Author Says Hostility Toward Expert Witnesses Rooted In Narcissism, Lack Of Trust Michel Martin speaks with Tom Nichols, author of The Death of Expertise, about the treatment of expert witnesses during the impeachment proceedings.
NPR logo

Author Says Hostility Toward Expert Witnesses Rooted In Narcissism, Lack Of Trust

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/785958778/785958779" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Author Says Hostility Toward Expert Witnesses Rooted In Narcissism, Lack Of Trust

Author Says Hostility Toward Expert Witnesses Rooted In Narcissism, Lack Of Trust

Author Says Hostility Toward Expert Witnesses Rooted In Narcissism, Lack Of Trust

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/785958778/785958779" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Michel Martin speaks with Tom Nichols, author of The Death of Expertise, about the treatment of expert witnesses during the impeachment proceedings.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There are a lot of words we could use to describe the impeachment hearings held so far by the House Intelligence Committee and the Judiciary Committee - tense, heated, personal. And that's not just a reference to the sparring between Democrats and Republicans. No, even the witnesses are feeling the heat and having their motives questioned. On Wednesday, Doug Collins, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, suggested that Stanford law professor Pamela Karlan was not acquainted with past testimony, which caused Karlan to respond this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAMELA KARLAN: I would not speak about these things without reviewing the facts, so I'm insulted by the suggestion that as a law professor, I don't care about those facts.

MARTIN: Now, exchanges like this one have sparked a lot of commentary throughout these hearings, with some suggesting that gender dynamics might be at play or that it's just simply a reflection of today's political divisions. But Tom Nichols thinks it might be something else. He is the author of "The Death Of Expertise," and he's with us now from Rhode Island.

Professor Nichols, thanks so much for talking to us.

TOM NICHOLS: My pleasure.

MARTIN: So the exchange we just played got a lot of attention this week. I assume you've been watching the hearings as well. What have you noticed?

NICHOLS: The problem here is that the hearings were basically a setup of dueling experts. And this is when people start to distrust expertise because they think of experts as hired guns. And so I think there are a lot of people in the public who looked at this and said, experts know a lot of things, but they bring that expertise into political service. I think that's unfortunate because experts try quite consciously not to do that. I shared professor Karlan's outrage at Doug Collins' question. But it's - in a political environment, that's to be expected.

MARTIN: Well, one recurring claim from the Republicans during these impeachment hearings is that the witnesses and experts testifying are partisan. And one lawmaker on Wednesday even asked the three law professors who were chosen by the Democrats as witnesses how they had voted in 2016. I'll just play that exchange.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM MCCLINTOCK: Could I begin just with a show of hands? How many on the panel actually voted for Donald Trump in 2016?

KARLAN: I don't think we're obligated to say anything about how we cast our ballots.

MCCLINTOCK: Just show of hands.

MARTIN: And I just want to point out that the fourth witness on Wednesday, Jonathan Turley, whom you just mentioned, who was chosen by the Republicans to testify, felt the need to say that he was not a Trump supporter. So, given your thesis here, that the main point of your book, "The Death Of Expertise," is that the American public has grown hostile towards expertise overall, what do you make of that whole exchange there? How do you understand what just happened there?

NICHOLS: The question was completely inappropriate. And it underlines, I think, a popular view that if experts have well-defined political views, they are incapable of being professionals and keeping those views out of their work. This is, I think, one of the things that the president has really hammered home over the years - that you can't trust journalists. You can't trust scientists. You can't trust anybody except him. But this predates President Trump - that, you know, because people don't really understand a lot of these issues, they assume that anyone who explains them is trying to hoodwink them.

MARTIN: Let's go back to the point that you made earlier. Your book, "The Death Of Expertise," precedes President Trump's administration. To what do you attribute this? I mean, you say that this whole attitude that there is no such thing as earned expertise is a longstanding sort of problem. To what do you attribute it?

MCCLINTOCK: I think the underlying problem in not just American culture but in the developed world is an increasing narcissism that convinces people that complicated issues are simple and that they can figure them out because we're all intelligent people, and we all can embrace even the most complicated issues. And I thought I was primarily writing about Americans - and within a year was in 12 foreign languages, which really disturbed me because it suggests that this is a problem of affluence, of the kind of information overload that's available through too much bandwidth on television and cable and the media and the Internet.

And I think it also reflects a lack of trust. We used to trust each other more. We used to assume that our doctor was not in the pocket of big pharma or that, you know, our carpenter was not in the pocket of big wood. But now we look at each other constantly with a jaundiced eye in part because we spend too much time alone, and in part because everything is become an extension of politics, and it's driven us crazy.

MARTIN: Is there any benefit - now I am asking you to kind of return to the present moment. Do you feel that there has been any benefit to these hearings to kind of describe to the public - to lay out the case to the public? I mean, that's the purpose of these public hearings. Do you feel any useful purpose has been served?

NICHOLS: I took quite a lot of static from a lot of people on social media because I did not think the impeachment hearings with a panel of lawyers went particularly well. I think all it did was confirm people in their beliefs either one way or another. It gave an opportunity to politicians from both sides do a lot of grandstanding that I think was unfortunate.

I think some of the questioning was excellent. I think if you were paying attention with an open mind, you could learn things. But I don't think it really moved the public debate or produced that much of a moment of civic education. I think what I would rather see are members of Congress debating each other directly instead of sitting up behind a podium and just throwing spitballs at professors, which is something that a lot of people just find entertaining.

So I think actually having to go to the floor and debate each other and marshal these arguments about what constitutes impeachment, what the Federalist Papers may have said, what the founders may have believed - I think educating our members of Congress would be a better use of our time and then forcing the American public to watch that debate and to hear those arguments than to just, you know, pepper a panel of professors with preloaded questions.

MARTIN: That was Tom Nichols. He's the author of "The Death Of Expertise." He's also a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, but wants to emphasize that he's speaking here in his own behalf.

Professor Nichols, thank you so much for talking to us.

NICHOLS: Thanks for having me.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.