A Case Study in The Death of Expertise: Landshark Week 2017, Day 2

landshark week 2017 day 2

“[P]ublic policy is not a parlor game of prediction; it is about long-term choices rooted in thoughtful consideration of costs and alternatives.” – Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise

“This is not about a fact, it’s about a feeling.” – Aurora, Co City Councilwoman Molly Markert, defending her city’s breed ban


There is a long running frustration in the community of experts and advocates who have been fighting against breed specific legislation since the mid 80’s.  Feeling surreal at times and always defying comprehension, most or all of us have experienced the mental shock of watching someone with the power to make decisions that affect hundreds to thousands of lives look squarely at scientific evidence from acknowledged experts and simply disregard it, deferring to something somebody made up one time in that one newspaper or that one blog.  When being forced to argue against their drivel in various venues, I used to call these anti-pit bull zealots “microwave-experts” because their research took 2 minutes to complete and their info is half-baked, at best.

In (undeserved) credit to the “ignorancia,” there were at least some professional questions and uncertainty on the matter of dog bites and related fatalities when it first became a public policy  issue in the mid 80’s.  There was, however, never a large expert endorsement of breed specific policies.  In the decades since, the issue has become comically one-sided; with an avalanche of experts with countless hours of study and experience opposing breed specific legislation for reasons ranging from a complete foundational misunderstanding of dog “breeds” and behavior, to the empirical data that shows it is impossible to enforce affordably, properly, and fairly.  Statisticians have even weighed in with studies such as “Use of a number-need-to-ban calculation to illustrate limitations of breed-specific legislation in decreasing the risk of dog bite-related injury,” published in the JAVMA where the ridiculous notions behind breed specific policies as a means of increasing public safety were shown to be mathematically impossible to be effective.  Dr. David Banks, Professor of Statistics at Duke University was retained and gave an expert report in the case of Dias v. City and County of Denver in 2010 where he easily identified the major errors in the data used to support breed specific policies, even at times disparaging the methods used by the City to try to massage the data to support their stance.

doeAction based on fear and myths over expertise and science seemed so silly we used to regularly posit “The Bridge” thought experiment where we challenged people to consider if they would take recommendations from structural engineers to build a bridge or if they would rather use recommendations from the internet-psychics-turned-web-designers-turned-anti-bridge-activists at “bridgesbite.org.”  The whole thing was so preposterous we felt positive we were unique and alone in the world.  But as if responding to a damsel’s cries for help, riding in on a literary white horse is professor and author Tom Nichols with The Death of Expertise.  It simultaneously offers the comfort of telling us we are not alone with the dreadful realization that we are not alone.  Experts and expertise is being cast aside everywhere, and Nichols does a stellar job of explaining it and presents several ideas and anecdotes many of us will recognize from first-person experience.

From their first inception, breed bans have been a literal triumph of ignorance over expertise.   Breed bans were pre-quake tremors, a canary in the coal mine, opening bars in the requiem for the modern death of expertise and are an interesting case study in the elements of Nichols’ book:  blurring of lines between experts and laypeople, critical thinking and education failures, the rise of the Internet, and News Media.

Experts and Laypeople

Nichols discusses thoroughly the reasons for the breakdown between experts and non-experts and the precipitous devaluation of value of experts.  The loss of distinction between experts and non-experts in public spaces and forums, a reduced ability of experts and non-experts to communication effectively, and the narcissistic over-confidence of their knowledge by citizens combine with other factors to create a culture where experts are increasingly marginalized and the populist forces at work even shift from the historical disdain for “educated elites” to all out hostility.

In addition to the same challenges faced by all experts, dog experts seem to face an extra hurdle in the fading delineation between experts and non-experts.  There is a widespread feeling, even if unconscious, that dogs are such a common, folks-y experience – in many ways inseparable from the human experience itself – that everyone should be a dog expert.  I mean, they’re dogs…right?  It’s easy to be critical of a high school student who read half of a “viral” story on Facebook and wants to argue with a nuclear proliferation expert on Twitter as if their opinions are equal.  But with dogs…like…everyone has dogs.  So everyone is an expert, right?  Never mind the fact that as we have moved further and further from our relationships as working partners with dogs most people know very little about dog behavior, and as old wives tales and myths are presented as facts faster and farther on the Internet, – when it comes time to discuss a breed ban, we’re all equals here. Cuz dogs.  This takes us beyond the occasional “explainers” and know-it-alls and fills city councils and their public hearings with dog expert after dog expert.

Critical Thinking

Nichols offers a great explanation for the voluminous confidence of “birth-right expertise” that makes every person a dog expert, and particularly a pit bull expert.  While the original study and authors he refers to offers a kinder verbiage, Nichols’ is just more viscerally satisfying:  “The Dunning-Kruger Effect, in sum, means that the dumber you are, the more confident you are that you’re not actually dumb.”  After his blunt moment of honesty, Nichols offers a slightly more nuanced explanation of why experts have to fight so hard and loud against laypeople: “some of us, as indelicate as it might be to say it, are not intelligent enough to know when we’re wrong, no matter how good our intentions.”

But the failure of people to understand and grasp the complexities of a dog issue they think and wish was simpler isn’t just a failing of innate intelligence.  It is a breakdown of education and training in logic and critical thinking.  People are constantly challenged to overcome “conventional wisdom” and grasp concepts such as cause and effect, corollary vs causal, the difference between “facts” and “knowledge,” the nature of evidence, and risk telescoping – even making reference to another GDG favorite book, Innumeracy, to describe the broad lack of statistical and numerical skills in the population at large.

A few of the cognitive processes he addresses are particularly relevant and add poignant depth of understanding to “the pit bull issue”:

“Confirmation bias,” takes on a newly visceral character relative to dog behavior in Nichols’ telling.  “We are gripped by irrational fear rather than irrational optimism because confirmation bias is, in a way, a kind of survival mechanism…When we fight confirmation bias, we’re trying to correct for a basic function – a feature, not a bug – of the human mind.”  The fear underlying dogs and pit bulls is a very deep, base fear – that of being preyed upon, attacked and eaten.  Such a powerful and primitive fear is the fertile ground from which confirmation bias grows and this insight sheds some light on why confirmation bias may be particularly prevalent in non-experts exhorting their recently acquired but deeply held opinions on dogs.

The “pit bull issue” is more than just a gross misunderstanding of facts and statistics about the dangerousness of dogs or the fear of being attacked. It is deeply rooted in race and class social issues which go to the heart of peoples’ core values.  Adding his own thoughts to the words of David Dunning and Jonathan Haidt, Nichols’ explains how deeply people hold their core beliefs and even when faced with facts that challenge those beliefs, people will find a way to ignore or work around those facts to hold true to their values.  People try to present their preconceived opinions about pit bulls and pit bull owners as a broad generalization based on facts.  But considering the average person’s lack of in-depth experience with pit bulls and lack of any real expertise or knowledge about dogs and dog behavior they are merely speaking in stereotypes, not a generalization.  An important distinction as Nichols explains, “Stereotypes are not predictions, they’re conclusions.  That’s why it’s called “prejudice”: it relies on pre-judging.”  And when these stereotypes so strongly reinforce core values about “us and them” and “those people,” we are way past just showing that not all short haired dogs are dangerous, or even “pit bulls.”  And all these deeply held fears and biases are fed with vigor every time a person gets on the Internet.

The Internet

“Ask any professional about the death of expertise, and most of them will immediately blame the same culprit: the Internet.”

Nichols’ chapter on the internet reads like the biography of the pit bull online.  While


Godwin’s Law:  As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.  This picture is taken from a “leading anti pit bull website.

other breeds came and went in the boogie man breed de jur hot seat, the emergence of the Internet early in the “pit bull’s” turn as dog-ona non grata has given it unprecedented staying power – “Durable old urban legends and conspiracy theories, for example, have been reconditioned and given new life online,” says Nichols, “especially once hoaxers figured out how to make money out of spreading myths for precious clicks on websites.”  The preeminent on-line anti-pit bull bullshit artist, err activist, started out as an on-line fortune teller and then web designer before she finally learned how to monetize her anti-pit bull movement through “donations” and web traffic.  She is in no way what-so-ever, a dog expert.

Many of the problems with the Internet he laments are canonical in the world of professionals trying to beat back pit bull myths:

– low barriers to stupid people and bad information

– the decline of peoples’ ability to do real research

– the appearance of equivalence between expert and lay person opinions

– a destructive “veneer” of knowledge when in reality none exists

– the persistent longevity of bad information

– the manipulation of search engines to present bullshit ahead of facts

– the notorious uselessness of manipulative online polls

– the acceptance of memes and anecdotes as facts on social media, and, in all star fashion,

– the anit-pit bull trolls of the Internet could make Putin himself envious of their dogged coordination and epic mean streaks.

As pit bulls are rarely an issue in the absence of a rare but potent tragedy, the sudden appearance of it on the radar of local governments and their citizens always leads to an explosion of “tourist experts” who spend just enough time searching, if they search at all beyond a Facebook post they saw, to confirm what they already thought.  The extra-thorough and passionate people may even search until they find a study or paper or expert who agrees with them.  “This is erudition in the age of cyberspace: You surf until you reach the conclusion you’re after”

Then, when experts are asked to enter the fray and participate in a city council meeting or testimony on the subject, the wall of “tourist experts” can be exasperating.  “There is no way to enlighten people who believe they’ve gained a decade’s worth of knowledge because they’ve spent a morning with a search engine.”  And after their morning of search engine “‘power browsing’ horizontally through titles, contents and abstracts looking for wins,” the anti-pit bull zealots will inevitably present the same studies and papers that – if read beyond the headline or abstract – will explain thoroughly why they should not be used to draw erroneous, breed-specific conclusions.  “[Power Browsing] is actually the opposite of reading, aimed not so much at learning but at winning arguments or confirming a preexisting belief.”

If confronting Internet-born ignorance in real life is exhausting, doing it on the Internet is impossible, and, to a large degree, pointless. Nichols’ describes and explains in morbid, depressing detail what many dog experts have encountered online – people doubling down in the “backfire effect” when confronted with facts, the corrosive effect of broad anonymity, ignorant power in ignorant numbers, the pointlessness of “boring facts” and hard to understand numbers, and the toxic nature of online commentors.   Needless to say, I abandoned the “comments section” a while ago, and it was nice to read that some newspaper websites are abandoning them as well.

The Media

“Everyone makes mistakes…unfortunately these kinds of mistakes happen a lot more frequently in the new world of twenty-first-century journalism…journalism is now sometimes as much a contributor to the death of expertise as it is a defense against it.”

The media has been SO bad on this subject:

– unfamiliar journalists constantly cover it completely wrong

– report myths as facts – for DECADES

– misunderstand and/or misrepresent the statistics repeatedly

– a seeming purposeful aversion to critical thinking

– constantly choosing “if it bleeds it leads” sensationalism over responsible reporting that could affect public safety

– repeatedly held up complete frauds as equals to actual experts to create “balance” in reporting

– jamming the words “pit bull” into unrelated negative stories just for clicks (gdg headlines post)

But experts and advocates still clamor for a positive story.  And when the local news needs a feel good story, they’ll find the local pit bull therapy dog that visits veterans and they will run a puff piece.  And then when it suits them to get clicks they’ll turn back to the same old sensationalist shock reporting.  The whole thing takes on the air of a very abusive and unhealthy relationship.  “I know they’ll change…”

As is common now, sadly, many journalists do not take the time become experts in or even familiar with dangerous dog and breed issues.  But it isn’t just that journalists cover a subject they don’t bother to understand, it’s that they make errors that aren’t even original. Those errors amount to ignoring not only experts, but also every time their exact same mistake has been corrected by those experts over the last 30 years.  It’s just a bizarre Groundhog Day loop of story, correction from experts, same story, correction from experts, same story ad infinitum.  In an arena with too many competitors and too much time to fill, the need for clicks is strong, and the controversy of a pit bull post seems to be a well they are willing to draw from indefinitely.

In his disparagement of online polls, Nichols touches on one of the oldest and most annoying facets of the media’s coverage of pit bulls.  Riding the hysteria of a recent attack or just stoking attention for clicks, you can always count on an online poll asking random strangers if pit bulls are uniquely aggressive or dangerous and it is a perfect example of  the ridiculousness of taking a poll on a fact.

The grossly mis-applied concept of “balanced coverage” leads journalists to posit that if they are going to cover breed specific issues, they must find experts on both sides of it.  This artificial balance demand by the media has left a huge vacuum on one side that has been filled by charlatans and zealots masquerading as experts and the news media is all too happy to put them on a pedestal and treat their rantings as if they are equal in any way to the views of actual veterinarians, dog behavior experts, dog trainers, biologists, statisticians, etcetera.  This false equivalency and denigration of expert opinion down to the level of a lunatic fringe allows the news media to not only repeat the same story and make the same mistakes decade after decade, but they are also able to parade enough fake experts to give “the other side of the debate” that they have been able to propagate the illusion that there is even a debate still going on.

In an odd contrast to the distrust of media Nichols describes as prevalent and growing in American culture, there seems to be some kind of deal with the devil struck between journalists and consumers on this particular issue.  The journalists will continue to deliver blood and gore and scary stories to tell in the dark, and, having their fears and biases confirmed, the consumers will believe those stories without question.  The feedback loop of stupid is deafening and would just be a sad story – if it weren’t for the thousands of people and dogs affected.

“[W]hen the coverage turns to more serious issues, journalists who are lost in the subject matter and weighted down by their ideological biases can cause more confusion than illumination…This kind of outright ignorance or even professional malpractice can do grievous damage to real people and their communities.”

When Good Experts Go Bad

There are relatively few modern academic studies that claim a breed specific problem, or propose a breed specific solution. In fact, even in its hay-day in the 80’s and 90’s, even though the questions were being asked and researched, there were no peer reviewed conclusions to support the idea of dangerousness by breed. But the few studies that have come out in the last decade and either left a breed specific question hanging in a suggestive manner or outright advocated for it, are examples of when “Experts Go Bad.”  Perhaps, not so much malicious deception or falsifying results per se, as experts letting their confidence or their aspirations, or both, get a little carried away. A pronouncement on a controversial social and public safety issue may be more likely to get published and get broad attention than a study on surgical and recovery minutia that is beyond the ken and interest of most people.

Other times it seems more likely it is a case of experts merely drifting out of their lane. “One of the most common errors for experts to make is to assume that because they are smarter than most people about certain things, they are smarter than everyone about everything. They see their expert knowledge as a license to hold court about anything.” One of the main areas we see “lane drift” is from the medical community. (One of the examples Nichols gives is a pediatrician who drifted out of her lane into nuclear proliferation. I wonder what it is about doctors and lane drift…)   Medical journals that certainly have an interest in studying medical issues surrounding dog attacks seem to have a tendency to drift from their own area of expertise into things like dog behavior, canine genetics, and public safety best practices, repeatedly making basic errors of critical thinking along the way in addition to common other errors and simply being out of their element.

The authors of “Mortality, Mauling, and Maiming by Vicious Dogs,” published in Annals of Surgery, stepped outside of their own area of expertise and made proclamations as if the last 30 years of study and advancement in the field of canine behavior and dog bites had not taken place. For example, one of many concrete problems is that simply relying solely on eyewitness identification of the breed of dog involved in the attack completely invalidates the study for any breed related conclusions.  And to venture out of your lane in the medical field into the epidemiology of dog attacks with a question of frequency and severity of attack by breed is to ignore one of the main problems in the field that has been known by experts for decades: the unknown denominator.   If you don’t know the total population of a breed, and cannot clearly define which mutts and mixes should be counted among one single breed and not the other breeds with which they are mixed, then you cannot make any pronouncement about the relative dangerousness of a single breed or its mixes based on their representation in bite statistics.  Additionally, this ignores information that does show a correlation between relative popularity of a breed, and its appearance in headlines and bite statistics.

These mistakes are compounded by the fact that the peers asked to review such studies are limited by the same lack of relative expertise.  So mistakes that are well known and, frankly, remedial to actual experts in the field, are glossed over in these studies and then missed and approved in the peer review process – giving the study’s conclusions an erroneous air of veracity.

The preponderance of “evidence” presented in support of breed specific policies and the unique dangerousness of certain breeds, however, falls under the category of “fake experts” who are simply frauds masquerading as experts.  “Sometimes experts aren’t experts.  People lie, and lie brazenly, about their credentials.”  These are the notorious leaders of the anti-pit bull groups who are self anointed “experts” that have no formal training or education to back up their claims. They simply make claims, cherry pick news articles off of Google, call it “research,” self publish through their own groups and web sites, and then cite to themselves and their own work in a weird circular citation academic incest.

The driving force of the focus on dog attacks is that people do want to be able to predict and therefore prevent a dog attack.  Moving into “predictions” is another area Nichols cautions that experts can get into some trouble.  While researchers have greatly improved in understanding the factors involved in serious dog attacks, these attacks remain exceedingly rare – statistically so rare as to be near impossible to predict or prevent. Factors that have been exhaustively studied and identified in “Co-Occurence of Potentially Preventable Factors in 256 Dog Bite-Related Fatalities in the United States (2000-2009)” are nuanced, complex, and sometimes out of our control.  All of these are much harder to tell people, especially when they are scared, and are much less desirable than a simple solution like just blaming the breed.  While there are best practices in the fields of canine behavior and public safety, and there are common sense things people can learn, this is an area where experts should be particularly cautious about “predictive deliverables.”  Unintended consequences and a false sense of security that can come from dumbing down this subject and glossing over or ignoring the many caveats and complexities that come with discussing it to make it more digestible for an uneducated public can get people hurt.

Final Thoughts

“When told that ending poverty or preventing terrorism,” [or preventing dog attacks,] “is a lot harder than it looks, Americans roll their eyes.  Unable to comprehend all of the complexity around them, they choose instead to comprehend almost none of it…”

I’m not sure the average layperson’s foray into dog behavior could be better described than Nichols’ description of Philip Tetlock’s study on expertise, “laypeople, unfortunately, are not usually interested in finding experts with excellent track records: they are mostly interested in experts who are accessible without much effort and who already agree with their views.”  Where often times dog and public safety experts are busy and either intentionally or unintentionally unavailable, the anti-pit bull zealots know they can land blows in their fight simply by being at the top of an Internet search.

Nichols conclusion ties together many complex issues neatly, not the least of which is the hyper-partisan nature of our current culture and the impact it has on the death of expertise.  In the context of people who choose their values over facts when faced with facts, I’ve always found the pit bull issue to be an interesting litmus test of what is really driving the left-right divide.  Conservatives, who are supposed to be about “small government” often fall more in favor of breed specific legislation because it allows them to ignore the facts put before them and lets them reinforce their value system that views pit bulls and pit bull owners as ‘others’ and outside of social niceties and norms.  They, in essence, choose nanny government intervention in daily life over small government to help enforce a social order.  Where as the more liberal leaning “big government” people often times side against breed specific legislation and choose less government and more liberty when faced with the facts about pit bulls because it allows them to feel more compassionate.  I just find this juxtaposition on the role of government to be interesting.

The “pit bull issue” is a microcosm of the much greater threats to public safety and to the very fabric of our democratic society Nichols outlines in his book.  While he identifies the problems well and even posits how they can be solved, he does not hold out much hope those changes will come short of a calamity that forces them.  Based on my experience with this one issue over the last decade plus, I can’t find any fault in this assessment.

“Ordinary Americans might never have liked the educated or professional classes very much, but until recently they did not widely disdain their actual learning as a bad thing in itself.  It might even be too kind to call this merely “anti-rational”; it is almost reverse evolution away from tested knowledge and backward toward folk wisdom and myths passed by word of mouth – except with all of it now sent along at the speed of electrons.”


Buy the book.  Follow Tom Nichols on Twitter @RadioFreeTom.