The Death of Expertise

May 4, 2017

I’m still suffering from bouts of insomnia but one of the odd useful side-effects is that I listen to all sorts of radio programmes in the middle of the night. Some are quite fascinating and I get hooked although I usually doze off before it finishes. Often I can’t remember the names or details of the topic, just that it was interesting but some fortunately stick in the mind.

A recent example was an interview with Tom Nichols, who is the author of a book entitled ‘The Death of Expertise’ (Oxford University Press, 2017). The book discusses the blurring of the lines between fact and opinion as a cultural trend. In the current climate (US Trump plus UK Brexit) this is especially relevant.

I’ve not read the book (although I’ve ordered it) but here are some extracts from a detailed review:

“He (Nicols) sees the longstanding (probably perennial) shakiness of the public’s basic political and historical knowledge as entering a new phase. The “Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers” is like a lit match dropped into a gasoline tanker-sized container filled with the Dunning-Kruger effect.”

“Nichols devotes most of his book to identifying how 21st-century American life undermines confidence in expert knowledge and blurs the lines between fact and opinion. Like Christopher Hayes in ‘The Twilight of the Elites‘, he acknowledges that real failures and abuses of power by military, medical, economic and political authorities account for a good deal of skepticism and cynicism toward claims of expertise.”

“But one really interesting idea to take away from the book is the concept of metacognition, which Nichols defines as “the ability to know when you’re not good at something by stepping back, looking at what you’re doing, and then realizing that you’re doing it wrong.” (He gives as an example good singers: they “know when they’ve hit a sour note,” unlike terrible singers, who don’t, even if everyone else winces.)”.

Note (see here): The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which low-ability individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability as much higher than it really is.

Psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger attributed this bias to a metacognitive incapacity, on the part of those with low ability, to recognize their ineptitude and evaluate their competence accurately. Their research also suggests corollaries: high-ability individuals may underestimate their relative competence and may erroneously assume that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others.

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