Sources and Methods #36: Thomas Nichols

Thomas Nichols 101:

Nichols' website

Nichols on Twitter

Nichols on Facebook

 

Show notes:

4:30 - It’s an ironic paradox - there’s more information in the world than there’s ever been, but people are less informed.

 4:46 - The hallmarks of expertise are not just the traditional markers that people often think of and they often reject by the way. When you say ‘expert’ people think ‘someone with credentials’ and then you get into all kinds of arguments about whether credentials really matter, whether smart people don’t need them, whether there are dumb people who have degrees on the wall, that’s just part of it.

I argue in the book that expertise is a complex of things: credentials, experience, longevity in the field, peer-review or affirmation by other people (and I don’t just mean academically). If you’re a master electrician, that’s determined by other electricians who decide to bestow that on you after examining you and watching you. As well as talent. It’s those things taken together that makes an expert, which is really more of an art rather a science. It’s the weighted outcome of all of those things together.

7:04 - We’ve had Know Nothing parties in the past. But what’s different about this time is how much it’s driven by narcissism. In previous eras I think you’d find some of this rift was between town and gown, educated and less educated, knowers and lay people - this was driven by class differences, regional differences. What’s striking to me now is it seems to be spread across classes, regions, genders, races, and at the root of it all is this notion that “I’m smart.” I’m smart enough to know that I’m smarter than my doctor.

And this is different than previous eras in American history.

 10:32 - [Students] think of libraries as book warehouses. They don’t think of them as institutions full of professionals there to help them. And what they really don’t understand is that the books that are in a library are there because people who understand books and publishing have made a decision about what books should and should not be there. Whereas younger folks would argue that gatekeepers are just there to get in your way, they represent the establishment, they are part of the ‘publishing-knowledge-complex’ or something and that going on the Internet is a more liberating and freeing thing. That’s like saying that instead of getting your medications from a pharmacy, with a professional pharmacist, you should just walk down the street and talk to any unlicensed herbalist who happens to be sitting around.

 Reference librarians in particular are my heroes.

 17:09 - We’re going to get a very steep pyramid of knowledge. I think we’re seeing it already. We’ll get a small number of people at the top of the information heap who know how things work and how to make things work. And they will be disproportionately rewarded for it because those skills are rare. Beneath that are people are people who haven’t taken the time to figure out how things work, whether it’s technology or diplomacy or public policy or how a road gets paved… the more people who opt out of that, the more and more rewarded a small elite will be for knowing that stuff. And I think that’s already happening, and it leads to a great deal of resentment between laypeople and experts who then become well rewarded elites.

 I tell people that this is not happening because elitists are keeping you down. It’s happening by default. When people say ‘it’s too complicated’ well the people who are involved, who take the time to learn these things, are well rewarded and compensated socially and materially for knowing things.

 19:29 - When I teach classes on the Cold War, I always make my students watch a movie from about 40 years ago called Three Days of the Condor. And an intelligence spook says, “why do we have so much power” and the answer is “because when things go wrong, people are not going to want us to ask their permission. There’s just going to want us to get it for them.” I always found that a really chilling kind of expression of that kind of technocracy. And in the end, for all the complaining about elites and experts, people will expect, that when they turn on their tap, clean water comes out. That when they want to fill up their cars, gasoline comes out. That the Internet works. That the mail gets delivered. That packages can be sent.

 This notion that ‘we’re just going to tear it all down and who needs elites’ - people rely on all this stuff every day. And I worry about experts simply turning to each other and saying ‘probably better not to ask anymore, probably better not to engage the public anymore, let’s just do the things we know need to be done.’ I think that’s far more of a danger, because I think we’re already in that situation, than rule by the mob because populism isn’t sustainable. It tends to be a temper tantrum that comes and goes as we’ve seen in American history. There are no really successful, sustained populist movements. While populism is good for venting anger, it’s really bad for the mail. I worry about both of those outcomes, because both are the separation of experts from lay people, where they simply stop talking to each other about how to create good public policy.

 22:26 - This is why I argue at the end of the book for the need for experts to re-engage the public. Because it’s not fun. It’s not fun to engage with the public because you can’t tell them what they want to hear.

 Dr. Nichols article: “The Death of Expertise” in the Federalist.

 26:58 (On how to work on expertise daily) - Read a newspaper. A reputable national newspaper. And just read it. Start there. I think if people would go back to doing that, it would make us a different country. Find a source you disagree with and read that. Regularly read one newspaper or journal that you don’t agree with.

 31:29 - People no longer have the patience to read a newspaper or to read a book. They want it digested, into searchable chunks. I think that’s killing people’s ability to think.

 32:25 - Experts need to shout back at the mob. Experts need to stake that ground out again. Instead of constantly kowtowing to this populist notion that ‘we all have an opinion’ and ‘we should all be taken seriously’ I think experts need to reassert their expertise. And again, this is not going to be pleasant. This is not going to be fun.

 Experts and academics also need to be better at policing each other about the kind of work we’re doing.

 Everybody’s opinion is not equal.

 41:07 (On Getting Onto Jeopardy): You can’t really study for it. The people that went to the jeopardy test with atlases and encyclopedias, almost all of them failed. The trick to jeopardy is understanding that 90% of the time the answer to the question is buried right there in the clue. And the other is that no matter how good you are, if you can’t master that little buzzer…

 The idea that you need to be smart and study and pore over maps, those people rarely do well on Jeopardy. If people want to know what the experience is like, watch it at home while you’re standing up. A friend of mine give me that advice to prepare.

 Remember, one of the great players, was Frank Spangenberg, a NYC Transit Cop. Being an expert on jeopardy is no help.

 Book Recommendation:

I re-read The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis every year.

Sources and Methods #17: Leah Farrall

 
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Our thanks to Tinderbox for sponsoring this week's episode. Listen to our interview with Tinderbox's creator, Mark Bernstein here, and check out Tinderbox here.

Leah Farrall 101:

Leah's website

Leah on Twitter

Leah's new book: The Arabs at War in Afghanistan

Show Notes:

10:59 – I actually took a lot of my inspiration from screenwriting books and documentary books than any other work. Narrative arcs and how we could do that type of thing, because some of these conversations could fill books in themselves.

12:00 – Our particular goal was to make a book for kids in a library to read in future generations.

13:35 – There are four things I will fess up to being quite shocked by:

1)   Spoils of war from the First Iraq War ending up in Jalalabad

2)   The details of Bin Laden’s support for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

3)   Abu Musab al-Suri and the issue of recruit poaching

4)   The involvement of Al-Qaeda in Yemen, going back as far as it did

This all has relevance to today – we always want to look at change without looking at continuity.

15:10 – Ideology comes last, not first

17:30 – The entire way in which we study this material, we’ve got it the wrong way around and I think we really need to have a good hard think about it. To me, that’s what part of this book shows. That we got so much of this history wrong. And we got it wrong because we always try to jump to a solution without letting the history speak for itself first.

20:57 – Mustafa and I being able to do this book was a unique confluence of circumstances and also as well as personalities. Both of us had influence within our fields, but also operated on the edge of them.

29:52 – Everyone has an agenda for everything they do, and this is important to remember.

42:01 – Implications of fighting for funding: the pressure to reduce everything to bite size chunks. And with that, we’re missing the ability to chart emerging landscapes and how they’re changing. And it’s very rare that you get that type of funding coming through. The traditional funding structures have not caught up to the changing research environment. So we’ll need to look at new ways of collaborating and new ways of researching. The nice side is that the online space means that people like us can contact each other and work together in a way that we couldn’t before, and that’s breaking down some of the barriers that academia is putting up in other areas.

46:45 – Teaching should be research led. So it’s balancing the research you need to do when you’re teaching with the research you want to do. And I haven’t found my balance yet.

49:29 – I taught, before 9/11, and taught a counter-terrorism course, and one of the things I made every single one of these students in this tutorial class do was give me their own definitions of terrorism, and present to the class the reasons why. And they couldn’t just pick an existing definition and if they did they had to really heavily justify it and explain why they felt nothing should be added or removed. So after the first few it got really tiring, as you would imagine. But when you pushed through, the discussion started, and I found it fascinating that – well, it’s 2015, and my students still get back to me and they still remember those definitions. That formed the basis of thinking exercises that I did throughout the entire course.

51:09 – I think (research) is all about the teaching or research objectives. I remember I had colleagues in the Australian Federal Police and I felt sorry for them (though I was no different) because no one really taught us critical thinking. I hit the work place, and I didn’t know how to think critically and I didn’t know how to analyze. I think we’ve got a real responsibility to make sure that’s what we’re teaching our students. You want to give students transferable skills.

53:58 – Gregory Johnsen’s (previous guest on the show!) excellent AUMF piece

54:30 – In the quest for knowledge, how we see something and how we understand it is essentially the main starting point and the main problem as well.

56:30 – I’m a very visual person and I’m a very messy person…often just grabbing a notepad and scribbling down notes. I love Analyst’s Notebook, purely because you can make a mess.

I also have a box full of post-it notes, and use butcher's block and put those post-its on top of it.

One Research Ladder

1:01:01 – I think there’s something to be said for it (getting up and going) but you have to be very sure of your own strengths and weaknesses, and what you will and won’t tolerate. It sounds silly, but if the value and integrity of your work is something you value above all else, be prepared to be blacklisted. I’ve pulled things from high-profile publications because they’ve insisted on using different words that would misrepresent something so badly that subject matter experts would say ‘what the hell.’ Now, that’s my personal commitment, but that’s come with a cost.  And to anybody coming into the academic field, be aware of that type of stuff. Be aware of what you will commit to and what you won’t. Because there will come a time where you will have to make a choice – do you surrender some of that integrity? Is having that profile important to you? Is being on TV important to you? If so, great, but know with that it comes with certain benefits and certain negatives.

Sources and Methods #14: Gregory Johnsen

 
Johnsen%2c Gregory D credit Jeff Taylor-1-3.jpg
 

Gregory Johnsen 101:

Gregory on Twitter

Gregory on Buzzfeed

Gregory's book

Waq al-Waq

Show Notes:

3:39 -I’ve had the idea of writing the book since 2002, and the book wasn’t finished until 2012, so it’s been a 10 year process and the last four of those are writing… I had to throw

4:31 - One of the things that’s really benefited me is reading people who are much better writers than myself. I really love Lawrence Wright’s book The Looming Tower, which is on Al-Qaeda and the leadup to 9/11. And I think he does an excellent job of telling a very complicated story in a way that’s very readable, and it has narrative, and it has drama.

5:01 - When I first started writing, I was obsessed with sentences, with making really beautiful sentences. And then I started going back and looking at books I really enjoyed and found that the sentences were often very simple, but that the narrative as a whole just sort of carried you along.

5:50 - Something that keeps people reading that page, it’s what I try to do.

6:40 - I’m trained as a historian, not a journalist or a writer....But I don’t tend to enjoy most of the academic writing that I read. It seems almost designed to keep people out - the language that’s used, the theories discussed, the sentence structure…. the academy does not reward readability.

10:22 - Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land is one of my favorite books, and my favorite book on Yemen.

14:55 - Junior year in college, I studied at the American University of Cairo.

15:34 - [On having someone to review your work] Any time you have an audience that you know particularly well, and an audience that knows writing structure and writing form, you can see yourself progress over the years

17:45 - Yemen is a very small country, so the longer you go there, the more people you meet, and eventually you start to meet people who know different things. It’s also a country that’s built on personal relationships, so the longer I spent there, the more people came to see me as I grew in my understanding of the culture and history and language… At one point, I’d been chewing qat with a guy for six months, seven months… and one day out of the blue, he’s like ‘hey, you know, my family has all these old records from the Ottoman period in Yemen that if you ever want to take a look at you can just swing by the house and we’d show you all these things.’ And that’s sort of how things in Yemen work, once people trust you.

19:04 - One of the things that also helped was the amount of stuff that Al Qaeda itself published. They would publish these ‘martyr biographies’ that would go into incredible details about this person’s life… all of these things were really sort of excellent resources for me as I’m going through this material...obviously you have to be careful with how you handle this kind of material, but they aren’t the only source, so you can do a lot of triangulation. And there are also Yemeni journalists that sit down with Al Qaeda, and I was able to know these [Yemeni journalists] who were welcome and gracious… I couldn’t have written the book without the help of all of these Yemenis who were just so incredibly giving.

22:40 - Fieldwork is essential.

22:50 - The American Institute of Yemeni Studies

29:44 - I scribble things on scraps of paper that then end up in Ziplock bags, which is as disorganized as it sounds… and then I use Microsoft Word, and I sit down and write.

31:46 - I don’t typically do a lot of outlining, but I do do a lot of re-writing… I’ll be at my desk by 9am and just write until - well, I know myself well enough by now to know the point at which I’m not going to get any more productive work done, and that’s usually around 4pm or so, and then I go for a run, and then the day is over… The next day, I typically read back through everything that I have, and as I read back through it I tend to find places that just don’t work… and then I spend time fixing those.

37:38 - Buzzfeed is one of the few media organizations I’m aware of that would fund something like [his fellowship] to the degree that they did and give me the flexibility and the freedom - things that I really value.

39:50 - Gregory’s great story about one sentence: 60 Words and A War Without End

50:57 - I could not have written the book that I did without Arabic [language abilities].

Greg’s Books:

Haruki Murakami - Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72 by Hunter S. Thompson

Matt’s Book: The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin

Greg’s Film: It’s a Wonderful Life

Alex’s Book: Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenges and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy by Jonathon A. C. Brown

Greg’s Music: Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony: