May 27, 2017

Tom Nichols, author of The Death of Expertise, says:

Unless we start accepting the limitations of our own knowledge, then each of us is failing in our obligation to participate in our democracy as involved, but informed citizens. ~ from PBS’ My Humble Opinion series

Nichols, a Ph.D. who is an expert on national security affairs (click here to see his bio), has advised the Pentagon, CIA and major leaders from both the Republican and Democratic parties. And yet, he sees that the average citizen is more than willing to offer advice or make a statement about something they know little to nothing about. Nichols shared a quick tale of how pollsters asked American voters whether or not we should bomb Agrabah.

While people from both parties were quick to offer their opinion on the bombing (some for and some against), only about half realized that Agrabah is a fictional place from Disney’s Aladdin.  When did we decide to stop being curious about things that are new or unknown to us?

Nichols suggests we’ve become “insufferable know-it-alls” thanks to the constant presence of smart phones and tablets on which we can quickly search and find answers. He also says mainstream media, which is fighting to keep its relevance, is relying heavily on viewers’ opinions in what they choose to cover. And, of course Nichols notes the role social media plays in influencing our knowledge of the world around us.

So, while knowledge is power, and it’s more accessible than ever, it seems we’re using our passing knowledge to overrule experts. Consider the anti-vaccine movement.  When parents decide not to vaccinate their children, have they actually become informed on the topic? They’re not just challenging their physician and looking for a second or third educated opinion or perspective; they’ve decided they know more than any experienced, trained medical and science professionals.

We need to find our way back from this ego-driven wilderness. Historically, people return to valuing expert views in times of trouble or distress. We’re all willing to argue with our doctors until our fever is out of control. ~ Nichols, on PBS

I hope we again learn to value the insight of our experts sooner rather than later… I doubt we need more trouble or distress in our nation as a catalyst. Perhaps a bit of candor about who we are, what we’ve become, what we know – and what we don’t know – is in order.