Book Plunge: The Death Of Expertise

What do I think of Tom Nichols’s book published by Oxford University Press? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

This is not a book on apologetics. The only apologist you will find referenced is the general wisdom of C.S. Lewis. Still, this is a book that is going to be very helpful for apologists. This is a book that addresses many of the issues that we experience in the field.

Nichols is sounding an alarm that expertise is no longer being heeded. There are many factors that contribute to this. Some of us will be quick to say “The internet” and be partially right. The internet is not the sole contributor to this, though it definitely plays a part in all that we’re seeing.

The first chapter is on the relationship of citizens and experts. Citizens no longer seem to care about what experts say. They will say one thing that experts were wrong on and then take some medicine for a headache that is the result of expert analysis. Our society has become one that rightly decries elitism, but then sees any idea that someone knows more than someone else on a subject as elitism. We are a society where all truth claims are to be treated as equal. Even worse, to disagree with a truth claim is to attack the person.

When the people do not heed the words of experts, every man becomes an island unto himself. Each person is in it for their own good. This also works with the narcissism of our age. We have become so individualistic, that it is tempting to think that we’re the center of the story.

This gets us into how it is hard to converse today. The #1 response to a question today has become something along the lines of “Let me Google that for you.” If we used this properly, it wouldn’t be a bad thing. There’s nothing wrong with using Google to look up a basic fact that isn’t controversial, such as when did the Battle of Bunker Hill take place? Just recently I was at an event where a speaker said that Moses Maimonides was forced to do a debate by King James of Aragon I. Okay. Why not look that up? I quickly saw that Maimonides was dead before King James was even born. This is a proper use of Google if we do it right.

The improper use is thinking that the first website you come across is the one that you should listen to. There will be more on this later, but in this case, it becomes harder and harder to talk to people. Everyone thinks they’re an expert because they can look something up on Google. Having my chief area of expertise be in the New Testament, I can say at this two words come to mind immediately. Jesus Mythicism. I still remember someone on a news page discussing a story telling me that scholars aren’t even sure that Jesus existed. This was news to me seeing as I actually do read the scholars in the field and know that this is a minority position. When I was on the¬†Atheist Analysis¬†show, there was a lot of shock in the crowd when I said how few of scholars are mythicists. I was offered the number of 8% and said to go lower. 3 wasn’t enough either. I think I said somewhere around .0001%.

Of course, the solution to this is to get an education. Well, maybe not. Sadly, our educational institutions are often just participating in groupthink. Many students today just walk away thinking what their professors think. In my study of the Bible and New Testament, both major schools I have personally attended, I have fundamentally disagreed with on some issues of NT interpretation. When some people would tell me I’m just arguing what my professors taught me, I would reply that in many cases, I disagreed with some central claims. That’s okay.

Sadly, many colleges have become day care facilities with students being shown what is the most entertaining aspect of their stay. Too many students are going to go to college and just party and sleep around and think they’re getting the college life. At my own Bible College where I graduated from, I have often gone back and talked with the professors who always thoroughly enjoy the reunion. One told me about seeing a student on campus during the summer and asked, “What are you reading now?” Reply? “Nothing.” I find this stunning as the kids are seeing learning as the punishment and fun as the goal.

This is not to bash entertainment of course. We all must have some leisure times. You can often find my wife and I watching one of our recorded programs and when we do, it’s not uncommon for me to have a Nintendo 2DS out at the same time. Gaming has always been a part of my life, but it’s not the reason why I live either.

One example of what’s going wrong on our campuses is the concept of safe places. We have seen lately colleges wanting to ban someone of a more conservative leaning and having to have places where their views are not challenged. What are they thinking? College is about challenging your views. You come there to learn, not just stay entrenched in your own opinion.

The result is someone could leave college without being educated but instead being indoctrinated. They will get their degree and never do any more reading or serious work. For my part, I find this bizarre. Even with the degree I have, I have never stopped looking into the field I study so much so that when I have scholars on my own show, it’s quite easy to converse with them.

Well, what about the internet? Here we come to a real kicker. The problem with the internet is while it was meant to share our knowledge, more often, we are sharing our ignorance. Anyone can set up a website and be seen as an authority. We also now with self-publishing have it that anyone can get a book out there. Of course, there’s good material out there (I happen to think my own website and Ebooks are good material), but one has to learn to discern. The problem is anyone with a website can look like an expert.

This is especially prevalent with conspiracy theories. I have already mentioned Jesus Mythicism as a conspiracy theory for atheists. You can find rumors about the Illuminati and about Reptilians and everything else online. The problem is that many people don’t possess the basic tools to know how to analyze this information and see if it stands up or not.

With our narcissism, someone who can Google thinks they can disprove easily someone who reads the scholarly material. They end up thinking they’re brilliant arguers when anyone who reads the material is just shaking their head in disbelief. Those who are ignorant are able to find others who are just as ignorant and join together and build up one another. Getting a lot of likes on their posts doesn’t really help matters out.

Search engines will also tend to go where you have gone before as well. In other words, you get in an echo chamber. They use your past history of looking in order to determine sites that will be relevant to you. Rarely do people look and see if these are really authoritative sites. Think for instance of the people who often diagnose themselves entirely based on the internet and then argue with their doctor about it. Sure, the layman can be right sometimes, but all things being equal, go with the doctor.

Also, Nichols has a long section on Wikipedia. He points out that most Wikipedia editors are also male which limits our perspective. Wikipedia will have plenty of information on the Kardashians, but not information on political strife in some African countries for instance. It is a fine example of our compound ignorance coming together.

At least we have the press to set matters straight, or do we? The press is nowadays often just as gullible and part of the problem is we have so much information coming out at once that everyone is in a rush to be the first to get the news out. This means a lack of fact-checking. From my own perspective, I am a conservative in politics, but I have seen many conservative news sites royally butcher claims and many of them I consider just outright unreliable.

I have reached the point of letting my own family know when they send me something false, and in the past that often involved having to send out a group email. Many of our media outlets are doing the same kind of thing with sharing something just because it agrees with them. Fact-checking is not going on as much as it could be.

But alas, sometimes experts are wrong. What do we do then? A layman can indeed demonstrate an expert is wrong, but an expert being wrong once doesn’t mean all expert opinion is to be denied. Experts are humans like everyone else and they will make mistakes. Fortunately, other experts will often be there to help point out those mistakes.

It’s also necessary to point out that expertise in one area doesn’t equal expertise in all. Richard Dawkins is a fine source I’m sure to quote on evolution. He is not fine on New Testament or philosophy. Gary Habermas is just fine on history, but he is not fine on discussing evolution.

In the end, Nichols’s book is a call to return to learning. Hopefully it will be heeded as our society has more access to knowledge than ever before, but we are quite likely dumber than ever before. All the learning in the world doesn’t matter if it is not approached properly. An attitude of humility would go a long way towards helping people learn.

In Christ,
Nick Peters