I’ve just finished reading The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, by Tom Nichols. Nichols is a Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College, and he is deeply concerned about the dumbing-down of our national discourse, in which the loudest and most simplistic opinions seem to carry far more weight than the carefully nuanced opinions of experts.
As a nation of rugged individualists who believe we’re all created equal, we Americans have always had a healthy skepticism about experts, which was noted as early as 1835 by Alexis de Toqueville almost 200 years ago. I remember one of my high school teachers defining an expert as “someone who learns more and more about less and less, until finally he knows everything about nothing.”
And there have been good reasons for that skepticism. First, expert mistakes have certainly cost us, with Exhibit 1 being the foreign policy elites who have gotten us into trouble from Vietnam to Iraq and many places in between. It’s also hard to trust experts when finding experts who contradict each other is as easy as switching channels, and experts who sell their opinion to the highest bidder or overstep their knowledge to gain attention unfortunately get more attention than those who are more cautious.
But focusing on the mistakes (or other shortcomings) of experts ignores their far more important contributions to our lives. The experts who got it wrong with the Challenger also got us to the moon; the chemists who gave us thalidomide also have saved or improved millions of lives with other drugs; and to give the foreign policy establishment their due, they also helped build the postwar world order that has prevented a war between major powers for over 70 years and has contributed to an unprecedented expansion of prosperity.
When you ignore the contributions of experts and focus only on their failings, you stand to lose far more than you gain, like burning down your house to kill the mouse you saw in your kitchen. So it’s smart to take a careful and informed approach to assessing expert advice. As the saying goes, “if you think an expert is expensive, try hiring an amateur.”
But that’s exactly the problem we’re running into today—we’re paying far more attention to the loud and simplistic amateurs than we should. The backlash against established expertise the problem we’re running into is turning (or already has, most likely) healthy skepticism not only into unhealthy skepticism and cynicism but into aggressive and willful ignorance. We value confidence far more than credentials, which is why we elected a man who says he is the only one who can fix things.
The Internet was supposed to lift us all up, by putting the accumulated knowledge of the world at our fingertips. Instead, according to Nichols it has made us dumber, and I agree with him. Because anyone with a connection can create a slick website and reach the whole world with their opinions, the overwhelming quantity of crap tends to bury the quality. Sturgeon’s Law, which says 90% of everything is crap, is woefully deficient in describing the internet. For most people using it to do “research”, the internet is simply a powerful engine for confirmation bias. As if that’s not enough, Nichols also describes the impact of a higher education system that has misguidedly turned students into “customers”, and the proliferation of talk radio and cable TV stations that cater to every conceivable taste and perspective, so that no one ever has to run the risk of running into an uncomfortable fact.
After I put down the book, I jotted down some notes to try to answer the title question of this blog. (Since I’ve covered some aspects of this problem previously in my blog, what follows combines some of the ideas from The Death of Expertise and some of my previous thinking, and it’s impossible to separate the two. As a rule of thumb, if it sounds smart, credit Nichols.)
What do the experts owe us?
- Don’t overstate your case. Nichols is slightly guilty of this, starting with his title. Death is a pretty strong word, and the word campaign carries a slight whiff of conspiracy theory to it. It’s definitely a trend that many have exploited, but no one is guiding it.
- Stick to what you know. Linus Pauling deservedly won two Nobel prizes, but tarnished his reputation when he touted Vitamin C as a panacea (not to mention dabbling in eugenics).
- Be a foxy hedgehog. From a strong base of expert knowledge, become curious about the rest of the world and get comfortable with uncertainty and disagreement.
- Separate fact from opinions. Be clear in your own mind first, and then explicit about the difference in your public statements.
- Separate analysis from predictions. As Philip Tetlock has shown us, the average expert is just slightly more accurate than a drunk monkey throwing darts when it comes to making predictions.
- Be professional. Professionalism includes the above admonitions plus an obligation to the greater good—of your clients and even sometimes the general public.
What do we owe the experts?
- Look for signs that the expert you’re reading is following the rules above.
- Recognize that when it comes to expertise we are not all created equal. Don’t think that a half hour spent perusing Google returns gives you the right to argue with someone who has devoted their professional life to the topic.
- If you still feel the need to argue with experts (for example, I take issue with some of the ideas that our City’s traffic experts are trying to sell to the public), at least make a serious effort to learn the fundamentals of the topic first.
- Be careful what you put in your mind. If it’s true that you are what you eat, it’s even more true that you are what you read.
- Become a more critical thinker and learn how to identify quality. Here’s a few recommendations for further reading that will better equip you for the task:
o When Can You Trust the Experts? by Daniel Willingham
o Superforecasting, or Expert Political Judgment by Philip Tetlock
o For detecting business and management BS: The Halo Effect…and Eight Other Business Delusions that Deceive Managers, by Phil Rosenzweig, and Leadership BS by Jeffrey Pfeffer
o Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman.
o Curious, by Ian Leslie.
I heartily recommend this book, but the irony of a book about the death of expertise is that those who most need to read it are the least likely to.
For a prince, is it better to be loved or feared? That was the question that Machiavelli asked, and his answer (although much more nuanced about it than generally thought) came down mostly on the side of fear. His prescription for power depended heavily on force and craftiness.
Five hundred years later, the debate still goes on, and it’s just as important as ever. For anyone striving to increase their influence and make a difference, whether within your own organization, for customers, or in the lives of those you care about, it’s a central question that dictates what you do and how you act toward others.
There’s another related question that is just as important: is power something you can grab, or is it given to you by others?
I just read The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence, by Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley. Keltner comes down firmly against the idea that power is about fear. He argues that the world has changed substantially since Machiavelli wrote. It’s less violent, organizations are less hierarchical and more egalitarian. He also stresses that “We gain power by acting in ways that improve the lives of other people in our social networks. Our power is granted to us by others.”
If you believe that Keltner is right, your approach revolves around what I call outside-in thinking: focusing on others and striving to find ways to improve their states and contribute to the greater good. You develop your capacity for taking the perspective of others; you give far more than you take; you enhance the power of others by respecting them and listening to them. And as you grow in power, you are aware of the many ways that enhanced power erodes the very attitudes and behaviors that helped to get you there: empathy, humility and self-control.
Read this book and practice its recommendations, and you will become more influential in whatever sphere you participate in—in effect, everyone around you will “give” you the power of influence over their sates.
After I read Keltner’s book, I went to my bookshelf and dusted off my copy of Power: Why Some People Have It –and Others Don’t, by Jeffrey Pfeffer, which I reviewed in a previous blog post. Pfeffer argues that Machiavelli is alive and well in corporations today, and you would be naïve not to know this and apply its lessons. I don’t know if he and Keltner have ever debated the issue, but I suspect that if they did, Pfeffer would accuse Keltner of holding on to the “just-world hypothesis”, in which people believe that good people are rewarded and bad people are punished.
The harm of this belief, according to Pfeffer, is that it prevents you from learning real and practical lessons about what really works in the real world, and holds you back from a self-centered quest for personal power and influence. Follow his advice, and you will be able to grab power—because no one is just going to give it to you.
Actually Pfeffer agrees with Keltner that respecting others is a good path to power, but the others he refers to are people who are already in power and have the ability to help you. He also believes that empathy is a crucial skill for acquiring power, so you can figure out what to give them to gain their support.
It could be confusing to read both books, because each author cites impressive academic research to support their points. I believe that interpersonal relationships are complex enough that it is easy to find proof for almost anything you want to look for. Maybe there is some confirmation bias at work in both books, or maybe it’s the nature of these sort of books, which force the author to take a stand for one point of view or the other.
Simply because human nature is so complex, I believe that both hold valuable lessons for increasing your personal power and influence. It’s not either/or, it’s some elements of both approaches, and the relative weight of each is highly situational. It may depend on the culture of the organization where you work, the nature of the problem you are facing, and so many other factors. And don’t forget what Al Capone supposedly said: “You can get more with a kind word and a gun than with a kind word alone.”
It’s also in many ways a personal and an ethical choice. I know—we all know—people who are very “successful” in life despite what we consider to be shady characters and behaviors. For me, if that’s the price to pay for being powerful, I’d rather not be. On the other hand, if you have a larger worthwhile purpose in mind, doesn’t it make sense to pull out all the stops? LBJ was about as Machiavellian as any president we’ve had, and he used his power to push through his Great Society programs.
Do the ends justify the means? I don’t believe anyone can give you those answers. You have to decide for yourself—and live with the consequences.
If you could think of one change to make in your communication habits that would make you more influential, more interesting, and more well-liked, what would it be? The answer, according to Frank Sesno—and one which I strongly endorse—is to ask more questions. In his book, Ask More: The Power of Questions to Open Doors, Uncover Solutions and Spark Change, Sesno, a former CNN anchor, explains why questions are so powerful and how to ask them.
In this review, I will ask and answer four questions:
- Why should you ask more questions?
- Why read this book?
- What are some of the main lessons?
- How should you read the book?
Why ask more questions?
You probably don’t ask enough questions—so what? The big-picture answer, filtered through the lens of lean communication, is that you are producing less value and more waste than you should. Value is defined by the listener, and if you don’t know your listeners as well as you should, how can you express your points in ways that are most likely to resonate with them? Asking more questions helps you zero in on exactly what’s important to the other person. But even better, asking questions engages the other person so that together you both create more value and more memorable communication. I love this quote from the book: “People forget what they heard, but they remember almost everything they say.”
Why read this book?
There are many good books on questioning, written from the perspective of sales, psychology, management, etc. but this is the first one (that I’ve read, at least) by a journalist, who by definition makes his living through the quality of his questions. Besides the credibility it adds to the book, Sesno’s professional expertise adds two other assets that make Ask More worth reading. First, he knows how to find other credible sources, so he is not just relying on what has worked for him, as so many experts do, and this brings a breadth and diversity of different situations and applications where questioning is helpful. of questioning applications. Second, he knows how to tell stories lucidly and concisely, so the book makes for pleasant and engaging reading.
What are some of the main lessons?
The book is organized into chapters that explain how to ask questions for different purposes, from solving problems to inspiring others, to sparking creative thinking, to building rapport. But regardless of your purpose in asking questions, some general principles come through. Probably the most important is that you should have a purpose and a plan for your questions. Your plan will help ensure that you don’t miss anything important, and your purpose will keep you on track when the person you’re interviewing inevitably throws you off your plan, whether accidentally or on purpose. Second is the importance of knowing how to listen to the answers and what to listen for—especially what is not being said. Third, by learning the basic structure of each specific questioning application, you can apply a reasonably repeatable process that will save you time and ensure you don’t miss anything.
How should you read the book?
If there is one improvement opportunity I would suggest for this book, it would be to go a bit lighter on the stories and heavier on the “how-to”. For example, in the chapter on empathetic questioning, as he introduces a man who got John Hinckley to open up through questions, do we really need to know the path of each of the six bullets John Hinckley fired? That’s why I would suggest that you begin reading the book at page 211, which begins the “Question Guide” section, where the basics of each major questioning task are laid out. Then, you can go back through the book and read the sections that you find most useful, and having the layout of each section in mind will make it easier to tease out the lessons from the stories and extraneous detail.
Despite that last quibble, Ask More is an important and worthwhile book. We can all benefit from improving the quantity and quality of the questions we ask, and I personally resolve to improve on that this year. So, let me end with one more question:
What are you waiting for?
 A few good examples: SPIN Selling and Question Based Selling for Sales; Leading with Questions, for leadership;
Humble Inquiry, for psychology.
Let’s be completely honest with ourselves: sometimes we give gifts to others at least as much to make ourselves look good as to make the recipient happy. For example, when you buy a bottle of wine to give to someone important, you want to get something they will enjoy, but you also want to show your good taste and sophistication.
It’s the same way with books: if there is someone you want to suck up to, maybe your boss’s boss or a prospective client, here are some book recommendations that will meet both goals. They will please the recipient and mark you as an especially discerning and intelligent person at the same time.
Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman is one our most important thinkers, who won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his work, even though he’s a psychologist. This book is both instructive and entertaining, and will help you understand the quirky workings of the human mind. If you’re unsure whether to give this book as a gift, think of what will happen if someone else does before you do.
Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, by Adam Grant. Grant is described as a top-rated teacher at Wharton, and this book shows why. There are several reasons you might not want to get this book for someone, the most important one being that it can be dangerous to be perceived as an original thinker, especially within a large organization.
Pre-Suasion, Robert Cialdini. This is the newest book by one of the acknowledged legends of the influence world. Honestly, I didn’t think it was as good as the book which he’s famous for: Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, but giving it will make you look smart and up to date.
Superforecasting, Philip Tetlock. This book is full of practical ideas to improve your judgment and predictive ability. Using the National Intelligence Council’s 7-point scale, I predict that you are almost certain to impress anyone you give this book to, especially if they think you’ve read it.
How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery, by Kevin Ashton. This book will fascinate and impress anyone who works in or with technology, and they might even find creative ways to thank you for it.
Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Surviving in an Age of Accelerations, by Thomas Friedman. I’m breaking my own rule by recommending a book that I haven’t finished reading yet, but I didn’t want to be late in making this recommendation. If you’re concerned about the state of the world, Friedman will restore your optimism.
P.S. One of the best qualities of each of these books is that they are each so well-written that the recipient will actually read them. So, if you’re going to give one of these, it’s a good idea to buy a copy for yourself and read it!
 Although I have to admit I read it and still got the 2016 election wrong.