Tuesday, May 20, 2008

"Anti-elitism"... is anything but

Don't let them tell you you're dumb

There is a group of people who want to convince you that you're dumb. That experts - the people who understand a subject - cannot be understood. That whatever they tell you is better than all the experts, who are somehow simultaneously "too smart to be understood" and "too dumb to understand simple logic". They want you to be stupid so they can exploit you.

If someone starts going on about elites (especially when they're truly from a social-political elite of their own, like oh, say a wealthy, highly educated lawyer for example), that's what they're saying to you. They're saying they don't want you to understand, because that's their path to being able to do what they want.

Experts, generally, don't want to exploit you for power. They certainly don't want to be irrelevant - they have everything to lose by being irrelevant. But seekers of power have a vested interest in convincing you that experts are irrelevant or that they want to exploit you.

I think people are not generally dumb. I think most people are pretty smart, especially when you treat them like they're smart. If you expect people to be dumb, they can tend to act dumb. If you expect people to think, they tend to think pretty well.

Experts don't tend to tell people they're too dumb to understand. Experts want you to understand their ideas. Experts love their subject. They think it's important, possibly even beautiful. They tend to be enthusiasts. They are not some secret cabal. They want to share that enthusiasm. Experts think their subject can be understood and they want to explain it to you.

I agree with them.
I go along with the admonition* of Sylvanus P. Thompson:
"What one fool can do, another can."

* he called it an "Ancient Simian Proverb"


The lay opinion vs the expert opinion

I am not saying you just have to take an expert's word for it simply because they're experts.

What I do say is that you can't dismiss them offhand.

If a substantial minority of experts, like say 30%, in a particular area of expertise think something, it's probably worth finding out why. If a substantial majority think something, they're almost certianly correct. It's definitely worth finding out why.

Maybe you think they're wrong - very occasionally they will be. But that's not the way to bet, especially not if you're a layperson. The thing is, reality does not respect your preferences. Reality has a way of kicking you in the behind when you disagree with it (try jumping out of a tree yelling "I can fly!" to see what I mean). Believing really hard that you can fly will not convince reality even a little bit. Reality doesn't care for your delusions one whit. An expert has spent a long time investigating the reality that is about to kick your bony arse. It might pay to find out what they think, even if it's not what you wanted to hear.

So wishing really hard for experts to be wrong doesn't make them wrong. Just saying "they're wrong" won't convince them they're wrong. Those egghead "elite" economists don't want to pay high prices any more than anyone else. They almost all say that the gas tax holiday won't work because they have very good reasons to believe that it won't.

You can, however, convince experts that they're wrong.

Here's how: you learn as much about the subject as the experts. Then you make a convincing argument why they're wrong (generally in an academic journal or similar forum). If it's any good, you will convince them that they're wrong (oh, and if you do convince a large number of experts they were wrong about something, you'll become somewhat famous in their circle). The problem is, long before the time you learn enough about the subject to start being able to make convincing arguments, you will almost certainly have come to understand why you were wrong and the experts were right.

So I don't want people to shut up. I want them to try to understand why the experts think as they do. It doesn't hurt to listen to them. In fact, many of them are used to explaining their ideas to novices, so they can generally be understood without a huge amount of effort.

The Bush presidency is one long argument against anti-elitism. At every turn, Bush replaced experts with clueless cronies. It was universally disastrous. The Bush presidency has seen the biggest purge of experts in the history of modern western democracy, and America will be paying the price for decades.

We need expert opinion, and we need our political leaders to be informed by them, or to be experts themselves. We need smart leaders. We need smart leaders who can listen to people who know what they're talking about. We need leaders who can discuss those opinions intelligently, and explain them in regular language to ordinary people. I don't want a leader who has a good bowling game. I want a leader who can navigate complicated and tricky policies that balance multiple goals and avoid the worst excesses. I want a leader who can plan for the future, not plan for the next news-cycle. I want a leader who can admit mistakes, and therefore fix them. I want a leader who is smarter than me, because, frankly someone that is dumber than me isn't going to be much use, unless they're really good at using the advice of much smarter people.

Which brings us to the US elections. Early in the race, I was excited by the candidacies of both Clinton and Obama. But time and again, I have seen Obama treat difficult issues head on, recognize that they're difficult, and address them like a straight-talking, intelligent adult. Time and again, and more and more as she looks like losing the primaries, Clinton has fallen to treating issues as black and white, good and bad, simple, "we can have what we want, now!". Encouraging people to feel "hurt" by straight talking. Exploiting their fears. Using, in fact, the thuggish, moronic tactics of the Repulicans that have the world in its current mess. A vote for McCain has turned into a vote for a Bush third term, and a vote for Clinton is starting to look more and more like exactly the same thing, but with healthcare. Worse, if ever there was an elite, it's McCain and Clinton. They are the elites. They're wealthy and educated. In the case of McCain incredibly wealthy. In the case of Clinton, incredibly educated, but they are, both of them, wealthy, white and educated. I don't think being educated is a bad thing in a leader, but to hypocritically exploit anti-expert rhetoric in the name of anti-elistism is the most cynical of moves in an already cynical arena.

Or let's look at an example in Australia. Kevin Rudd, at the time opposition leader (and previously a skilled diplomat) was derided as "elitist" for speaking to Chinese visitors in Mandarin. The Foreign Minister at the time (a member of the socio-political elite if there ever was one) had an idea of diplomacy more strongly based on wearing drag and performing karaoke. Rudd, now Prime Minister, has put his skills to use - just recently, while in China, he was invited to speak at a university. He spoke in Mandarin, lambasting the Chinese over their Tibet policy. In eleven years in power, the previous government never managed to get such a point so directly and forcefully conveyed to the Chinese. In China. In Mandarin. The students didn't like what they heard, but the amazing thing is that they got to hear it at all.

This is the power of a skilled expert. A capable intellectual. What is being fought against is intellectualism and competence, not elitism.

This anti-intellectualism under the guise of anti-elistism is yet another way of saying "Smart ideas and smart people are too hard to understand, so don't try. I'm going to sell you this handy bridge in exchange for telling you everything is nice and simple and you can have anything you want. Those nasty intellectuals are saying its a problem, but they're just being elitists."

It's just the same old move as the old canard "don't try to understand it, and don't ever question it" that the fundies try to push on us. Well, dammit, I am NOT dumb. I can understand a complicated argument. I generally can tell when I am being flimflammed for cynical political motives. If that makes me elite, then I'll wear that badge, but I don't think it does.

What it doesn't make me is a "willing sheep". That scares people who don't like too many questions. Well bad luck, I'm not here to make them comfortable; maybe we need to feel a little uncomfortable now and then.

9 comments:

goesdownbitter said...

Well reasoned and impassioned argument for self-knowledge. An expert is simply someone who knows a lot about a topic/s. Nothing special and nothing that anyone can't do as well. Listen and then research yourself. Just because someone is an expert doesn't make them right, just more knowledgeable.

Lirone said...

I think that's a really good point about American respect for social/financial elites contrasting with disrespect for intellectual elites. For me that's an unbelievable example of getting things backwards....

Efrique said...

It's true but it's not only America that does this.

george.w said...

"Experts don't tend to tell people they're too dumb to understand. Experts want you to understand their ideas. Experts love their subject. They think it's important, possibly even beautiful. They tend to be enthusiasts. They are not some secret cabal. They want to share that enthusiasm. Experts think their subject can be understood and they want to explain it to you. "

So true! Love it! Love it! Love it!

"I want a leader who can admit mistakes, and therefore fix them."

Pretty much the only reliable way to get closer to the truth!

"I want a leader who is smarter than me, because, frankly someone that is dumber than me isn't going to be much use, unless they're really good at using the advice of much smarter people."

I'm not sure how many dumb people are able to use the advice of smarter people effectively. As Paul Graham said, you have to have good taste to hire a good designer, other than by accident. And Bush has not been making any of those kinds of accidents from what I can tell.

arensb said...

If a substantial minority of experts, like say 30%, in a particular area of expertise think something, it's probably worth finding out why. If a substantial majority think something, they're almost certianly correct. It's definitely worth finding out why.

While I agree that this is generally good advice, how does this apply to expert theologians? In particular, how does your advice to learn as much about the subject as the experts do interact with the argument of a Dawkins or a Hitchens when they say that they don't need to study theology to dismiss the existence of any gods?

Efrique said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Efrique said...

arensb:

No more than when an astrologer claims to be an expert - first they have to convince me that the subject of their expertise (in this case, that positions of stars and planets can directly influence the course of our lives and our personalities) even exists.

A physicist doesn't have to convince me that gravity or electricity or whatever exist and have physical consequences that can be measured and studied. An economist doesn't have to convince me that money, labour or capital exist, or that they interact, or that these can be measured and studied.

A theologist, to be even entered in the contest to be considered an expert at all, has to jump hurdle number 1:

- Convincing evidence that gods exist

(they have to demonstrate that there's a 'there' there - that there's something to be expert about.)

Then they have to convince me that they do in fact hold expertise not available to "non-experts". The usual criterion would be to make some predictions that non-experts couldn't/wouldn't make and then have a good proportion of them come true (I'd accept something as simple as "substantively outperform people outside the area of expertise across a large number of predictions").

*That* would make them experts. In most areas where real expertise is an issue, these things are not difficult.

arensb said...

Efrique:

Okay, so basically when you say people shouldn't pooh-pooh expert opinion in the guise of anti-elitism, you're referring to experts who've demonstrated that they know their stuff. As maligned as economists are, they've at least convinced you (or you've convinced yourself) that there most likely exists such a thing as money, and that it can be studied.

I suppose we could compare theologians to Trekkies: they're experts in their fields, and there's even a fair amount of consensus on many questions, but they can't demonstrate that the things they study actually exist.

In contrast, a nuclear physicist might be tempted to say that it would take too long to explain to a layman what a lepton or a quark is, but she could at least point to a dot on an oscilloscope and say "I study the things that make that dot, and various other phenomena."

Sorry to have drifted from your original point, but I think we're pretty much in agreement.

Efrique said...

arensb: no apology necessary - it was a good question!