Thursday, March 16, 2017

Half-blind experts and the straw men they create

Foreign Affairs features an article by professor Tom Nichols on the Perils of Democracy and the Ordeal of one of America’s most vulnerable classes:

How America Lost Faith in Expertise

It's not just that people don't know a lot about science or politics or geography. They don't, but that's an old problem. The bigger concern today is that Americans have reached a point where ignorance--at least regarding what is generally considered established knowledge in public policy--is seen as an actual virtue. To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to demonstrate their independence from nefarious elites--and insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they're wrong.
The article will appeal to all those in the “credentialed not educated" classes who are still dealing with post-election trauma. Like a good friend after a break up, Nichols reassures the Acela riders “It’s not you, it’s the idiots who don’t recognize your value.”

I doubt that Nichols will win many converts. G. K. Chesterton was a formidable polemicist and debater because he tried to “never let a quarrel ruin a good argument.” On Twitter (@RadioFreeTom) Nichols is the anti-Chesterton. He never argues when he can dismiss and demean.

This passage is hilarious and damning:

Conspiracy theories are attractive to people who have a hard time making sense of a complicated world and little patience for boring, detailed explanations. They are also a way for people to give context and meaning to events that frighten them. Without a coherent explanation for why terrible things happen to innocent people, they would have to accept such occurrences as nothing more than the random cruelty of either an uncaring universe or an incomprehensible deity. And just as individuals facing grief and confusion look for meaning where none may exist, so, too, will entire societies gravitate toward outlandish theories when collectively subjected to a terrible national experience. Conspiracy theories and the awed reasoning behind them, as the Canadian writer Jonathan Kay has noted, become especially seductive "in any society that has suffered an epic, collectively felt trauma." This is why they spiked in popularity after World War I, the Russian Revolution, the Kennedy assassination, the 9/11 attacks, and other major disasters--and are growing now in response to destabilizing contemporary trends, such as the economic and social dislocations of globalization and persistent terrorism.

At their worst, conspiracy theories can produce a moral panic in which innocent people get hurt. But even when they seem trivial, their prevalence undermines the sort of reasoned interpersonal discourse on which liberal democracy depends. Why? Because by definition, conspiracy theories are unfalsifiable: experts who contradict them demonstrate that they, too, are part of the conspiracy.
As recently noted on this blog (“They trusted the experts”) the ritual child abuse panics of the 1980s and 1990s were fueled by the insane conspiracy theories of experts: child psychologists, social workers, policeman, prosecutors.

Nichols teaches at the Naval War College. This piece notes that the experts of the 1990s got most of the big things wrong when it came to Future War:

Anticipating Contemporary War: How Well Did We Do?
This article by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is also well worth a read:

The Intellectual Yet Idiot

What we have been seeing worldwide, from India to the UK to the US, is the rebellion against the inner circle of no-skin-in-the-game policymaking “clerks” and journalists-insiders, that class of paternalistic semi-intellectual experts with some Ivy league, Oxford-Cambridge, or similar label-driven education who are telling the rest of us 1) what to do, 2) what to eat, 3) how to speak, 4) how to think… and 5) who to vote for.

But the problem is the one-eyed following the blind: these self-described members of the “intelligentsia” can’t find a coconut in Coconut Island, meaning they aren’t intelligent enough to define intelligence hence fall into circularities??but their main skill is capacity to pass exams written by people like them. With psychology papers replicating less than 40%, dietary advice reversing after 30 years of fatphobia, macroeconomic analysis working worse than astrology, the appointment of Bernanke who was less than clueless of the risks, and pharmaceutical trials replicating at best only 1/3 of the time, people are perfectly entitled to rely on their own ancestral instinct and listen to their grandmothers (or Montaigne and such filtered classical knowledge) with a better track record than these policymaking goons.

Changing Minds

More on Changing Minds

UPDATE 3-20-2017:

Instapundit weighs in:

The suicide of expertise

It doesn’t matter what your SAT scores were, voters are under no obligation to listen to you unless they find what you say persuasive.

And you know what makes you less persuasive? The kind of contempt displayed by Foreign Affairs. If expertise is dead, it’s because those who claimed it overplayed their hands. It’s not the death of expertise, so much as a suicide.

This Thomas Sowell column from 2008 makes for interesting reading.


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