The Death of Expertise Part III: The Ugly

This is Part III of the 3-section review, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

The Ugly is that Nichols has a habit of leaving out crucial information that would contradict his stereotype narrative. And it gets uglier.

Here’s a simple example. He selectively quotes Dr. David Dunning (of the famous Dunning-Kruger paper mentioned in Part I) to make Dunning  say something he’s not saying. Nichols quotes Dunning’s We Are All Confident Idiots.

In it, Dunning says to successfully refute misinformation you need to remove the misbelief and fill the void left behind with the correct information. If you have to repeat the misinformation itself you need to state ahead of time that what you are about to repeat is false. In Dunning’s quote below Nichols quotes the first part, but does not quote anything encased in the red outline.

quoted text where nichols does not include dunnings technique to avoid reinforcing misinformation.

Below is Nichols’ false statement based on selectively quoting Dunning. It’s a blatant cherry-pick fallacy. Notice he left out all of Dunning’s second part of the quote.

screenshot of nichols' book where he doesn't quote the important part of dunning's article.

Nichols’ erroneous conclusion, based on only quoting part of Dunning, is that refuting ignorance doesn’t work and only spreads damage around like throwing water on a grease fire. This is categorically false.

Dunning himself IN HIS VERY NEXT SENTENCE—that Nichols does NOT quote—even gives an example of how to refute something without confirming it. Nichols doesn’t quote it because it contradicts what he already (wrongly) believes. He is exhibiting the very type of behaviour he rails against in his book.

It also highlights Nichols lacks of expertise. Dunning is writing about a technique that’s been known in cognitive psychology and most other science fields for many years. For example, John Cook of Skeptical Science rewrote his entire website, based on the advice from cognitive psychologists like Stephan Lewandowsky, to incorporate this technique of refuting misinformation.

Later, in 2012, Cook and Lewandowsky teamed up to write The Debunking Handbook on how to effectively refute misinformation. This helped spread the technique to numerous disciplines.

NASA’s science communication sites now use these techniques to correct misinformation. The actor, Alan Alda, has established Alda Communication Training that teaches effective communication, including these techniques. Other science communication agencies also teach people how to refute misinformation without reinforcing it.

Nichols screwed up. He only quoted the part of Dunning he agreed with, and did not quote the next sentence that contradicted what he (Nichols) agreed with.

That example may be minor, but the next examples of leaving out relevant context are Sean Hannity/Rush Limbaugh level of alternate-reality. To make students appear childish, entitled, spoiled Nichols leaves out defining context from some incidents he relates. Either he’s an extraordinarily lazy researcher or he knowingly engages in smear tactics that marginalizes the voices, the lives, and the experiences of Black people.

At the university, a disturbed individual used feces to smear a swastika on the bathroom wall. According to Nichols, university students over-reacted; there were protests, a grad student went on a hunger strike, and the university president had to resign. Nichols is angry at the students. Students used to protest over civil rights and the Vietnam War, he says, but today’s “students explode over imagined slights that are not even remotely in the same category as fighting for civil rights or being sent to war”.

However, when this incident is viewed in context the slights were far from imagined. Leading up to the poop swastika were months of racially-motivated attacks that the university administration shrugged off or offered tardy lukewarm reprimands. Racist attacks escalated.

Near the end the university did begin to respond quickly and remove the racists, but by then it was clear that systemic racism was a real problem in the system. The Washington Post, which Nichols often quotes but not here, said, “The revolting acts that are occurring at Missou are a result of a poisonous infestation of apathy that has been spawning from University of Missouri system leadership”.

There are numerous articles decrying what had been happening for months, numerous calls for the university to take a stronger stance, to stand up for their students, but Nichols did not link to any of them because they would contradict his narrative of students taking tantrums.

When viewed in context the protests were a fight for civil rights; they were protests against the ongoing apathy that lets racism remain embedded. Decades after protests for civil rights Black students in 2016 were still dealing with the same stuff their fathers and grandfathers dealt with decades ago.

The students had been fighting marginalization of their concerns at the university for months. They had been dealing with it their entire lives, as had their parents. And here it happened again for the gazillionth time. And for the gazillionth time they were told ,“You’re over-reacting, just be quiet”.

Then the “poop-truthers” arrived to claim students were lying, that no feces had been smeared.  Mike Huckabee was just one of the politicians who jumped on that bandwagon. The university had to release photos to shut them up.

In another example Nichols again leaves out context. At Yale someone suggested to the students that if they see Halloween costumes that are offensive (i.e., racist) then just ignore them. That’s like a guy telling a woman, “If a man makes inappropriate comments, then just ignore him or take it as a compliment”. That guy is minimizing her concerns, her voice, her views, her whole person-hood and life experience.

When the university was asked to speak out against costumes that have been used over the past two centuries to mock different ethnic peoples the administration minimized the students’ concerns. They did not try to understand; instead, they told them how to feel, they told them to just be quiet, they told them not to make trouble.

There’s a real simple solution here. When women ask men not to comment on their bodies, then don’t comment on their bodies. When people of colour ask others not to wear costumes that have a long history of racism, mockery, and abuse then don’t wear them. Please don’t explain to them why they’re over-reacting. Don’t tell them how they should feel about something you have never lived yourself.

In his book Nichols quotes one of the students saying to the president, “Do you know what systemic oppression is?! Google it!”. Nichols should have taken that advice. In a recent video, Trevor Noah from The Daily Show, says,

If you grew up in a community where everyday someone had their knee on your neck; where everyday someone was out there oppressing you every single day, you tell me what that does to you as a society, as a community, as a group of people, and you know that this is happening because of the color of your skin. (around 7:45, but listen to Part I too on weaponizing racism).

Every. Single. Day.

Systemic oppression.

This is your life, the life of your relatives, the life of your neighbours, the life of your friends. Then it happens again at university that doesn’t take your concerns seriously; a university that is apathetic and is unable to recognize systemic embedded racism in itself.

By deliberately erasing context of these events, by trivializing the students’ concerns, Nichols feeds into the broken system that continues to minimize students’ voices.

That Nichols does not recognize this is just more indication he lacks the expertise to write this book. Such sloppy work should have been flagged by peer review, which he claims the book underwent. That it wasn’t indicates those reviewers also lacked relevant expertise.

So, in the end, we have a book about the death of expertise written by a non-expert and reviewed by non-experts. It lists the sins that lead to the death of expertise then commits those same sins itself.

Normally, I find irony like this delicious, and I’d crack a few jokes. In this case grief makes it bitter.

It would be a joke except what he does in omitting context and relevant details to fit a pre-defined narrative is part of a larger embedded creeping systemic problem that has real world consequences.

He could have provided a nuanced look at racism, how it impacts students, how it impacts learning, how it impacts expertise in disciplines where there are very few people of colour because the school system marginalizes them, tells them to just be quiet, to not make a fuss; it strains them out.

An expert could have written that book. This is not that book.

Published by omniravenousreviews

I read, I review, I write.

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