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A pair of timely tomes probes the factors converging to undermine the expertise of trained professionals

The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters

Tom Nichols
Oxford University Press
2017
268 pp.
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Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science

Dave Levitan
Norton
2017
270 pp.
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Given the rise in fervent opposition to facts and ongoing political assaults on scientific integrity, it’s no surprise that Oxford Dictionaries selected “post-truth” as 2016’s international word of the year. Populism coupled with renewed anti-intellectualism has affected leadership at home and abroad, leading to geopolitical instability. The ramifications for the science community are yet to be understood, but federal research priorities, funding, and innovation may be affected for decades. Two timely new books take different approaches toward grappling with the dangerous disconnect between expertise, policy-makers, and the public that threatens to undermine scientific progress for the foreseeable future.

Tom Nichols’s The Death of Expertise is a meticulously researched expansion of his 2014 article of the same name, published by The Federalist. In it, he argues that widespread public doubt of experts has become a persistent problem, along with the expectation that the opinions of nonexperts should have level footing in debate.

The Internet has had a primary role in this phenomenon, equalizing access to knowledge and leading the public to mistakenly believe that their opinions are as valid as those of trained experts. Our high-pressure, hypercompetitive modern media environment compounds the problem, producing sound bites over real analyses. Nichols also places some of the blame on American universities that have made higher education a commodity, producing overconfident, yet underskilled, graduates.

Complicating matters, experts are not always effective communicators and are not infallible, meaning that the public is frequently confused by uncertainty or predictions that turn out not to be true. This has fueled antivaccination groups, climate change denial, fear of genetically modified foods, and more.

According to Nichols, human psychology plays a role as well. For example, due to a phenomenon known as “confirmation bias,” we readily find and accept evidence that supports our preexisting beliefs. The result, he argues, is that corroding “trust among experts, citizens, and political leaders” has tainted politics and undermined democracy.

Nichols calls President Donald Trump’s road to the White House “a one-man campaign against established knowledge,” quoting the 45th president of the United States: “They say, ‘Oh, Trump doesn’t have experts.’ You know, I’ve always wanted to say this.… The experts are terrible. They say, ‘Donald Trump needs a foreign policy advisor.’ … But supposing I didn’t have one. Would it be worse than what we’re doing now?” Such attacks on expertise resonated widely with the American public, tapping into the popular belief that experts and intellectuals are working against the best interests of ordinary citizens.

RON BULL/CONTRIBUTOR/GETTY IMAGES

According to the CDC, raw dairy products are 150 times more likely than pasteurized products to cause illness, a fact that has not swayed raw milk advocates.

Dave Levitan’s Not a Scientist zeroes in specifically on science in politics and the ways politicians have undermined scientific integrity over the past 30 years. He begins by describing the context of the now infamous phrase “I’m not a scientist,” uttered first by Ronald Reagan in 1980.

During a campaign speech in Ohio, the man who would become our 40th president addressed environmental concerns by describing a flight over Mount St. Helens: “I’m not a scientist and I don’t know the figures, but I just have a suspicion that that one little mountain out there has probably released more sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere of the world than has been released in the last 10 years of automobile driving or things of that kind that people are so concerned about.” Reagan was wrong by orders of magnitude, but his reasoning sounded plausible and the “not a scientist” argument became a popular way to deny, attack, and misrepresent science in the policy-making process.

Each chapter of Levitan’s book goes on to describe a different tactic that politicians have successfully used to that end, from “The Oversimplification” to “The Straight-Up Fabrication.” He cites real stories from government hearings and speeches to illustrate how, when, and why they have been effective.

Levitan’s anecdotes range from the ridiculous to the terrifying, from Congressman Todd Akin’s claim that the female body can shut down pregnancy after a “legitimate rape” to the time Senator James Inhofe brought a snowball to the Senate floor as evidence against climate change. These detailed and well-cited assaults on science will infuriate anyone concerned about trusting the future of American research and innovation to politicians.

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In 1980, Ronald Reagan implied that Mount St. Helens may have more to do with air pollution than motor vehicles, couching his unfounded (and inaccurate) claim with the phrase “I’m not a scientist …, but.”

Throughout Not a Scientist, it’s evident that the book was written before the current political climate. It can feel surreal at times as a result. For example, Levitan’s introduction ends on the hopeful note that “the next generation of politicians will not be able to get away with [scientific ignorance] quite so easily or so often” as they have in the past. He clearly wrote those words before the current crop of presidential cabinet appointees surfaced, before concerns arose that the government might begin wiping scientific data from its servers, and before scientists around the world began planning public demonstrations to defend the scientific enterprise.

Still, Not a Scientist is a useful guide for recognizing that the policy-making process is about far more than facts. Levitan deftly reveals how partisanship and special interests can influence funding priorities and sway decision-making at the highest levels of government. If it were up to me, it would be required reading for all congressional staffers working on issues related to science, engineering, and technology.

Read together, The Death of Expertise and Not a Scientist provide a detailed look at how the United States arrived where we are today. What’s the solution? Both authors are a bit murky.

Nichols hopefully suggests that citizens, experts, and policy-makers should actively participate in serious debate about the role of experts and educated elites in American democracy. This seems unlikely through the lens of early 2017 America. However, it’s easy to agree with him on many points—for example, that every single vote in a democracy should be equal to every other but every single opinion should not be.
He is also correct in arguing that we must foster productive engagement between the educated elite and the society they serve. I am just not optimistic that it will happen anytime soon.

In the closing pages of Not a Scientist, Levitan quotes then-President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address, in which he talked about the need to act on climate change: “I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what, I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and at NOAA, and at our major universities.”

Levitan writes that President Obama made a convincing case for “simply listening to people who really are experts” and declares that the “I’m not a scientist” dodge is officially dead.

In hindsight, the assertion seems naïve and premature. Perhaps Levitan’s final remarks would have resonated if the U.S. presidential election had had a different outcome, but right now this conclusion falls flat.

Levitan suggests that we should go after politicians on Twitter and Facebook to hold them accountable when they make errors. Although a 140-character correction might raise awareness in a small way, more concrete efforts, such as making the rounds on Capitol Hill, calling representatives by phone, and offering scientific expertise to congressional staffers, will probably move the needle a bit further. Most important, it will be crucial to continue to broaden engagement on science issues outside the science community.

The Death of Expertise and Not a Scientist not only are timely reads but also serve as very helpful resources for understanding the forces and strategies working against scientists and other experts, as well as what is at stake if we continue along our current path. Nichols closes his book with a dire warning that the death of expertise—unearned respect for unfounded opinions—can lead to the end of our democracy. I’m no expert, but I fear that he is correct.

About the author

The reviewer is the coauthor of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future (Basic Books, New York, 2009).

  • Robert McBride

    So to be clear the Not A Scientist book is just an attack on republicans… I’m shocked. Science magazine, lol.

    • Aaron Yovanovits

      Way to embody everything expressed in the article Rob.

  • I don’t presume to judge the books by a short review, but I suspect they could hardly be as politically even-handed as Joseph Heath in his Enlightenment 2.0.