"The Death of Expertise" Explores How Ignorance Became a Virtue

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John F
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"The Death of Expertise" Explores How Ignorance Became a Virtue

Post by John F » Wed Mar 22, 2017 6:28 am

The reviewer doesn't think much of this book but essentially agrees with it. From the rest of the review, it looks to me worth reading, and when the library gets it, I expect I'll read it.

‘The Death of Expertise’ Explores How Ignorance Became a Virtue
By Michiko Kakutani
MARCH 21, 2017

The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters
By Tom Nichols
252 pages. Oxford University Press. $24.95.

Donald J. Trump’s taste for advisers with little or no government experience; his selection of cabinet members like Scott Pruitt and Rick Perry, who have expressed outright hostility to the agencies they now oversee; and the slow pace of making senior-level appointments in high-profile departments like State, Treasury and Homeland Security — all speak to the new president’s disregard for policy expertise and knowledge, just as his own election victory underscores many voters’ scorn for experience.

This is part of a larger wave of anti-rationalism that has been accelerating for years — manifested in the growing ascendance of emotion over reason in public debates, the blurring of lines among fact and opinion and lies, and denialism in the face of scientific findings about climate change and vaccination.

“Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of anything related to public policy, is an actual virtue,” the scholar Tom Nichols writes in his timely new book, “The Death of Expertise.” “To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong about anything. It is a new Declaration of Independence: No longer do we hold these truths to be self-evident, we hold all truths to be self-evident, even the ones that aren’t true. All things are knowable and every opinion on any subject is as good as any other.”

“The Death of Expertise” turns out to be an unexceptional book about an important subject. The volume is useful in its way, providing an overview of just how we arrived at this distressing state of affairs. But it’s more of a flat-footed compendium than an original work, pulling together examples from recent news stories while iterating arguments explored in more depth in books like Al Gore’s “The Assault on Reason,” Susan Jacoby’s “The Age of American Unreason,” Robert Hughes’s “Culture of Complaint” and, of course, Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 classic, “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.” Nichols’s source notes are one of the highlights of the volume, pointing the reader to more illuminating books and articles.

Nichols reminds us how a “resistance to intellectual authority” naturally took root in a country, dedicated to the principles of liberty and egalitarianism, and how American culture tends to fuel “romantic notions about the wisdom of the common person or the gumption of the self-educated genius.” (Though the country, it should also be remembered, was founded on the Enlightenment principles of reason and an informed citizenry.)

Nichols argues that the “protective swaddling environment of the modern university infantilizes students,” and suggests that today’s populism has magnified disdain for elites and experts of all sorts, be they in foreign policy, economics, even science.

Trump won the 2016 election, Nichols writes, because “he connected with a particular kind of voter who believes that knowing about things like America’s nuclear deterrent is just so much pointy-headed claptrap.” Worse, he goes on, some of these voters “not only didn’t care that Trump is ignorant or wrong, they likely were unable to recognize his ignorance or errors,” thanks to their own lack of knowledge.

While the internet has allowed more people more access to more information than ever before, it has also given them the illusion of knowledge when in fact they are drowning in data and cherry-picking what they choose to read. Given an inexhaustible buffet of facts, rumors, lies, serious analysis, crackpot speculation and outright propaganda to browse online, it becomes easy for one to succumb to “confirmation bias” — the tendency, as Nichols puts it, “to look for information that only confirms what we believe, to accept facts that only strengthen our preferred explanations, and to dismiss data that challenge what we accept as truth.”

Citizens of all political persuasions (not to mention members of the Trump administration) can increasingly live in their own news media bubbles, consuming only views similar to their own. When confronted with hard evidence that they are wrong, many [including Trump] will simply double down on their original assertions. “This is the ‘backfire effect,’” Nichols writes, “in which people redouble their efforts to keep their own internal narrative consistent, no matter how clear the indications that they’re wrong.” As a result, extreme views are amplified online, just as fake news and propaganda easily go viral.

Today, all these factors have combined to create a maelstrom of unreason that’s not just killing respect for expertise, but also undermining institutions, thwarting rational debate and spreading an epidemic of misinformation. These developments, in turn, threaten to weaken the very foundations of our democracy. As Nichols observes near the end of this book: “Laypeople complain about the rule of experts and they demand greater involvement in complicated national questions, but many of them only express their anger and make these demands after abdicating their own important role in the process: namely, to stay informed and politically literate enough to choose representatives who can act on their behalf.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/21/book ... irtue.html
John Francis

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Re: "The Death of Expertise" Explores How Ignorance Became a Virtue

Post by Ricordanza » Thu Mar 23, 2017 6:36 am

Sounds interesting, but are you familiar with any of these other books recommended by the reviewer?
But it’s more of a flat-footed compendium than an original work, pulling together examples from recent news stories while iterating arguments explored in more depth in books like Al Gore’s “The Assault on Reason,” Susan Jacoby’s “The Age of American Unreason,” Robert Hughes’s “Culture of Complaint” and, of course, Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 classic, “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.”

John F
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Re: "The Death of Expertise" Explores How Ignorance Became a Virtue

Post by John F » Thu Mar 23, 2017 8:00 am

I read Hofstadter's book long ago and don't remember much about it. Published in the year of JFK's assassination, it wouldn't be likely to speak to our current moment. I've read other books by Robert Hughes and liked them, but haven't heard of this one; he's Australian, though he lived in the US for years, and would have a different perspective. Haven't heard of Jacoby or her book. Of course I've heard of Al Gore, and of course the deniers of climate change and those who reject science generally (they're OK with technology) are a shared concern between him and Kakutani, but when Gore wrote we hadn't seen the likes of last year's presidential campaign; Gore and Clinton won the popular vote and lost the White House, but for very different reasons; Gore never saw the likes of last year's presidential campaign and election.

In short, no, and I'm not rushing out to get them, though I may look at the Hughes book if it's at the library.
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Re: "The Death of Expertise" Explores How Ignorance Became a Virtue

Post by jbuck919 » Sun Mar 26, 2017 5:30 pm

Unfortunately my library system won't take hold requests to hold and ship "new and popular books, and the copy at Saratoga is out. Sometimes I break down and get one for my Nook, as I may do in this case:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/20/book ... ctionfront

Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic
By Ganesh Sitaraman
423 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $28.

President Obama labeled income inequality “the defining challenge of our time.” But why exactly? And why “our time” especially? In part because we now know just how much goes to the very top of the income distribution, and beyond that, we know that recent economic growth, which has been anemic in any case, has accrued mostly to those who were already well-heeled, leaving stagnation or worse for many Americans. But why is this a problem?

Why am I hurt if Mark Zuckerberg develops Facebook, and gets rich on the proceeds? Some care about the unfairness of income inequality itself, some care about the loss of upward mobility and declining opportunities for our kids and some care about how people get rich — hard work and innovation are O.K., but theft, legal or otherwise, is not. Yet there is one threat of inequality that is widely feared, and that has been debated for thousands of years, which is that inequality can undermine governance. In his fine book, both history and call to arms, Ganesh Sitaraman argues that the contemporary explosion of inequality will destroy the American Constitution, which is and was premised on the existence of a large and thriving middle class. He has done us all a great service, taking an issue of overwhelming public importance, delving into its history, helping understand how our forebears handled it and building a platform to think about it today.

As recognized since ancient times, the coexistence of very rich and very poor leads to two possibilities, neither a happy one. The rich can rule alone, disenfranchising or even enslaving the poor, or the poor can rise up and confiscate the wealth of the rich. The rich tend to see themselves as better than the poor, a proclivity that is enhanced and even socially sanctioned in modern meritocracies. The poor, with little prospect of economic improvement and no access to political power, “might turn to a demagogue who would overthrow the government — only to become a tyrant. Oligarchy or tyranny, economic inequality meant the end of the republic.”
Continue reading the main story

Some constitutions were written to contain inequalities. In Rome, the patricians ruled, but could be overruled by plebeian tribunes whose role was to protect the poor. There are constitutions with lords and commoners in separate chambers, each with well-defined powers. Sitaraman calls these “class warfare constitutions,” and argues that the founding fathers of the United States found another way, a republic of equals. The middle classes, who according to David Hume were obsessed neither with pleasure-seeking, as were the rich, nor with meeting basic necessities, as were the poor, and were thus amenable to reason, could be a firm basis for a republic run in the public interest. There is some sketchy evidence that income and wealth inequality was indeed low in the 18th century, but the crucial point is that early America was an agrarian society of cultivators with an open frontier. No one needed to be poor when land was available in the West.
Part of a 19th-century magazine cover featuring an illustration titled “Rich and Poor; Or, The Two Christmas Dinners.” Credit Getty Images

The founders worried a good deal about people getting too rich. Jefferson was proud of his achievement in abolishing the entail and primogeniture in Virginia, writing the laws that “laid the ax to the root of Pseudoaristocracy.” He called for progressive taxation and, like the other founders, feared that the inheritance of wealth would lead to the establishment of an aristocracy. (Contrast this with those today who simultaneously advocate both equality of opportunity and the abolition of estate taxes.) Madison tried to calculate how long the frontier would last, and understood the threat to the Constitution that industrialization would bring; many of the founders thought of wage labor as little better than slavery and hoped that America could remain an agrarian society.

Of course, the fears about industrialization were realized, and by the late 19th century, in the Gilded Age, income inequality had reached levels comparable to those we see today. In perhaps the most original part of his book, Sitaraman, an associate professor of law at Vanderbilt Law School, highlights the achievements of the Progressive movement, one of whose aims was taming inequality, and which successfully modified the Constitution. There were four constitutional amendments in seven years — the direct election of senators, the franchise for women, the prohibition of alcohol and the income tax. To which I would add another reform, the establishment of the Federal Reserve, which provided a mechanism for handling financial crises without the need for the government to be bailed out by rich bankers, as well as the reduction in the tariff, which favored ordinary people by bringing down the cost of manufactures. Politics can respond to inequality, and the Constitution is not set in stone.

What of today, when inequality is back in full force? I am not persuaded that we can be saved by the return of a rational and public-spirited middle class, even if I knew exactly how to identify middle-class people, or to measure how well they are doing. Nor is it clear, postelection, whether the threat is an incipient oligarchy or an incipient populist autocracy; our new president tweets from one to the other. And European countries, without America’s middle-class Constitution, face some of the same threats, though more from autocracy than from plutocracy, which their constitutions may have helped them resist. Yet it is clear that we in the United States face the looming threat of a takeover of government by those who would use it to enrich themselves together with a continuing disenfranchisement of large segments of the population.

Sitaraman reviews many possible correctives, including redistribution to reduce inequality; better enforcement of antitrust laws; campaign finance reform to break the dependence of legislators on deep pockets; compulsory voting; and restrictions on lobbying, including the possibility of “public defender” lobbyists to act on behalf of the people. I would add the creation of a single-payer health system, not because I am in favor of socialized medicine but because the artificially inflated costs of health care are powering up inequality by producing large fortunes for a few while holding down wages; the pharmaceutical industry alone had 1,400 lobbyists in Washington in 2014. American health care does a poor job of delivering health, but is exquisitely designed as an inequality machine, commanding an ever-larger share of G.D.P. and funneling resources to the top of the income distribution.

Perhaps the least familiar and most intriguing policy proposal that Sitaraman discusses is the idea of reviving the Roman tribunate: 51 citizens would be selected by lot from the bottom 90 percent of the income distribution. They would be able to veto one statute, one executive order and one Supreme Court decision each year; they would be able to call a referendum, and impeach federal officials.

Such a proposal seems fanciful today, but so is campaign finance reform, or greater redistribution. Yet we do well to remember Milton Friedman’s dictum that it takes a crisis to bring real change, so that our job in the meantime is to develop alternatives to existing policies that are ready for when “the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.” There will surely be no lack of crises in the days to come.

Angus Deaton, a professor emeritus at Princeton, was awarded the Nobel in economic science in 2015.

Not that the arguments in it are likely to sway people who are convinced that those like Donald Trump who pay the same income tax rate I do haven't earned every penny and deserve to keep it.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

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