Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). 252 pp. $24.95 (hardcover), ISBN: 9780190469412.

Published date01 March 2018
Date01 March 2018
318 Public Administration Review • March | April 2018
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 78, Iss. 2, pp. 318–320. © 2018 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12927.
Tom Nichols , The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established
Knowledge and Why It Matters ( New York : Oxford University Press ,
2017 ). 252 pp. $24.95 (hardcover), ISBN: 9780190469412 .
T he notion of the “death of expertise” can
be understood as fitting within the larger
concept of “postmodern society” in which
foundational truth no longer exists, not even the
modern touchstone of scientific knowledge (Berger,
Berger, and Kellner 1973 ; Jun and Rivera 1997 ).
Tom Nichols does not take that broad, intellectual,
historical perspective in The Death of Expertise since
he believes firmly in the validity of knowledge that has
achieved the imprimatur of science. Unfortunately,
the subtitle of the book, The Campaign Against
Established Knowledge and Why It Matters , suggests
that there is an organized effort to discredit expert
knowledge, while the text simply offers breezy
discussions of examples of expertise being denied
by politicians, pundits, and ordinary citizens. No
evidence is offered for the campaign against expert
knowledge indicated in the subtitle.
Nichols adopts an anecdotal approach with many
current and recent examples of the rejection of
established knowledge. For that reason, The Death of
Expertise is interesting reading and may be persuasive
for a popular audience. However, lacking the
trappings of solid scholarship, it should not be taken
as a serious piece of social science research.
Nevertheless, this volume is provocative and
suggestive of troubling developments in our society.
Just how extensive and deep these changes are remains
to be determined, but the anecdotes the author
treats do have a cumulative weight. Most of them are
readily recognizable by a reasonably well-informed
reader and, taken together, raise concerns about the
apparent trend toward the un-anchoring of claims and
assertions from any demonstrable expertise.
It is ironic, then, that Nichols, while dealing in
anecdotes, begins in the first chapter with a discussion
of how anecdotal knowledge leads citizens to reject
systematic expert knowledge about everything
from raw milk, to vaccines and climate change
under a misguided assumption that “strongly held
opinions are indistinguishable from facts” (28).
How that stubborn, wrongheaded conflation of
immediate experiences in isolated instances, with
reliable knowledge, is to be replaced by adherence
to information produced by experts is never really
addressed. The Death of Expertise is a critical
exposition of the problem without a prescription for
addressing the problem. This approach may leave
the reader unsatisfied, but some problems are not
susceptible to immediate resolution. Exposing the
problem may be all one can do at any given time.
Chapter 2, “How Conversation Became Exhausting,”
focuses on “confirmation bias,” a phenomenon known
well by social scientists. People tend to look for
information that confirms what they already believe
and filter out anything to the contrary. The problem
is not that some of us are just stupid, but rather it
is that the “dumber you are, the more confident
you are that you are not actually dumb”(44). The
skill of “metacognition,” which is the ability to step
back from one’s actions and consider whether what
one is doing is right or wrong, is missing (45). The
Dunning-Krueger Effect does not suggest that there is
a lack of general intelligence, but rather insufficient
education. It is a failure to understand the scientific
method and how it differs from incidental random
experience. Establishing knowledge through the
testing of hypotheses rooted in theories, the nature of
evidence, statistical significance, and the problems of
establishing causality are all replaced with the kind of
common sense that may serve one well in everyday
life, but not with respect to complex problems.
Conspiracy theories and superstitions are offered
by Nichols as classic examples of confirmation bias,
resulting from simplistic ways of understanding
complex events by those lacking an appreciation
of expert knowledge. These are ways people try to
simplify and understand frightening events that are
beyond easy comprehension, such as globalization.
Conspiratorial ideas about the birth of the first
African American president of the United States,
Reviewed by: Terry L. Cooper
University of Southern California
Terry L. Cooper is Maria B. Crutcher
Professor in Citizenship and Democratic
Values in the Sol Price School of Public
Policy at the University of Southern
California, where he researches citizen
participation and ethics in government.
He is author of The Responsible
Administrator: An Approach to Ethics
for the Administrative Role (6th ed.,
Jossey-Boss, 2012) and An Ethic of
Citizenship for Public Administration
(Prentice Hall, 1991). He is coeditor of
Achieving Ethical Competence for
Public Service Leadership
(M.E. Sharpe, 2013), Exemplary
Public Administrators: Character
and Leadership in Government
(Jossey-Bass, 1992) and the editor of
Handbook of Administrative Ethics
(2nd ed., Marcel Dekker, 2001). He is a
member of the National Academy of Public
Administration (NAPA) and, currently, one
of the co-principal investigators in the USC
Neighborhood Participation Project.
Book Reviews
Galia Cohen, Editor

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT