Maybe America is too Dumb for Democracy: A Review of Nichols’s The Death of Expertise

For today’s Cathedral Round-Up, I finally kept my commitment to review Tom Nichols’s The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters. It was better than I expected, (though that isn’t saying much.)

Make no mistake: Nichols is annoyingly arrogant. He draws a rather stark line between “experts” (who know things) and everyone else (who should humbly limit themselves to voting between options defined for them by the experts.) He implores people to better educate themselves in order to be better voters, but has little patience for autodidacts and bloggers like myself who are actually trying.

But arrogance alone doesn’t make someone wrong.

Nichols’s first thesis is simple: most people are too stupid or ignorant to second-guess experts or even contribute meaningfully to modern policy discussions. How can people who can’t find Ukraine on a map or think we should bomb the fictional city of Agrabah contribute in any meaningful way to a discussion of international policy?

It was one thing, in 1776, to think the average American could vote meaningfully on the issues of the day–a right they took by force, by shooting anyone who told them they couldn’t. Life was less complicated in 1776, and the average person could master most of the skills they needed to survive (indeed, pioneers on the edge of the frontier had to be mostly self-sufficient in order to survive.) Life was hard–most people engaged in long hours of heavy labor plowing fields, chopping wood, harvesting crops, and hauling necessities–but could be mastered by people who hadn’t graduated from elementary school.

But the modern industrial (or post-industrial) world is much more complicated than the one our ancestors grew up in. Today we have cars (maybe even self-driving cars), electrical grids and sewer systems, atomic bombs and fast food. The speed of communication and transportation have made it possible to chat with people on the other side of the earth and show up on their doorstep a day later. The amount if specialized, technical knowledge necessary to keep modern society running would astonish the average caveman–even with 15+ years of schooling, the average person can no longer build a house, nor even produce basic necessities like clothes or food. Most of us can’t even make a pencil.

Even experts who are actually knowledgeable about their particular area may be completely ignorant of fields outside of their expertise. Nichols speaks Russian, which makes him an expert in certain Russian-related matters, but he probably knows nothing about optimal high-speed rail networks. And herein lies the problem:

The American attachment to intellectual self-reliance described by Tocqueville survived for nearly a century before falling under a series of assaults from both within and without. Technology, universal secondary education, the proliferation of specialized expertise, and the emergence of the United States a a global power in the mid-twentieth century all undermined the idea… that the average American was adequately equipped either for the challenges of daily life or for running the affairs of a large country.

… the political scientist Richard Hofstadter wrote that “the complexity of modern life has steadily whittled away the functions the ordinary citizen can intelligently and competently perform for himself.”

… Somin wrote in 2015 that the “size and complexity of government” have mad it “more difficult for voters with limited knowledge to monitor and evaluate the government’s many activities. The result is a polity in which the people often cannot exercise their sovereignty responsibly and effectively.”

In other words, society is now too complex and people too stupid for democracy.

Nichols’s second thesis is that people used to trust experts, which let democracy function, but to day they are less trusting. He offers no evidence other than his general conviction that this change has happened.

He does, however, detail the way he thinks that 1. People have been given inflated egos about their own intelligence, and 2. How our information-delivery system has degenerated into misinformational goo, resulting in the trust-problems he believes we are having These are interesting arguments and worth examining.

A bit of summary:

Indeed, maybe the death of expertise is a sign of progress. Educated professionals, after all, no longer have a stranglehold on knowledge. The secrets of life are no longer hidden in giant marble mausoleums… in the past, there was less tress between experts and laypeople, but only because citizen were simply unable to challenge experts in any substantive way. …

Participation in political, intellectual, and scientific life until the early twentieth century was far more circumscribed, with debates about science, philosophy, and public policy all conducted by a small circle of educated males with pen and ink. Those were not exactly the Good Old Days, and they weren’t that long ago. The time when most people didn’t finish highschool, when very few went to college, and only a tiny fraction of the population entered professions is still within living memory of many Americans.

Aside from Nichols’s insistence that he believes modern American notions about gender and racial equality, I get the impression that he wouldn’t mind the Good Old Days of genteel pen-and-ink discussions between intellectuals. However, I question his claim that participation in political life was far more circumscribed–after all, people voted, and politicians liked getting people to vote for them. People anywhere, even illiterate peasants on the frontier or up in the mountains like to gather and debate about God, politics, and the meaning of life. The question is less “Did they discuss it?” and more “Did their discussions have any effect on politics?” Certainly we can point to abolition, women’s suffrage, prohibition, and the Revolution itself as heavily grass-roots movements.

But continuing with Nichols’s argument:

Social changes only in the past half century finally broke down old barriers of race, class, and sex not only between Americans and general but also between uneducated citizens and elite expert in particular. A wide circle of debate meant more knowledge but more social friction. Universal education, the greater empowerment of women and minorities, the growth of a middle class, and increased social mobility all threw a minority of expert and the majority of citizens into direct contact, after nearly two centuries in which they rarely had to interact with each other.

And yet the result has not been a greater respect for knowledge, but the growth of an irrational conviction among Americans that everyone is as smart as everyone else.

Nichols is distracting himself with the reflexive racial argument; the important change he is highlighting isn’t social but technical.

I’d like to quote a short exchange from Our Southern Highlanders, an anthropologic-style text written about Appalachia about a century ago:

The mountain clergy, as a general rule, are hostile to “book larnin’,” for “there ain’t no Holy Ghost in it.” One of them who had spent three months at a theological school told President Frost, “Yes, the seminary is a good place ter go and git rested up, but ’tain’t worth while fer me ter go thar no more ’s long as I’ve got good wind.”

It used to amuse me to explain how I knew that the earth was a sphere; but one day, when I was busy, a tiresome old preacher put the everlasting question to me: “Do you believe the earth is round?” An impish perversity seized me and I answered, “No—all blamed humbug!” “Amen!” cried my delighted catechist, “I knowed in reason you had more sense.”

But back to Nichols, who really likes the concept of expertise:

One reason claims of expertise grate on people in a democracy is that specialization is necessarily exclusive. WHen we study a certain area of knowledge or spend oulives in a particular occupation, we not only forego expertise in othe jobs or subjects, but also trust that other pople in the community know what they’re doing in thei area as surely as we do in our own. As much as we might want to go up to the cockpit afte the engine flames out to give the pilots osme helpful tips, we assume–in part, ebcause wehave to–that tye’re better able to cope with the problem than we are. Othewise, our highly evovled society breaks down int island sof incoherence, where we spend our time in poorly infomed second-guessing instead of trusting each other.

This would be a good point to look at data on overall trust levels, friendship, civic engagement, etc (It’s down. It’s all down.) and maybe some explanations for these changes.

Nichols talks briefly about the accreditation and verification process for producing “experts,” which he rather likes. There is an interesting discussion in the economics literature on things like the economics of trust and information (how do websites signal that they are trustworthy enough that you will give them your credit card number and expect to receive items you ordered a few days later?) which could apply here, too.

Nichols then explores a variety of cognitive biases, such a superstitions, phobias, and conspiracy theories:

Conspiracy theories are also a way for people to give meaning to events that frighten them. Without a coherent explanation for why terrible thing happen to innocent people, they would have to accept such occurence as nothing more than the random cruelty either of an uncaring universe or an incomprehensible deity. …

The only way out of this dilemma is to imagine a world in which our troubles are the fault of powerful people who had it within their power to avert such misery. …

Just as individual facing grief and confusion look for reasons where none may exist, so, too, will entire societies gravitate toward outlandish theories when collectively subjected to a terrible national experience. Conspiracy theories and flawed reasoning behind them …become especially seductive “in any society that has suffered an epic, collectively felt trauma. In the aftermath, millions of people find themselves casting about for an answer to the ancient question of why bad things happen to good people.” …

Today, conspiracy theories are reaction mostly to the economic and social dislocations of globalization…This is not a trivial obstacle when it comes to the problems of expert engagement with the public: nearly 30 percent of Americans, for example, think “a secretive elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world” …

Obviously stupid. A not-secret elite with a globalist agenda already rules the world.

and 15 percent think media or government add secret mind controlling technology to TV broadcasts. (Another 15 percent aren’t sure about the TV issue.)

It’s called “advertising” and it wants you to buy a Ford.

Anyway, the problem with conspiracy theories is they are unfalsifiable; no amount of evidence will ever convince a conspiracy theorist that he is wrong, for all evidence is just further proof of how nefariously “they” are constructing the conspiracy.

Then Nichols gets into some interesting matter on the difference between stereotypes and generalizations, which segues nicely into a tangent I’d like to discuss, but it probably deserves its own post. To summarize:

Sometimes experts know things that contradict other people’s political (or religious) beliefs… If an “expert” finding or field accords with established liberal values, EG, the implicit association test found that “everyone is a little bit racist,” which liberals already believed, then there is an easy mesh between what the academics believe and the rest of their social class.

If their findings contradict conservative/low-class values, EG, when professors assert that evolution is true and “those low-class Bible-thumpers in Oklahoma are wrong,” sure, they might have a lot of people who disagree with them, but those people aren’t part of their own social class/the upper class, and so not a problem. If anything, high class folks love such finding, because it gives them a chance to talk about how much better they are than those low-class people (though such class conflict is obviously poisonous in a democracy where those low-class people can still vote to Fuck You and Your Global Warming, Too.)

But if the findings contradict high-class/liberal politics, then the experts have a real problem. EG, if that same evolution professor turns around and says, “By the way, race is definitely biologically real, and there are statistical differences in average IQ between the races,” now he’s contradicting the political values of his own class/the upper class, and that becomes a social issue and he is likely to get Watsoned.

For years folks at Fox News (and talk radio) have lambasted “the media” even though they are part of the media; SSC recently discussed “can something be both popular and silenced?

Jordan Peterson isn’t unpopular or “silenced” so much as he is disliked by upper class folks and liked by “losers” and low class folks, despite the fact that he is basically an intellectual guy and isn’t peddling a low-class product. Likewise, Fox News is just as much part of The Media as NPR, (if anything, it’s much more of the Media) but NPR is higher class than Fox, and Fox doesn’t like feeling like its opinions are being judged along this class axis.

For better or for worse (mostly worse) class politics and political/religious beliefs strongly affect our opinions of “experts,” especially those who say things we disagree with.

But back to Nichols: Dunning-Kruger effect, fake cultural literacy, and too many people at college. Nichols is a professor and has seen college students up close and personal, and has a low opinion of most of them. The massive expansion of upper education has not resulted in a better-educated, smarter populace, he argues, but a populace armed with expensive certificates that show the sat around a college for 4 years without learning much of anything. Unfortunately, beyond a certain level, there isn’t a lot that more school can do to increase people’s basic aptitudes.

Colleges get money by attracting students, which incentivises them to hand out degrees like candy–in other words, students are being lied to about their abilities and college degrees are fast becoming the participation trophies for the not very bright.

Nichols has little sympathy for modern students:

Today, by contrast, students explode over imagined slights that are not even remotely int eh same category as fighting for civil rights or being sent to war. Students now build majestic Everests from the smallest molehills, and they descend into hysteria over pranks and hoaxes. In the midst of it all, the students are learning that emotions and volume can always defeat reason and substance, thus building about themselves fortresses that no future teacher, expert, or intellectual will ever be able to breach.

At Yale in 2015, for example, a house master’s wife had the temerity to tell minority students to ignore Halloween costumes they thought offensive. This provoked a campus wide temper tantrum that included professors being shouted down by screaming student. “In your position as master,” one student howled in a professor’s face, “it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students… Do you understand that?!”

Quietly, the professor said, “No, I don’t agree with that,” and the student unloaded on him:

“Then why the [expletive] did you accept the position?! Who the [expletive] hired you?! You should step down! If that is what you think about being a master you should step down! It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here. You are not doing that!” [emphasis added]

Yale, instead of disciplining students in violation of their own norms of academic discourse, apologized to the tantrum throwers. The house master eventually resigned from his residential post…

To faculty everywhere, the lesson was obvious: the campus of a top university is not a place for intellectual exploration. It is a luxury home, rented for four to six years, nine months at a time, by children of the elite who may shout at faculty as if they’re berating clumsy maids in a colonial mansion.

The incident Nichols cites (and similar ones elsewhere,) are not just matters of college students being dumb or entitled, but explicitly racial conflicts. The demand for “safe spaces” is easy to ridicule on the grounds that students are emotional babies, but this misses the point: students are carving out territory for themselves on explicitly racial lines, often by violence.

Nichols, though, either does not notice the racial aspect of modern campus conflicts or does not want to admit publicly to doing so.

Nichols moves on to blame TV, especially CNN, talk radio, and the internet for dumbing down the quality of discourse by overwhelming us with a deluge of more information than we can possibly process.

Referring back to Auerswald and The Code Economy, if automation creates a bifurcation in industries, replacing a moderately-priced, moderately available product with a stream of cheap, low-quality product on the one hand and a trickle of expensive, high-quality products on the other, good-quality journalism has been replaced with a flood of low-quality crap. The high-quality end is still working itself out.

Nichols opines:

Accessing the Internet can actually make people dumber than if they had never engaged a subject at all. The very act of searching for information makes people think they’ve learned something,when in fact they’re more likely to be immersed in yet more data they do not understand. …

When a group of experimental psychologists at Yale investigated how people use the internet, they found that “people who search for information on the Web emerge from the process with an inflated sense of how much they know–even regarding topic that are unrelated to the ones they Googled.” …

How can exposure to so much information fail to produce at least some kind of increased baseline of knowledge, if only by electronic osmosis? How can people read so much yet retain so little? The answer is simple: few people are actually reading what they find.

As a University College of London (UCL) study found, people don’t actually read the articles they encounter during a search on the Internet. Instead, they glance at the top line or the first few sentences and then move on. Internet users, the researchers noted, “Are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed, there are signs that new forms of ‘reading’ are emerging as users ‘power browse’ horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.”

The internet’s demands for instant updates, for whatever headlines generate the most clicks (and thus advertising revenue), has upset the balance of speed vs. expertise in the newsroom. No longer have reporters any incentive to spend long hours carefully writing a well-researched story when such stories pay less than clickbait headlines about racist pet costumes and celebrity tweets.

I realize it seems churlish to complain about the feast of news and information brought to us by the Information Age, but I’m going to complain anyway. Changes in journalism, like the increased access to the Internet and to college education, have unexpectedly corrosive effects on the relationship between laypeople and experts. Instead of making people better informed, much of what passes for news in the twenty-first century often leaves laypeople–and sometimes experts–even more confused and ornery.

Experts face a vexing challenge: there’s more news available, and yet people seem less informed, a trend that goes back at least a quarter century. Paradoxically, it is a problem that is worsening rather than dissipating. …

As long ago as 1990, for example, a study conducted by the Pew Trust warned that disengagement from important public questions was actually worse among people under thirty, the group that should have been most receptive to then-emerging sources of information like cable television and electronic media. This was a distinct change in American civic culture, as the Pew study noted:

“Over most of the past five decades younger members of the public have been at least as well informed as older people. In 1990, that is no longer the case. … “

Those respondents are now themselves middle-aged, and their children are faring no better.

If you were 30 in 1990, you were born in 1960, to parents who were between the ages of 20 and 40 years old, that is, born between 1920 and 1940.

Source: Audacious Epigone

Fertility for the 1920-1940 cohort was strongly dysgenic. So was the 1940-50 cohort. The 1900-1919 cohort at least had the Flynn Effect on their side, but later cohorts just look like an advertisement for idiocracy.

Nichols ends with a plea that voters respect experts (and that experts, in turn, be humble and polite to voters.) After all, modern society is too complicated for any of us to be experts on everything. If we don’t pay attention to expert advice, he warns, modern society is bound to end in ignorant goo.

The logical inconsistency is that Nichols believes in democracy at all–he thinks democracy can be saved if ignorant people vote within a range of options as defined by experts like himself, eg, “What vaccine options are best?” rather than “Should we have vaccines at all?”

The problem, then, is that whoever controls the experts (or controls which expert opinions people hear) controls the limits of policy debates. This leads to people arguing over experts, which leads right back where we are today. As long as there are politics, “expertise” will be politicized, eg:

Look at any court case in which both sides bring in their own “expert” witnesses. Both experts testify to the effect that their side is correct. Then the jury is left to vote on which side had more believable experts. This is like best case scenario voting, and the fact that the voters are dumb and don’t understand what the experts are saying and are obviously being mislead in many cases is still a huge problem.

If politics is the problem, then perhaps getting rid of politics is the solution. Just have a bunch of Singapores run by Lee Kwan Yews, let folks like Nichols advise them, and let the common people “vote with their feet” by moving to the best states.

The problem with this solution is that “exit” doesn’t exist in the modern world in any meaningful way, and there are significant reasons why ordinary people oppose open borders.

Conclusion: 3/5 stars. It’s not a terrible book, and Nichols has plenty of good points, but “Americans are dumb” isn’t exactly fresh territory and much has already been written on the subject.


Stereotypes, Expertise, and Class

Tom Nichols’s book, The Death of Expertise, has a passage that inspired a tangent that I’d like to discuss separately from my main review:

“You can’t generalize like that!” Few expressions are more likely to arise in even a mildly controversial discussion. People resist generalizations–boys tend to be like this, girls tend to be like that–because we all want to believe we’re unique and can’t be pigeonholed that easily.

What most people usually mean when they object to “generalizing,” however, is not that we shouldn’t generalize, but that we shouldn’t stereotype, which is a different issue The problem in casual discourse is that people often don’t understand the difference between stereotypes and generalizations, and this makes conversation, especially between experts and laypeople, arduous and exhausting. –Tom Nichols

Nichols brings up a good point, but is wrong about stereotypes–to generalize, most stereotypes are true, and people object to stereotypes and generalizations for the exact same reasons. Or as Psychology Today puts it:

“Stereotypes” have a bad name, and everybody hates stereotypes. But what exactly is a stereotype?

What people call “stereotypes” are what scientists call “empirical generalizations,” and they are the foundation of scientific theory. That’s what scientists do; they make generalizations. Many stereotypes are empirical generalizations with a statistical basis and thus on average tend to be true. If they are not true, they wouldn’t be stereotypes. … 

SAT scores by race and parental income

We only call them “stereotypes” when we don’t like the information they convey. “African Americans have more melanin, on average, than non-African Americans,” is not a controversial statement; “African Americans score worse on the SAT, on average, than non-African Americans” is controversial, even though both are empirically true.

Nichols grasps for this false distinction between “generalizations” and “stereotypes” because Nichols sees himself as a Good Person, not an Evil Racist, and only Evil Racists use stereotypes. (We know that because the liberals said so.)

Except for the uncomfortable fact that most stereotypes are basically true, otherwise people wouldn’t bother to have them. This leaves Nichols in the uncomfortable position of eternally trying to explain to people why it’s okay when he, an expert, says mean things about the Russians, but totally not okay when ordinary people say mean things about the Russians.

I can almost hear Nichols objecting, “It can’t be racist if it’s true,” to which I raise the average Somali IQ:

In the US, the cutoff for “mental retardation” or “intellecutal disability” is set at an IQ of 70 or below. The averaged measured Somali IQ is in the low 70s. Almost half of Somalis would be, in the US, legally retarded.

The only way to dull the sting of this statement is to note that 1. of course the majority of Somalis aren’t retarded; 2. Somali migants are heavily selected from the smarter end of the Somalia, because they’re the folks who were clever enough to escape; 3. Somali IQ is probably being depressed by terrible local conditions. Still, if you work for Google, I don’t recommend writing any memos trying to give a nuanced version of “Somalis have low average IQs.” For that matter, I don’t recommend writing that if you work anywhere except in an explicit IQ-related job. If your coworkers are IQ-experts, they might already be familiar with Somali IQs; otherwise you will get sacked immediately for being racist.

Everything is fine for experts if they promote ideas that people already believe or want to agree with. Saying that “Fast food is bad for you,” raises few hackles. Everyone knows that.

The findings of the now-discredited Implicit Association Test were widely touted because people wanted evidence that “everyone is a little bit racist,” (or at least that whites are all subconsciously racist, even the ones who say they aren’t.) The IAT was obviously bogus from the start, but confirmation bias and wanting it to be true led people to latch onto it.

When experts and common wisdom agree, all is well.

It’s when experts and lay-people disagree that problems arises. If the matter is purely scientific–What is the atomic weight of cesium?–people will usually defer. But if the matter is personal or involves deeply held religious beliefs, people resist. (We evolutionists have been dealing with this for a long time.)

Nichols gives the example, “Russians are more corrupt than Norwegians.” It’s absolutely true, unless we’re using some strange definition of “corrupt.” And Nichols, a guy who speaks Russian and has been studying Russia for decades, has the relevant expertise to make such a judgment. But normal people who don’t know anything about Russia (or Norway) get their hackles up because the statement sounds mean and contradicts their deeply held belief that all groups of people are morally and intellectually equal.

If the only difference between a stereotype and a generalization is that a stereotype offends the hearer, then “Russians are more corrupt than Norwegians” is a stereotype.

Life is hard for experts if they contradict things people deeply believe, but it’s even harder if they contradict things believed by their own social class.

Scientists studying evolution face criticism and disbelief from people who believe that humans were created by God from a ball of dirt on the sixth day of creation, but evolution is a “high class” belief and creationism is “low class,” so scientists face no loss of social standing by advocating for evolution and generally don’t even associate socially with creationists.

By contrast, a geneticist like Harvard’s David Reich, who recently admitted in the New York Times that “race” is biologically, even genetically real, is contradicting the beliefs of his own social class that “race is a social construct.” Harvard is full of people who believe creationist nonsense about the biology of men, women, and racial groups, but since these are high-class religious beliefs, Reich faces a loss of social standing by contradicting them and will have to actually deal with these people in real life.

Slate Star Codex recently posed, “Can Things be Both Popular and Silenced?” a discussion of whether authors like Jordan Peterson, who has received a ton of media attention lately and sells millions of books and is doing quite well for himself, can be accurately described as “silenced” in some way.

SSC briefly touches on social class and then moves on to other important matters, but I think social class really ties matters together. Peterson is a book-writing professional with a medical degree, (I think. I haven’t read any of his work,) that is, an academic intellectual. Reich is a Harvard professor doing ground-breaking, amazing work. James Watson won a goddam Nobel prize. Bret Weinstein was a professor at Evergreen State. Etc. These are high class academics in conflict with the rest of their social class, which can cause a great deal of anxiety, the loss of friends, and outright conflict, as when students at Evergreen college literally tried to hunt Professor Weinstein down with bats and tazers for the crime of not leaving campus on “no white people on campus day.” (Relevant posts on Weinstein and Evergreen; See also the James Damore incident at Google and the Christakis incident at Yale.)

A conservative person living in a conservative part of the country probably doesn’t lose much social standing for criticizing stupid things liberals believe, but someone in a liberal profession or social environment will. Even if he is actually an expert who is actually correct, he still faces hoards of ignorant people who are socially more powerful than he is and will happily punch him silent in defense of their religious beliefs. (The same is probably also true in reverse; I wouldn’t want to be openly pro-choice in a highly conservative workplace, for example.)

A lot of what gets called “silencing” is just class insecurity or conflict. Fox News rails against “the media” even though it is the media; more people watch Fox than listen to NPR, but PR is high-class and Fox is low-class. It’s not that “the media” is liberal so much as that the upper class is liberal and the lower classes don’t like being looked down upon.

You can rail against Fox News or Infowars or whatever for being stupid, but this is a democracy, so if one side tries to be objective, correct, or have high-status experts, then the other side will rail against all of that. If one side tries to promote cute puppies, the other side will become the anti-cute-puppies party.

Experts run into troubl when their research leads them to believe things that fit with neither party, or only with the opposite social class from the one they run in. This is both very uncomfortable for the individual and hard to describe to outsiders.

Ultimately, I think class is far more important than we give it credit for.

Re Nichols: Times the Experts were Wrong, pt 3/3

Welcome to our final post of “Times the Experts were Wrong,” written in preparation for our review of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters. Professor Nichols, if you ever happen to read this, I hope it give you some insight into where we, the common people, are coming from. If you don’t happen to read it, it still gives me a baseline before reading your book. (Please see part 1 for a discussion of relevant definitions.)

Part 3 Wars:

WWI, Iraq, Vietnam etc.

How many “experts” have lied to convince us to go to war? We were told we had to attack Iraq because they had weapons of mass destruction, but the promised weapons never materialized. Mother Jones (that source of all things pro-Trump) has a timeline:

November 1999: Chalabi-connected Iraqi defector “Curveball”—a convicted sex offender and low-level engineer who became the sole source for much of the case that Saddam had WMD, particularly mobile weapons labs—enters Munich seeking a German visa. German intel officers describe his information as highly suspect. US agents never debrief Curveball or perform background check. Nonetheless, Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and CIA will pass raw intel on to senior policymakers. …

11/6/00: Congress doubles funding for Iraqi opposition groups to more than $25 million; $18 million is earmarked for Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, which then pays defectors for anti-Iraq tales. …

Jan 2002: The FBI, which favors standard law enforcement interrogation practices, loses debate with CIA Director George Tenet, and Libi is transferred to CIA custody. Libi is then rendered to Egypt. “They duct-taped his mouth, cinched him up and sent him to Cairo,” an FBI agent told reporters. Under torture, Libi invents tale of Al Qaeda operatives receiving chemical weapons training from Iraq. “This is the problem with using the waterboard. They get so desperate that they begin telling you what they think you want to hear,” a CIA source later tells ABC. …

Feb 2002: DIA intelligence summary notes that Libi’s “confession” lacks details and suggests that he is most likely telling interrogators what he thinks will “retain their interest.” …

9/7/02: Bush claims a new UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report states Iraq is six months from developing a nuclear weapon. There is no such report. …

9/8/02: Page 1 Times story by Judith Miller and Michael Gordon cites anonymous administration officials saying Saddam has repeatedly tried to acquire aluminum tubes “specially designed” to enrich uranium. …

Tubes “are only really suited for nuclear weapons programs…we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”—Rice on CNN …

“We do know, with absolute certainty, that he is using his procurement system to acquire the equipment he needs in order to enrich uranium to build a nuclear weapon.”—Cheney on Meet the Press

Oct 2002: National Intelligence Estimate produced. It warns that Iraq “is reconstituting its nuclear program” and “has now established large-scale, redundant and concealed BW agent production capabilities”—an assessment based largely on Curveball’s statements. But NIE also notes that the State Department has assigned “low confidence” to the notion of “whether in desperation Saddam would share chemical or biological weapons with Al Qaeda.” Cites State Department experts who concluded that “the tubes are not intended for use in Iraq’s nuclear weapons program.” Also says “claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa” are “highly dubious.” Only six senators bother to read all 92 pages. …

10/4/02: Asked by Sen. Graham to make gist of NIE public, Tenet produces 25-page document titled “Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs.” It says Saddam has them and omits dissenting views contained in the classified NIE. …

2/5/03: In UN speech, Powell says, “Every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.” Cites Libi’s claims and Curveball’s “eyewitness” accounts of mobile weapons labs. (German officer who supervised Curveball’s handler will later recall thinking, “Mein Gott!”) Powell also claims that Saddam’s son Qusay has ordered WMD removed from palace complexes; that key WMD files are being driven around Iraq by intelligence agents; that bioweapons warheads have been hidden in palm groves; that a water truck at an Iraqi military installation is a “decontamination vehicle” for chemical weapons; that Iraq has drones it can use for bioweapons attacks; and that WMD experts have been corralled into one of Saddam’s guest houses. All but the last of those claims had been flagged by the State Department’s own intelligence unit as “WEAK.”

I’m not going to quote the whole article, so if you’re fuzzy on the details, go read the whole darn thing.

If you had access to the actual documents from the CIA, DIA, British intelligence, interrogators, etc., you could have figured out that the “experts” were not unanimously behind the idea that Iraq was developing WMDs, but we mere plebes were dependent on what the government, Fox, and CNN told us the “experts” believed.

For the record, I was against the Iraq War from the beginning. I’m not sure what Nichols’s original position was, but in Just War, Not Prevention (2003) Nichols argued:

More to the point, Iraq itself long ago provided ample justifications for the United States and its allies to go to war that have nothing to do with prevention and everything to do with justice. To say that Saddam’s grasping for weapons of mass destruction is the final straw, and that it is utterly intolerable to allow Saddam or anyone like to gain a nuclear weapon, is true but does not then invalidate every other reason for war by subsuming them under some sort of putative ban on prevention.

The record provides ample evidence of the justice of a war against Saddam Hussein’s regime. Iraq has shown itself to be a serial aggressor… a supreme enemy of human rights that has already used weapons of mass destruction against civilians, a consistent violator of both UN resolutions and the therms of the 1991 cease-fire treaty … a terrorist entity that has attempted to reach beyond its own borders to support and engage in illegal activities that have included the attempted assassination of a former U.S. president; and most important, a state that has relentlessly sought nuclear arms against all international demands that it cease such efforts.

Any one of these would be sufficient cause to remove Saddam and his regime … but taken together they are a brief for what can only be considered a just war. ..

Those concerned that the United States is about to revise the international status quo might conside that Western inaction will allow the status quo to be revised in any case, only under the gun of a dictator commanding an arsenal of the most deadly materials on earthy. These are the two alternatives, and sadly, thee is no third choice.

Professor Nichols, I would like to pause here.

First: you think Trump is bad, you support the President under whom POWs were literally tortured, and you call yourself a military ethicist?

Second: you, an expert, bought into this “WMD” story (invented primarily by “Curveball,” an unreliable source,) while I, a mere plebe, knew it was a load of garbage.

Third: while I agree Saddam Hussein killed a hell of a lot of people–according to Wikipedia, Human Rights Watch estimates a quarter of a million Iraqis were killed or “disappeared” in the last 25 years of Ba’th party rule, the nine years of the Iraq war killed 150,000 to 460,000 people (depending on which survey you trust,) and based on estimates from the Iraq Body Count, a further 100,000 have died since then. Meanwhile, instability in Iraq allowed the horrifically violent ISIS to to sprout into existence. I Am Syria (I don’t know if they are reliable) estimates that over half a million Syrians have died so far because of the ISIS-fueled civil war rampaging there.

In other words, we unleashed a force that is twice as bad as Saddam in less than half the time–and paid a lovely 2.4 TRILLION dollars to accomplish this humanitarian feat! For that much money you could have just evacuated all of the Kurds and built them their own private islands to live on. You could have handed out $90,000 to every man, woman, and child in Iraq in exchange for “being friends with the US” and still had $150 BILLION left over to invest in things like “cancer treatments for children” and “highspeed rail infrastructure.”

Seriously, you could have spent the entire 2.4 trillion on hookers and blow and we would have still come out ahead.

Back in 2015, you tried to advise the Republican frontrunners on how to answer questions about the Iraq War:
First, let’s just stipulate that the question is unfair.

It’s asking a group of candidates to re-enact a presidential order given 12 years ago, while Hillary Clinton isn’t even being asked about decisions in which she took part, much less about her husband’s many military actions. …

Instead, Republican candidates should change the debate. Leadership is not about what people would do with perfect information; it’s about what people do when faced with danger and uncertainty. So here’s an answer that every Republican, from Paul to Bush, could give:

“Knowing exactly what we know now, I would not have invaded when we did or in the way we did. But I do not regret that we deposed a dangerous maniac like Saddam Hussein, and I know the world is better for it. What I or George Bush or anyone else would have done with better information is irrelevant now, because the next president has to face the world as it is, not as we would like to imagine it. And that’s all I intend to say about second-guessing a tough foreign-policy decision from 12 years ago, especially since we should have more pressing questions about foreign policy for Hillary Clinton that are a lot more recent than that.”

While I agree that Hillary should have been questioned about her own military decisions, Iraq was a formally declared war that the entire Republican establishment, think tanks, newspapers, and experts like you supported. They did such a convincing job of selling the war that even most of the Democratic establishment got on board, though never quite as enthusiastically.

By contrast, there was never any real Democratic consensus on whether Obama should remove troops or increase troops, on whether Hillary should do this or that in Libya. Obama and Hillary might have hideously bungled things, but there was never enthusiastic, party-wide support for their policies.

This makes it very easy for any Dem to distance themselves from previous Dem policies: “Yeah, looks like that was a big whoopsie. Luckily half our party knew that at the time.”

But for better or worse, the Republicans–especially the Bushes–own the Iraq War.

The big problem here is not that the Republican candidates (aside from Trump and Rand Paul) were too dumb to come up with a good response to the question (though that certainly is a problem.) The real problem is that none of them had actually stopped to take a long, serious look at the Iraq War, ask whether it was a good idea, and then apologize.

The Iraq War deeply discredited the Republican party.

Ask yourself: What did Bush conserve? What have I conserved? Surely being a “conservative” means you want to conserve something, so what was it? Iraqi freedom? Certainly not. Mid East stability? Nope. American lives? No. American tax dollars? Definitely not.

The complete failure of the Republicans to do anything good while squandering 2.4 trillion dollars and thousands of American lives is what triggered the creation of the “alt” right and set the stage for someone like Trump–someone willing to make a formal break with past Republican policies on Iraq–to rise to power.

Iraq I, the prequel:

But Iraq wasn’t the first war we were deceived into fighting–remember the previous war in Iraq, the one with the other President Bush? The one where we were motivated to intervene over stories of poor Kuwaiti babies ripped from their incubators by cruel Iraqis?

The Nayirah testimony was a false testimony given before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus on October 10, 1990 by a 15-year-old girl who provided only her first name, Nayirah. The testimony was widely publicized, and was cited numerous times by United States senators and President George H. W. Bush in their rationale to back Kuwait in the Gulf War. In 1992, it was revealed that Nayirah’s last name was al-Ṣabaḥ (Arabic: نيره الصباح‎) and that she was the daughter of Saud Al-Sabah, the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States. Furthermore, it was revealed that her testimony was organized as part of the Citizens for a Free Kuwait public relations campaign which was run by an American public relations firm Hill & Knowlton for the Kuwaiti government. Following this, al-Sabah’s testimony has come to be regarded as a classic example of modern atrocity propaganda.[1][2]

In her emotional testimony, Nayirah stated that after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait she had witnessed Iraqi soldiers take babies out of incubators in a Kuwaiti hospital, take the incubators, and leave the babies to die.

Her story was initially corroborated by Amnesty International[3] and testimony from evacuees. Following the liberation of Kuwait, reporters were given access to the country. An ABC report found that “patients, including premature babies, did die, when many of Kuwait’s nurses and doctors… fled” but Iraqi troops “almost certainly had not stolen hospital incubators and left hundreds of Kuwaiti babies to die.”[4][5]

Kuwaiti babies died because Kuwaiti doctors and nurses abandoned them. Maybe the “experts” at the UN and in the US government should vet their sources a little better (like actually find out their last names) before starting wars based on the testimony of children?


And then there was Vietnam. Cold War “experts” were certain it was very important for us to spend billions of dollars in the 1950s to prop of the French colony in Indochina. When the French gave up, fighting the war somehow became America’s problem. The Cold War doctrine of the “Domino Theory” held that the loss of even one obscure, third-world country to Communism would unleash an unstoppable chain-reaction of global Soviet conquest, and thus the only way to preserve democracy anywhere in the world was to oppose communism wherever it emerged.

Of course, one could not be a Cold War “expert” in 1955, as we had never fought a Cold War before. This bi-polar world lead by a nuclear-armed communist faction on one side and a nuclear-armed democratic faction on the other was entirely new.

Atop the difficulties of functioning within an entirely novel balance of powers (and weapons), almost no one in America spoke Vietnamese (and no one in Vietnam spoke English) in 1955. We couldn’t even ask the Vietnamese what they thought. At best, we could play a game of telephone with Vietnamese who spoke French and translators who spoke French and English, but the Vietnamese who had learned the language of their colonizers were not a representative sample of average citizens.

In other words, we had no idea what we were getting into.

I lost family in Vietnam, so maybe I take this a little personally, but I don’t think American soldiers exist just to enrich Halliburton or protect French colonial interests. And you must excuse me, but I think you “experts” grunting for war have an extremely bad track record that involves people in my family getting killed.

While we are at it, what is the expert consensus on Russiagate?

Well, Tablet Mag thinks it’s hogwash:

At the same time, there is a growing consensus among reporters and thinkers on the left and right—especially those who know anything about Russia, the surveillance apparatus, and intelligence bureaucracy—that the Russiagate-collusion theory that was supposed to end Trump’s presidency within six months has sprung more than a few holes. Worse, it has proved to be a cover for U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement bureaucracies to break the law, with what’s left of the press gleefully going along for the ride. Where Watergate was a story about a crime that came to define an entire generation’s oppositional attitude toward politicians and the country’s elite, Russiagate, they argue, has proved itself to be the reverse: It is a device that the American elite is using to define itself against its enemies—the rest of the country.

Yet for its advocates, the questionable veracity of the Russiagate story seems much less important than what has become its real purpose—elite virtue-signaling. Buy into a storyline that turns FBI and CIA bureaucrats and their hand-puppets in the press into heroes while legitimizing the use of a vast surveillance apparatus for partisan purposes, and you’re in. Dissent, and you’re out, or worse—you’re defending Trump.

“Russia done it, all the experts say so” sounds suspiciously like a great many other times “expert opinion” has been manipulated by the government, industry, or media to make it sound like expert consensus exists where it does not.

Let’s look at a couple of worst case scenarios:

  1. Nichols and his ilk are right, but we ignore his warnings, overlook a few dastardly Russian deeds, and don’t go to war with Russia.
  2. Nichols is wrong, but we trust him, blame Russia for things it didn’t do, and go to war with a nuclear superpower.

But let’s look at our final fail:

Failure to predict the fall of the Soviet Union

This is kind of an ironic, given that Nichols is a Sovietologist, but one of the continuing questions in Political Science is “Why didn’t political scientists predict the fall of the Soviet Union?”

In retrospect, of course, we can point to the state of the Soviet economy, or glasnost, or growing unrest and dissent among Soviet citizens, but as Foreign Policy puts it:

In the years leading up to 1991, virtually no Western expert, scholar, official, or politician foresaw the impending collapse of the Soviet Union, and with it  and with it one-party dictatorship, the state-owned economy, and the Kremlin’s control over its domestic and Eastern European empires. … 

Whence such strangely universal shortsightedness? The failure of Western experts to anticipate the Soviet Union’s collapse may in part be attributed to a sort of historical revisionism — call it anti-anti-communism — that tended to exaggerate the Soviet regime’s stability and legitimacy. Yet others who could hardly be considered soft on communism were just as puzzled by its demise. One of the architects of the U.S. strategy in the Cold War, George Kennan, wrote that, in reviewing the entire “history of international affairs in the modern era,” he found it “hard to think of any event more strange and startling, and at first glance inexplicable, than the sudden and total disintegration and disappearance … of the great power known successively as the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union.”

I don’t think this is Political Science’s fault–even the Soviets don’t seem to have really seen it coming. Some things are just hard to predict.

Sometimes we overestimate our judgment. We leap before we look. We think there’s evidence where there isn’t or that the evidence is much stronger than it is.

And in the cases I’ve selected, maybe I’m the one who’s wrong. Maybe Vietnam was a worthwhile conflict, even if it was terrible for everyone involved. Maybe the Iraq War served a real purpose.

WWI was still a complete disaster. There is no logic where that war makes any sense at all.

When you advocate for war, step back a moment and ask how sure you are. If you were going to be the canon fodder down on the front lines, would you still be so sure? Or would you be the one suddenly questioning the experts about whether this was really such a good idea?

Professor Nichols, if you have read this, I hope it has given you some food for thought.

Re Nichols: Times the Experts were Wrong, pt 2

Welcome back. In preparation for our review of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, I have made a list of “times the experts were wrong.” Professor Nichols, if you ever happen to read this, I hope it give you some insight into where we, the common people, are coming from. If you don’t happen to read it, it still gives me a baseline before reading your book. (Please see part 1 for a discussion of relevant definitions.)

Part 2: Law, Academia, and Science

Legal Testimony

If you’ve had any contact with the court system, you’re probably familiar with the use of “expert testimony.” Often both sides of a case bring in their own experts who give their expert testimony on the case–by necessity, contradictory testimony. For example, one expert in a patent case may testify that his microscopy data shows one thing, while a second testifies that in fact a proper analysis of his microscopy data actually shows the opposite. The jury is then asked to decide which expert’s analysis is correct.

If it sounds suspicious that both sides in a court case can find an “expert” to testify that their side is correct, that’s because it is. Take, for example, the government’s expert testimony in the trial of Mr. Carlos Simon-Timmerman, [note: link takes you to AVN, a site of questionable work-friendliness] accused of possessing child pornography:

“When trial started,” said Ramos-Vega, “the government presented the Lupe DVD and a few other images from the other DVDs that the government understood were also of child pornography.  The government presented the testimony of a Special Agent of Immigration and Customs Enforcement that deals with child pornography and child exploitation cases.  She testified that Lupe was ‘definitely’ under 18. The government then presented the testimony of a pediatrician who testified that she was 100 percent sure that Lupe was underage.”

The experts, ladies and gents.

After the prosecution rested its case, it was Ramos-Vega’s turn to present witnesses.

The first witness we called was Lupe,” he said. “She took the stand and despite being very nervous testified so well and explained to the ladies and gentlemen of the jury that she was 19 years old when she performed in the videos for  She also allowed us to present into evidence copies of her documents showing her date of birth.”

So the Customs Special Agent and the pediatrician were both LYING UNDER OATH about the age of a porn star in order to put an innocent man in prison. There were multiple ways they could have confirmed Lupe’s age (such as checking with her official porn star information on file in the US, because apparently that’s an official thing that exists for exactly this purpose,) or contacting Lupe herself like Mr. Simon-Timmerman’s lawyer did.

Unfortunately, this is hardly the first time trial “experts” have lied:

The Washington Post published a story so horrifying this weekend that it would stop your breath: “The Justice Department and FBI have formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000.”

“Of 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far.” …

Santae Tribble served 28 years for a murder based on FBI testimony about a single strand of hair. He was exonerated in 2012. It was later revealed that one of the hairs presented at trial came from a dog.

Professor Nichols, you want to know, I assume, why we plebes are so distrustful of experts like you. Put yourself, for a moment, in the feet of an ordinary person accused of a crime. You don’t have a forensics lab. Your budget for expert witnesses is pretty limited. Your lawyer is likely a public defender.

Do you trust that these experts are always right, even though they are often hired by people who have a lot more money than you do? Do you think there is no way these experts could be biased toward the people paying them, or that the side with more money to throw at experts and its own labs could produce more evidence favorable to itself than the other?

Now let’s expand our scope: how do you think ordinary people think about climate scientists, medical drug studies, or military intelligence? Unlike drug companies, we commoners don’t get to hire our own experts. Do you think Proctor and Gamble never produces research that is biased toward its own interests? Of course; that’s why researchers have to disclose any money they’ve received from drug companies.

From the poor man’s perspective, it looks like all research is funded by rich men, and none by poor men. It is sensible to worry, therefore, that the results of this research are inherently biased toward those who already have plenty of status and wealth.

The destruction of expertise: “Studies” Departments

Here is a paper published in a real, peer-reviewed academic journal:

Towards a truer multicultural science education: how whiteness impacts science education, by Paul T. Le, (doctoral candidate from the Department of Integrative and Systems Biology at the University of Colorado) and Cheryl Matias, (associate professor at the School of Education and Human Development, University of Colorado) (h/t Real Peer Review):

The hope for multicultural, culturally competent, and diverse perspectives in science education falls short if theoretical considerations of whiteness are not entertained. [Entertained by whom?] Since whiteness is characterized [by whom?] as a hegemonic racial dominance that has become so natural it is almost invisible, this paper identifies how whiteness operates in science education such that [awkward; “to such an extent that”] it falls short of its goal for cultural diversity. [“Cultural diversity” is not one of science education’s goals] Because literature in science education [Which literature? Do you mean textbooks?] has yet to fully entertain whiteness ideology, this paper offers one of the first theoretical postulations [of what?]. Drawing from the fields of education, legal studies, and sociology, [but not science?] this paper employs critical whiteness studies as both a theoretical lens and an analytic tool to re-interpret how whiteness might impact science education. Doing so allows the field to reconsider benign, routine, or normative practices and protocol that may influence how future scientists of Color experience the field. In sum, we seek to have the field consider the theoretical frames of whiteness and how it [use “whiteness” here instead of “it” because there is no singular object for “it” to refer to in this sentence] might influence how we engage in science education such that [“to such an extent that”] our hope for diversity never fully materializes.

Apologies for the red pen; you might think that someone at the “School of Education” could write a grammatical sentence and the people publishing peer-reviewed journals would employ competent editors, but apparently not.

If these are “experts,” then expertise is dead with a stake through its heart.

But the paper goes on!

The resounding belief that science is universal and objective hides the reality that whiteness has shaped the scientific paradigm.

See, you only think gravity pulls objects toward the earth at a rate of 9.8 m/second^2 because you’re white. When black people drop objects off the Leaning Tower of Pisa, they fall 10m/s^2. Science textbooks and educators only teaching the white rate and refusing to teach the black rate is why no black nation has successfully launched a man into space.

Our current discourse believes that science and how we approach experimentation and constructing scientific explanations is unbiased, and on the surface, it may seem justified (Kelly 2014). However, this way of knowing science in the absence of other ways of knowing only furthers whiteness an White supremacy through power and control of science knowledge. As a result, our students of Color are victims of deculturization, and their own worldviews are invalidated, such as described by Ladson-Bilings (1998a).

For example, some Aboriginal people in Australia believe that cancer is caused by curses cast by other people or a spiritual punishment for some misdeed the sufferer committed. Teaching them that cancer is caused by mutated cells that have begun reproducing out of control and can’t be caused by a curse is thus destroying a part of their culture. Since all cultures are equally valuable, we must teach that the Aboriginal theory of cancer-curses and the white theory of failed cellular apoptosis are equally true.

Or Le and Matias are full of shit. Le doesn’t have his PhD, yet, so he isn’t an official expert, but Matias is a professor with a CV full of published, peer-reviewed articles on similar themes.

You might say I’ve cherry-picked a particularly bad article, but give me 10 minutes and I’ll get you 100 more that are just as bad. Here’s one on “the construction of race in contemporary PE curriculum policy.”

Every single degree awarded paper published on such garbage degrades the entire concept of “experts.” Sure, Nichols is a professor–and so is Matias. As far as our official system for determining expertise, Nichols, Matias, and Stephen Hawing are all “experts.”

And this matters, because the opinions of garbage experts get cited in places like the NY Times, and then picked up by other journalists and commentators as though they were some kind of valid proof backing up their points. Take this case, “Extensive Data Shows Punishing Reach of Racism for Black Boys:

Black boys raised in America, even in the wealthiest families and living in some of the most well-to-do neighborhoods, still earn less in adulthood than white boys with similar backgrounds, according to a sweeping new study that traced the lives of millions of children.

White boys who grow up rich are likely to remain that way. Black boys raised at the top, however, are more likely to become poor than to stay wealthy in their own adult households.

(Oh, look, someone discovered regression to the mean.)

What happens when blue check twitter reports on this piece?

    1. You don’t need an “expert” to tell you that black men might get discriminated against.
    2. How do you become an “expert” in anti-racism? Do you have to pass the implicit bias test? Get a degree in anti-racist studies?
    3. Do you think, for whatever reason, that a guy who gets paid to do anti-racist research might come up with “racism” as an answer to almost any question posed?
    4. “The guy who gets paid to say that racism is the answer said the answer is racism” does not actually prove that racism is the answer, but it is being presented like it does.
    5. Blue check has failed to mention any obvious counters, like:
      a. Mysteriously, this “racism” only affects black men and not black women (this is why we’ve had a black female president but not a black male one, right?)
      b. Regression to the mean is a thing and we can measure it (shortly: The further you are from average for your group on any measure [height, intelligence, income, number of Daleks collected, etc.,] the more likely your kids are to be closer to average than you are. [This is why the kids of Nobel prize winners, while pretty smart on average, are much less likely to win Nobels than their parents.] Since on average blacks make a lot less money than whites, any wealthy black family is significantly further from the average black income than a white family with the same amount of money is from the average white income. Therefore at any high income level, we expect black kids to regress harder toward the black mean than white kids raised at the same level. La Griffe du Lion [a statistics expert] has an article that goes into much more depth and math on regression to the mean and its relevance.)
      c. Crime rates. Black men commit more crime than black women or white men, and not only does prison time cut into employment, but most employers don’t want to employ people who’ve committed a crime. This makes it easier for black women to get jobs and build up wealth than black men. (The article itself does mention that “The sons of black families from the top 1 percent had about the same chance of being incarcerated on a given day as the sons of white families earning $36,000,” but yeah, it’s probably just totally irrational discrimination keeping black men out of jobs.)

“Experts” like this get used to trot a simple, narrative-supporting line that the paper wants to make rather than give any real or uncomfortable analysis of a complex issue. It’s dishonest reporting and contributes to the notion that “expert” doesn’t mean all that much.


Leaded Gas:

Tetraethyllead (aka lead) was added to automobile fuels beginning in the 1920s to raise fuel economy–that is, more miles per gallon. For half a century, automobiles belched brain-damaging lead into the atmosphere, until the Clean Air Act in the 70s forced gas companies to cut back.

Here’s a good article discussing the leaded gas and crime correlation.

Plenty of people knew lead is poisonous–we’ve known that since at least the time of the Romans–so how did it end up in our gas? Well, those nice scientists over at the auto manufacturers reassured us that lead in gasoline was perfectly safe, and then got themselves on a government panel intended to evaluate the safety of leaded gas and came to the same conclusion. Wired has a thorough history:

But fearing that such [anti-leaded gas] measures would spread, … the manufacturing companies demanded that the federal government take over the investigation and develop its own regulations. U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, a Republican and small-government conservative, moved rapidly in favor of the business interests.

… In May 1925, the U.S. Surgeon General called a national tetraethyl lead conference, to be followed by the formation of an investigative task force to study the problem. That same year, Midgley [the inventor of leaded gas] published his first health analysis of TEL, which acknowledged  a minor health risk at most, insisting that the use of lead compounds,”compared with other chemical industries it is neither grave nor inescapable.”

It was obvious in advance that he’d basically written the conclusion of the federal task force. That panel only included selected industry scientists like Midgely. It had no place for Alexander Gettler or Charles Norris [scientists critical of leaded gas] or, in fact, anyone from any city where sales of the gas had been banned, or any agency involved in the producing that first critical analysis of tetraethyl lead.

In January 1926, the public health service released its report which concluded that there was “no danger” posed by adding TEL to gasoline…”no reason to prohibit the sale of leaded gasoline” as long as workers were well protected during the manufacturing process.

The task force did look briefly at risks associated with every day exposure by drivers, automobile attendants, gas station operators, and found that it was minimal. The researchers had indeed found lead residues in dusty corners of garages. In addition,  all the drivers tested showed trace amounts of lead in their blood. But a low level of lead could be tolerated, the scientists announced. After all, none of the test subjects showed the extreme behaviors and breakdowns associated with places like the looney gas building. And the worker problem could be handled with some protective gear.

I’m not sure how many people were killed globally by leaded gas, but Wired notes:

It was some fifty years later – in 1986 – that the United States formally banned lead as a gasoline additive. By that time, according to some estimates, so much lead had been deposited into soils, streets, building surfaces, that an estimated 68 million children would register toxic levels of lead absorption and some 5,000 American adults would die annually of lead-induced heart disease.

The UN estimates that the elimination of lead in gas and paint has added 2.4 trillion, annually, the global economy.

Leaded gas is a good example of a case where many experts did know it was poisonous (as did many non-experts,) but this wasn’t the story the public heard.


Yes, this one is silly, but I have relatives who keep bringing it up. “Scientists used to say there are 9 planets, but now they say there are only 8! Scientists change what they think all the time!”

Congratulations, astronomers, they think you lost Pluto. Every single time I try to discuss science with these people, they bring up Pluto. Scientific consensus is meaningless in a world where planets just disappear. “Whoops! We miscounted!”

(No one ever really questioned Pluto’s planetary status before it was changed, but a few die-hards refuse to accept the new designation.)

Scientists weren’t actually wrong about Pluto (“planet” is just a category scientists made up and that they decided to redefine to make it more useful,) but the matter confused people and it seemed like scientific consensus was arbitrary and could change unexpectedly.

Unfortunately, normal people who don’t have close contact with science or scientists often struggle to understand exactly what science is and how it advances. They rely, sporadically, on intermediaries like The History Chanel or pop science journalists to explain it to them, and these guys like to run headlines like “5 things Albert Einstein got Totally Wrong” (haha that Albert, what a dummy, amirite?)

So when you question why people distrust experts like you, Professor Nichols, consider whether the other “experts” they’ve encountered have been trustworthy or even correct, or if they’ve been liars and shills.

Re Nichols: Times the Experts were Wrong

In preparation for our review of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, I wanted to make list of “times the experts were wrong.” Professor Nichols, if you ever happen to read this, I hope it gives you some insight into where we, the common people, are coming from. If you don’t happen to read it, it still gives me a baseline before reading your book.

Nichols devotes a chapter to the subject–expert failures are, he claims, “rare but spectacular when they do happen, like plane crashes.” (I may be paraphrasing slightly.)

How often are the experts wrong? (And how would we measure that?)

For starters, we have to define what “experts” are. Nichols might define experts as, “anyone who has a PhD in a thing or has worked in that field for 10 years,” but the general layman is probably much laxer in his definitions.

Now, Nichols’s argument that “experts” are correct most of the time probably is correct, at least if we use a conservative definition of “expert”. We live in a society that is completely dependent on the collective expertise of thousands if not millions of people, and yet that society keeps running. For example, I do not know how to build a road, but road-building experts do, and our society has thousands of miles of functional roads. They’re not perfect, but they’re a huge improvement over dirt paths. I don’t know how to build a car, but car-building experts do, and so society is full of cars. From houses to skyscrapers, smartphones to weather satellites, electricity to plumbing: most of the time, these complicated systems get built and function perfectly well. Even airplanes, incredibly, don’t fall out of the sky most of the time (and according to Steven Pinker, they’re getting even better at it.)

But these seem like the kind of experts that most people don’t second-guess too often (“I think you should only put three wheels on the car–and make them titanium,”) nor is this the sort of questioning that I think Nichols is really concerned about. Rather, I think Nichols is concerned about people second-guessing experts like himself whose opinions bear not on easily observed, physical objects like cars and roads but on abstract policies like “What should our interest rates be?” or “Should we bomb Syria?”

We might distinguish here between practical experts employed by corporations, whose expertise must be “proven” via production of actual products that people actually use, and academic experts whose products are primarily ideas that people can’t touch, test, or interact with.

For ordinary people, though, we must include another form of experts: writers–of newspapers, magazines, TV programs, textbooks, even some well-respected bloggers. Most people don’t read academic journals nor policy papers. They read Cosmo and watch daytime talk shows, not because they “hate experts” but because this is the level of information they can understand.

In other words, most people probably think Cosmo’s “style expert” and Donald Trump are as much “experts” as Tom Nichols. Trump is a “business expert” who is so expert he not only has a big tower with his name on it, they even let him hire and fire people on TV! Has anyone ever trusted Nichols’s expertise enough to give him a TV show about it?

Trump Tower is something people can touch–the kind of expertise that people trust. Nichols’s expertise is the Soviet Union (now Russia) and how the US should approach the threat of nuclear war and deterrence–not things you can easily build, touch, and test.

Nichols’s idea of “experts” is probably different from the normal person’s idea of “experts.” Nichols probably uses metrics like “How long has this guy been in the field?” and “Which journals has he been published in?” while normal people use metrics like “Did CNN call him an expert?” and “Did I read it in a magazine?” (I have actually witnessed people citing margarine advertizements as “nutrition advice.”)

If anything, I suspect the difference between “normal people’s idea of expert” and “Nichols’s idea of experts” is part of the tension Nichols is feeling, as for the first time, ordinary people like me who would in the past have been limited largely to discussing the latest newspaper headlines with friends can now pull up any academic’s CV and critique it online. “The people,” having been trained on daytime TV and butter ads, can now critique foreign policy advisers…

Let’s sort “people who distrust experts” into three main categories:

  1. Informed dissenters: People who have read a lot on a particular topic and have good reason to believe the expert consensus is wrong, eg, someone involved in nutrition research who began sounding warning bells about the dangers of partially hydrogenated fats in the ’80s.
  2. General contrarians: Other people are wrong. Music has been downhill ever since the Beatles. The schools are failing because teachers are dumb. Evolution isn’t real. Contrarians like to disagree with others and sometimes they’re correct.
  3. Tinfoil hatters: CHEMTRAILS POISON YOU. The Tinfoil hatters don’t think other people are dumb; they think others are actively conspiring against them.

People can fall into more than one category–in fact, being a General Contrarian by nature probably makes it much easier to be an Informed Dissenter. Gregory Cochran, for example, probably falls into both categories. (Scott Alexander, by contrast, is an informed dissenter but not contrarian.)

Tinfoil hatters are deprecated, but even they are sometimes correct. If a Jew in 1930’s Germany had said, “Gee, I think those Germans have it out for us,” they’d have been correct. A white South African today who thinks the black South Africans have it out for them is probably also correct.

So the first question is whether more people actually distrust experts, or if the spread of the internet has caused Nichols to interact with more people who distrust experts. For example, far more people in the 80s were vocally opposed to the entire concept of “evolution” than are today, but they didn’t have the internet to post on. Nichols, a professor at the US Naval War College and the Harvard Extension School, probably doesn’t interact in real life with nearly as many people who are actively hostile to the entire edifice of modern science as the Kansas City School Board does, and thus he may have been surprised to finally encounter these people online.

But let’s get on with our point: a few cases where “the experts” have failed:

Part 1: Medicine and Doctors

Trans Fats

Artificially created trans (or partially hydrogenated) fats entered the American diet in large quantities in the 1950s. Soon nutrition experts, dieticians, healthcare philanthropists, and the federal government itself were all touting the trans fat mantra: trans fats like margarine or crisco were healthier and better for you than the animal fats like butter or lard traditionally used in cooking.

Unfortunately, the nutrition experts were wrong. Trans fats are deadly. According to a study published in 1993 by the Harvard School of Public Health, trans fats are probably responsible for about 100,000 deaths a year–or a million every decade. (And that’s not counting the people who had heart attacks and survived because of modern medical care.)

The first people to question the nutritional orthodoxy on trans fats (in any quantity) were probably the General Contrarians: “My grandparents ate lard and my parents ate lard and I grew up eating lard and we turned out just fine! We didn’t have ‘heart attacks’ back in the ’30s.” After a few informed dissenters started publishing studies questioning the nutritional orthodoxy, nutrition’s near-endless well of tinfoil hatters began promoting their findings (if any field is perfect for paranoia about poisons and contaminants, well, it’s food.)

And in this case, the tinfoil hatters were correct: corporations really were promoting the consumption of something they by then knew was killing people just because it made them money


If you’re old enough, you remember not only the days of Joe Camel, but also Camel’s ads heavily implying that doctors endorsed smoking. Dentists recommended Viceroys, the filtered cigarettes. Camels were supposed to “calm the nerves” and “aid the digestion.” Physicians recommended “mell-o-wells,” the “health cigar.” Some brands were even supposed to cure coughs and asthma.

Now, these weren’t endorsements from actual doctors–if anything, the desire to give cigarettes a healthy sheen was probably driven by the accumulating evidence that they weren’t healthy–but when my grandmother took up smoking, do you think she was reading medical journals? No, she trusted that nice doctor in that Camel ad.

Chesterfield, though, claimed that actual doctors had confirmed that their cigarettes had no adverse health effects:

In the 70s, the tobacco companies found doctors willing to testify not that tobacco was healthy, but that there was no proof–or not enough data–to accuse it of being unhealthy.

Even when called before Congress in the 90s, tobacco companies kept insisting their products weren’t damaging. If the CEO of Philip Morris isn’t an expert on cigarettes, I don’t know who is.

The CDC estimates that 480,000 Americans die due to cigarettes per year, making them one of our leading killers.

Freudianism, recovered memories, multiple personality disorder, and Satanic Daycares

In retrospect, Freudian Psychoanalysis is so absurd, it’s amazing it ever became a widely-believed, mainstream idea. And yet it was.

For example:

In the early 1890s, Freud used a form of treatment based on the one that Breuer had described to him, modified by what he called his “pressure technique” and his newly developed analytic technique of interpretation and reconstruction. According to Freud’s later accounts of this period, as a result of his use of this procedure most of his patients in the mid-1890s reported early childhood sexual abuse. He believed these stories, which he used as the basis for his seduction theory, but then he came to believe that they were fantasies. He explained these at first as having the function of “fending off” memories of infantile masturbation, but in later years he wrote that they represented Oedipal fantasies, stemming from innate drives that are sexual and destructive in nature.[121]

Another version of events focuses on Freud’s proposing that unconscious memories of infantile sexual abuse were at the root of the psychoneuroses in letters to Fliess in October 1895, before he reported that he had actually discovered such abuse among his patients.[122] In the first half of 1896, Freud published three papers, which led to his seduction theory, stating that he had uncovered, in all of his current patients, deeply repressed memories of sexual abuse in early childhood.[123] In these papers, Freud recorded that his patients were not consciously aware of these memories, and must therefore be present as unconscious memories if they were to result in hysterical symptoms or obsessional neurosis. The patients were subjected to considerable pressure to “reproduce” infantile sexual abuse “scenes” that Freud was convinced had been repressed into the unconscious.[124] Patients were generally unconvinced that their experiences of Freud’s clinical procedure indicated actual sexual abuse. He reported that even after a supposed “reproduction” of sexual scenes the patients assured him emphatically of their disbelief.[125]

To sum: Freud became convinced that patients had suffered sexual abuse.

The patients replied emphatically that they had not.

Freud made up a bunch of sexual abuse scenarios.

The patients insisted they remembered nothing of the sort.

Freud decided the memories must just be repressed.

Later, Freud decided the sexual abuse never actually happened, but that the repressed, inverted memories were of children masturbating to the thought of having sex with their parents.

So not only was Freud’s theory derived from nothing–directly contradicted by the patients he supposedly based it on–he took it a step further and actually denied the stories of patients who had been sexually abused as children.

Freud’s techniques may have been kinder than the psychology of the 1800s, which AFAIK involved locking insane people in asylums and stomping them to death, but there remains a cruel perversity to insisting that people have memories of horrible experiences they swear they don’t, and then turning around and saying that horrible things they clearly remember never happened.

Eventually Freudian psychoanalysis and its promise of “recovering repressed memories” morphed into the recovered traumatic memory movement of the 1980s, in which psychologists used hypnosis to convince patients they had been the victims of a vast world-wide Satanic conspiracy and that they had multiple, independent personalities that could only be accessed via hypnosis.

The satanic Daycare conspiracy hysteria resulted in the actual conviction and imprisonment of real people for crimes like riding broomsticks and sacrificing elephants, despite a total lack of local dead elephants. Judges, lawyers, juries, and prosecutors found the testimony of “expert” doctors and psychologists (and children) convincing enough to put people in prison for running an underground, global network of “Satanic Daycares” that were supposedly raping and killing children. Eventually the hysteria got so bad that the FBI got involved, investigated, and found a big fat nothing. No sacrificial altars. No secret basements full of Satanic paraphernalia and torture devices. No dead elephants or giraffes. No magic brooms. No dead infants.

Insurance companies began investigating the extremely expensive claims of psychologists treating women with “multiple personality disorder” (many of whom had so degenerated while in the psychologists care that they had gone from employed, competent people to hospitalized mental patients.) Amazingly, immediately after insurance companies decided the whole business was a scam and stopped paying for the treatment, the patients got better. Several doctors were sued for malpractice and MPD was removed from the official list of psychological conditions, the DSM-V. (It has been replaced with DID, or dissasociative disorder.)

I wrote about the whole sordid business at length in Satanic Daycares: the scandal that should have never been, Part Two, and Part Three.

(Ironically, people attack psychiatry’s use of medications like Prozac, but if anything, these are the most evidence-based parts of mental care. At least you can collect data on things like “Does Prozac work better than placebo for making people feel better?” unlike Freudian psychoanalysis, which contained so many levels of “repression” and “transference” that there was always a ready excuse for why it wasn’t working–or for why “the patient got worse” was actually exactly what was supposed to happen.)

All Doctors pre-1900

One of West Hunter’s frequent themes is just how bad pre-modern medicine was:

Between 1839 and 1847, the First Clinic at the Vienna General Hospital had 20,204 births and 1,989 maternal deaths. The Second Clinic, attended by midwives, had 17,791 birth and 691 maternal deaths. An MD’s care conferred an extra 6% chance of death. Births at home were even safer, with maternal mortality averaging about 0.5%

In that period, MDs caused about 1200 extra deaths. …

We know that wounded men in the Civil War had a better chance of surviving when they managed to hide from Army surgeons. Think how many people succumbed to bloodletting, over the centuries.

Ever wondered why Christian Scientists, who are otherwise quite pro-science, avoid doctors? It’s because their founder, Mary Baker Eddy (born in 1821) was often sick as a child. Her concerned parents dragged her to every doctor they could find, but poor Mary found that she got better when she stopped going to the doctors.

West Hunt gives a relevant description of pre-modern medicine:

Back in the good old days, Charles II, age 53, had a fit one Sunday evening, while fondling two of his mistresses.

Monday they bled him (cupping and scarifying) of eight ounces of blood. Followed by an antimony emetic, vitriol in peony water, purgative pills, and a clyster. Followed by another clyster after two hours. Then syrup of blackthorn, more antimony, and rock salt. Next, more laxatives, white hellebore root up the nostrils. Powdered cowslip flowers. More purgatives. Then Spanish Fly. They shaved his head and stuck blistering plasters all over it, plastered the soles of his feet with tar and pigeon-dung, then said good-night.

Tuesday. ten more ounces of blood, a gargle of elm in syrup of mallow, and a julep of black cherry, peony, crushed pearls, and white sugar candy.

Wednesday. Things looked good:: only senna pods infused in spring water, along with white wine and nutmeg.

Thursday. More fits. They gave him a spirituous draft made from the skull of a man who had died a violent death. Peruvian bark, repeatedly, interspersed with more human skull. Didn’t work.

Friday. The king was worse. He tells them not to let poor Nelly starve. They try the Oriental Bezoar Stone, and more bleeding. Dies at noon.

Homeopathy has a similar history: old medicines were so often poisonous that even if some of them worked, on average, you were probably better off eating sugar pills (which did nothing) than taking “real” medicines. But since people can’t market “pills with nothing in them,” homeopathy’s strange logic of “diluting medicine makes it stronger” was used to give the pills a veneer of doing something. (Freudian psychotherapy, the extent that it “helped” anyone, was probably similar. Not that the practitioner himself brought anything to the table, but the idea of “I am having treatment so I will get better” plus the opportunity to talk about your problems probably helped some people.)

Today, “alternative” medical treatments like homeopathy and “faith healing” are less effective than conventional medicine, but for most of the past 2,000 years or so, you’d have been better off distrusting the “experts” (ie doctors) than trusting them.

It was only in the 20th century that doctors (or researchers) developed enough technology like vaccines, antibiotics, the germ theory of disease, nutrition, insulin, traumatic care, etc., that doctors began saving more lives than they cost, but the business was still fraught:

Source (PDF)

Disclaimer: I have had the whole birth trifecta: natural birth without medication, vaginal birth with medication, and c-section. Natural birth was horrifically painful and left me traumatized. The c-section, while medically necessary, was almost as terrible. Recovery from natural (and medicated) birth was almost instant–within minutes I felt better; within days I was back on my feet and regaining mobility. The c-section left me in pain for a month, trying to nurse a new baby and care for my other children while on pain killers that made me feel awful and put me to sleep. Without the pain killers, I could barely sit up and get out of bed.

Medically necessary c-sections save lives, perhaps mine. I support them, but I do NOT support medically unnecessary c-sections.

The “international healthcare community” recommends a c-section rate of 10-15% (maybe 19%.) The US rate is over 30%. Half of our c-sections are unnecessary traumas inflicted on women.

In cases where c-sections are not medically necessary (low-risk pregnancies), c-sections carry more than triple the risk of maternal death (13 per 100,000 for c sections and 3.5 per 100,000 for vaginal births.) Medically necessary c-sections, of course, save more lives than they take.

Given: 1,258,581 c-sections in the US in 2016, if half of those were unnecessary, then I estimate 60 women per year died from unnecessary c-sections. Not the kind of death rate Semmelweis was fighting against when he tried to convince doctors they needed to wash their hands between dissecting corpses and delivering babies, (for his efforts he was branded “a guy who didn’t believe the wisdom of experts,” “crazy,” and was eventually put in an insane asylum and literally stomped to death by the guards. (Freudianism looks really good by comparison.)

C-sections have other effects besides just death: they are more expensive, can get infected, and delay recovery. (I’ve also seen data linking them to an increased chance of post-partum depression.) For women who want to have more children, a c-section increases the chances of problems during subsequent pregnancies and deliveries.

Why do we do so many c-sections? Because in the event of misfortune, a doctor is more likely to get sued if he didn’t do a c-section (“He could have done more to save the baby’s life but chose to ignore the signs of fetal distress!”) than if he does do one (“We tried everything we could to save mother and baby.”) Note that this is not what’s in the mother’s best interests, but in the doctor’s.

Although I am obviously not a fan of natural childbirth, (I favor epidurals,) I am sympathetic to the movement’s principle logic: avoiding unnecessary c-sections by avoiding the doctors who give them. These women are anti-experts, and I can’t exactly blame them.

At the intersection of the “natural food” and “natural birth” communities we find the anti-vaxers.

Now, I am unabashedly pro-vaccine (though I reserve the right to criticize any particular vaccine,) but I still understand where the anti-vax crew is coming from. If doctors were wrong about blood-letting, are wrong about many c-sections (or pushing them on unsuspecting women to protect their own bottom lines) and doctors were just plain wrong for decades about dangerous but lucrative artificial fats that they actively pushed people to eat, who’s to say they’re right about everything else? Maybe some of the other chemicals we’re being injected with are actually harmful.

We can point to (and I do) massive improvements in public health and life expectancies as a result of vaccinations, but (anti-vaxers counter) how do we know these outcomes weren’t caused by other things, like the development of water treatment systems and sewers that ensured people weren’t drinking fecal-contaminated water anymore?

(I am also pro-not drinking contaminated water.)

Like concerns about impurities in one’s food, concerns about vaccinations make a certain instinctual sense: it is kind of creepy to inject people (mostly infants) with a serum composed of, apparently, dead germs and “chemicals.” The idea that exposing yourself to germs will somehow make you healthier is counter-intuitive, and hypodermic needles are a well-publicized disease vector.

So even though I think anti-vaxers are wrong, I don’t think they’re completely irrational.


This is the end of Part 1. We’ll continue with Part 2 on Wed.

Cathedral Round-Up: Should I read Nichols or Pinker?

Harvard Mag had interesting interviews/reviews of both Tom Nichols’s “Death of Expertise” and Steven Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now“.

From the article about Nichols:

Several years ago, Tom Nichols started writing a book about ignorance and unreason in American public discourse—and then he watched it come to life all around him, in ways starker than he had imagined. A political scientist who has taught for more than a decade in the Harvard Extension School, he had begun noticing what he perceived as a new and accelerating—and dangerous—hostility toward established knowledge. People were no longer merely uninformed, Nichols says, but “aggressively wrong” and unwilling to learn. They actively resisted facts that might alter their preexisting beliefs. They insisted that all opinions, however uninformed, be treated as equally serious. And they rejected professional know-how, he says, with such anger. That shook him.

Skepticism toward intellectual authority is bone-deep in the American character, as much a part of the nation’s origin story as the founders’ Enlightenment principles. Overall, that skepticism is a healthy impulse, Nichols believes. But what he was observing was something else, something malignant and deliberate, a collapse of functional citizenship.

What are people aggressively wrong about, and what does he think is causing the collapse of functional citizenship?

The Death of Expertise resonated deeply with readers. … Readers regularly approach Nichols with stories of their own disregarded expertise: doctors, lawyers, plumbers, electricians who’ve gotten used to being second-guessed by customers and clients and patients who know little or nothing about their work. “So many people over the past year have walked up to me and said, ‘You wrote what I was thinking,’” he says.

Sounds like everyone’s getting mansplained these days.

The Death of Expertise began as a cri de coeur on his now-defunct blog in late 2013. This was during the Edward Snowden revelations, which to Nichols’s eye, and that of other intelligence experts, looked unmistakably like a Russian operation. “I was trying to tell people, ‘Look, trust me, I’m a Russia guy; there’s a Russian hand behind this.’ ” But he found more arguments than takers. “Young people wanted to believe Snowden was a hero.”

I don’t have a particular opinion on Snowdon because I haven’t studied the issue, but let’s pretend you were in the USSR and one day a guy in the government spilled a bunch of secrets about how many people Stalin was having shot and how many millions were starving to death in Holodomor (the Ukrainian genocide.) (Suppose also that the media were sufficiently free to allow the stories to spread.)

Immediately you’d have two camps: the “This guy is a capitalist spy sent to discredit our dear leader with a hideous smear campaign” and “This guy is totally legit, the people need to know!”

Do you see why “Snowden is a Russian” sounds like the government desperately trying to cover its ass?

Now let’s suppose the guy who exposed Stalin actually was a capitalist spy. Maybe he really did hate communism and wanted to bring down the USSR. Would it matter? As long as the stuff he said was true, would you want to know anyway? I know that if I found out about Holodomor, I wouldn’t care about the identity of the guy who released the information besides calling him a hero.

I think a lot of Trump supporters feel similarly about Trump. They don’t actually care whether Russia helped Trump or not; they think Trump is helping them, and that’s what they care about.

In other words, it’s not so much “I don’t believe you” as “I have other priorities.”

In December, at a JFK Library event on reality and truth in public discourse, a moderator asked him a version of “How does this end?” … “In the longer term, I’m worried about the end of the republic,” he answered. Immense cynicism among the voting public—incited in part by the White House—combined with “staggering” ignorance, he said, is incredibly dangerous. In that environment, anything is possible. “When people have almost no political literacy, you cannot sustain the practices that sustain a democratic republic.” The next day, sitting in front of his fireplace in Rhode Island, where he lives with his wife, Lynn, and daughter, Hope, he added, “We’re in a very perilous place right now.”

Staggering ignorance about what, I wonder. Given our increased access to information, I suspect that the average person today both knows and can easily find the answers to far more questions than the average person of the 80s, 50s, or 1800s.

I mean, in the 80s, we still had significant numbers of people who believed in: faith healing; televangelists; six-day creationism; “pyramid power”; crop circles; ESP; UFOs; astrology; multiple personality disorder; a global Satanic daycare conspiracy; recovered memories; Freudianism; and the economic viability of the USSR. (People today still believe in the last one.)

One the one hand, I think part of what Nichols is feeling is just the old distrust of experts projected onto the internet. People used to harass their local school boards about teaching ‘evilution’; today they harass each other on Twitter over Ben Ghazi or birtherism or Russia collusion or whatever latest thing.

We could, of course, see a general decline in intellectual abilities as the population of the US itself is drawn increasingly from low-IQ backgrounds and low-IQ people (appear to) outbreed the high-IQ ones, but I have yet to see whether this has had time to manifest as a change in the amount of general knowledge people can use and display, especially given our manifestly easier time actually accessing knowledge. I am tempted to think that perhaps the internet forced Nichols outside of his Harvard bubble and he encountered dumb people for the first time in his life.

On the other hand, however, I do feel a definite since of malaise in America. It’s not about IQ, but how we feel about each other. We don’t seem to like each other very much. We don’t trust each other. Trust in government is low. Trust in each other is low. People have fewer close friends and confidants.

We have material prosperity, yes, despite our economic woes, but there is a spiritual rot.

Both sides are recognizing this, but the left doesn’t understand what is causing it.

They can point at Trump. They can point at angry hoards of Trump voters. “Something has changed,” they say. “The voters don’t trust us anymore.” But they don’t know why.

Here’s what I think happened:

The myth that is “America” got broken.

A country isn’t just a set of laws with a tract of land. It can be that, but if so, it won’t command a lot of sentimental feeling. You don’t die to defend a “set of laws.” A country needs a people.

“People” can be a lot of things. They don’t have to be racially homogenous. “Jews” are a people, and they are not racially homogenous. “Turks” are a people, and they are not genetically homogenous. But fundamentally, people have to see themselves as “a people” with a common culture and identity.

America has two main historical groups: whites and blacks. Before the mass immigration kicked off in 1965, whites were about 88% of the country and blacks were about 10%. Indians, Asians, Hispanics, and everyone else rounded out that last 2%. And say what you will, but whites thought of themselves as the American culture, because they were the majority.

America absorbed newcomers. People came, got married, had children: their children became Americans. The process takes time, but it works.

Today, though, “America” is fractured. It is ethnically fractured–California and Texas, for example, are now majority non-white. There is nothing particularly wrong with the folks who’ve moved in, they just aren’t from one of America’s two main historical ethnic groups. They are their own groups, with their own histories. England is a place with a people and a history; Turkey is a place with a people and a history. They are two different places with different people and different history. It is religiously fractured–far fewer people belong to one of America’s historically prominent religions. It is politically fractured–more people now report being uncomfortable with their child dating a member of the opposite political party than of a different race.

Now we see things like this: After final vote, city will remove racist Pioneer Monument Statue:

As anticipated, the San Francisco Arts Commission voted unanimously Monday to remove the “Early Days” statue from Civic Center’s Pioneer Monument, placing the century-plus old bronze figures in storage until a long-term decision about their fate can be made.

The decision caps off a six-month long debate, after some San Franciscans approached the commission in August 2017 to complain about the statue, which features a pious but patronizing scene of a Spanish missionary helping a beaten Indian to his feet and pointing him toward heaven.

In February the city’s Historic Preservation Commission voted unanimously to recommend removing “Early Days” despite some commissioners expressing reservations about whether the sculpture has additional value as an expose of 19th century racism.

Your statues are racist. Your history is racist. Your people is racist.

What do they think the reaction to this will look like?


But before we get too dark, let’s take a look at Pinker’s latest work, Enlightenment Now:

It is not intuitive that a case needs to be made for “Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress,” stable values that have long defined our modernity. And most expect any attack on those values to come from the far right: from foes of progressivism, from anti-science religious movements, from closed minds. Yet Steven Pinker argues there is a second, more profound assault on the Enlightenment’s legacy of progress, coming from within intellectual and artistic spheres: a crisis of confidence, as progress’s supporters see so many disasters, setbacks, emergencies, new wars re-opening old wounds, new structures replicating old iniquities, new destructive side-effects of progress’s best intentions. …

Pinker’s volume moves systematically through various metrics that reflect progress, charting improvements across the last half-century-plus in areas from racism, sexism, homophobia, and bullying, to car accidents, oil spills, poverty, leisure, female empowerment, and so on. …

the case Pinker seeks to make is at once so basic and so difficult that a firehose of evidence may be needed—optimism is a hard sell in this historical moment. … Pinker credits the surge in such sentiments since the 1960s to several factors. He points to certain religious trends, because a focus on the afterlife can be in tension with the project of improving this world, or caring deeply about it. He points to nationalism and other movements that subordinate goods of the individual or even goods of all to the goods of a particular group. He points to what he calls neo-Romantic forms of environmentalism, not all environmentalisms but specifically those that subordinate the human species to the ecosystem and seek a green future, not through technological advances, but through renouncing current technology and ways of living. He also points to a broader fascination with narratives of decline …

I like the way Pinker thinks and appreciate his use of actual data to support his points.

To these decades-old causes, one may add the fact that humankind’s flaws have never been so visible as in the twenty-first century. … our failures are more visible than ever through the digital media’s ceaseless and accelerating torrent of grim news and fervent calls to action, which have pushed many to emotional exhaustion. Within the last two years, though not before, numerous students have commented in my classroom that sexism/racism/inequality “is worse today than it’s ever been.” The historian’s answer, “No, it used to be much worse, let me tell you about life before 1950…,” can be disheartening, especially when students’ rage and pain are justified and real. In such situations, Pinker’s vast supply of clear, methodical data may be a better tool to reignite hope than my painful anecdotes of pre-modern life.

Maybe Nichols is on to something about people today being astoundingly ignorant…

Pinker’s celebration of science is no holds barred: he calls it an achievement surpassing the masterworks of art, music, and literature, a source of sublime beauty, health, wealth, and freedom.

I agree with Pinker on science, but Nichols’s worldview may be the one that needs plumbing.

Which book do you want me to read/review?