The TV Show Friends and the Downfall of Western Civilization

by | May 4, 2021


In his 2016 essay in Medium, David Hopkins blames the TV sitcom Friends for the downfall of Western Civilization. The premise of the article sounds ridiculous, but it makes an important point about our society’s view of experts. He claimed the show “signals a harsh embrace of anti-intellectualism in America, where a gifted and intelligent man is persecuted by his idiot compatriots.” Of course, he’s referring to Ross, a paleontologist, who is picked on by his friends for being boring and too intellectual. It’s a theme that runs throughout the entire ten seasons of “Friends.” The anti-intellectualism modeled on Friends was watched by tens of millions each week for a decade and Hopkins thinks that it made its way into the American zeitgeist.

Hopkins is on to something. We do have an problem with experts in America. Large swaths of the population reject what experts say simply because they are experts. Case in point, I recently had a conversation about COVID vaccines with the guy working on my air conditioner. He said he wasn’t going to get vaccinated because he thought COVID was no worse than seasonal flu, and he didn’t think the vaccines were safe. I told him about a webinar I’d attended where an infectious disease specialist from Columbia University presented why COVID is much worse than the flu, how the vaccines work, and why they are safe.

The repair guy said, “I don’t trust people from universities.” Unfortunately, his view is shared by tens of millions of Americans.

There’s paradox here. The COVID mRNA vaccines are stunning achievements that illustrate the power of science and the importance of expertise, but, for a large portion of the populace, their roll-out has created even greater distrust of science and experts.

If you had told me a few decades ago that everybody would have nearly all the world’s information in our pockets, I would have thought that society would be better informed and more rational. Regrettably, the opposite has occurred. This contrast was captured by Tom Nichols in his book The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters:

These are dangerous times. Never have so many people had so much access to so much knowledge and yet have been so resistant to learning anything. In the United States and other developed nations, otherwise intelligent people denigrate intellectual achievement and reject the advice of experts. Not only do increasing numbers of laypeople lack basic knowledge, they reject fundamental rules of evidence and refuse to learn how to make a logical argument. In doing so, they risk throwing away centuries of accumulated knowledge and undermining the practices and habits that allow us to develop new knowledge.

I think Tom Nichols is correct, and I’m concerned for our country and species. Experts are vital. We need expert engineers, scientists, medical doctors, psychologists, physicists, and geneticists. Each generation of experts stands on the shoulders of the prior generation and contributes to the unfolding of our progress. Gene editing, new types of vaccines, and the possibility of clean energy through promising technologies like nuclear fusion stand to improve humanity and enable   humanity’s long-term survival.

Of course, experts aren’t infallible. They make mistakes and can be wrong, but that doesn’t mean that we should dismiss experts altogether. For example, early in the pandemic it was thought that SARS-Cov-2 spread via contact. So, we all used a ton of hand sanitizer and wiped down our groceries. Then it was determined that the virus didn’t spread by contact. I know people who now dismiss any sort of advice about COVID from experts because they were wrong about hand washing. What these people are missing is that there was good reason to think that the virus spread by contact because experiments showed it could live on surfaces for hour or days. It was only through rigorous epidemiological analysis and testing that it was determined that there is only a small risk of COVID from contact. This is how science works.


  1. What isn’t being addressed in the post is why the repair guy “doesn’t trust people from universities”. It’s too simple to say it’s anti-intellectualism or there is too much bad info on the internet. The universities and the broadcast media have rightfully lost their credibility with large swaths of the population, working class and otherwise, by their open and un-apologetic embrace of leftist social and political ideology. Why doesn’t the repair man trust the expert epidemiologist at Harvard talking about COVID? Because his colleague in the sociology department in the same institution just told him that he’s a bigot if he think it’s unfair for those born as biological males to compete in women’s sports. The media tries to reassure its viewers that there was no widespread fraud in the election of Joe Biden. (there wasn’t). But this is the same media that for four years cheered and promoted endless Russia theories and investigations to get rid of Trump. (the independent investigation came up with nothing of material or impeachable). These “expert” institutions did it to themselves- they are not trusted because they have become politicized i.e. that is why the repair man “doesn’t trust people from universities.”

    • Such a good point! Thanks

  2. I’d like to add previous comments from Susan Fitzpatrick, Matt – another reason to such distrust to “experts” opinions is that they often contradict to each other, and even more often in our days that “experts” opinions are politicized!

  3. Expertise does not equal influence. To know something deeply is one thing, to be able to influence and lead others using your knowledge is another matter. IMO this is why exceptional leadership is rare. Takes both technical expertise and the ability to communicate with others. Many experts love themselves and what they know, forgetting the audience.

    Ross was boring.

  4. Let’s not forget that our political elites have also rejected science which certainly adds to the skepticism from those who consider them leaders. I can certainly understand why your hvac man feels the way he does.

  5. Academic experts in particular have burnt bridges by being pedantic, overbearing, sanctimonious and patronizing. A bit of humbleness when wrong might also go along way. Too often experts talk without listening. And they forget the basic rule that expertise does not transfer. We are quick to note that your workman is not a vaccine expert even though he is an expert with specialized skills and knowledge. Honoring his expertise might be one way to build the respect and trust needed so he would honor someone with different expertise.

    • True. Thank you for this perspective. Especially coming from an expert scientist!

  6. Hear, hear! As Mozart famously said, “we all stand on Bach’s shoulders!” The real question is what tangible things can we do to reverse this trend. Or maybe the few among us that rely on experts should use our knowledge to take advantage of our ignorant brethren. (lol)

  7. I agree that schools’ should build richer portfolios with their students. They have too many worksheets and cookie-cutter projects. If I look either to my own graduate school work or at the course offerings from a fancy private university that conclusion is supported.

    However, I think you would find (as in any other industry) that schools have largely improved over time. It may be a case of two steps forward, one step back, but there is a good deal of creativity and rigor from what I have seen. We might cringe at a modern baseball team’s use of the defensive shifts and launch angle and exit velocity. But I bet our slightly above average 2021 Saint Louis Cardinals would probably beat up on the beloved 1980’s version of our team.

    I think the internet, the creation of reality stars, smartphones, and social media have all contributed to a lack of trust in experts but also a misrepresentation of what it takes to be an expert.

    To play the other side of the coin: Americans have always made fun of nerds in popular culture and Ross was a huge nerd.

  8. I share your concern, John. I also haven’t figured out how we combat this trend. Maybe your headline has the answer – – a Friends reboot that uses comedy to show the importance of science and expertise.

  9. One of the best IFOD this year.

  10. John… Perhaps the show contribute to the fall. However, I tend to think the fall started long before Friends came along. I believe it has to do with the school system.

    I believe what is lacking is even the smallest sliver of critical thinking. If people had been taught to think critically, perhaps they could compare on contrast even the simplest things seen on the news to form their own opinions independently. That teaching begins in schools.

    Instead, from the earliest ages, kids are taught to follow along. Take the shortest path to passing the test. “This is the way and you will follow”. How does that bode when you are now an adult with the likes of the new channels spewing the kind of stuff they do. And it’s not just one side. Even the “mainstream” media spouts stuff that a critically thinking person can stop and look at and see that it is skewed.

    If I had a magic wand, I would start there. In the schools.

  11. Amen, John. Great one today – thanks as always


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