,” wrote Tom Nichols, “and this sense of entitlement fuels continual disappointment and anger.
“When people are told that ending poverty or preventing terrorism or stimulating economic growth is a lot harder than it looks, they roll their eyes. Unable to comprehend all the complexity around them, they choose instead to comprehend almost none of it and then sullenly blame elites for seizing control of their lives.”
That’s a tidy if unflattering take on today’s populism: Droves of regular, hard-working taxpayers losing faith in government to address their problems or even operate honestly. It’s a complaint rooted in the Watergate era, one that gained currency and momentum through the years and today has begat President Donald Trump.
Hand-wringing around that trend is not new, but Nichols’ principal theme struck me as even more worrisome under this headline: “How America Lost Faith in Expertise.” Nichols is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and adapted his essay from his new book on the same subject titled “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters.”
To illustrate his thesis via anecdote, Nichols described a poll after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014 asking respondents to locate Ukraine on a map. Only one in six could, but that didn’t stop those who thought the country was in South America or Australia from being more likely than average to support military intervention. Pause on that: “I don’t know where it is, but let’s send troops.”
Such attitudes are becoming commonplace, Nichols wrote. “It’s not just that people don’t know a lot about science or politics or geography. They don’t, but that’s an old problem.
“The bigger concern today is that Americans have reached a point where ignorance — at least regarding what is generally considered established knowledge in public policy — is seen as an actual virtue. To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to demonstrate their independence from nefarious elites — and insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong.”
In my view, the internet has played a big part. Why listen to a doctor, lawyer or, say, an expert in climate science, when there is so much contrary information at one’s fingertips?
Warned Nichols: “I fear we are moving beyond a natural skepticism regarding expert claims to the death of the ideal of expertise itself: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople, teachers and students, knowers and wonderers — in other words, between those with achievement in an area and those with none.”
Since Election Day, urban progressives in places like Madison have been lectured to talk less and listen more. We should seek to understand the anxieties and worries of people not like us. Fine. I don’t diminish the genuine struggles of those who may have voted for Trump out of rage or desperation, or both.
But Nichols’ analysis makes me wonder how to more effectively engage if the people with actual expertise in issues such as education or the environment are discounted.
Many citizens, Nichols wrote, “want to weigh in and have their opinions treated with deep respect and their preferences honored not on the strength of their arguments or on the evidence they present, but based on their feelings, emotions, and whatever stray information they may have picked up along the way.”
Conservatives will complain that I imply experts always side with the left. They don’t. The problem is that conservatives tend to elevate people like Betsy DeVos to high posts like secretary of education even when they, say, display a jaw-dropping lack of knowledge about education policy during hearings.
Or, in Wisconsin, it is Republicans who put someone like state Rep. Bob Gannon in charge of a committee on urban revitalization. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel described Gannon as a “tough-talking, pistol-packing” insurance salesman who perhaps gained most notoriety for making an obscene gesture at the Democratic leader on the Assembly floor.
It is not the left that rejects views of medical experts on stem cell research or reproductive rights topics. Which side embraces climate science and, within the state, seeks to adequately staff the Department of Natural Resources with environmental experts?
In his essay, Nichols also describes the tendency for those who know the least about a topic to argue their position with the greatest certainty.
“Part of the problem,” he wrote, “is that some people think they’re experts when in fact they’re not. We’ve all been trapped at a party where one of the least informed people in the room holds court, confidently lecturing the other guests with a cascade of banalities and misinformation.
“This sort of experience isn’t just in your imagination. It’s real, and it’s called ‘the Dunning-Kruger effect,’ after the research psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger. The essence of the effect is that the less skilled or competent you are, the more confident you are that you’re actually very good.”
In Wisconsin, if you want to see Dunning-Kruger in action, listen to talk radio.
On top of that, Nichols wrote, “Political views are deeply rooted in a person’s self-image and most cherished beliefs. Put another way, what we believe says something important about how we see ourselves, making disconfirmation of such beliefs a wrenching process that our minds stubbornly resist.”
So in other words, convincing people to change deeply held political views is a tall order. Doing that using experts’ evidence with people who dismiss experts in the first place?
Wish us luck.
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