Fuck The Experts

One day during my recent trip to New Mexico, I was driving along in my rental car with a co-worker, who I will call Curtis. We were admiring the landscape when I said something about how what is desert now was once a river flood plain and the city of Albuquerque sits atop millions of years worth of sediment from the Rio Grande. I already knew Curtis was religious, I just didn’t realize he was young earth religious until he went on a bit of a rant:

I don’t think they have the foggiest idea how old the earth is. They claim they do, and they are just as arrogant about that as they are about climate change. How can they tell me what the climate was 10,000 years ago, and predict what it will be 10,000 years from now, when they can’t accurately tell me what the weather will be next week?

There was more, but this is the part I remember well enough to give a near-verbatim quote. The word “they” is doing a lot of work in those few sentences. It starts out referring to geologists in general, then flips to climatologists in general, before landing specifically on Curtis’ local meteorologist. The written quote of this mini-Gish Gallop doesn’t really convey the disdain in Curtis’ voice for all of them.

I am far from a scientist, but I could have provided Curtis some good information about the methodology behind scientific estimates of the earth’s age. Or I could have pointed out how his tired, old argument against climate change conflates climate and weather, but honestly, the older I get the more I feel that life is too short to waste time arguing with Creationists and other magical thinkers. I changed the subject of conversation.

Curtis is an intelligent man. He did not come to his conclusions through ignorance. As with all ideologues, he chose to believe what he believes, therefore questioning his beliefs is tantamount to questioning his judgement, and will only be met with anger and a tighter clinging to those beliefs. Eventually ideology becomes more than an obstacle to the exchange of ideas, it becomes a barrier to objective reality.

Only slightly apropos of that, I purchased an e-copy of a new book by Thomas M. Nichols entitled The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters. Here is Amazon’s blurb about it:

People are now exposed to more information than ever before, provided both by technology and by increasing access to every level of education. These societal gains, however, have also helped fuel a surge in narcissistic and misguided intellectual egalitarianism that has crippled informed debates on any number of issues. Today, everyone knows everything: with only a quick trip through WebMD or Wikipedia, average citizens believe themselves to be on an equal intellectual footing with doctors and diplomats. All voices, even the most ridiculous, demand to be taken with equal seriousness, and any claim to the contrary is dismissed as undemocratic elitism.

As Tom Nichols shows in The Death of Expertise, this rejection of experts has occurred for many reasons, including the openness of the internet, the emergence of a customer satisfaction model in higher education, and the transformation of the news industry into a 24-hour entertainment machine. Paradoxically, the increasingly democratic dissemination of information, rather than producing an educated public, has instead created an army of ill-informed and angry citizens who denounce intellectual achievement.

Nichols has deeper concerns than the current rejection of expertise and learning, noting that when ordinary citizens believe that no one knows more than anyone else, democratic institutions themselves are in danger of falling either to populism or to technocracy-or in the worst case, a combination of both. The Death of Expertise is not only an exploration of a dangerous phenomenon but also a warning about the stability and survival of modern democracy in the Information Age.

That last paragraph sounds remarkably prescient, doesn’t it? If no one respects knowledge and intellectualism any more, we could end up with our government run by a dangerously ignorant, astonishingly arrogant, loudmouth blowhard reality teevee con man. Sounds pretty scary.

I haven’t started the book yet. I’m going to dive into it as soon as I finish the trashy sci-fi paperback I’m currently working on. I’m not feeling optimistic that Nichols will offer any realistic solutions, though. We are way, way down the rabbit hole.

 

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