Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Celebrating the intellect

The underlying message of the Intelligent Design movement, and most especially Expelled is "Scientists are too dumb to understand science". It is an attack on science, masquerading as an attack on elitism (and various other attacks). It is an eerie echo of the usual attack on experts by sociopolitical elites: "Don't listed to smart people. They don't understand you."

In every case, they're asking you to stop thinking.

Viva eggheads!

We need smart people. We need experts. We need people who are prepared to devote years of their lives to studying a subject. These days, human knowledge is vast, and increasingly complex.

And why is it that it takes a lot of work to become an expert these days? Why is our knowledge vast and growing? Because we build on the work of other experts. In the 1930s, vast numbers of people - many of them children - died or were crippled by polio.

Where are they now? Why don't we have thousands of crippled children? Science. Experts. Eggheads.

Smallpox used to kill thousands every year and disfigure thousands more. Where are all the new victims of smallpox?

In the early decades of last century, and all the years that preceeded it, simple infections killed millions. If it weren't for antibiotics, I'd be dead, bedridden or at best so sickly as to be barely able to work. So would many of my friends and family. If it weren't for other forms of medical treatment, almost everyone I know would be dead, or at best, suffering. One of my heroes is in the Carnival banner over on the right.

We fight an ongoing war with bacteria, which (via evolution) gradually become able to deal with antibiotics. Experts - scientists - work to keep a step ahead, saving countless lives.

Without spectacles, I'd be so blind as to be useless for most tasks (these days, I could even choose to have laser surgery).

We need to celebrate intellectualism - we need some tiny bastion against the permanent Carnival of the Stupid that those who would seek to impose their will on ours would like us to have.

What would be the ultimate consequences of this growth industry of anti-intellectualism, this mantra of whatever you want to be true is true?

Stuff like teachers who know the toothpick trick getting fired for practising wizardy. Gee, I hope something that stupid never happens.

The deadly danger of anti-knowledge rhetoric

Currently the position being held when people are decrying "elites" is in reality, anti-expert rhetoric. It's not even listening to the opinions of people who have devoted their working lives to the study of a particular subject.

Now, I'm not suggesting that they will have all the answers. But experts are experts because they know their area. It would pay to understand why they're saying what they're saying. I am not suggesting that their opinions can never be assailed. Not so; if you learn what they know, then you can take them on in their arena. Who knows, maybe you'll even come up with a good idea. But more likely, everything you think of will have already been thought of and either debunked or already tried. The experts will be able to tell you who has tried it, when and how it turned out, or they will know who debunked it, how they debunked it, and what you'll have to overcome to get it to work.

To just dismiss almost universal opinions of the knowledgeable as "elitist" is a ridiculous ploy. It's appealing to the lowest common denominator - "you're just as good as they are" is the implication. Well, that's true - human lives are all valuable. But the additional implication - "a completely ignorant opinion is just as good as any experts" is ludicrous. The hidden claim is that "smart people are stupid". Well, that is stupid.

The subtext of the dismissal of expert opinion as elitist is "believe what you want - it's just as true as reality". That's not only ludicrous, it's dangerous.

What does it get us?

  • Global Warming denialists
  • Overfishing of crucial marine resources
  • Creationism in classrooms
  • The hell-hole that Iraq has been turned into
  • The post-Katrina mess
  • Anti-vaxers playing footsie with polio... and risking everyone else's health
  • Flagrantly stupid energy policies that will lead to much worse problems down the track, like higher energy prices as the fuel runs out even faster, and no reserves to deal with temporary shortages.

To exploit this kind of anti-expert rhetoric for cheap (and temporary) advantage... that deserves our most vehement contempt. Politicians - at least ones worthy of our vote - should be leading by example, be encouraging us to be smart, be discussing difficult issues and trusting us to realize that they're not going to be solved by platitudes and ignorant policies. They should not be exploiting ignorance, and we should not be rewarding them for treating us like morons. They should be denounced, loudly. If the media won't do it, then we must.

Beware the wealthy and influential masquerading as populists. They're liars, and their favourite lie is to slander someone smart and hardworking with the label "elite". Don't trust them, because they think you're stupid and can be exploited if they just push a few buttons.


Anonymous said...

A celebration of intelligence and curiosity instead of fear and contempt.

Anonymous said...

"We need experts. We need people who are prepared to devote years of their lives to studying a subject."

Don't forget the most important sort - the one who knows just enough about many different things to recognize when the expert is not seeing the larger picture.
Narrow expertise is fine, until it becomes a general sort of ignorance.
Socrates was good that way.

Anonymous said...

Cousinavi is absolutely correct. Someone needs to see the "big picture" in order to ensure the parts all fit together in a clear, cogent, and convincing fashion.