At the recommendation of a friend I’ve recently read two books, How to Think by Alan Jacobs, and The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols (both published in 2017). I enjoyed both books and profited from them. Jacobs’ is chummy and personable—he encourages his readers to move past gut reactions and engage with people generously and thoughtfully. Nichols is, if not shrill, then moving toward being shrill. He looks for the causes of anti-intellectualism in the world today, citing personal bias (limiting his discussion, unfortunately, to confirmation bias), the internet, problems in education, problems in media, and problems in the behavior of experts. I can’t think of a single claim in either book, and hardly an interpretation in either book, that I can disagree with. In various ways, however, I wish the authors had gone further.

Jacobs’s book is titled How to Think, but it’s actually about how to disagree civilly. Early on in the book, he identifies the social component of why we hold certain views. As a devotee of Michael Polanyi, I hardly disagree with that. But curiously, he never really takes up the matter of objective truth, and how one can bring one’s own beliefs into line with reality. Of course, it is entirely appropriate to emphasize civility and listening in this day and age. But there could have been much more said about listening/reading to understand rather than to rebut, detecting bias in oneself and others, understanding the logic of an argument, evaluating the trustworthiness of sources, and other intellectual virtues.

Nichols is engaging because it draws on examples from a wide range of human experience. As I said, I don’t think any of his facts or his interpretations are wrong or even ill-considered. I am not quite convinced that he has produced a cogent argument, however. The ‘death of expertise’ refers to Americans’ increasing rejection of expert opinion, out of hand. (Nichols refers relatively rarely to Trump, but there can be little question what events prompted the book.) But he also devotes a chapter—the most shrill chapter—to attacking the consumer-oriented approach to university education and the resulting meaningless degrees. He has another chapter about expert malfeasance, both as they conduct their research and as they (mis)represent it to the public. (In this chapter, I wish he had given more than a passing reference to the fact/value distinction, which in my opinion is where experts offend most egregiously.) The chapter on journalism is similarly damning, though only because anything true that one says about journalism is damning. (For his purposes, I suspect it would have been better to identify some cases where journalism contributed positively to civic life.) So, merely by the space given to each issue, I feel that the book reads much more as an invective against the very idea of expertise. I am not a very trusting person, so this could be my bias. But really, the basis for any pro-expert argument needs to be that it is intellectually incoherent to accept the advice of experts in one domain of life (medical treatment), while rejecting it in other domains of life (earth sciences). And to make that argument you need a little more of the positive.

The root of all of these problems is pride: the assumption that my tribe has it right, and that the others are wrong; the quickness to ignore things that I don’t understand, or that I don’t agree with; the desire for the status of being an expert or an educated person, without having done the spade work to acquire the necessary knowledge and intellectual discipline; the desire to be listened to, which so often precedes one’s having anything to say. For those of you who have been following along from the beginning: the desire to become like God by disobeying a command rather than through long obedience.

Against Nichols, I think that rather than insisting that the proles know their place, it would be better to try to foster the growth of a sort of intellectual middle class: encouraging people to educate themselves about issues and think carefully about them, rather than either accepting or rejecting expert opinion uncritically. This is of course happening already as information become more accessible. The process is no more certain—indeed quite a bit less certain—than that made by the professional academy, but even numerically it ought to be clear that there’s far more to be gained by helping the middle segment of our culture to develop correct beliefs, than by simply instilling greater confidence in a select few. Peer-reviewed journal articles remain an important standard, but from where I’m sitting, the best social returns are to be had from Wikipedia and Stack Exchange.

So then, I value these books, but I think they should be read in concert with other books that directly advocate intellectual virtue. For this purpose, I do not know of a book equal to Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book. I especially appreciate his emphasis on how most people can understand most of what is contained even in elevated literature. In this same vein I will plug my friend’s new book Worried?, in which everyday worries are addressed using peer-reviewed literature. (My friend and her co-author actually encourage their readers to read journal articles, unlike Nichols, who fears this will sow more confusion!)

I will also register a more optimistic opinion than Nichols on the ability of ordinary citizens to understand expert opinion. A solid introduction to statistics will put people in a great position to understand a lot of social scientific and medical research. History can be learned. People can learn to evaluate sources. I’m not saying here that an everyday citizen should be called upon to advise us on where to store spent nuclear fuel rods. But a self-educated person can know that there’s a reason to be careful about that, and leave the math to someone else. A great deal of research can be understood in a general way, leaving the details and some of the more obscure caveats to the experts. I know nothing about climate science, for instance, but I can read, and know something about computer modeling and principal components analysis; that puts me in a position to ask an intelligent question related to climate change.

Both Jacobs and Nichols assume that the thoughtful task can be (or will be, or ought to be) carried out in the current media context: the news channels, the Twitter feeds, the blogs, the explainer web sites. I am less eager to accept the status quo. I was raised on internet news, and so certainly cannot throw the first stone, but over the last five years or so I have been making a conscious effort of engage more with books and less with the internet. (The obstacle, of course, is that the internet is mostly fluff, so when I am lazy or tired it presents a temptation.) Accordingly, when I these authors assumed the current media context, rather than challenging it, I bristled. It brought to mind McLuhan’s idea (probably actually Postman’s reflection on the idea) that “the medium is the message.” Neil Postman draws a wise but counterintuitive conclusion:

The best things on television are its junk, and no one and nothing is seriously threatened by it. Besides, we do not measure a culture by its output of undisguised trivialities but by what it claims as significant. Therein is our problem, for television is at its most trivial and, therefore, most dangerous when its aspirations are high, when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations. The irony here is that this is what intellectuals and critics are constantly urging television to do.

The thought is that television is an inherently frivolous medium, and that it is best when it sticks to frivolity instead of pretending seriousness. I think that this remains true of television, and is similarly true of news web sites, blogs, and social media. Aside from its use as a wonderfully efficient document delivery system, the internet is best when I use it as a source of puns, fail videos, and superficial social interaction.

In summary then, both books proved helpful in stirring up my thoughts about the development of intellectual virtue. That is an ever-present need and an ongoing concern of mine. (How does one communicate the importance of that to one’s children? “Boys, it’s always important to be able to explain your beliefs and opinions from first principles.” I seem not to have hit on the right approach so far…)