How ‘Do Your Own Research’ Might Have Doomed Democracy

Photograph courtesy of Hope V. Nichols; Collage: Gabe Conte

Seven years ago, when author Tom Nichols was still a professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College in Rhode Island, a student approached him on the first day of class and told him his course syllabus was poorly designed. Nichols, who has a PhD in political science and government, replied that perhaps the student should wait until after the course was over to critique it. Nichols kept the syllabus intact, but the young scholar’s unearned self-confidence stuck with him—and in his telling, this wasn’t an isolated incident. Another exchange on social media, in which a young person said, “Tom, let me explain Russia to you,” was the last straw for Nichols, who went on to write a book about a dangerous and growing disregard for expertise in American life.

You may have noticed this blinkered perspective in the Facebook posts of a conspiratorial relative who “does his own research” on vaccines, or heard it emanating from a Trump administration official talking about “alternative facts.” (The Simpsons was prescient, as it has so often been, when it had Homer assert the following in 1997: “Facts are meaningless. You could use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true!”) Nichols, now a staff writer at The Atlantic, titled his book on this malaise The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. Now more than ever, he views the collapse of trust between citizens and experts as driving a “death spiral” of American democracy and, as he writes in the book, representing “an immediate danger of decay either into rule by the mob or toward elitist technocracy.” Both outcomes, he warns, are authoritarian in nature.

Nichols (who, for what it’s worth, is also a five-time undefeated Jeopardy! champion) recently spoke with GQ about the newly expanded second edition of The Death of Expertise and why the nation’s widespread contempt for experts has only gotten worse since the book was first published in 2017.

GQ: The book, to me, is you sounding an alarm about the root cause of a rot that has taken hold of American democracy. At its core is this widespread public dismissal and distrust of expertise, which is preventing voters from making informed decisions based on agreed-upon facts. Do I have that right?

Tom Nichols: It’s even worse than that. It’s not just hobbling the ability of citizens to make informed decisions, it’s breaking down the bonds of trust that democracies rest on. None of us are willing to listen to anybody else about anything. And that’s not just an attack on knowledge, that’s basically an attack on the division of labor, in a way.

As you write in the book, society functions by different specialists and professionals doing different tasks. And in order for the whole thing to work together, there has to be a mutual trust—when you get on a plane, you trust that the pilot is trained and knows what he’s doing. You’re not questioning whether he’s some sort of false-flag actor.

And the pilot trusts that the people who designed the switches on the knobs are engineers who know what they’re doing, and that the people who control the air traffic system know what they’re doing. There are all different forms of expertise, and they require a lot of trust. When you think about the amount of trust we put in each other every day—and not just for superspecialized things—I mean, you trust when you put your kids on a bus that the bus driver has a bus license, and that they actually know how to drive a bus, and do it better than someone who doesn’t know how to drive a bus.

You identify a number of reasons for how we got to this place: the coddling of college students at universities that are driven by profits to treat them like clients; the surfeit of information on the internet; the fractured media landscape; the widespread, arrogant narcissism of Americans that’s been exacerbated by social media; and even the mistakes made by experts themselves. Am I missing anything?

Yeah, but narcissism is the thread that binds them all together. The first time I ever wrote anything called “The Death of Expertise” was over 10 years ago. And back then I was still a professor. And I was mostly sort of bristling at people who would take my field of expertise and try to lecture it back to me. Normally, I get paid to talk, and you pay to listen. But as I wrote it, and as the years went on, I came to realize that there was a much more serious social malady underneath all of this. And it was narcissism.

Because in a republic, where you elect people to represent you to make independent decisions on their own, on a range of issues on which no one can be the single expert, we have to be able to have some kind of trust among ourselves. And we simply don’t. And it’s not because the powerful have abused their station, and so many things have gone wrong, and there have been so many disasters—yeah, those things happen, and they happen in every government throughout history. What’s different now is instead of demanding accountability, or electing better people or asking intelligent questions, the average citizen says, “I could do that job better. I know how to run foreign policy. Ask me about how to end the war in Ukraine.” And it’s just this incredibly narcissistic viewpoint that is abetted by all the things in the book that you just mentioned, about education, about the news media, about the internet.

How do we go about correcting the course we’re on, if the people who really need to understand the value of expertise are unwilling to listen at all?

That is, I think, one of the failings of the book, and one that I’m not sure I really remedy in the new edition, which is when it got to the end, I sort of said, “Well, this is all terrible, isn’t it?” [Laughs.] I probably should have said something more about what to do about it. In the ensuing years—and this is in the new version—I don’t think it’s that helpful to call on the average citizen to be more epistemically humble. They don’t want to hear that. But I have told experts that they need to get out there and engage and to be forceful, and to plant some flags.

A lot of what’s going on, when I mentioned narcissism, I think another thing that’s happening is the epidemic of loneliness, where people do this because it’s basically attention-seeking. Like, I’m gonna go on the internet and say, the earth is flat, and maybe I don’t believe it myself, but at least people will talk to me for hours on end, and give me engagement.

And through that, some of them have also found a sort of tribe, the biggest one being the Republican Party.

Not just in the political realm, but everywhere. The internet allows people to create these “add water and stir” communities ex nihilo, just by going online and saying, “Who out there agrees with me?” Experts need to stand up and say loudly, “I don’t care what you believe, you’re wrong. I’m not your therapist!” You know? Experts have to stop being therapists and enablers and simply say, There are some things that are true and some things that are false. There are things that only experts can do and other things that experts shouldn’t do. But this kind of postmodern equivocation where, you know, we all have something of value to contribute has overtaken even the experts. And one of the messages of the book is that not everyone has something of equal value to contribute on everything.

Was there a point as you were working on this book where you started to think the 2006 movie Idiocracy was prescient?

Idiocracy is perhaps one of the most brilliant satires that never got the love it deserved. Yeah, I thought of that all the time. Especially with the interlocking of the news and consumerism and entertainment. But you know, the guy that really saw this coming was Neil Postman, when he wrote [the 1985 media polemic] Amusing Ourselves to Death. Because part of the way that you become that self-centered, and that narcissistic, is that you have a very high standard of living with a lot of leisure time and a huge amount of entertainment at your fingertips. Because then you think everything’s easy.

Donald Trump seems to be the embodiment of so many of the dysfunctions you explore in the book, and now he’s a coin flip away from being president again. I agree with what you write in the book about how it is nearly impossible to persuade someone who has refused to listen to any contradictory information. But is there anything you would say to a voter who is still undecided?

I guess the first question I would ask is, What are you undecided about? What is it that you don’t know? What is the one more piece of information you think that you don’t have that would clear all this up? Because in 2024, I’m reluctant to believe in the undecided voter. Both of these men have been president for four years. Right? This is, again, that “I must do my own research” nonsense that paralyzes so many of us. “Well, I know, they’ve both been president for four years. And Donald Trump’s been around and on TV for decades, and Joe Biden’s been a senator since forever. But I still need one more piece of information.” It’s ridiculous! If you’re an undecided voter who thinks that you don’t know enough about either of these men by 2024, that’s a problem in itself.

What would you say to people who are fearful of what Trump would do with a second term and want to stop that from happening? Do you have any advice as an expert about how they can direct their energy?

Well, I think one of the things that has broken down is the way people talk to each other about politics and elections. We don’t sit around in the bar anymore, or if we’re in a bar, we’re probably in a bar with a lot of people who agree with us, because we’ve so siloed ourselves. And we don’t want to have that argument. And so we retreat to our castles, and we don’t engage with anyone. What I’ve told people is there are things that are true, and there are things that are false. There are things that are good, and there are things that are evil. And I’m not going to just nod my head and say, “Yes, Uncle Ned. The vote was stolen by Venezuelan voting machines guided by Italian computers that work with Jewish space lasers.” You have to put your foot down and be an example to the people around you. You can’t just stroke your chin and say, “Well, you know, that’s one point of view.”

Creating that permission structure to talk about these things, and to reject these things, is really important, because I think a lot of people, particularly in the Trump cult, have just become cats that are so far up a tree, they don’t know how to get down. And I don’t know that those folks are ever going to come down, but other folks around them, to say to them, “Look, is this what you want?”

Last question is about Twitter, where you engage quite a lot with your followers. Do you have any qualms about staying on the platform?

Sure. But on the other hand, I think it’s important to be there for a lot of people who are looking for points of view, because I think not being there doesn’t solve the problem. Now, obviously, I would never pay much for anything, and I have to put up with all the ads, and I no longer have a blue check and all that stuff. So it’s sort of more annoying to be there. But I think people are going to go there anyway, no matter what Musk does. And I think it’s better if there are sensible people there, who can be a resource for others, rather than just clearing it out and saying, “Well, the only thing you’re going to see on this website are Nazi porn and Bitcoin scams.”

Social media has really shortened the distance between experts and citizens with questions. That’s both good and bad. Because it makes people feel as though—and I say this in the book—well, I have an internet account, you have an internet account, so we’re peers. We’re not peers. On the other hand, I think it’s really good to be able to reach out and say, “Hey, I really need to understand this complicated issue.” And suddenly, someone pipes up and says, “Well, I wrote the book on it. Ask away.” If people would approach social media less as a game show and more as a resource, I think it could be great. But again, that underlying narcissism of “Well, you’re the head of the astrophysics lab. And I’m a working guy, and our opinions are equal.” No, they’re not.

Originally Appeared on GQ