The Growth of Skepticism

Dear Dr. Nichols:

I recently read your post, “The Death of Expertise.” I have a few thoughts in reply.

I found you originally through poking about the Harvard Extension web site. My father was an alumnus of Harvard Extension, in 1967 or so. The possibility of taking a course from Harvard Extension as a distance student is an amusing one to me, as a tribute to him.

Anyway, I stumbled upon your course that’s offered as a sample, “Popular Culture and US Foreign Policy During the Cold War.” After your many claims of how tough the writing for the course would be, I decided to take a look at your own journal writing, to see how well you do yourself.

Keep that idea in mind — it’s important.

My constitutional law professor in college used to say that the most difficult cases aren’t between “right” and “wrong” — those are easy — but rather between two “right”s. I suspect that much of the pushback you observe in both this post and your earlier, “Snowden, Manning, and Screwtape,” comes down to conflict between these two premises:

* Information on the internet comes from a variety of sources, with a variety of credibility. As such, the best approach is to read skeptically, check the sources cited, etc.
* On the other hand, Tom Nichols has worked long and hard to be an expert, and doesn’t appreciate being read as just one source among many on the internet.

You may recall that Mr. Reagan said, “Trust, but verify.” My own suspicion is that when your readers ask you, “to re-litigate every thought we’ve ever had or every word we’ve ever written,” they’re doing that because there’s no other way for them as readers to judge whether you’re authentically an expert, or someone pretending to be. (Or even someone pretending to write as Dr. Nichols, and borrow the cachet of your expertise.) You may say that your web site and Twitter account would be a long way for someone to go to impersonate you, and your expertise, but as Dr. Kieran Healy recently tweeted, “Hoaxes are plausible by definition.”

In fact, I’m old enough to recall one of the major critiques of college students in the 1980’s and 1990’s was that we simply didn’t ask enough questions, and frequently seemed in class to just be accepting the conventional wisdom delivered by professors uncritically. On the one hand, this implies those critiques have been taken onboard, and students today are more skeptical. On the other, I can’t help noticing from the Harvard video that you and I are rough contemporaries. Perhaps this means you took such behavior then to be “the way things are done,” and now that you’re in a position of expertise yourself, you find it irksome that now students have found the critical faculties they lacked in previous times, now that it’s directed towards you.

But the blunt truth remains that, to a random reader, you are just another guy on the internet. I don’t think expertise qua expertise has died… rather, a typical reader today asks that expertise be demonstrated, and regards tactics attempting to evade such a demonstration as evidence of not having expertise in the first place.

And this is not new to the internet as such. For example, when you say:

“There I was 30 years ago, foolishly sitting in Leningrad during the Cold War, learning Russian, following the Soviet press, traveling to conferences, and writing books and articles, when all I had to do to understand Russia was talk to some guys on the internet.”

…I can easily see Socrates saying,

“There I was 30 years ago, foolishly sitting in Athens, learning rhetoric, following the discussions of other philosophers, and asking questions at symposia, when all I had to do to understand philosophy was read some written books.”


“There I was 30 years ago, foolishly sitting in the monastery in Cluny, learning calligraphy and Latin, following the discussions that my fellow monks wrote to each other, and asking questions at my university, when all I had to do to understand theology was read Luther’s printed version of the Bible in the vernacular.”

…and surely you can write your own variants on Eton/Oxford vs. a comprehensive school, Harvard as a legacy vs. some guy with a BA on the GI Bill, etc.

Dr. David Brin has an interesting piece he published about 20 years ago called, “The Dogma of Otherness.”

“Anthropologists tell us that every culture has its core of central, commonly shared assumptions–some call them zeitgeists, others call them dogmas. These are beliefs that each individual in the tribe or community will maintain vigorously, almost like a reflex.

“It’s a universal of every society. For instance, in the equatorial regions of the globe there’s a dogma that could be called machismo, in which revenge is a paramount virtue that runs deeper even than religion. From Asian family centrism to Russian pessimism, there are worldviews that affect nations’ behavior more basically than superficial things like communism, or capitalism, or Islam. It all has to do with the way children are raised.

“We, too, have our zeitgeist. But I am coming to see that contemporary America is very, very strange in one respect. It just may be the first society in which it is a major reflexive dogma that there must be no dogmas!

Then again, I too am just some writer on the internet. So what do I know?