Thomas Nichols

Professor of National Security Affairs, U.S. Naval War College

The importance of knowledge and expertise

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Biography

Tom Nichols is a professor at the Naval War College with deep expertise on Russia and the role that warfare plays in international affairs. With his new book, however, he looks at expertise itself. In The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters, he argues that too many of people have embraced the idea that experts should have no more standing in government or society than they themselves do. He makes the case that experts do matter and that this kind of false egalitarianism is dangerous.

What are we talking about? We are not talking about the democratization of knowledge or the expansion of public participation in the issues of our time, he says. Rather, Nichols is pointing to the claim that everyone’s opinion should have equal weight, that nothing important distinguishes professionals from lay people or teachers from students. This “epidemic of narcissism,” the aggressive rejection of expertise, endangers the very foundations of our republic.

What are the causes? Changes in the role of higher education and media, and the internet. Colleges have become intellectual boutiques designed to satisfy the self-identified desires of students, rather than institutions that teach them what they need to know. The media has become a forest of echo-chamber silos in which you are told what you want to hear rather than what you need to know and even that information is mostly entertainment. The internet has put all this on steroids.

Why does it matter? Society doesn’t work without real knowledge. To run things well, you actually have to know what you’re doing. When ignorance and opinion shoulder expertise aside, the system collapses. Populist anti-expertise inveitably ends in disaster.

What’s the solution? Unfortunately, it usually takes a disaster to shock people back to their senses. A pandemic will send parents back to the doctor’s office for their kids’ vaccines. To avert disaster, we must take responsibility for being better informed as citizens. And experts must defend themselves. They must make the case that experts are not the masters but the servants — the necessary and valuable servants — of real democracy.

Credentials. Tom Nichols is a professor at the Naval War College and at the Harvard Extension School, as well as a Senior Associate of the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs in New York City and a Fellow of the International History Institute at Boston University. Previously he was a Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, and served on Senator John Heinz’s defense and security affairs staff. Tom is also a five-time undefeated Jeapardy! champion who played in both the 1994 Tournament of Champions and the 2005 Ultimate Tournament of Champions. His other books include:

  • No Use: Nuclear Weapons and U.S. National Security
  • Eve of Destruction: The Coming Age of Preventive War
  • The Russian Presidency: Society and Politics in the Second Russian Republic

Books

The Death of Expertise

The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters

Thomas Nichols

People are now exposed to more information than ever before, provided both by technology and by increasing access to every level of education. These societal gains, however, have also helped fuel a surge in narcissistic and misguided intellectual egalitarianism that has crippled informed debates on any number of issues. Today, everyone knows everything: with only a quick trip through WebMD or Wikipedia, average citizens believe themselves to be on an equal intellectual footing with doctors and diplomats. All voices, even the most ridiculous, demand to be taken with equal seriousness, and any claim to the contrary is dismissed as undemocratic elitism.

As Tom Nichols shows in The Death of Expertise, this rejection of experts has occurred for many reasons, including the openness of the internet, the emergence of a customer satisfaction model in higher education, and the transformation of the news industry into a 24-hour entertainment machine. Paradoxically, the increasingly democratic dissemination of information, rather than producing an educated public, has instead created an army of ill-informed and angry citizens who denounce intellectual achievement.

Nichols has deeper concerns than the current rejection of expertise and learning, noting that when ordinary citizens believe that no one knows more than anyone else, democratic institutions themselves are in danger of falling either to populism or to technocracy-or in the worst case, a combination of both. The Death of Expertise is not only an exploration of a dangerous phenomenon but also a warning about the stability and survival of modern democracy in the Information Age.

Oxford University Press; 1 edition (March 1, 2017)

Videos

The demise of experts — PBS Newshour
The Death of Expertise — Politics and Prose
InterviewTavis Smiley Show
The Death of ExpertiseC-Span

Praise

"A sharp analysis of an increasingly pressing problem..."
Kirkus Reviews

"Nichols has issued a sadly necessary and urgent call... but it helps that his righteous indignation is coated in a healthy dose of wit."
— Mark Hemingway, The Federalist

"We live in a post-fact age, one that's dangerous for a whole host of reasons. Here is a book that not only acknowledges this reality,but takes it head on. Persuasive and well-written, The Death of Expertise is exactly the book needed for our times."
— Ian Bremmer, President and Founder, Eurasia Group

"Americans are indifferent to real journalism in forming their opinions, hoaxes prove harder to kill than a slasher-flick monster, and the word 'academic' is often hurled like a nasty epithet. Tom Nichols has put his finger on what binds these trends together: positive hostility to established knowledge. The Death of Expertise is trying to turn back this tide."
— Dan Murphy, former Middle East and Southeast Asia Bureau Chief, The Christian Science Monitor

"Tom Nichols does a breathtakingly detailed job in scrutinizing theAmerican consumer's refutation of traditional expertise. In the era ofescapism and denial, he offers a refreshing and timely book on how webalance our skepticism with trust going forward."
— Salena Zito, national political reporter for The Washington Examiner, CNN, The New York Post, and RealClearPolitics

"Tom Nichols has written a brilliant, timely, and very original book. He shows how the digital revolution, social media, and the internet have helped to foster a cult of ignorance. Nichols makes a compelling case for reason and rationality in our public and political discourse."
— Robert J. Lieber, Georgetown University, and author of Retreat and Its Consequences

"Nichols expands his 2014 article published by The Federalist with a highly researched and impassioned book that's well timed for this post-election period... strongly researched textbook for laymen will have many political and news junkies nodding their heads in agreement."
Publishers Weekly

"Tom Nichols is fighting a rear-guard action on behalf of those dangerous people who actually know what they are talking about. In a compelling, and often witty, polemic, he explores why experts are routinely disregarded and what might be done to get authoritative knowledge taken more seriously."
— Sir Lawrence Freedman, Emeritus Professor of War Studies, King's College London, and author of Strategy

No Use

Nuclear Weapons and U.S. National Security (Haney Foundation Series)

Thomas Nichols

For more than forty years, the United States has maintained a public commitment to nuclear disarmament, and every president from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama has gradually reduced the size of America's nuclear forces. Yet even now, over two decades after the end of the Cold War, the United States maintains a huge nuclear arsenal on high alert and ready for war. The Americans, like the Russians, the Chinese, and other major nuclear powers, continue to retain a deep faith in the political and military value of nuclear force, and this belief remains enshrined at the center of U.S. defense policy regardless of the radical changes that have taken place in international politics.

In No Use, national security scholar Thomas M. Nichols offers a lucid, accessible reexamination of the role of nuclear weapons and their prominence in U.S. security strategy. Nichols explains why strategies built for the Cold War have survived into the twenty-first century, and he illustrates how America's nearly unshakable belief in the utility of nuclear arms has hindered U.S. and international attempts to slow the nuclear programs of volatile regimes in North Korea and Iran. From a solid historical foundation, Nichols makes the compelling argument that to end the danger of worldwide nuclear holocaust, the United States must take the lead in abandoning unrealistic threats of nuclear force and then create a new and more stable approach to deterrence for the twenty-first century.

University of Pennsylvania Press (December 3, 2013)

Praise

"A highly readable counternarrative to sixty years of prevailing wisdom about nuclear weapons and U.S. foreign policy."
— Jeffrey Lewis, Monterey Institute of International Studies

"A succinct and well-written account of an important and much-debated national security issue. Nichols makes a convincing case for abandoning nuclear threats and relying on conventional deterrence and compellence to deal with nuclear proliferators."
— T. V. Paul, McGill University

"With the end of the Cold War, many of us stopped thinking about nuclear weapons. Thomas Nichols explains why we had better pay attention, and his thoughtful and penetrating analysis will guide us in paying better attention."
— Robert Jervis, Columbia University

"A level-headed, jargon-free rejection of false choices about our nuclear future. Tom Nichols has written a very fine book for newcomers to the Bomb as well as for those who have become too comfortable with its acquaintance. At a time when domestic political wrangles and seemingly intractable nuclear dilemmas abound, Nichols offers a thought-provoking argument for the United States to drop all pretense about the Bomb and to unilaterally adopt a posture of minimum nuclear deterrence."
— Michael Krepon, Cofounder of The Stimson Center

Eve of Destruction

The Coming Age of Preventive War

Thomas Nichols

In an age of new threats to international security, the old rules of war are rapidly being discarded. The great powers are moving toward norms less restrictive of intervention, preemption, and preventive war. This evolution is taking place not only in the United States but also in many of the world's most powerful nations, including Russia, France, and Japan, among others. As centuries of tradition and law are overturned, will preventive warfare push the world into chaos?

Eve of Destruction is a provocative contribution to a growing international debate over the acceptance of preventive military action. In the first work to identify the trends that have led to a coming age of preventive war, Thomas M. Nichols uses historical analysis as well as interviews with military officials from around the world to trace the anticipatory use of force from the early 1990s — when the international community responded to a string of humanitarian crises in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo — to today's current and potential actions against rogue states and terrorists. He makes a case for a bold reform of U.S. foreign policy, and of the United Nations Security Council itself, in order to avert outright anarchy.

University of Pennsylvania Press (January 23, 2008)

Praise

"Nichols's grasp of diplomatic history, especially of recent diplomatic history, is sound, and his understanding of international relations theory and organizations is a strength of the work. Nichols develops and uses a variety of sources, including many from both foreign governments and press organs. His notes, in themselves, can be fascinating reading."
— John Broom, H-War

"Preventive war is here to stay. The question isn't whether but when and how force will be used preventively. That is the important message of this excellent book. Nichols provides the critical answers clearly and convincingly."
— Ivo Daalder, Brookings Institution

"Thomas Nichols transcends sterile debates about Iraq and the Bush Doctrine and points instead to the fundamental erosion in two long-standing international norms: the inviolability of state sovereignty and the unacceptability of preventive war. These profound changes are driven by the very real threat of mass casualty suicide terrorism as well as humanitarian disasters and the problem of failed states. This is a smart, incisive, and important book."
— Robert J. Lieber, Georgetown University

"Nichols provides a lively guide to the development of this issue after the Cold War."
Foreign Affairs

The Russian Presidency

Society and Politics in the Second Russian Republic

Thomas Nichols

Why has Russian democracy apparently survived and even strengthened under a presidential system, when so many other presidential regimes have decayed into authoritarian rule? And what are the origins of presidential power in modern Russia? Thomas M. Nichols argues that the answer lies in the relationship between political institutions and trust: where society, and consequently politics, is fractious and divided, structural safeguards inherent in presidentialism actually serve to strengthen democratic behavior. The Russian presidency is not the cause of social turmoil in Russia, but rather a successful response to it. This book s emphasis on the social origins of Russian politics explains not only the unexpected survival of Russian democracy, but encourages a reconsideration of the relationship between institutions, social conditions, and democracy.

Palgrave Macmillan; 1st edition (December 3, 1999)

Videos

Down with the Experts! | The Agenda TVO

Pentagon investigating Russia's role in Syrian chemical attack | MSNBC

"Story in the Public Square"

President-elect Trump political system on State of Mind

Expert: Trump policy speech was 'word salad' | MSNBC

Americans' Faith in Expertise | C-Span