Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Three new books to read about expertise vs. democracy

  1. Apr 15, 2017 #1
    Mostly PhysicsForums is about . . . well, physics and its sub-specialities, plus math and so forth. However we have a fair number of threads concerning the role of scientists, science, and critical thinking in a democracy where expertise is unevenly spread, unevenly valued, and often questioned. In my own life, as a non-scientist but life-long believer in the power of science & critical thought, I often find myself urging rationality, restraint, and precision on my friends & acquaintances when it comes to discussing important issues; and I often wonder how I can do better at this difficult task.

    Along these lines there are 3 new books out this year that address various aspects of the above. I hope to read all three, and I invite others on this forum to read them as well. Maybe in a few months we can compare notes? Anyway here are the three books:

    First book: Weaponized Lies: How to think critically in the Post-Truth Era, by Daniel J. Levitin. Levitin is a cognitive psychologist and author; I've read bits of one of his previous books, The Organized Mind, about managing information effectively in business & life. Here's a link to his web site which presumably has a bio on it somewhere.

    This latest book is a sort of "how to sniff out BS" guide, aimed at intelligent laypersons. It's organized into three parts: 1) a look at the proper use & abuse of statistics (probably many forum members can skip this part); 2) a guide to evaluating the credibility of information and sources in fields outside your own; and 3) a tour of critical thinking strategies, including spotting logical fallacies, understanding the scientific method, and a look at the Bayesian approach in science and the courts. In his forward, Levitin notes that this is a repackaged & slightly updated version of a book he published last year, A Field Guide to Lies.

    Levitin is especially concerned about two phenomena: 1) the rise of "fake news"; and 2) continued sloppy reporting in news stories about all sorts of things, not just science. So I am guessing the real value of Weaponized Lies will be to those of us who wish to vet sources & claims that we come across. Here's an excerpt from the Introduction:

    The most important component of the best critical thinking that is lacking in our society today is humility. It is a simple but profound notion: If we realize we don't know everything, we can learn. If we think we know everything, learning is impossible. Somehow, our educational system and our reliance on the Internet has led us to a generation of kids who do not know what they don't know. If we can accept that truth, we can educate the American mind, restore civility, and disarm the plethora of weaponized lies threatening our world. It is the only way democracy can prosper.​

    Second book: The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, by Tom Nichols. This guy is new to me as an author; the dust jacket says he's "Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, an adjunct professor at the Harvard Extension School, and a former aide in the U.S. Senate." He has a bunch of previous book titles, which look to be focused on national security; here's his bio page at the U.S. Naval War College. I just began reading this book. In his introduction he seems to suggest he's going to focus mostly on the depth and breadth of the problems he identifies; however I am really hoping that somewhere along the line he will also have some recommendations. I like his writing style & he seems solid. Rather than me trying to summarize content I haven't yet read, I'm going to just copy and paste the bullet points at the top of his publisher's page (Oxford U. Press) - they hit pretty hard:
    • Powerful and scathing indictment of the many forces trying to undermine the authority of experts in the US
    • Makes the case that higher education is making the problem worse rather than better
    • Ties the rise of anti-expertise sentiment and anti-intellectualism not only to the pervasiveness of the internet, but to other technologies such as the explosion of media options
    • Concedes that experts do make mistakes, but argues that the key point is the ability of other well-informed experts to challenge these mistakes and lead to solutions
    • The author is a five-time undefeated Jeopardy! champion, and as one of the all-time top players of the game, he was invited back to play in the 2005 Ultimate Tournament of Champions
    Third book: The Knowledge Illusion: Why we never think alone, by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach. This book is not yet in my hands, but I'll be picking it up at my local library today. Both Sloman and Fernbach are cognitive scientists and academics; Sloman is a professor at Brown and Fernbach is an assistant prof. at the Leeds School of Business, U. of Colorado. This book touches on an obvious point - one brought up early by Nichols in The Death of Expertise and hopefully obvious to us all (but apparently not!) - namely, that humans know a lot more as a group than they can ever hope to know individually. The summary description of the book on the publisher's page makes it sound like they aren't so much arguing that shared knowledge is in question, so much as expounding and explaining its virtues; here is that description:

    Humans have built hugely complex societies and technologies, but most of us don’t even know how a pen or a toilet works. How have we achieved so much despite understanding so little? Cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach argue that we survive and thrive despite our mental shortcomings because we live in a rich community of knowledge. The key to our intelligence lies in the people and things around us. We’re constantly drawing on information and expertise stored outside our heads: in our bodies, our environment, our possessions, and the community with which we interact—and usually we don’t even realize we’re doing it.​

    The human mind is both brilliant and pathetic. We have mastered fire, created democratic institutions, stood on the moon, and sequenced our genome. And yet each of us is error prone, sometimes irrational, and often ignorant. The fundamentally communal nature of intelligence and knowledge explains why we often assume we know more than we really do, why political opinions and false beliefs are so hard to change, and why individually oriented approaches to education and management frequently fail. But our collaborative minds also enable us to do amazing things. This book contends that true genius can be found in the ways we create intelligence using the world around us.​

    That may sound so obvious as to be silly to base an entire book on - but I can't count the number of times that friends of mine have refused to acknowledge that what they don't know about the world far outweighs what they do know, and that it is the interdependent webs of infrastructure and hard-won knowledge that have made human society possible from very early on. To quote Nichols from his Chapter 1:

    The fact of the matter is that we cannot function without admitting the limits of our knowledge and trusting in the expertise of others. We sometimes resist this conclusion because it undermines our sense of independence and autonomy. We want to believe we are capable of making all kinds of decisions, and we chafe at the person who corrects us, or who tells us we're wrong, or instructs us in things we don't understand. This natural human reaction among individuals is dangerous when it becomes a shared characteristic among entire societies.​

    So that's some of my spring and summer reading - along with, of course, basic high school algebra books, whatever fiction I can dig up, the occasional article from Foreign Affairs or some other interesting source, and as little Twitter and Facebook as I can possibly manage! Again, I would highly welcome others to read any of these books. Once I've read them, if I find I like what a particular book has to say in regards to science & democracy, I may post a discussion thread about it.

    P.S. Oops, almost forgot - if you've already ready any of these, please let me know your impressions!
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 15, 2017 #2


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    Thanks for the recommendations UsableThought! That first book has been on my reading list for a while now.

    This point has me in particular curious, as I tend to believe that higher education would solve the types of problems being talked about.
  4. Apr 15, 2017 #3

    Rachel duPre

    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    I think Fernbach is at Colorado University? although he talks of the Business School there which is affiliated with Leeds University in England. He has done some very helpful research in neuroscience field especially regarding how the mind works. I strongly however recommend the work of Manfred Davidson on this which has been updated also to reflect the mathematical simulation of the development of the prefrontal lobe and its impact.

    This book highlights the growing concern over tow things (it highlights a lot more and is a must read but these three issues have been on my personal radar for some years

    1) the concept of false certainty found in some science ie that there must be a right answer and that it has been found thus closing down further lines of enquiry and ruling subsequent findings as anomalous

    2) the belief that the values underpinning scientific endeavour are understood and not something that needs both consensus and then tobe taught

    3) that sources of funding and the quest for funding of research has distorted the fundamental integrity within science. Many conclusions are distorting findings to attain continuation of funding - his links to the first book you mention

    Thank you for bringing these to our attention and I look forward to your own comments once you have read Fernbach - it is a very insightful and thought-provoking book

    As salaam alaykum

  5. Apr 15, 2017 #4

    Rachel duPre

    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Dear Choppy

    I think education is indeed the answer :) but think that values such as open-mindedness, integrity, purity of methodology etc actually need t obe taught from Day One and alongside all scientific endeavour and discovery perhaps? The risk of waiting to higher education is that

    1) values are engrained by then thus
    2) so much must be UNlearnt that this wastes the opportunity of higher education

    Better surely to reach higher education ready to go n the wonderful voyage of challenge and discovery that it presents? To be so open-minded that the wonders of previous discovery and the chance for new discovery both fuel and feed us? That we become a sponge rather than suppressing knowledge because we already have formed conclusions. In this regard Davidson's work on how the mind works is very helpful in particular in regard to how logic can suppress innovation

    I applaud what you say about education, fear that it is too late when higher and sense that if the wider population had a better understanding to such questions as "does science find the right answer, the sole answer or an answer?" then they could discern better fake from real science

    Not disagreeing just adding to your point I think

    As salaam alaykum

  6. Apr 16, 2017 #5
    See the excerpt below, which comes from Nichols's introduction:

    We all suffer from problems, for example, like "confirmation bias," the natural tendency only to accept evidence that confirms what we already believe. We all have personal experiences, prejudices, fears, and even phobias that prevent us from accepting expert advice . . . Just as we are not all equally able to carry a tune or draw a straight line, many people simply cannot recognize the gaps in their own knowledge or understand their own inability to construct a logical argument.

    Education is supposed to help us to recognize problems like "confirmation bias" and to overcome the gaps in our knowledge so that we can be better citizens. Unfortunately, the modern American university, and the way students and their parents treat it as a generic commodity, is now part of the problem. In chapter 3 I'll discuss why the broad availability of a college education - paradoxically - is making many people think they've become smarter when in fact they've gained only an illusory intelligence bolstered by a degree of dubious worth. When students become valued clients instead of learners, they gain a great deal of self-esteem, but precious little knowledge; worse, they do not develop the habits of critical thinking that would allow them to continue to learn and to evaluate the kinds of complex issues on which they will have to deliberate and vote as citizens.​

    I'll know more once I read Chapter 3, but even this early in the book, the above makes a lot of sense to me - especially that phrase "when students become valued clients instead of learners." Back when I was a writer for my living, I used to occasionally write marketing materials for non-profits; and it disturbed me to discover that non-profits today are encouraged to regard themselves as needing a "brand" just as much as for-profit businesses; and to devote a huge amount of resources & effort to marketing said "brand" merely to survive. It's not their fault, but the result, apparently, of a marketplace economy for everything, education included. It seems plausible that an educational marketplace tending toward commoditization, yet still with very high costs, would result in a distortion of fundamental mission.

    It is also the case that when I was teaching essay writing at New York University's night school (from 2007 to 2011 or so), I came across many intelligent students, both older adults and undergrads, who were not good at critical thinking or recognizing the possibility of personal bias in their writing. However that was a pretty small sample!

    One of the most interesting aspects so far of Nichol's writing is how he points out that democracy, while obviously a great thing, has over its long history (e.g. going back to Athens) systematically introduced turbulent, even destructive forces into society & its institutions, including education, government, the economy & workforce, etc. I have read similar observations by others, e.g. the sociologist James S. Coleman in his semi-Marxist book The Asymmetric Society, but on the whole this isn't a message you'll find in the mainstream media.
    Last edited: Apr 16, 2017
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Have something to add?
Draft saved Draft deleted