The Issues Facing Our Society Today


The Death of Expertise, written by Tom Nicholls, and What Snowflakes Get Right, written by Ulrich Baer, are two hard-hitting pieces of literature that tackle some of the most prevalent issues in society today. Nicholls’ book speaks on how expertise on topics is valued much less than it used to be, and where opinions of everyday people carry the same weight as opinions of experts. Ulrich’s book on the other hand talks discusses the dilemma of free speech in universities, and how both the democrats and republicans should view the situation in a different light in order to come to an understanding. Nichols and Baer are both extremely educated and passionate about the topics of their books, which leads to an insightful and enjoyable reading experience.

Tom Nicholls is a professor of national security at US Naval War College. In The Death of Expertise he explains how technology, higher education, and the news media has led to the erosion of critical thinking, logical analysis, and respect for facts. Nicholls paints a strong picture of his argument in the quote, “In modern America, policy debates sound increasingly like fights between groups ill-informed who all manage to be wrong at the same time… Whether about science or policy, however, they all share the same disturbing characteristic:  a [self-absorbed] and thin-skinned insistence that every opinion be treated as truth”. He believes that people value being “right” over being informed about the topic of discussion. America has created a climate where propaganda, fake news, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories can all thrive. One reason for this phenomenon is the lack of distinction between unreliable sources and credible sources. Another reason Nicholls states is, “Of course, there’s also the basic problem that some people just aren’t very bright... Many people simply cannot recognize the gaps in their own knowledge or understand their own inability to construct a logical argument... Dunning-Kruger Effect, in sum, means that the dumber you are, the more confident you are…” He explains how this problem is prevalent among undereducated pockets of the country, and how “almost everyone finds a way to stick with their values and reject evidence”. With modern society reinforcing the idea that all opinions are truth, unpopular opinions from different groups arise and people must decide what is free speech versus hate speech.

Ulrich Baer is professor at New York University. In What Snowflakes Get Right he writes about how conservatives believe universities betray their values of open inquiry in favor of the left, labeled “snowflakes”, who advocate against completely unregulated speech and curricula that they feel disrespects them. Baer, however, suggests that it is not really about the feelings of offended students, or protecting an open marketplace of ideas. He believes that the university has a critical role as an arbiter of truth, and a commitment to equality. Baer writes, “The aim is to establish the truth, not as a matter of blind faith in a given hypothesis, but via a consensus of experts in a relevant community who have studied an issue in depth”. This idea is very similar to Nicholls’. Universities must articulate their mission in order to vet ideas. Permission from the Supreme Court allows a university to set their own standards to achieve their mission, which they can use to test if a speaker’s ideas and appearance contributes to, or conflicts with the university’s mission. Baer’s solution is a middle ground for both the “snowflakes”, and the conservatives. He writes, “Both conservatives and progressives...advocate absolute speech rights on campus against what they view as encroachment of this right by overly sensitive students and censorious, timid administrators”.  These two books can be related because Baer’s topic of free speech gives people the opportunity to voice their opinions, thus leading to Nicholls’ idea of dying expertise.

Overall I believe that both Nicholls and Baer provided quality evidence and analysis to reinforce their ideas. However, I also believe that Nicholls’ The Death of Expertise provided a better argument. I wholeheartedly agree with the phenomenon that all opinions are treated as fact in modern society, which leads to the expertise of people who study the topic being belittled. If we began to question sources and open our minds to ideas other than our own, I think that we would be much less divided and better educated. Unfortunately humans continue to be naturally selfish and self-absorbed. Until those qualities are phased out and people learn how to work together, I fear that Americans will continue to walk down the wrong path.

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