Why Don’t Americans Trust Experts Anymore?

A tussle between science and politics is defining the pandemic response of the Trump administration. How did this increasing rejection of expertise get started? Professor Tom Nichols wrote a prescient book on the subject in 2017, and joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Our next guest, Professor Tom Nichols, wrote a prescient book on the subject in 2017. It was called “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters.” Here he is speaking to our Hari Sreenivasan.


HARI SREENIVASAN: Thanks, Christiane. Tom Nichols, thanks for joining us. First, let’s get our audience up to speed on the premise of your book, just so we have that in this conversation.

TOM NICHOLS, AUTHOR, “THE DEATH OF EXPERTISE”: I wrote the book about the collapse of faith in experts, not just the mere distrust of experts, but people actually thinking they were smarter than experts. I wrote the book, because people were actually starting to lecture to experts back about their own field of expertise, which is something we’re seeing a lot now. That’s different than people merely distrusting experts or wanting a second opinion. We have become a very narcissistic society, where we think nothing of it to march into our doctor’s office and explain cancer or broken bones or viruses or any other complicated issue. And that’s been happening across a lot of fields. And the book was about why we’re doing that, and why that’s a really bad thing for an advanced society like ours.

SREENIVASAN: This didn’t just start with this crisis or this president. Take us back to this original essay that you had penned several years ago, which ended up turning into a book.

NICHOLS: The essay began when a young person who didn’t like something I was saying about Russia challenged my view. Now, I’m a Russia expert. I’m a Russian-speaking Russia expert of 30- something years experience. And this younger person said to me, Tom, I don’t think you understand Russia. Let me explain Russia to you. And I stepped away, and I sat down later in front of the computer and said, how did that happen? How did we become that kind of a society? And that’s what originally brought me to write the article. And what shocked me was how many people in so many different fields, doctors, lawyers, engineers, you name it, started writing to me and saying, I have the same experience all the time. And that’s what made me realize that something very wrong was afoot in society. And, again, that’s very different than people not trusting experts. That’s normal. That goes back through recorded history, where, when you feel like you don’t understand something, you’re scared, you want more explanation. That’s a very different phenomenon than feeling that you’re much smarter on every subject than the expert who’s trying to help you.

SREENIVASAN: Now, this was a couple of years ago, and you were, well, sort of optimistic at the end of the book. You figured, if we have a huge disaster, a war, or a depression or a pandemic, this death of expertise, this trend line would sort itself out here. Here we are. You were wrong?

NICHOLS: What I didn’t count on was that there would be an entire political infrastructure, including major media outlets, that would have a vested interest in not helping us snap out of it. I assumed that, during a pandemic or a war or depression, we would all pull in the same direction, and we would be helped in that by government officials and by media. And what we found is that our tribalism became more important than facts.

SREENIVASAN: The protesters in Michigan and other places, they make this out to be a scenario where this is an attack on their freedoms. What’s wrong with that?

NICHOLS: I think the protesters are confusing freedom with nihilism. Freedom in a democracy, in the kind of republic in which we live in the United States, comes with responsibilities. This is not freedom in the sense that adults understand freedom. This is freedom in the way children understand freedom. I’m going to do things, even if they’re bad for me, merely because I can, as an expression of my own autonomy. This is not how mature citizens in a democracy help to make a democracy function. This is basically a very childlike understanding of democracy and freedom that basically means, I can do anything I want, and you can’t tell me what to do. It’s basically an understanding the freedom that says, you’re not the boss of me.

SREENIVASAN: But there seems to also be a notion of patriotism wrapped into this somehow, that it is quintessentially American to challenge this expertise or to challenge this encroachment on your personal freedom.

NICHOLS: I think that’s the argument some of these protesters are making, but I think it’s a deeply ahistorical argument. You didn’t — during World War II, we had rationing. During World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, we had the draft, and that didn’t really become an issue until the war in Vietnam was lost. So, this notion that somehow it’s completely American to just sort of say, I’m not going to do whatever you tell me, I think, is wrong. I think it’s a very American thing to say, look, you need to explain to me, as a voter, why we’re doing these things. And the voters need to have some faith that the people they have put in office, whether it’s in their state or county or the federal government, have their best interests at heart that. That’s the part that’s broken down. And I think that is very un-American, this incredible suspicion of one another, as though doctors don’t have an interest in you getting better somehow. And so I reject that argument. I think that this is partly the result of social media ramping up a message among a very small group of people who I think have a really outsized impact on the public mind at this point.

SREENIVASAN: One of the attacks on science has really been almost a structural flaw of the scientific method, which is that the scientific method says, we’re going to replicate, and we’re going to keep learning, and we’re going to keep trying, and when we have an amount of data, we will say this, and, if we have new data, we will say something else, right? So how many times have you read that, well, 16 studies that say butter is not good for me, and then eventually over the next 10 years, somehow, butter does become good for you, right? So people have this suspicion that this expertise, well, it could just be sort of a set of shifting sands, that what’s good today might be bad tomorrow and the other way around.

NICHOLS: Yes, that’s a game of gotcha that laypeople play with experts. And it’s tiresome, because eggs is the example when it comes to nutrition, right? Doctors told us for a long time to avoid eggs. And it turns out — I questioned my own doctor about this. I said, I love the eggs. And we kind of got that one wrong. But that has actually led to people saying, this proves that doctors don’t know anything about heart disease. No, doctors know a lot about heart disease, and they certainly know more about it than you do. And this game of gotcha, where every time something goes wrong, the public says, that proves that experts don’t know anything. By that reasoning, I have often challenged people to think about what would happen if Apollo 13 took place today. You would have millions of people saying, see, NASA doesn’t know anything about going to the moon because they got this one wrong, because there was a disaster. And I think it’s a very childlike approach to expertise that says, if you ever get anything wrong, nothing you ever say is going to be right, and that’s my permission slip to stop listening to you. And I think it’s — again, it’s dangerous and it’s childish.

SREENIVASAN: You mentioned social media and the Internet. And I wonder how much of this is, well, in part the — that information ecosystem is being polluted by state actors or people with political agendas that are fueling conspiracy theories and doubt, some of that doubt reaching all the way to the White House?

NICHOLS: Social media plays a huge role in this, because, in the past, every town in America had one person who didn’t think we landed on the moon. And, of course, that person had to live among 100 other people who said, of course we landed on the vote. And there was a certain amount of social — a social environment that said the one person among us who doesn’t believe in science is not a serious person. This — social media and the Internet have allowed that one person in every town to find the one person in 100,000 other towns to reach out to each other and say, we’re no longer the local skeptic or crank, we’re a movement, and to reinforce each other and to keep sending each other the same messages back and forth. And whenever you have that many people believing the same thing, they become a resource for political power. And that gets the attention of people who are in politics. And that’s — those people then become a target for manipulation and for harvesting of their votes. And that’s what we’re seeing now. So it’s an unvirtuous circle and a very, as you put it, polluting cycle that social media helps to make possible.

SREENIVASAN: There also seems to be a — like, a tribal epistemology. I mean, what’s good for my team is, well, ultimately good, regardless of whether it’s true or not. I mean, how did we get to that place?

NICHOLS: Again, I think that the root of this is narcissism, which is the real epidemic that we have been faced with for 40 years. There’s been a pandemic of narcissism. And part of that is that, once people pick a team, they cannot ever admit they were wrong. They cannot ever readjust their prior beliefs. They — confirmation bias is a hell of a drug. And people will take everything they know and hammer those facts into their preexisting beliefs. And we’re seeing that now with science. We see it with everything from climate science to epidemiology, that, if believing in something potentially harms the political prospects of your team or would force you to somehow readjust your loyalty to that team, it has to be dismissed as a matter of first principles. And that’s a very powerful thing, because it means people are imbuing basic facts with issues that are important to their own sense of themselves, their own identity. And once people do that, it becomes very hard to talk them out of their beliefs. They become cats that are at the very top of a tree that they cannot then climb down out of ever, unfortunately.

SREENIVASAN: There seems to be a politicization of knowledge in a pretty bad way right now. I mean, just this week, you had the president attacking expertise. Dr. Fauci testified what he thought was true. And you saw Senator Rand Paul be very pointed at Dr. Fauci. And then we had Rick Bright, who was testifying as a whistle-blower on Capitol Hill, and you had the president tweeting, trying to undermine his credibility. What are we to make of this?

NICHOLS: Well, I think the president is in a class by himself. The president — the president merely reacts. He does not think five seconds before and he doesn’t think five seconds ahead. Whatever he’s faced with, that’s the immediate political threat that he will solve. And he will just say whatever comes to his mind. I think the scarier phenomenon is that there are a lot of people in elected politics who know better, and they are pandering to people who want to be told that the science is wrong because it is not congruent with their — with what they want to hear, with their values, with their lives, with how they want to live. And so, rather than being elected leaders in a republic, which is how the United States is supposed to be governed, these leaders have basically become a kind of populist expression of direct democracy, simply repeating whatever their voters say to them, in a desperate attempt to stay in office, even though these are educated men and women who have some of the best information in the world available to them, as elected representatives of the United States. And they choose to pretend that they don’t know what they actually know. This is the most dangerous thing of all. It’s not — the president various problems with science are part of the president’s many problems with everything. But for elected leaders elsewhere to pretend that they don’t understand science, when they understand it quite well, but they need to pretend they don’t to pander to the public, there’s no end to that. And at some point, the very production of knowledge and the ability to administer a large, complicated republic like ours starts to just fall apart.

SREENIVASAN: If you’re Dr. Fauci, how do you handle this? Do you fight back? Do you do anything that he’s not doing right now?

NICHOLS: I think Dr. Fauci has handled this about as well as any expert can handle the mine field that he’s in. He is dealing with elected officials, as a government servant, who keep wanting him to say things that are not true or not correct. And he is just very carefully trying to keep putting out the facts, without getting drawn into a partisan political struggle. And I think that’s especially complicated by the fact that there are people around him who really want to draw him into a partisan political struggle, both in the government and out in society, of people who want Dr. Fauci to be their counterpart, their warrior as a political matter. And Fauci, I think, is just trying to stay out of both of those camps and be what he is, which is a scientist and an expert who speaks the truth.

SREENIVASAN: Best-case scenario, we come up with a vaccine. Do you think that it will be influenced by the rise of the anti-vax movement on how many people take it in the United States?

NICHOLS: I think one thing that has been a bright spot in all this is that the one place I think my optimism was justified when I wrote the book is that an epidemic really has kind of put the lie to the anti-vaccine movement. Rejecting vaccines is the kind of thing an affluent, healthy society can afford to do. And so I think that the anti-vaccine movement really is going to be knocked back on its heels by this. They’re trying very hard to make the development of a vaccine seem like some kind of big plot run by billionaires and globalists. But I think, when a vaccine is available, people are going to want it and they’re going to stampede to it. And it’s going to be very hard to argue that you shouldn’t take the thing that will help your life get back to normal.

SREENIVASAN: So, then what do we do? Here we are in the middle of a pandemic. We have several parts of leadership and a government that have a phobia of expertise or find it politically inconvenient. And we’re trying to guide a citizenry through a health crisis.

NICHOLS: Experts have to get out there and plant the flag. This is sometimes a problem among experts, because they don’t like to engage with the public. This is a flaw in the expert community. They don’t like to have to talk to people who don’t understand their own jargon or may not understand the subject in which they’re an expert. They don’t like to play the gotcha game, where the first question they get is, why should I listen to you because you were wrong once about this other thing? But I think the most important job of an expert — I say this in the book, and I have been saying it ever since — is to speak truth to power, whether that power is the president or it’s 1,000 of your fellow citizens, that the expert’s client is society, in the end, whether you’re a doctor, a lawyer, a professor, a scholar. It doesn’t matter. Your client is society, and you need to get out there and speak the truth, even if it’s unpleasant, and not be shaken by that. And I think that’s a tall order. But these are dangerous times. And I think it’s something that’s incumbent upon all of us who have specialized knowledge and to claim the title of experts, that we have to get out there and do that.

SREENIVASAN: Tom Nichols, thanks so much for joining us.

NICHOLS: Thanks for having me.

About This Episode EXPAND

Ed Yong, staff writer for The Atlantic, joins Christiane Amanpour to explain how American exceptionalism could be exacerbating the COVID-19 crisis. Soccer legend Gary Lineker discusses how the pandemic is impacting his sport and the greater athletic community. Tom Nichols joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the death of expertise in American society.