“When we trust our feelings more than anything else, we stop trusting expert knowledge. And it could kill us.” This is the sentiment that Tom Nichols and James K.A. Smith discuss in the Spring 2017 issue of Comment Magazine. The entire issue is dedicated to Trust: Renewing Our Social Fabric. Although the first part of this article is a little challenging, I would encourage you to stick with it because of the profound insight Nichols and Smith are surfacing. Trust is a critical component to our lives. It is the thread that holds together the civility and common grace we enjoy in America. And of course ultimately it is a must for our faith and “trust” in Jesus Christ. There are important ideas presented here for all of us to consider deeply.
The Death of Expertise as a Decline of Trust
Something strange happens when the Internet becomes synonymous with your world. If you only inhabit a digitized space of memes and rage, where partisan expression is the lingua franca of the realm and being on the “right side” is a badge of honour, then bothersome things like evidence, data, and knowledge are steamrolled by ideological fervour. We trust the right to express our feelings above all; and since we all have feelings, what we think and feel is equally important and worthy. We’re all experts of expression.
But that is a world where expertise means nothing—where mastery and wisdom and knowledge are treated as irrelevant. It’s also a world that gives cover to corrosive ignorance. That’s why editor Jamie Smith was eager to talk to Tom Nichols, author of the new book The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters (Oxford University Press, 2017), a timely contribution to contemporary debates about populism and policy.
JAMES K.A. SMITH: In your book you call out a dangerous leveling effect in society that stems from an egalitarianism run amok—confusing a democratic politics (in which we all have equal rights) with a democratic epistemology (in which everyone’s opinion is equal). Why is this dangerous? And why might a restored “elitism” actually be good for democracy?
TOM NICHOLS: Well, as an American and a citizen of a democracy, I believe in our bedrock principle—one we’ve fought to bring to fruition through a revolution, a civil war, the enactment of universal suffrage, and the civil rights movement—of equality before the law. That’s light years away from the denatured notion of democracy that’s taken hold in America today, in which people mistake political equality for actual, personal equality in every way. It would be easy to write this off to a culture of permissiveness, and there’s some of that at work here, but C.S. Lewis warned us all about this nearly seventy years ago when he wrote that in the Western democracies in general, people were taking the notion of political equality to mean a coarse and sullen insistence that “I’m as good as you” no matter how obviously false an assertion it is.
Likewise, any notion that anyone is better or smarter in some area is now “elitism,” a word whose pejorative connotation has been reinforced by this resentful populism. Americans hate this notion in every way, which as Tocqueville noted is rooted in our culture. But we’ve taken it to idiotic extremes now—except, that is, in only one field: professional sports. Only when it comes to athletic achievement (and to some extent, in acting, perhaps), where prowess and failure are both obvious, do Americans think that a natural sorting of the top people from everyone else, the professionals from the amateurs, is acceptable.
Tell the average American that the top executive at a major corporation makes tens of millions of dollars and they’ll snarl with disgust at the greed of a man or woman who they think does nothing particularly useful or special. Tell them that football or baseball players get millions of dollars, and that they will have to pay a hefty price for a ticket to watch them, and they will gladly explain why some people who are great at things can command higher prices than those who stink.