There are a few overlapping phenomena in what I’m describing, all of them more or less regrettable—the rise of credentialism, the hegemony of higher education, hyper-specialization in academic discourse, and so on. Underlying them is the propensity to apply the concept of expertise where it doesn’t belong, and concomitantly to trust those deemed “experts,” not on a basis of sound arguments or a record of success, but because of an institutional imprimatur.
There’s a case to be made that expertise, especially expert knowledge of particular subjects, has come under attack by the forces of postmodern relativism and general cultural dissolution. Many of us have read with horror the words of apparently literate people—I’m thinking especially of the commenters beneath web articles—who feel no shame in fulminating at length on subjects of which they are utterly ignorant. And then there are the shockingly stupid pronouncements on political subjects by celebrities who show no awareness that those subjects might have more than one dimension. Tom Nichols, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College, expressed the apprehensions arising from this unhappy trend in a sharp 2014 essay for The Federalist website—”The Death of Expertise”—in which he lamented “a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers.”
So popular was the essay that Nichols turned it into a book, recently published by Oxford University Press under the same title. The Death of Expertise is a highly readable and entertaining broadside against a cultural trend toward the rejection, as the author thinks it is, of all forms of expertise. Not coincidentally, Nichols was a fierce critic of Donald Trump from the beginning of his candidacy, and judging from its Amazon sales rankings the book has touched a nerve among people who worry about the new administration’s attitude toward experts and professionals.