Why Americans have come to worship their own ignorance

Author Tom Nichols argues that people are angry at journalists for giving them what they want: pared-down stories tailored to them
A placard warning against the dangers of climate change used in the March on Washington stands by an overflowing garbage can January 21st 2017, up to 500,000 marchers had protested earlier in DC and estimates of five million nationwide campaigned for legislation and policies regarding human rights, women’s rights, immigration reform, healthcare reform, the natural environment, LGBTQ rights, racial equality and freedom of religion in response to the newly elected presidency of Donald Trump. (Epics/Getty Images)
A placard warning against the dangers of climate change used in the March on Washington stands by an overflowing garbage can January 21st 2017, up to 500,000 marchers had protested earlier in DC and estimates of five million nationwide campaigned for legislation and policies regarding human rights, women's rights, immigration reform, healthcare reform, the natural environment, LGBTQ rights, racial equality and freedom of religion in response to the newly elected presidency of Donald Trump. (Epics/Getty Images)
A placard warning against the dangers of climate change used in the March on Washington stands by an overflowing garbage can January 21st 2017, up to 500,000 marchers had protested earlier in DC and estimates of five million nationwide campaigned for legislation and policies regarding human rights, women’s rights, immigration reform, healthcare reform, the natural environment, LGBTQ rights, racial equality and freedom of religion in response to the newly elected presidency of Donald Trump. (Epics/Getty Images)

A five-time undefeated Jeopardy! champion and a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, Tom Nichols is the author of several books on international relations, Russian affairs and nuclear weapons—as well as a former adviser on foreign and defence affairs for the late senator John Heinz of Pennsylvania. In short, an expert in his field. He’s also a staunch conservative of the Never Trump persuasion, a man deeply worried about the state of public discourse in his country and the author of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters. He spoke with Senior Writer Brian Bethune about his new book, the unprecedented way in which “sullen and narcissistic” Americans “worship their own ignorance,” and what everyone from students to journalists and experts themselves should do about it.

Q: Before we go on I need to ask you about Jeopardy!. It seems to disturb you that you get more credit for that than for anything else you’ve done.

A: Right. Over the past 25 years, whenever I’m introduced, the audience will nod quietly while my credentials or achievements are rattled off by the host, and then when they get to, “And he was an undefeated Jeopardy! champion,” the room will actually applaud. It’s such an American thing that nothing is real until it’s on television. In my early 30s, when I’d just started teaching and I was, of course, very full of myself as a young professor with an Ivy League teaching job and a brand-new PhD and a new book out, I got taken down a peg in a way that I’ve never recovered from. A student came up to me after I’d been on Jeopardy! and he said, “Professor, I saw you on TV last night.” And I replied, “What did you think?” And his exact words were, “You were great. I never knew you were so smart.” I said, “Really? You didn’t think maybe the teaching job or the book might have been a clue?” And he shook his head, and he said, “No, you know what I mean.”

Q: Well, Jeopardy! must be the last agreed-upon set of facts in America too.

A: Absolutely. Jeopardy! is like America’s national SAT test. It was, at least in its day, the one acknowledged standard of intelligence: no matter who you were arguing with, if you’d been on Jeopardy!, you were smart. Especially if you won.

Q: I read your book for its argument, but also with an eye for its quality as a polemic. It turns out to be remarkably even-handed, which had to be a difficult decision for you. Do you think it’s going to cut through the din, given what you’ve described as the tone of contemporary society?

A: It might not, but approaching it as a polemic would have made it just one more eye-bulging shouting contribution to the ocean of anger that’s already out there.

Q: Exactly.

A: But I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to try something more reasonable because I think a more reasonable tone is exactly what we need. Confirmation bias, the echo chamber, can’t be overcome by anger or polemics. Confirmation bias has to be worn away by a steady plodding refusal to accept the mistaken assumptions of other people, because people react to attacks on their confirmation bias by doubling down. You can’t shatter it; you have to wear it away.

Q: Who is the intended audience?

A: Everybody. It’s aimed squarely at people who are at least willing to pick up a book and give it a chance for a few pages. I think part of why Americans have become so divided about the way we talk about things in the public space is that people enter it convinced that the only goal of debate is to annihilate the other person’s position and never give an inch to the considered thoughts of another human being.

Q: And that was before the Age of Trump, I assume, since there is reference to candidate Trump but not President Trump. In any event the post-election news makes you look like a prophet. What do you make of the presidency so far, the world of alternate facts, accusations without evidence and the doubling down on certitudes?

A: It’s the inevitable destination down the road that we were already travelling. What the president did was figure out as a candidate how to harness this hatred of experts and this resistance to established knowledge, and to turn it to his advantage as a candidate. Now what’s interesting since the election is that the president’s had to bring in experts because every president does. You know, you can’t run a government on assumptions. You actually have to have people who know what they’re doing. It’s pretty early in the game, so it’s hard to tell whether that’s going to work out.

Q: The first travel ban was not expertly drawn up.

A: And it imploded, which was itself a lesson about what happens when you do things on the fly, without expert knowledge behind them. I’m not sure the next travel ban will fare much better, but it’s a much different ban, and it represents a retreat from the original concept.

Q: You spread around the blame for what you call America’s angry narcissism, in your even-handed way, and quite a lot of it falls on universities. Can you elaborate?

A: Sure. The problem with universities is that the competition for students has turned a lot of schools into client-servicing organizations. Students don’t learn the most important thing, which is a certain amount of humility about the level of their own intelligence, because they’re catered to. Because the grades are artificially high, because the faculty and the administration treat them like valued clients; they don’t really go through the difficulty and the discomfort that should be a part of a college education. College isn’t supposed to be comfortable. It’s great and it can be fun, a great time of your life, but it should also be a place where you rethink the things you learned in childhood. It should not be a constant reaffirmation of your personality or your worth.

We’ve also internalized the idea that everybody needs to go to college, which ended up diluting what colleges can offer. it’s now a mass experience, and college is taking the place of high school, including things like remedial English and math. When it comes to established knowledge, people who have gained a higher education no longer really know that much more than the average citizen. They’ve just stayed in school a little longer than a high school graduate, but they are not necessarily any better-informed or smarter. Forty or 50 years ago, the difference in education and level of awareness about important issues was distinctly different between college- and non-college-educated people. That’s one of the reasons why—this is a hypothesis on my part—the distinction that pollsters normally make between college-educated and non-college-educated respondents isn’t as strong an indicator of differences in voting as it used to be.

Q: You advise your students to subscribe to a journal they disagree with as a way of fighting the echo chamber. But you don’t believe they do.

A: The bigger problem is they don’t subscribe to a journal they do agree with. I don’t think they read anything, and I don’t mean my students in particular, I mean people in general. I’ve had people ask, “Well, what can I do to be better informed?” I say, “I start every morning reading The Washington Post.” They say, “Well, that’s biased and liberal, and I’m not going to read it.” I say, “All right, read The Wall Street Journal.” “Well, that’s just … I’m not reading it.” In other words, I’m not going to read anything. What they really want to know is how do I wake up every morning and glance at a screen and then call myself informed?

Q: And also to know what my people, my group, think?

A: Exactly. More than being informed, they want a quick veneer of cultural literacy that also is a touchstone to whatever their preferred group is already thinking.

Q: You discuss how science-averse the populace at large is. On the centre and left, people tend to throw science-denial at the right, because of climate change, but anti-vaxxers mostly tilt left.

A: And the anti-GMO people.

Q: That’s right, both sides have a common anti-elitism. They just define elites differently. On one side, it’s Big Pharma, big business; for Trump supporters it’s guys like you, pointy-headed Ivy Leaguers. They have no problem with a billionaire-stuffed cabinet because the elite to them are cultural voices.

A: Right, exactly. What really defines elite in America now is no longer the raw indicator of money, but rather an educated class versus an uneducated class. That’s interesting to me as I come from a very non-elite background, first in family to go to college, and so on.

Q: You wrote about your brother the tavern-keeper and the customer who told him you didn’t seem like a bad guy, despite being a professor.


What’s changed there in the last generation is that what was a benign disconnect—“He’s a professor, so he probably doesn’t get us”—has curdled into a sour hostility. I think in part that’s driven by the divisiveness of political campaigns, by the Internet fuelling a deep sense of relative deprivation, which I think is something we don’t talk enough about, and a sense that the winners in the 21st century are people who can master information rather than labour.

Q: After higher education, you turn to journalism, which you think is in crisis. You quote Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, about the campaign to sell the Iran accord: “The average journalist we talk to is 27 and has no experience.”

A: And doesn’t really know anything. I say that despite being a defender of journalism. I think criticism of journalism and the media has gone overboard. One of my first jobs in graduate school was working on a local newspaper, and I came to realize that people who try to report on the news have a very difficult job. Despite all of the problems that really do exist, like bias and spin, the collapse of the funding models, the increasing market-driven pressure, the lack of education and experience, my experience over years in politics has been that most journalists try to get it right. People have become overly critical of journalists for the same reason that they’re overly critical of government. They’re critical of journalists for giving them exactly what they want—stories tailored to them, pared down, pre-chewed and dressed up with pretty pictures—and then they say the media isn’t informing us enough.

We may well have been better off with three major networks curating half an hour of national news every night. We may have been better informed than we are now, with a common experience and a common set of facts to argue from. The public likes segmented media because it won’t read anything longer than a few sentences. Try this experiment: try to get the weather for any city. The first thing you have to do is get past five click-bait articles about “You won’t believe the size of the shark that came out of this storm,” when all you want to know is whether or not it’s going to rain tomorrow. Everything has to be a dramatic, immediate, sensory-filling experience, even if you’re just trying to figure out if you need an umbrella.

Q: How are experts themselves contributing to this? They are not blameless victims in your book.

A: Absolutely not. Experts have to own a lot of this. First of all, we make mistakes and have to be more transparent about them. Second, because it’s so difficult to talk to the public, we take the easy way out. We choose to talk only to ourselves. I was speaking with a scientist recently about my book, who said, “I don’t understand what this book is about. I don’t encounter any hostility to experts.” And I said to her, “Because you don’t talk to anybody but experts.” If you’re literally a rocket scientist, and the only other people you talk to are rocket scientists, you don’t have a problem. That insularity among experts is a serious issue because it means we’re failing in our duty to our client—that is, to society—to get out there and to transmit what we know. People ask me why I’m so engaged on social media and why I do so much public speaking. I argue it’s because it’s part of my professional responsibility as a teacher. The other place where I would point fingers at the educated class, particularly scientific elites, is they don’t seem to understand that knowing things is not the same thing as winning a policy argument.

Experts really need a constant reminder that the public has the right to be wrong. All you can ask is that the public understand the facts; if voters then make a different decision, there’s not much you can do. If the people of Boston really understand that climate change means that 50 years from now Boston will slide into the harbour, they’re allowed to make that decision. That’s very different than arguing climate change doesn’t exist. And I think scientists don’t understand or find it offensive when the public turns to them and says, “We heard you, we understand you, we’re making a different policy choice.” I think one of the biggest things for experts to accept is that knowledge and policy are not the same skill set.

Q: I assume your “what hostility?” scientist really is involved in rocketry; try public health and addressing a town hall meeting on fluoride.

A: Part of what I argue as a solution to this is experts need to get out and go to those town halls, take their lumps and forcefully engage the public back. This is something experts are inherently uncomfortable doing because people who work with knowledge and information tend to come out of institutions with collegial norms of discussion and very clear rules of debate. Scrapping with the public over what’s true or false is very uncomfortable for most experts, but they need to do it because, otherwise, that space gets filled by charlatans and demagogues. Experts are going to have to re-engage the public with patience, with fortitude, and with an absolute insistence on empiricism and rationality. And humour—did you see those doctors on Jimmy Kimmel? “Remember that time you had polio? No, you don’t. Because your parents got you f—king vaccinated.”

Q: Maybe a better understanding of statistics, too?

A: Forget stats. That battle gets lost somewhere in high school or college. Now people don’t understand basic math.