The Death of Expertise Part II: The Bad

Book cover

This is Part II of the 3-part review entitled The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

As mentioned in Part I (The Good) the great irony of the book is that Nichols lacks the expertise to write on the death of expertise, but it does not mean he’s wrong in general. Carl Sagan said many similar things with his 1995 book A Candle in the Darkness. Nichols doesn’t reference Sagan’s book, but perhaps because it is so commonly referenced he wanted to avoid doing it himself.

In this section, I’ll show Nichols’ mistakes that could have been avoided if his book had been peer-reviewed by people with expertise on the subject matter.

Nichols has a section correctly outlining the differences between generalizations and stereotypes.

Stereotyping is an ugly social habit, but generalization is at the root of every form of science….

…Generalizations are probabilistic statements, based in observable facts. They are not, however, explanations in themselves—another important difference from stereotypes. They’re measurable and verifiable. [emphasis added]

Stereotypes, in contrast, cannot be refuted by data because confirmation bias—which Nichols defines—means people only remember or accept data that confirms their preconceived stereotypes.

Nichols’ example of a generalization is “people in China are usually shorter than people in America”. This statement can be verified (quantified) by measuring heights of Chinese people vs heights of American people. The average height of Americans will be taller.

The existence of some tall Chinese people and some short American people does not change the generalization that American people will, on average, be taller than the average Chinese person. As Nichols said, a generalization can be quantified in some scientific measurable way. A stereotype cannot.

So, Nichols knows the difference between generalizations and stereotypes. However, his chapter on today’s students is a stereotype and NOT a generalization. His statements aren’t quantified in some scientific measurable way.

He says:

  • students don’t learn how to think critically;
  • they’re pandered to;
  • they haven’t learned the self-discipline that was once essential to pursue higher education;
  • that students can leave campus without fully accepting that they’ve met anyone more intelligent than they are, either among peers or their teachers;
  • their sense of entitlement and their unfounded self-confidence have grown considerably;
  • that there’d be howls of outrage if students were told they need to work harder, have more perspective about their talents and trust their teachers.

There is no quantifiable, measurable, verifiable studies and data for those statements. It’s just anecdotes.

When he does use endnotes those lead to anecdotes and media articles that repeat anecdotes, and use logical fallacies. Anecdotes are NOT data. Anecdotes are heavily influenced by confirmation bias, which Nichols has already defined. We remember the one story that supports our pet idea and forget the nine that contradict it.

Thinking anecdotes by themselves are evidence is a logical fallacy.

screen shot of anecdotal logical fallacy defintion

Anyone can use anecdotes instead of data. Here are mine. I know how resilient, informed, and hard-working students are because they’ve been my classmates when I’ve returned to school full-time (every six years on average, last time was 2014). They’ve been my students when I was a professor (five different universities and colleges). They’ve been my coworkers at consulting firms and in government jobs. I’ve worked with them as they’ve entered the workforce, and I’ve trained them in their summer jobs and their first full-time jobs after school.

I also have similar anecdotes from other professors and employers. Uniformly, we’ve been impressed with the quality of students in the universities and entering the work force. So, our anecdotes cancel out his anecdotes.

I can use media articles too. Here’s one from a Navy Seal who returned to school. His experience with students totally contradicts Nichols’ stereotypes. Here’s another one who again directly contradicts Nichols.

They [students] know much more about culture, fashion, film, and politics than I did when I was in college. They are also far more sophisticated about issues of gender and race than I was or my parents were. And, I find that my students now are more knowledgeable about other countries, cultures, and customs than my generation. I see, then, a movement away from what we might call micro learning toward what we can think of as macro learning. Less memorization and more integration; less small data and more big picture. Education tends to be about coalescing now, and more and more frequently, the line between “life” and “school” is blurry. The world is a text. 

Nichols also doesn’t actually demonstrate that current students and education play a role in the death of expertise—he just makes the assertion they do.

This is the logical fallacy called false cause, which is related to the fallacy Correlation Implies Causation. Just because two things happen at the same time does not mean one thing causes the other, or are even linked at all. So even if Nichols had provided verifiable quantifiable evidence to back up his statements about students, he still would need to demonstrate that is linked to the death of expertise. .

If Nichols had some expertise on the subject he would have pulled together the mountains of literature that shows how students, schools, the expectations, culture, and demographics have changed enormously—both in the good and in the bad—since the 1970s. His chapter on students and education would have been a complex nuanced chapter on positive and negative changes with an examination on how those changes might impact what he terms “the death of expertise”. Instead, of that chapter we have an “old man yelling at cloud” chapter.

Grandpa Abe Simpson shaking his fist and  yelling at a cloud

He does reference one scientific-based study on grade inflation. Grades of A are being given out more frequently than they were a decade ago. Even here, though, Nichols’ lack of expertise betrays him again. He doesn’t cite the study itself. Instead he cites a newspaper article that talks about the study.

This is a 1st-yr undergraduate-level error. Students are told wherever possible, cite primary sources.

Do not cite Wiki. Do not cite your $250 course textbook. Do not cite a newspaper article that talks about the study.

Instead, cite what the study authors say, not what some non-science-trained journalist says the authors say. Even in my history and literature courses we had to cite primary sources so it is puzzling why Nichols did not.

He ends his student and education chapter with two strawman fallacies based on his own stereotypes of students.

college students are demanding to run the school while at the same time insisting that they be treated as children”.

They are not demanding to run the school, and they are not insisting on being treated as children. Nichols thinks they are because that what his stereotypes demand. To quote Nichols again, Stereotyping is an ugly social habit…

His views also depends upon leaving out relevant content to paint a distorted picture, which I’ll cover in Part III.

He also does not know what a “safe spaces” are; instead he misrepresents them (strawman again) as places that “protect” students and censor free speech. A quick google search or a talk with a university’s mental health association would have given him a correct definition.

Screen shot of the definition of safe space from the link in the  next paragraph.

Free speech is the goal of safe spaces. It’s a place where controversial and hurtful things can be discussed in a supportive judgement-free environment. It’s a place where people go to hear views they disagree with, but want to understand them. It’s where bridges are built.

Nichols even quotes Richard Dawkins (not that you want to quote Dawkins on sociological issues)[i] who clearly doesn’t know what safe spaces are either. The fact that neither of them made the 30-second effort to google safe spaces or talk to professionals in their own universities shows they are more interested in “rehearsing their prejudices/stereotypes” than in understanding.

Therein lies another irony. Safe spaces are endorsed by mental health associations and mental health advocates. Nichols, who laments society’s rejection of expertise, is rejecting the expertise of the mental health and psychology fields.

There are also other smaller mistakes when he talks about experts getting it wrong. E.g., he doesn’t understand the difference between bad study design and science studying new areas of research where there are many unknowns. He continues to reference non-science journalists rather than the actual studies.

He glosses over things that should be examined closely. E.g., in the sciences more papers are being retracted for errors or fraud, but he neglects to discuss whether or not that’s a percentage increase or just a content increase because more papers are being published than decades ago. He also doesn’t consider the impact of more fact-checking and software written specifically to find errors quickly, e.g., Statchek. And again, he does not link these retractions to decline in expertise. E.g., arguing retractions hurt experts among the general public isn’t a strong argument when the general public isn’t aware of the retractions. Not saying Nichols is wrong, but better lines of evidence are needed.

I’ll end Part II with relevant words from David Dunning in his We Are All Confident Idiots article.

Because it’s so easy to judge the idiocy of others, it may be sorely tempting to think this doesn’t apply to you. But the problem of unrecognized ignorance is one that visits us all.

In Part III I’ll show how Nichols selectively quotes this very Dunning article to make it appear Dunning is saying the opposite of what he actually said.


[i] Dawkins is well known for having difficulty in seeing things outside his blinkered socially-privileged viewpoint. Google Elevatorgate where he mocked someone for highlighting a real problem that he didn’t think was a problem—it took him three years to figure out and apologize.

Published by omniravenousreviews

I read, I review, I write.

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