The Death of Expertise

The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters

By Tom Nichols

Published: January 18, 2022 Reading Time: 7 minutes rating: 7

This book is prescient. Written just a few years before the current pandemic, it highlights many of the problems we’re currently facing as a society: wokeness, general distrust in experts, and an increasing illusion that technology and information abundance is all that’s needed to become experts in a field and have opinions about everything.

He highlights the issues of “an increasingly narcissistic culture that cannot endure even the slightest hint of inequality of any kind”, and the increasing difficulty of having difficult conversations and discussions . If “principled, informed arguments are a sign of intellectual health and vitality in a democracy” then what happens to our society when people are canceled for voicing unpopular opinions and challenging the status quo?

Higher Education

Nichols spends many pages arguing against the current state of academia in the USA. A scholar himself, he warns against what is now known as “cancel culture” and goes against the current consumer-driven model adopted by many colleges and universities.

He argues that “education should aim to make people, no matter how smart or accomplished they are, learners for the rest of their lives.” Instead, “we now live in a society where the acquisition of even a little learning is the endpoint, rather than the beginning, of education.”

University shouldn’t be easy. It shouldn’t be like a trip to Disney World. And yet, Universities advertise their latest campus upgrades and comfy accommodations to lure students in instead of highlighting their educational and research achievements. To Nichols, this is troubling, he writes: “perhaps more disturbing is the peculiar Information Age notion that knowledge is now as omnipresent as sunlight, and that all we need do is bask in it with little additional effort on our part as citizens.”

It would seem that there is an increasing inability to understand that mastery and expertise are difficult to attain or as Nichols puts it “Knowledge is not self-explanatory and education is not easy”. We are living in an age where everything is a hack, and we are all looking for a shortcut when in reality we should “stop trying to make hard work easy” as Nir Eyal argues.

Vaccines & Conspiracy Theories

Remember that this book was written well before the current COVID pandemic. But what Nichols highlights in this regard is now more relevant than ever and deeply related to the decline in trust in institutions and experts. He writes:

“in the case of vaccines, for example, low rates of participation in child vaccination programs are actually not a problem among smalltown mothers with little schooling. Those mothers have to accept vaccinations for their kids because of the requirements in the public schools. The parents more likely to resist vaccines, as it turns out, are found among educated San Francisco suburbanites in Marin County.”

Then he describes the attractiveness of conspiracy theories: “conspiracy theories are deeply attractive to people who have a hard time making sense of a complicated world and who have no patience for less dramatic explanations. Such theories also appeal to a strong streak of narcissism: there are people who would choose to believe in complicated nonsense rather than accept that their own circumstances are incomprehensible, the result of issues beyond their intellectual capacity to understand, or even their own fault.” And deals the final blow to both camps: “Affluent and educated anti-vaccine activists in California are just educated enough to use the language of science to doubt the work of scientists, while Bible Belt conspiracy theorists engage the language of religion to express distrust of those outside their communities who contradict their convictions.”

The book ends on a pessimistic note that highlights a very probable and divided near future:

I fear we are witnessing the death of the ideal of expertise itself, a Google-fuelled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers—in other words, between those or any achievement in an area and those with none at all

Full Notes & Highlights

An increasingly narcissistic culture that cannot endure even the slightest hint of inequality of any kind 1

Education should aim to make people, no matter how smart or accomplished they are, learners for the rest of their lives.

We now live in a society where the acquisition of even a little learning is the endpoint, rather than the beginning, of education.

We cannot function without admitting the limits of our knowledge and trusting the expertise of others

“Once the intellectual was gently ridiculed because he was not needed; now he is fiercely resented because he is needed too much” — Hofstadter

In the case of vaccines, for example, low rates of participation in child vaccination programs are actually not a problem among smalltown mothers with little schooling. Those mothers have to accept vaccinations for their kids because of the requirements in the public schools. The parents more likely to resist vaccines, as it turns out, are found among educated San Francisco suburbanites in Marin County.

At the root of all this is an inability among laypeople to understand that experts being wrong on occasion about certain issues is not the same thing as experts being wrong consistently on everything. The fact of the matter is that experts are more often right than wrong, especially on essential matters of fact. And yet the public constantly searches for the loopholes in expert knowledge that will allow them to disregard all expert advice they don’t like.

True expertise, the kind of knowledge on which others rely, is an intangible but recognizable combination of education, talent, experience, and peer affirmation.

Every field has its trials by fire, and not everyone survives them, which is why experience and longevity in a particular area or profession are reasonable markers of expertise. 2

“Beware a craftsman who claims twenty years of experience when in reality he’s only had one year of experience twenty times” — Chinese proverb

“An expert is someone who knows some of the worst mistakes that can be made in his subject and how to avoid them” - Werner Heisenberg

“An expert is someone who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field” - Niels Bohr

“Metacognition”. The ability to know when you’re not good at something by stepping back, looking at what you’re doing, and then realising that you’re doing it wrong

Conspiracy theories are deeply attractive to people who have a hard time making sense of a complicated world and who have no patience for less dramatic explanations. Such theories also appeal to a strong streak of narcissism: there are people who would choose to believe in complicated nonsense rather than accept that their own circumstances are incomprehensible, the result of issues beyond their intellectual capacity to understand, or even their own fault.

Meaningless “metrics” have taken the place of expert judgment, from classrooms to medical offices.

Affluent and educated anti-vaccine activists in California are just educated enough to use the language of science to doubt the work of scientists, while Bible Belt conspiracy theorists engage the language of religion to express distrust of those outside their communities who contradict their convictions.

Central to this collapse of reason is a stubborn insistence by a fair number of people that modern life is simply terrible, worse even than the lived experience of the recent past.

Perhaps more disturbing is the peculiar Information Age notion that knowledge is now as omnipresent as sunlight, and that all we need do is bask in it with little additional effort on our part as citizens.

Knowledge is not self-explanatory and education is not easy.

We are swaddled in a sense of sullen, unfulfilled entitlement that makes self-correction and continued learning almost impossible.

The United States is now a country obsessed with the worship of its own ignorance.

Principled, informed arguments are a sign of intellectual health and vitality in a democracy

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding it’s way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge” - Isaac Asimov

I fear we are witnessing the death of the ideal of expertise itself, a Google-fuelled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers—in other words, between those or any achievement in an area and those with none at all


  1. There is no diversity of thought. ↩︎

  2. The Lindy effect. ↩︎