FALLS VILLAGE — Tom Nichols, author of “The Death of Expertise,” academic, and prominent conservative critic of Donald Trump, opened his Salisbury Forum talk Friday night, Oct. 19, by asking, “Why would I write a book with such an obnoxious title?”
He said that while experts have always been fair game for critics, “there is a kind of global attack on experts and expertise that is new.”
“People think they are smarter than experts.”
What is alarming, he continued, “is not that people don’t know things, but they are less hesitant about expressing strong opinions” about things they don’t know about.
He cited a 2014 poll that asked if American troops should be deployed against Russian soldiers in Ukraine.
“The most insistent on use of force were the least likely to know where [Ukraine] was.”
“The willingness to be an advocate for uninformed opinions is new.”
He compared this willingness to the Cliff Claven character on the television comedy “Cheers” — someone who was often wrong but never uncertain.
“We’re all Cliff now.”
Nichols declined to lay the blame for this phenomenon on the internet. He noted that “Cheers” predates the internet, and said there has been “an epidemic of narcissism that’s been around at least 40 years.”
He did single out American education, which since the 1960s has moved into a “therapeutic” model.
Of today’s students, he said, “We don’t ask them what they know, we ask them if they’re happy.”
He criticized the practice of students rating their college professors.
“So — we’re going to ask teenagers to evaluate middle-aged professionals” as if they were rating a restaurant.
He said today’s undergraduates “walk in thinking they are the peers of the faculty.”
Grade inflation is a problem. When the median grade at top colleges is an A or A minus, “we are creating an illusion of knowledge” and “hardening these bad habits of thought.”
Nichols said the media has developed from the old 30-minute nightly newscast on one of three networks into a “better information environment.”
“And yet it’s hurting us.” He compared today’s media environment to an overabundance of food. “We’re overweight and diabetic, not making good choices.”
He said there is so much media bandwidth to be filled, that the quality of stories has suffered. “It’s not interesting stuff you want to know.”
Instead, today’s media tells audiences what they want to hear.
He offered an anecdote : Dan Balz, an editor at The Washington Post, was asked why that paper doesn’t write more “explainers” — stories that provide background and context to a hot topic.
Balz replied that The Post does publish explainers. But, he said, “You won’t read them.”
Nichols said it is perfectly possible for people to spend “an entire day taking in information without hearing something they don’t like.”
As a remedy, he urged news consumers not to trust “any media without an editor.”
He also recommended finding a news source that provides a perspective other than one’s personal beliefs and reading that material at least a couple times per month.
He said when he worked as a staffer for the late Republican Sen. John Heinz, he had subscriptions to “The Nation” and “Mother Jones.”
“I wanted to know what the left thought.”
Nichols then delved into the internet, saying that he thought that what “was once a force for good is now rotting our brains.”
“The internet is not a curated space,” he emphasized. “It’s not a library. It’s a dumpster.”
And he said people are getting more and more information via “algorithms we don’t understand.”
The acronym “TLDR,” for “too long, didn’t read,” is perfect for today’s internet news consumer.
“It appeals to our narcissism and laziness. It creates the illusion of knowledge through short cuts.”
And internet news tends to reinforce whatever it is we think we know (but don’t).
He was gloomy about the future.
“We can’t sustain our republic with this kind of willful ignorance.
“I worry it will finally right itself — in a disaster.”