Why Americans have come to worship their own ignorance - Macleans.ca

Why Americans have come to worship their own ignorance

Author Tom Nichols argues that people are angry at journalists for giving them what they want: pared-down stories tailored to them

A placard warning against the dangers of climate change used in the March on Washington stands by an overflowing garbage can January 21st 2017, up to 500,000 marchers had protested earlier in DC and estimates of five million nationwide campaigned for legislation and policies regarding human rights, women's rights, immigration reform, healthcare reform, the natural environment, LGBTQ rights, racial equality and freedom of religion in response to the newly elected presidency of Donald Trump. (Epics/Getty Images)

A placard warning against the dangers of climate change used in the March on Washington stands by an overflowing garbage can January 21st 2017, up to 500,000 marchers had protested earlier in DC and estimates of five million nationwide campaigned for legislation and policies regarding human rights, women’s rights, immigration reform, healthcare reform, the natural environment, LGBTQ rights, racial equality and freedom of religion in response to the newly elected presidency of Donald Trump. (Epics/Getty Images)

A five-time undefeated Jeopardy! champion and a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, Tom Nichols is the author of several books on international relations, Russian affairs and nuclear weapons—as well as a former adviser on foreign and defence affairs for the late senator John Heinz of Pennsylvania. In short, an expert in his field. He’s also a staunch conservative of the Never Trump persuasion, a man deeply worried about the state of public discourse in his country and the author of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters. He spoke with Senior Writer Brian Bethune about his new book, the unprecedented way in which “sullen and narcissistic” Americans “worship their own ignorance,” and what everyone from students to journalists and experts themselves should do about it.

Q: Before we go on I need to ask you about Jeopardy!. It seems to disturb you that you get more credit for that than for anything else you’ve done.

A: Right. Over the past 25 years, whenever I’m introduced, the audience will nod quietly while my credentials or achievements are rattled off by the host, and then when they get to, “And he was an undefeated Jeopardy! champion,” the room will actually applaud. It’s such an American thing that nothing is real until it’s on television. In my early 30s, when I’d just started teaching and I was, of course, very full of myself as a young professor with an Ivy League teaching job and a brand-new PhD and a new book out, I got taken down a peg in a way that I’ve never recovered from. A student came up to me after I’d been on Jeopardy! and he said, “Professor, I saw you on TV last night.” And I replied, “What did you think?” And his exact words were, “You were great. I never knew you were so smart.” I said, “Really? You didn’t think maybe the teaching job or the book might have been a clue?” And he shook his head, and he said, “No, you know what I mean.”

Q: Well, Jeopardy! must be the last agreed-upon set of facts in America too.

A: Absolutely. Jeopardy! is like America’s national SAT test. It was, at least in its day, the one acknowledged standard of intelligence: no matter who you were arguing with, if you’d been on Jeopardy!, you were smart. Especially if you won.

Q: I read your book for its argument, but also with an eye for its quality as a polemic. It turns out to be remarkably even-handed, which had to be a difficult decision for you. Do you think it’s going to cut through the din, given what you’ve described as the tone of contemporary society?

A: It might not, but approaching it as a polemic would have made it just one more eye-bulging shouting contribution to the ocean of anger that’s already out there.

Q: Exactly.

A: But I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to try something more reasonable because I think a more reasonable tone is exactly what we need. Confirmation bias, the echo chamber, can’t be overcome by anger or polemics. Confirmation bias has to be worn away by a steady plodding refusal to accept the mistaken assumptions of other people, because people react to attacks on their confirmation bias by doubling down. You can’t shatter it; you have to wear it away.

Q: Who is the intended audience?

A: Everybody. It’s aimed squarely at people who are at least willing to pick up a book and give it a chance for a few pages. I think part of why Americans have become so divided about the way we talk about things in the public space is that people enter it convinced that the only goal of debate is to annihilate the other person’s position and never give an inch to the considered thoughts of another human being.

Q: And that was before the Age of Trump, I assume, since there is reference to candidate Trump but not President Trump. In any event the post-election news makes you look like a prophet. What do you make of the presidency so far, the world of alternate facts, accusations without evidence and the doubling down on certitudes?

A: It’s the inevitable destination down the road that we were already travelling. What the president did was figure out as a candidate how to harness this hatred of experts and this resistance to established knowledge, and to turn it to his advantage as a candidate. Now what’s interesting since the election is that the president’s had to bring in experts because every president does. You know, you can’t run a government on assumptions. You actually have to have people who know what they’re doing. It’s pretty early in the game, so it’s hard to tell whether that’s going to work out.

Q: The first travel ban was not expertly drawn up.

A: And it imploded, which was itself a lesson about what happens when you do things on the fly, without expert knowledge behind them. I’m not sure the next travel ban will fare much better, but it’s a much different ban, and it represents a retreat from the original concept.

Q: You spread around the blame for what you call America’s angry narcissism, in your even-handed way, and quite a lot of it falls on universities. Can you elaborate?

A: Sure. The problem with universities is that the competition for students has turned a lot of schools into client-servicing organizations. Students don’t learn the most important thing, which is a certain amount of humility about the level of their own intelligence, because they’re catered to. Because the grades are artificially high, because the faculty and the administration treat them like valued clients; they don’t really go through the difficulty and the discomfort that should be a part of a college education. College isn’t supposed to be comfortable. It’s great and it can be fun, a great time of your life, but it should also be a place where you rethink the things you learned in childhood. It should not be a constant reaffirmation of your personality or your worth.

We’ve also internalized the idea that everybody needs to go to college, which ended up diluting what colleges can offer. it’s now a mass experience, and college is taking the place of high school, including things like remedial English and math. When it comes to established knowledge, people who have gained a higher education no longer really know that much more than the average citizen. They’ve just stayed in school a little longer than a high school graduate, but they are not necessarily any better-informed or smarter. Forty or 50 years ago, the difference in education and level of awareness about important issues was distinctly different between college- and non-college-educated people. That’s one of the reasons why—this is a hypothesis on my part—the distinction that pollsters normally make between college-educated and non-college-educated respondents isn’t as strong an indicator of differences in voting as it used to be.

Q: You advise your students to subscribe to a journal they disagree with as a way of fighting the echo chamber. But you don’t believe they do.

A: The bigger problem is they don’t subscribe to a journal they do agree with. I don’t think they read anything, and I don’t mean my students in particular, I mean people in general. I’ve had people ask, “Well, what can I do to be better informed?” I say, “I start every morning reading The Washington Post.” They say, “Well, that’s biased and liberal, and I’m not going to read it.” I say, “All right, read The Wall Street Journal.” “Well, that’s just … I’m not reading it.” In other words, I’m not going to read anything. What they really want to know is how do I wake up every morning and glance at a screen and then call myself informed?

Q: And also to know what my people, my group, think?

A: Exactly. More than being informed, they want a quick veneer of cultural literacy that also is a touchstone to whatever their preferred group is already thinking.

Q: You discuss how science-averse the populace at large is. On the centre and left, people tend to throw science-denial at the right, because of climate change, but anti-vaxxers mostly tilt left.

A: And the anti-GMO people.

Q: That’s right, both sides have a common anti-elitism. They just define elites differently. On one side, it’s Big Pharma, big business; for Trump supporters it’s guys like you, pointy-headed Ivy Leaguers. They have no problem with a billionaire-stuffed cabinet because the elite to them are cultural voices.

A: Right, exactly. What really defines elite in America now is no longer the raw indicator of money, but rather an educated class versus an uneducated class. That’s interesting to me as I come from a very non-elite background, first in family to go to college, and so on.

Q: You wrote about your brother the tavern-keeper and the customer who told him you didn’t seem like a bad guy, despite being a professor.


What’s changed there in the last generation is that what was a benign disconnect—“He’s a professor, so he probably doesn’t get us”—has curdled into a sour hostility. I think in part that’s driven by the divisiveness of political campaigns, by the Internet fuelling a deep sense of relative deprivation, which I think is something we don’t talk enough about, and a sense that the winners in the 21st century are people who can master information rather than labour.

Q: After higher education, you turn to journalism, which you think is in crisis. You quote Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, about the campaign to sell the Iran accord: “The average journalist we talk to is 27 and has no experience.”

A: And doesn’t really know anything. I say that despite being a defender of journalism. I think criticism of journalism and the media has gone overboard. One of my first jobs in graduate school was working on a local newspaper, and I came to realize that people who try to report on the news have a very difficult job. Despite all of the problems that really do exist, like bias and spin, the collapse of the funding models, the increasing market-driven pressure, the lack of education and experience, my experience over years in politics has been that most journalists try to get it right. People have become overly critical of journalists for the same reason that they’re overly critical of government. They’re critical of journalists for giving them exactly what they want—stories tailored to them, pared down, pre-chewed and dressed up with pretty pictures—and then they say the media isn’t informing us enough.

We may well have been better off with three major networks curating half an hour of national news every night. We may have been better informed than we are now, with a common experience and a common set of facts to argue from. The public likes segmented media because it won’t read anything longer than a few sentences. Try this experiment: try to get the weather for any city. The first thing you have to do is get past five click-bait articles about “You won’t believe the size of the shark that came out of this storm,” when all you want to know is whether or not it’s going to rain tomorrow. Everything has to be a dramatic, immediate, sensory-filling experience, even if you’re just trying to figure out if you need an umbrella.

Q: How are experts themselves contributing to this? They are not blameless victims in your book.

A: Absolutely not. Experts have to own a lot of this. First of all, we make mistakes and have to be more transparent about them. Second, because it’s so difficult to talk to the public, we take the easy way out. We choose to talk only to ourselves. I was speaking with a scientist recently about my book, who said, “I don’t understand what this book is about. I don’t encounter any hostility to experts.” And I said to her, “Because you don’t talk to anybody but experts.” If you’re literally a rocket scientist, and the only other people you talk to are rocket scientists, you don’t have a problem. That insularity among experts is a serious issue because it means we’re failing in our duty to our client—that is, to society—to get out there and to transmit what we know. People ask me why I’m so engaged on social media and why I do so much public speaking. I argue it’s because it’s part of my professional responsibility as a teacher. The other place where I would point fingers at the educated class, particularly scientific elites, is they don’t seem to understand that knowing things is not the same thing as winning a policy argument.

Experts really need a constant reminder that the public has the right to be wrong. All you can ask is that the public understand the facts; if voters then make a different decision, there’s not much you can do. If the people of Boston really understand that climate change means that 50 years from now Boston will slide into the harbour, they’re allowed to make that decision. That’s very different than arguing climate change doesn’t exist. And I think scientists don’t understand or find it offensive when the public turns to them and says, “We heard you, we understand you, we’re making a different policy choice.” I think one of the biggest things for experts to accept is that knowledge and policy are not the same skill set.

Q: I assume your “what hostility?” scientist really is involved in rocketry; try public health and addressing a town hall meeting on fluoride.

A: Part of what I argue as a solution to this is experts need to get out and go to those town halls, take their lumps and forcefully engage the public back. This is something experts are inherently uncomfortable doing because people who work with knowledge and information tend to come out of institutions with collegial norms of discussion and very clear rules of debate. Scrapping with the public over what’s true or false is very uncomfortable for most experts, but they need to do it because, otherwise, that space gets filled by charlatans and demagogues. Experts are going to have to re-engage the public with patience, with fortitude, and with an absolute insistence on empiricism and rationality. And humour—did you see those doctors on Jimmy Kimmel? “Remember that time you had polio? No, you don’t. Because your parents got you f—king vaccinated.”

Q: Maybe a better understanding of statistics, too?

A: Forget stats. That battle gets lost somewhere in high school or college. Now people don’t understand basic math.


Why Americans have come to worship their own ignorance

  1. America has always been known for it’s anti-intellectualism.

    They don’t even understand their own Constitution.

    And then there’s Shaquille O’Neal

    • God you’re an ignorant, insufferable human. The epitome of ugly Canadian.

      • Mmm .. I don’t know … most of the Americans I know would probably agree … they don’t understand their own Constitution.

      • LOL this .a person who signs themselves ‘centre’ wing

        • Your comments in general are nothing but negative, belittling, and usually ignorant. You don’t know the first thing about my political views. Nor the first thing about Americans, most likely. You’re the resident troll. A joke. And you don’t even matter half as much as you think you do.

          • Here’s a solution sweetie

            If you don’t like my comments…..don’t read them.

            Simple as that.

          • Wow you really have very little class. How can you spew insults at Emily and call her the troll. Most Americans I know are thoughtful and caring people but they are misinformed and lacking in education.

    • You have to ignore trolls like Emilyone. She gets up in the morning, gets on her computer, and finds an article like this one, waits for someone to make a comment, and says to herself, “Now, what can I say to piss someone off?” I have found from a few other sites that she has been blocked — I would hope that Maclean’s would do that here as well. She adds nothing to any debate but ignorant, nonsensical, personally insulting comments.
      To bolster your comment, all you have to do is read a book by the American intellectual, Susan Jacoby — THE AGE OF AMERICAN UNREASON. As one of the comments on the book’s jacket by Helen Thomas, says, “Jacoby has written a brilliant, sad story of the anti-intellectualism and the lack of reasonable thought that has put this country in one of the sorriest states in its history.” Or, another comment on the same book, Jacoby “…explains just how and why Americans have recently become so, well, dumb.”
      Have you read that book, Emilyone???

    • It’s true that SOME Americans are anti-intellectual and SOME don’t know/understand their own Constitution.
      Your blanket statement implies that Americans are idiots. Anyone who engages in the number and type of blanket statements that you do is equally idiotic IMO.

  2. “..He’s a professor, so he probably doesn’t get us”—has curdled into a sour hostility. I think in part that’s driven by the divisiveness of political campaigns, by the Internet fuelling a deep sense of relative deprivation, which I think is something we don’t talk enough about, and a sense that the winners in the 21st century are people who can master information rather than labour…”

    Divisiveness of political campaigns? It wouldn’t be the disapearing middle class In the US that’s fueling this “relative deprivation”?

  3. I love Canada.

    Dr. Bethune is right.

    I love the U.S.A. too.

    I have a copy of the Constitution about two feet (who needs yer Napoleonic centimetres, eh) to my right, sandwiched between ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (in an English translation) and Joseph Pearce’s BEAUTEOUS TRUTH.

    My child is vaccinated and I have doubts about global warming, mostly because Hollywoodies are so vituperative about it.

    THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV (in an English translation) is, for me, The Book.

    I don’t like Senator Clinton or President Trump, and didn’t vote for either them. I wrote in my dog’s name.


  4. Read Nassim Taleb’s “Intellectual Yet Idiot” essay for the reason people have rejected “intellectuals”. And if journalists want to counter this trend, then we need to see more investigative journalism and less talking heads and “analysis”. Watching a panel of academics on the tele parsing the latest presidential press conference for 30 minutes does NOTHING to further one’s understanding of the important issues of the day. We need more real journalism, and far less CNN/Fox News/NYT bloviating.

    • Agreed.

  5. Many of my fellow citizens of the United States understand the Constitution just fine, they just don’t like or agree with it accept for a portion of the 2nd and 10th Amendments once they completely skip over the parts about the necessity of a well regulated militia and rights going to the people.

    • There it is right there……

      A ‘militia’ is a govt body…..not a bunch of good ole boys.

      They work FOR the govt…..against foreign aggression……they don’t work against their own govt

      • That is a very Canadian attitude and a very Canadian definition of ‘militia’. In America, yes, the militias exist, in part, to protect against their government gone too far. Yes, that’s the reason it’s in their constitution. Yes, those good ole boys think that they have all those guns to stop the government from doing something stupid, like taking their guns. And, like it or not, there is a reasonable argument to be made that the framers of said constitution actually agreed with them. It’s a strange place… and it only starts to make sense when you realise their constitution was created by a bunch of people that were fighting a war of independence. A very different story than Canadian history.

        • ‘Militia’ are used in place of a professional standing army…..which the US couldn’t afford back then. And it hadn’t been long since they fought invadders.

          The people who signed the constitution certainly didn’t mean for a bunch of good ole boys to shoot THEM. Where is the sense in shooting people you elect?

          Plus, of course, farmers with guns can’t fight a modern govt no matter how tough they think they are. That one misunderstanding alone has caused centuries of death and grief.

          • No one invaded the US; the citizens rebelled against their legitimate (at the time) government. The closest they came to being invaded was the British retaliatory strike in the war of 1812.

            The people that wrote the US constitution were very much aware that their system of government could be corrupted, thus all the other nonsense about separation of powers they have to muddle through even now. And, at the time, the farmers did have weapons quite similar to the military, excepting cannons. That militias could be used in defence of freedom FROM the government is, arguably, what they meant when they wrote it.

            I’m not saying they did mean that, just that there is a reasonable argument that can’t just be dismissed as absurd. It is only absurd to Canadians, and most of the rest of the world, and perhaps any alien observers, local deities, etc.. America is a strange place.

            As well, as it should be clear by reading the current news, a bunch of guys with assault rifles and improvised explosive devices can cause a well armed government army a rather lot of grief. Then there’s the rather odd point that the US military, excepting the National Guards, are prohibited by law from deploying in the US. That’s why, after Hurricane Katrina, it was the Canadian navy that ended up rescuing a bunch of Americans. The US navy didn’t deploy. Then, there’s the absurd notion that there are Americans worried about the reciprocal forces agreement between the US and Canada, the one that says the US government could request Canadian soldiers in the US to ‘help’. Yes, there are Americans that worry about the Canadian military invading. Like I said… strange place.

            The point I’m trying to make is that if you view American issues through Canadian definitions, and sensibilities, you might just come to the wrong conclusions.

            No arguments at all about the amount of grief Americans cause themselves with their firearms. But, they seem willing to pay the price.

        • Oh I’m well aware that America is a strange place…….look at the title of this article. after all.

          Canadians call them ‘Muricans.

          In any case it’s past time to give up the ‘wild west’ ….which never existed……and become civilized.

  6. The real reason for the anger is that readers have finally come to realize that they are being lied to repeatedly. The extreme left-wing bias combined with political correctness and writing anything to be alarmist, usually with even less than a grain of truth, continually degrades journalism. Journalists are now reaping what they’ve sown.

    • Would love to see an example or two of what you consider to be “exteme left-wing bias”. I hope it’s not just information you don’t agree with.

      • I mean, the lamestream media wouldn’t even investigate if Obama was a Kenyan muslim in disguise. Sad!

      • Depending on your country, you have a large number of instances to pick from:
        U.S: Everything which Trump does is viewed by the mainstream media as bad or wrong, even to the extent of making up stories to fit “their” narrative (e.g. CNN)
        Canadian: Everything which Stephen Harper was considered wrong or evil. Supposedly, he muzzled the climate scientists – where are all those reports now that they are not muzzled
        Very seldom is the complete disrespect for the Canadian people and outrageous wastage or “our” money by or PM mentioned by the left-wing Liberal media.
        How often has the extreme left CBC mentioned that the majority of Canadians do not agree with M-103, nor do they want the overrun of our country by illegals permitted to go on.
        There is no end to this list…

    • “…and writing anything to be alarmist, usually with even less than a grain of truth, continually degrades” your commentary.

  7. Not sure I’ve ever agreed and disagreed more with an article. I think Nichols is completely wrong to blame higher ed for this public anti-intellectualism. Sure, some of his criticisms of college are fair in and of themselves, but they are hardly the cause of the current toxic political environment. And contrary to what Nichols says, college education was one of the clearest indicators of Trump v. non-Trump supporters in 2016. Nowadays, higher education (along with urban v rural lifestyle) is one of the clearest signs of the red v blue divide.

    He is absolutely correct that everyone, right and left, needs to be more mindful of their respective media and social bubbles. But that point has been exhaustively discussed elsewhere.

    And I completely agree with Nichols that criticism of mainstream journalism has gotten out of hand. It’s part of the broader attack on establishment institutions that has been steam rolling the world for the past 10 years.

    But I strongly disagree that the experts are the ones who need to directly engage the public. That is too blunt a label, for one thing. There are many different types of “experts” and many are not equipped to communicate directly with the general public, nor should they. The job of translating expertise to common knowledge falls to *journalists*. Sure, some experts should do it too. But trying to convince the public of your expertise could be corrupting to that work. In fact, many of the most obnoxious “experts” out there are *celebrity* doctors, professors, analysts, and other professionals who seem more focused on selling themselves than true knowledge.

  8. The one word that has the most resonance is ‘insular’ most people can’t abide differences of opinion, or if you do agree with their goals, say by using, no, or much less carbon emitting fossil fuel, you must parrot their beliefs regarding climate change, whether you believe it or not, in order to be a ‘righteous’ person.

  9. The invocation is both-sidersism is itself a sad feature of anti-intellectualism. This article pretends that anti-vaxxer sentiment or anti-GMO thinking is in any way comparable the anti-climate change thinking that rules the Republican party these days. Is there any ‘leftist’ equivalent to a Republican Senator bringing a snowball in to the floor of the Senate as ‘evidence’ that global warming doesn’t exist?
    Educated people don’t feel the need to pretend objectivity is the same thing as saying all parties are equally bad. This practice of giving extra credence to right-wingers (because leftists are ‘just as bad’) only serves to reinforce the anti-intellectuals.

  10. Ignorance is bliss. Mocking the ‘Yankees’ is a 250+ year old Canadian tradition. The truth is that Americans have not cornered the market on ignorance and journalists have ever fascinated us with analysis of the PM’s sock drawer. The fact that intellectual snobbery is rampant in universities is scarcely news. However, it is wrong to assume that our conceptions depend entirely on information fed to us. Just as a fish has limited perception of the constraints of the fish bowl, we are much controlled by conventions of our particular society. Concepts like pyramidal organization, male dominance, and social class are so ingrained that they are taken as given. We routinely accept that lowest cost solutions constitute ideal governance and that trickle-down economics is a solid idea; royalist and class system notions permeate our consciousness. It’s still legitimate journalism to put down prominent females, critique their dress code and mock their femininity merely because we implicitly accept this behavior – even the routine expressions of surprise when women achieve is indicative of endemic misogyny. If we look closer to home, we can see that the US hasn’t cornered the market on boneheads, rednecks, racists, misogynists, royalists, gun nuts and cranks.