The Death of Expertise | Why People Ignore Facts and Dispute Science
Experts devote their entire lives to studying, researching, and contributing to the body of knowledge within their field. Collectively, they know more about their subject matter than anyone in the world. And yet, it seems that the opinion of an expert is increasingly losing value in today’s society.
More than ever before, individuals are doing their own research and coming to their own conclusions about complex scientific and medical issues such as vaccinations, diet, and climate change. We are seeing a growing wave of anti-rationalism as more and more individuals stay firm in their own beliefs, even if their conclusions are in disagreement with those of the experts. It is spreading the epidemic of misinformation, which threatens to weaken the very foundations of our democracy.
In a recent episode of Straight Talk MD, Tom Nichols, author of “The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters”, explains the psychology behind those who continue to believe they are right when the experts tell them that they are wrong.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect
Nichols explains that one reason a non-expert may dispute known science is that this individual feels empowered by a false sense of his or her own ability. This is a cognitive bias known as the “Dunning-Kruger Effect.” Simply put: the worse you are at something, the better you think are at it.
“People who lack certain kinds of talents or certain kinds of knowledge simply cannot see where they lack that knowledge. […] They’re unable to see the lack in their own ability on these things. […] We all do it in various places, but when you probe the voters – when the voters say things like, ‘Well this Russia story, it’s just not important. Russia doesn’t affect anything.’ A more competent person says, ‘Look, I just don’t know that much about Russia,’ because most people don’t. But the incompetent person says, ‘Oh yeah I got that. I understand that. I’m on it.'”
“And that’s where the Dunning-Kruger effect comes in. Because that lack of metacognition, that lack of the ability to know, is what convinces you that actually you have this thing nailed, and it’s brutal in the political realm. It’s bad enough day to day in people’s lives, because again we all do that.”
Ego, Narcissism and Empowerment
However, this is not always caused by the Dunning-Kruger effect. Sometimes knowledgeable people with lots of experience will stubbornly cling to irrational conclusions that contradict mainstream scientific thought. Nichols also explains that Ego, Narcissism and feelings of self-empowerment play a large role in the death of expertise.
“You talk about the anti-vaxxer community, and this is the part that I did not know and it blew me away. It’s in a relatively affluent area outside of San Francisco. Marin County. […] And these people are largely educated. So what I don’t understand here is […] they are educated, and they’re actually rejecting known science and everything else. Why?”
“It’s empowering and makes them feel like they’re in charge. The death of expertise and the campaign on established knowledge is one big primal howl of Americans of every class saying ‘you’re not the boss of me.’
I’ve been asked many times over the course of the past months since the book came out […] ‘Isn’t this just poor people, or dumb people, or uneducated people, or rural people, or is this mostly men, or is it women?’
It’s everybody. But the thing is that we all express it in different ways. These are educated suburbanites who are just educated enough to spend time thinking that they have a grasp of the scientific issues involved and vaccines. […] You know that old expression about a little learning is a dangerous thing? They’re almost worse off than the poor parents who say ‘Look, I don’t understand anything about this stuff. You’re telling me that this shot will keep my kid from getting sick? OK.’
Also poor parents are disempowered in this sense. If they want [their kids] to go to a public school, they have to get the shots. So this is a way of wealthy parents saying ‘We’re totally autonomous. Our children are special. My Poopsie doesn’t need a needle stuck in them.’
It’s all about ego and narcissism and empowerment, and it’s all expressed differently. The rich liberal wealthy parents of Marin County express this differently than the angry, rural, Indiana Trump voter who thinks that unemployment is really 42% because the president told them it is. But it’s the same phenomenon […] which is: ‘I’m fully empowered. I’m smart. I know things. The world is not out of my control. I can take charge in all this by making decisions, whether it’s not to vaccinate my kids or whether it’s to reject facts I hear from the Wall Street Journal’s page on unemployment statistics. I’m seizing control of my world, and saying that I’m in charge and you’re not the boss of me.’”
Debating the Irrational
Does this remind you of someone you know? Tom Nichols gives some advice on how to go about arguing with someone who refuses to accept scientific facts or follow a rational discourse.
“You just have to be very patient, but you’re probably not going to succeed. I talked with my old friend. He said, ‘unemployment is out of control.’ I said ‘it’s four and a half percent in Massachusetts.’ He said, ‘no it isn’t.’ I said, ‘Well OK, let’s assume we’re wrong, and they’re lying, and it’s 8%. That’s still less than when we graduated from high school.’ He said, ‘No it isn’t.’
At some point, you just say ok.”