Archive for January, 2018

Idiocracy: The Death of Expertise

January 9, 2018

Our pockets hold a device to access all the information in the world. We use it to view cat videos. And while the sum of human knowledge grows hyperbolically, and we’re getting more education than ever, the average American’s ignorance is rising.

This is the nub of Tom Nichols’s 2017 book, The Death of Expertise. (Nichols is a professor and foreign affairs wonk.) Expertise itself isn’t dying — it’s being rejected.

Take vaccination. Expert, knowledgeable, responsible opinion is clear about its benefits, and the baselessness of fears about it. They began with a fraudulent “study” by a British doctor, Andrew Wakefield, that was authoritatively debunked. Wakefield’s medical license was even revoked. That hasn’t stopped the nonsense, still spewed by irresponsible people like former Playboy pin-up Jenny McCarthy. Too many listen to her rather than the medical establishment, and refuse vaccination. Result: children dying of illnesses previously almost eliminated. (See my commentary on a previous book, Denialism; it also discusses the similarly misguided (and likewise deadly) campaign against GM foods.)

Civilization is grounded upon division of labor and specialization of function. We have doctors who doctor and plumbers who plumb, with arcane expertise not possessed by the mass of others. This is how airplanes are engineered and flown. We trust such experts to do these things. Nobody would imagine they could build and fly a plane equally well. Yet plenty do somehow imagine they know better about vaccination than the experts.

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” That old saw is weaponized by the internet, spreading what might appear to be “knowledge” but actually isn’t. While previously, discourse about matters like science or public policy was largely confined within intellectual ghettoes, those walls have been blown down.

Anti-intellectualism and magical thinking have long afflicted American culture. Worse now, many people, fortified by a college degree, deem themselves their own intellectual experts. But Nichols, who delves deeply into the subject, says going to college is not the same as getting a college education. Students arrive there already spoiled by the coddling of helicopter parents, giving them an arrogant attitude of entitlement. (I can’t count how often I’ve heard that word, “entitlement,” spoken by professionals discussing interactions with young people.)

Schools find themselves forced to surrender to this ethos, with fluff courses, “safe spaces” against intellectual challenge, feelings allowed to trump facts, and gradeflation to flatter fragile egos. “When college is a business, you can’t flunk the customers,” Nichols says. Critical thinking? Rational discourse? Forget it.

The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. Thusly stepping back to see oneself objectively is metacognition. Such humility is fading from America’s narcissistic culture, where college makes people imagine they’re smart without giving them the tools to recognize their own deficiencies (or deficiencies in the “information” they imbibe). Anti-vaccine madness is more rampant among the college-educated than the uneducated.

Social science actually has a name for this phenomenon, the Dunning-Kruger effect. Most people think they are (like all Lake Wobegone children) above average. Those who don’t understand logic don’t recognize their own illogicality. They don’t actually understand the concepts of knowledge and expertise.

It’s an irony that in the past, with far fewer people “educated,” there was more respect for education, expertise, seriousness, and indeed facts. A less educated past America would never have tolerated the lies and vulgarities of a Trump.

But there’s also the cynical feeling that experts and elites have their own self-serving agendas and have led us astray. Look at the Vietnam War; the 2008 financial crisis. Nichols addresses at length the problem of expert error. But he invokes the old conundrum of a plane crash getting headlines while thousands of daily safe flights are just taken for granted. In fact, everything about modernity and its benefits — medical science, air travel, and so much else — is the work of experts. If they weren’t generally very good at it, planes wouldn’t fly. You would not board one staffed by a bunch of Joe Sixpacks. Experts can be wrong, but is it likelier that Jenny McCarthy is right about vaccines?

“Rocket science” is used as a metaphor for extreme expertise. I recently saw a TV documentary about the Hubble Space Telescope* — which, after launch, didn’t work, a huge bungle by experts. But even more striking was how, against all odds, NASA people managed to figure out, and execute, a fix. Expertise more than redeemed itself.

Another factor in the shunning of expertise is a rising ethos of individualism and egalitarianism. It’s the idea that you — and your opinions (however derived) — are as good as anyone else and their opinions (expertise be damned). Nichols thinks Americans misunderstand democracy, confusing the concept of equality of rights with actual equality, and equal validity of all opinions. Yet at the same time there’s a refusal to engage in a serious way with the public sphere — “a collapse of functional citizenship.” Democracy is corrupted if voting isn’t based on a grasp of facts that are actually facts.

I keep mentioning confirmation bias because it’s such a big factor. We welcome information that seemingly validates our pre-existing beliefs, and insulate ourselves against anything contrary. Smarter, educated people are actually better at constructing such rationalizations. And modern media facilitates this cherry-picking; we embed ourselves in comfortable cocoons of confirmation.

Declining trust in experts is part of a larger trend of declining social trust generally. Polls show a belief that other people are getting less trustworthy (for which there’s no evidence). Mainstream news has been a victim of this. Many Americans don’t know who to believe. Or, worse, their cynical lapse of confidence, in conventional repositories of trust, paradoxically leads them to swallow what should be trusted least. Like all that garbage from the internet — and the White House.

So rejecting input from real experts opens a field day for phony ones. The Jenny McCarthys, conspiracy freaks like Alex Jones, not to mention legions of religious and spiritualist frauds. Nichols cites Sturgeon’s law (Theodore Sturgeon was a sci-fi writer): 90% of everything is crap.

The ironies multiply. Trump’s election, and the Brexit vote too, were revolts against experts and elites, seen as lording over common folk. Yet those voters have delivered themselves, gift-wrapped, to the not-so-tender mercies of a different gang that exploits their ignorance and credulity for its own bad ends.

Americans are losing their grasp of the nation’s founding ideals and values (no longer taught in schools). Without such understanding, those principles cannot be sustained. Nichols sees a “toxic confluence of arrogance, narcissism, and cynicism that Americans now wear like [a] full suit of armor against . . . experts and professionals.” This, he says, puts democracy in a “death spiral” as disregard for informed expert viewpoints (and, one might add, just plain reality) produces ever worse results in the public sphere. This embitters citizens even more.

I’ve always seen a dichotomy between the smartest people, who really understand and know things, and the rest of humanity. And it’s only the former — maybe 1% of the species — at the far end of the bell curve of cognitive ability — who actually run things. Who are indeed responsible for all we’ve achieved. Literally all. Without that 1%, we’d still be in caves.

* A picture in that documentary included someone who was at my last birthday party!


Paul Auster: Travels in the Scriptorium, The Prisoner of Time, and a bar joke

January 6, 2018

I first read a book by Paul Auster mainly because I’d met his ex-wife (Lydia Davis). But that book, The New York Trilogy, which I’ve reviewed, was great. So then I picked up his Travels in the Scriptorium.

I didn’t even look first to see what it was about. But it turns out to uncannily evoke a novel I once wrote myself. I wrote quite a few; I was mentored by a wonderful literary agent, Virginia Kidd, and I still feel bad that my work never repaid her efforts to develop me. She did get one of my novels published, but the others were, well, pretty much awful.

One was The Prisoner of Time. It was really a title in search of a story. A prisoner is held under mysterious, enigmatic circumstances. A woman he’d loved looms in the picture. (Had he murdered her? Or is she still out there?) The gimmick was that he’s in some kind of time loop (hence the title) and the ending loops back to the beginning, so that his situation is eternal. Or something like that. It didn’t really make much sense. You can see why I failed as a novelist.

That was all over forty years ago. I no longer have a copy of Prisoner, I must have tossed it. But Paul Auster seems to have channeled it, because his 2006 novel is that book, more or less, though of course done far better. Not that his makes complete sense in the end either (another similarity).

Scriptorium all takes place in one room, wherein elderly “Mr. Blank” (is this name a metaphor?) is (apparently) confined under mysterious, enigmatic circumstances. He’s being treated with powerful pills; struggles with elusive memory; interacts with various visitors. One is possibly a former lover, now a sort of nurse to him. He’s apparently done great harm, to her and others, though its exact nature is never clear to him (or the reader).

Much of the novel is taken up with his reading an incomplete fictional manuscript (hence the title). It’s the purported memoir of another prisoner, in some alternate world, with some convoluted conspiracy enmeshing him. Then Mr. Blank imagines, in great detail, that story’s continuation.

All this was pure Prisoner of Time. And then: at the end, Mr. Blank finds a different manuscript in his room. He starts reading, and it describes this room he’s in, and the start of this day he himself is still living. In fact it’s a verbatim repeat of the first pages of Scriptorium itself. Talk about looping back!

Auster includes a joke Mr. Blank recalls hearing: A man walks into a Chicago bar at 5 PM, asks for three scotches all lined up, drinks them, pays, and leaves. When this recurs for several days in succession, curiosity impels the bartender to ask what’s up. The man explains that his two brothers live on opposite coasts, and to honor their bond, they each perform this 5 PM ritual, as though all three were together.

It continues for several months, until one day when the man comes in as usual but orders and knocks back only two scotches. The implications are not lost on the bartender. “I don’t want to pry,” he says, “but is anything wrong in your family?”

“Oh no,” the man answers, “nothing’s wrong.”

“Why only two scotches then?”

“The answer is simple,” comes the reply. “I’ve stopped drinking.”

I applaud President Trump!!

January 4, 2018

President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order yesterday for which I stand up and cheer!

His order disbanded the “Voter Fraud Commission” he’d set up at the start of his administration.

The commission had two purposes. First, to massage Trump’s meshugas over having lost, by nearly 3 million, the popular vote — with the preposterous lie that those 3 million were fraudulent votes. Of course the commission failed. Voter fraud in fact is virtually nonexistent.*

The commission’s second purpose was the sinister one of creating a pretext for more stringent voter ID requirements. The Republican party, having given up on winning over poor and minority voters, instead strives to keep them from voting. Some GOP-ruled states have instituted ID requirements especially crafted to stymie those voters in particular. Shame on them!

But Trump’s commission combined two salient characteristics of his administration: meanness and incompetence. Mean though it was, it couldn’t get its act together sufficiently to gin up the phony evidence of voter fraud it was meant to concoct. Or maybe that was just too heavy a lift even for these prodigious liars.

Anyway, they’ve given up, and I applaud that.

When I mentioned it to my wife at breakfast, she asked, “Does this mean Trump has grown from a three-year-old to a five-year-old?” Alas, no. Even while announcing this, he still tweeted, “System is rigged.”

* Voter rolls do include many names of people who’ve died or moved away. But those names don’t get voted. Trump focused particularly on New Hampshire, where hordes supposedly invaded the state to vote. Turns out those were all people lawfully entitled to vote in New Hampshire.