Review – The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols & The Ideas Industry by Daniel Drezner

Nichols_ExpertiseThe Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters by Tom Nichols, Kindle, 272 pages. Published February 1, 2017 by Oxford University Press. ISBN: 0190469412, ASIN: B01MYCDVHH.



Drezner_IdeasThe Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas by Daniel Drezner, Kindle, 360 pages. Published March 1, 2017 by Oxford University Press. ASIN: B06X9CL2NL.



Sometimes intellectuals get lucky. A long-simmering idea turns into a project and comes to fruition just as external events come together to elevate the project’s relevance beyond its authors wildest dreams. Anyone who was finishing up an obscure article or book on terrorism or the Middle East in the summer of 2001 knows what I mean. Nichols and Drezner, both #NeverTrump Republicans, were nearing completion of these books when Trump surprised the world by winning the U.S. presidency. Nichols was a pessimist through much of the election and saw Trump’s victory as a possibility, while Drezner believed, along with nearly every other political scientist in America, that Hillary Clinton’s advantages and Trump’s alarming missteps would keep him from the White House. So while Trump and his acolytes are a presence in each of these books, neither was written specifically as a screed against Trumpism. Rather, Nichols and Drezner both identified political and intellectual dynamics that alarmed them and chose to address them. Of the two, The Ideas Industry is the better, deeper, and more serious book, while The Death of Expertise is more fun thanks to its author’s high degree of snark.

July 4th is a particularly appropriate day to reflect on Nichols’s work since it bears directly on the fundamental American question: what is a good citizen? In a nation based on divine favor, a good citizen is devout, but the state does not depend on his devotion. In an ethnic nation, the good citizen is pure of blood and culture, but if he is not, then he provides a useful target for the government and the masses. In a republic as conceived by the American founders, however, the legitimacy and effectiveness of the state rest on the extent to which citizens are both able and willing to make wise, informed decisions about their own governance.

Tom Nichols examines the evolution of discourse into a shouting match between partisans who all think their opinions are equally valid regardless of qualifications, experience, or intelligence. He provides a trenchant critique of the area he knows best–academia–and concludes that we are doing our children no favors by treating a university education as a commoditized service. Finally he covers the damage done by vast but unmediated sources of online information and the corrosion of journalistic norms.

Nichols comes as close as any serious author could to saying that many Americans are just too stupid, uninformed, or willfully ignorant to be good citizens. Perhaps it’s his blue collar background that makes him comfortable saying in print what would make an east coast upper class liberal squirm in self consciousness, but Nichols is not shy about his disdain for those who choose to remain ignorant but believe themselves entitled to respect on any number of complex issues. As he has frequently pointed out on Twitter, he doesn’t care if people cannot find Ukraine on a map; he just does not think they should voice an opinion on whether to go to war there. Or more accurately, he does not believe that those with actual decision-making power should pay any heed to the uninformed opinions shouted by the ignorati. Unfortunately, in a democratic republic, it is impossible to ignore the ignorant, prejudiced, or just plain stupid rantings of the masses, particularly when power actors are willing to weaponize that ignorance for political and commercial gain.

Nichols acknowledges but never really addresses the great dilemma: the how of correcting the current disaster. Winding himself up in a breathless conclusion, he writes, “the most daunting barrier, however, is the public’s own laziness. None of these efforts to track and grade experts will matter very much if ordinary citizens do not care enough to develop even a basic interest in such matters.” If a decisive number of American citizens are stupid or ignorant and unwilling to change, how do those who are not stupid or ignorant change them? It is unlikely that those who have consumed the fire water of populist demagoguery will choose to disbelieve that they are absolutely correct, that their opponents are evil and stupid, and that they need to replace the populist fire water with the kale smoothy of reasoned discourse, respect for experts, and ambiguity. The innate strength of experts is that they will be right more often than they are wrong. The innate weakness is that honest experts will always have to admit what they don’t know, own their mistakes, and resist the temptation to make rosy predictions. They will always be vulnerable then to charlatans and opportunists who are willing to make certain and rosy predictions. After British voters elected to leave the European Union, Leave advocates were forced to acknowledge that they had simply invented some of the economic figures they had employed. Those who led the movement suddenly dropped out after the vote, unwilling to lead a government that would have to deal with the disaster they had wrought. A clearer case of cynicism would be hard to find, but will it cause the British voting public to turn back to the experts and reverse course? Not likely. As Nichols himself points out almost daily on Twitter, people don’t like to admit they’ve been had.

The fundamental problem he identifies is the resentment of the uneducated against those who know more than they do. Being wrong does not foster contrition and humility–it causes greater resentment and doubling down. The man who has been conned has a strong incentive to deny the con because his self-respect is more valuable than whatever he lost. Con men rely on shame and embarrassment. The true experts will be hard pressed to fight back without sinking to the level of the charlatans. Nichols laments the reality, but he does not pretend that some 3-point program will fix it. He candidly admits that, “we can only hope that before this [collapse of the American system] happens, citizens, experts, and policymakers will engage in a hard (and so far unwelcome) debate about the role of experts and educated elites in American democracy.” It may be vain to hope that the same American public that cannot resist junk food and soda will choose the hard road of intellectual engagement and self-education when there are networks and websites and politicians ready to spoon feed them garbage for free.

Here we segue neatly to Daniel Drezner’s book, The Ideas Industry. Drezner, a full professor of political science at Tufts, a prolific blogger, and a frequent presence on cable new shows, examines the ways that journalism, the academy, and think tanks have evolved over the past century to the current cacophony of mutually exclusive partisanship, internet trolling, high-level plagiarism, and intellectual superstardom that feeds the disconnect Nichols finds so disheartening. Where Nichols’s book is largely an informed by impassioned polemic, Drezner’s is a more academic examination of the way the modern public receives its information and the incentives that drive the Ideas Industry.

Drezner devotes an early chapter to the difference between “thought leaders” and “public intellectuals.” Viewing himself (proudly) as the latter, he gives the thought leaders their due and acknowledges the value in driving ideas. The power of the thought leader is simplicity–in Isaiah Berlin’s dichotomy he is the hedgehog who know one thing. Consequently, the thought leader is attractive both to policy makers and to uninformed or semi-informed citizens. Thought leaders push clear policy options with definite outcomes and none of the on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand waffling of public intellectuals. The problem, of course, is that thought leaders are quite often wrong. At best they gloss over the complexity and ambiguity that bedevil human affairs. At worst they push nonsense (see anti-vaccination or any health advice peddled by Gwyneth Paltrow) to the uneducated and credulous masses lamented by Nichols. Public intellectuals will point to uncertainty and contingency. They will explain that presidential actions are only one tiny force on the economy. They will point out that military conflicts are inherently unpredictable and influenced by myriad external forces. They are Berlin’s fox, knowledgeable of many things and therefore unwilling to provide the certainty that people outside the academy crave.

One of Drezner’s more interesting examinations relates to the disparate fortunes of economics and political science both as academic disciplines and as policy influencers. As he puts it, “policymakers view economists as experts, but political scientists as charlatans.” While political science has been attacked for studying every more esoteric subjects with ever more elaborate mathematical models, economics has thrived as it has been taken over by quants and elaborate math. Economics has made itself less accessible to the general public and elevated itself, in the public consciousness, to a science, while political science has been more accessible (or perhaps less inaccessible) and become in the public mind an effete, irrelevant argument about unimportant minutiae. Why? Drezner argues that economists present as thought leaders while political scientists present as public intellectuals. Because economists share a consensus on many of the basic tenets of their field–even as they debate viciously on issues of tactics and implementation–they can present a positive front without fear of contradiction. Drezner cited Pareto optimization as a fundamental principle on which all economists can agree. In contrast, political scientists do not agree at all on the value of basing foreign policy on improving human rights. To laymen, a debate between political scientists seems like a battle between a Christian and an atheist, while economists can confidently present recommendations without fear that their fundamental values will be questioned by their peers. As Drezner points out, economists therefore gain the ear of the public and policymakers despite a dismal predictive track record.

Drezner’s most important observations, however, relate to the incentives and constraints on both think tanks and celebrity intellectuals. Looking closely at Fareed Zakaria, Niall Ferguson, Tom Friedman, and others, Drezner demonstrates how the rewards for what he calls “superstars” have ballooned and distorted the market for intellectual commentary. Where intellectuals could once hope for a teaching or journalism position that would keep them in the middle class, the most elite now draw five figure speaking fees and seven figure book deals. Perhaps even more enticing–they can reach the ears of presidents, cabinet secretaries, and legislators and see their ideas enacted as policy. Drezner is admirably open-minded toward people like Friedman, who often draw the ire of academics. He evinces enormous respect for Zakaria while demonstrating how the incentives of superstardom led him into serial plagiarism. The modern ideas industry has created a wide field for intellectuals who can market themselves through television and social media, but it has also created traps that steer those superstars toward ideas congenial to the plutocrats who fund conferences and the politicians who can implement their ideas.

Like the individual intellectuals, think tanks have undergone a transformation as their numbers have boomed and their influence has grown. In a more crowded intellectual marketplace, think tanks have found it necessary, or at least expedient, to market themselves more aggressively. The shift in fortunes from industrial barons to information age entrepreneurs has tilted the field toward think tanks that can generate immediate policy impact rather than those that seek to influence ideas over time. The shift is most obvious at Heritage, and Drezner delivers a brutal history of their fall from a dogmatic but intellectually respected institution to shameless flacks for a particular brand of politics and policy–more devastating because he published before the ouster of Jim DeMint. In the Heritage story, though, there is a ray of hope. Over the course of DeMint’s tenure Heritage shifted from conservative but rigorous scholarship to slanted propaganda. Drezner highlights instances in which Heritage leadership quashed reports with inconvenient conclusions or researchers achieved the desired results through the use of preposterous assumptions and distortions. Intellectual quality gave way to partisan advocacy. Drezner quotes a Heritage staffer on the leaders of Heritage Action, “they felt absolutely no intellectual modesty. They felt totally on par with people who had spent thirty years in the field and had Ph.D.s.”

Then a funny thing happened. Republican politicians got frustrated with Heritage’s blatant attempts to strong-arm them and began cutting off their access. Congressional aides reported that they relied less on Heritage products. Respected academics described their products as, “useless.” By 2016 Drezner’s own survey found that 74% of self-identified conservative opinion leaders expressed little confidence in Heritage reports. Drezner’s examples of mixed effects on influence are distressing by contain a kernel of hope. Heritage still executes effective advocacy campaigns and strong-arms top-line politicians to show up at their events, but decreasing respect from the congressional and executive staffers who actually write policy may mean decreasing influence on that policy. Heritage’s fall from grace has taken a long time and it might still not be apparent to a casual observer, but it indicates that quality matters. There will always be a market for partisan quackery, but it need not dominate the entire ideas industry. Extending beyond think tanks, universities can cater to the whims of undergraduates and their helicopter parents, but at some point employers will devalue education if the educated are no longer useful employees. If we believe in our own principles, that critical reasoning and deep knowledge provide real value, then institutions that provide them will find a way to thrive, even if they seem temporarily overshadowed by those who provide intellectual candy wrapped in perks. Recent reporting indicates that red state Republicans have begun turning away from tax cuts even as Arthur Laffer continues to push his snake oil in Kansas. The heavily Republican Kansas legislature recently rolled back tax cuts in a victory for reality over ideology.

Nichols and Drezner paint a dire picture of an America that could easily consume itself through intellectual sloth. As Nichols points out, citizens have a right to be wrong, and technocracy will not save us from an ill-informed, selfish, and lazy electorate. The ultimate consumers of the ideas industry are those same ill-informed and lazy voters, and the industry has plenty of incentives to produce the intellectual equivalent of cigarettes and soda. That said, the ideas industry is not governed purely by profit motives. Fareed Zakaria may have fallen prey to the incentives to overextend himself and take shortcuts; Tom Friedman may worry that publishers have no desire to constrain his work, but neither Zakaria nor Friedman is in it purely for the money. Both of them care deeply about their ideas and their policy influence. Paul Krugman regularly publishes a column detailing all of the mistakes he has made in the previous year. Most university presidents would not be happy with a reputation for a large endowment, a winning football team, and worthless academics. Certainly few professors wish for such a reputation regardless of their salaries. Drezner is far more accepting of the current state of affairs–arguing that some of it is an improvement and some of it is not, but it is irreversible. Nichols is less sanguine but also offers few practical ideas for improvement.

The unfortunate truth is that major cultural trends do not change easily. We will not soon convince Trump voters to embrace climate science or academic ideas on international relations. We can, however, alter the focus of the academy. Schools can move away from both political purity and undergraduate coddling to focus on academic rigor. They can resist attacks on free speech and teach their students to defend themselves rather than seek intellectual shelter. Conservatives like Nichols and Drezner can actively call out and provide alternatives to the culturally loaded language of the political right, and liberal politicians can shift their emphasis away from identity politics to concrete problem-solving. Shouting matches in which we call each other “fascists” and “libtards” will further warp the incentives for polarization, segregation, and red meat propaganda disguised as policy discussion. If expertise is to regain the respect of the public, and the ideas industry is to focus on educating and informing that public rather than herding them, then leadership will have to come from the intellectuals and politicians who currently reside in the public opinion basement. It will not be easy or fast, and it will require people of good will to prioritize core values of democracy over transient policy differences, but it is the only hope.

*This review refers to the Kindle edition of each book. Each of these books is loanable on Kindle.



One thought on “Review – The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols & The Ideas Industry by Daniel Drezner

  1. Excellent writing. I’ve been thinking of picking up Drezner’s book (I’ve read a lot of his previous works). Keep up the good work. I liked your “starting over” post, and it inspired me to start blogging again. I’ll be back to read what you have posted. Good luck to you!


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