Spiked has an interesting review of what precisely is happening with the rise of populism in Europe and America; a condensed version of the author’s new book What’s Happened To The University:
The flipside of the apotheosis of expertise is the idea of an incompetent public. This is why, historically, the ambiguous relationship between democracy and a reliance on expertise has led many commentators to draw pessimistic conclusions about the capacity of the public to play the role of a responsible citizenry. The public are seen as irrational, governed by emotion rather than reason. As a result, the public’s refusal to defer to the experts is perceived as a threat to the political order – because it promises the rule of unreason and emotion. The political elites do not see a decline in deference to their opinions for what it is – a rejection of their values; rather, they experience it as a rejection of the facts and even of truth itself!
A rather post-modern and Platonic view of humanity writ large, is it not?
Furedi laments the loss of expertise… or rather, it’s place of prominence in a society that perhaps recognizes that expertise matters.
But does it matter? Something to consider in our post-Google world is that “experts” don’t exist in the same way they used to. Consider any point of economy or geography… Facebook creates a condition, and within a few brief clicks of a button one can find an article citing a paper you have never read, and viola! — you have the perfect retort for the other guy who shared something idiotic online doing almost nearly the precise same thing… sharing an article from The Atlantic sourced by a reporter (not a journalist) who ran to a conclusion because it would generate clicks, not because it was a worthwhile story…
So to some degree, Google has made us all experts. No… not really “experts” in a sense, but able to ask an “expert” in order to confirm our previously held biases.
Then there is the confirmation that the hunches of our so-called experts really weren’t rooted in anything close to reality to begin with. After all, common sense is an uncommon virtue, and nowhere does this seem more self-evident than at your nearest university aflame with the latest fad of the year claiming to be settled science — with all those asking for a shred of evidence declaimed as a troglodyte or worse, a mere hater… a denier… a cis-breeder.
Yet there’s a middle position here that is worth considering, one that, were we an America still full of tradesmen, we would accept without a second thought.
Consider your average mechanic. I doubt there are many Americans who would consider for a moment telling a mechanic what was actually wrong with their car above and beyond the advice of same. One might have enough knowledge to know the difference between a bad alternator and a bad starter… but most folks can’t go down the line of what-is-going-wrong in the same way.
The same would be true for any number of disciplines, not limited to trades. Carpentry, welding, farming, physicians, artists, engineers, physicists — in most cases, when the expert in such a field says “this is the problem” or “this is the consideration” then most of us supinely nod.
It’s when we reach the social sciences where all this breaks down in modern society. The numbers simply don’t add up.
This is the same place where Tom Nichols in The Death of Expertise breaks down in the American left’s sudden realization that equality doesn’t work as an endgame, but only as a starting point. “I’m as good as you!” — the ever-effective chant of Screwtape — “is a useful means for the destruction of democratic societies,” quotes Nichols, who begins his book with a pinch of the shoulders relaxes them through seven chapters in a long, lamentable sigh.
It’s an interesting transition in the era of Trump where the left must grapple with an orthodoxy where equality of opinion no longer means equality of value, something William F. Buckley would have instantly recognized as a valid argument.
Our problem is that the information age has democratized knowledge, but not wisdom. We know what, but we do not know how. If Malcolm Gladwell’s observation that we have to do something for 10,000 hours before we become an expert rings true, then on the flip side is something very tactile to the populist — they are all expert researchers.
…or so they believe.
The struggle with “fake news” is only made more real with the advent of the paywall (side note: democracy dies behind paywalls, WaPo editors). Self-appointed researchers lurch to the available rather than the gem underneath, willing to settle and burn the coal on the surface without digging for the diamonds below.
So here’s the catch. The solution is twofold:
(1) Americans need to become better researchers. This is a problem as old as new media itself, and as journalism descended into opinion writing in the mighty heydays of the late 1990s and early 2000s, new media filled the gaps… and as journalism gave way to reporting and reporting to blogging en masse to mere clickbait? American consumers exposed the news industry for what it was — an advertising racket. How then to sift through the advertising racket vs. the information peddled for free by so many pushers of dopamine and serotonin?
(2) Liberals need to wrestle with the failure of equality as an endgame. Liberty vs. equality… the conservative always preached that liberty was best; the liberal that equality was best. Though both sides agreed (tacitly) that egalitarianism was the common condition of the American soul — or at least, ought to be — the difference was whether e-galitarianism should end in e-qualitarianism. The two words are etymologically similar, but the latter connotes much more of the principles of the French Revolution; the latter connoting the principles of Roman republicanism.
As both the liberal and conservative sides of the classical liberal tradition are pitted against one another in their progressive manifestations on the left and the nationalist manifestations on the right (both extremes ultimately sliding into either socialism and corporatism), the slide towards declaiming ignorance (rather than addressing the what or quiddities) will always be easier than grappling with the how (or haecceity — defining thisness).
In this, I don’t share the same pessimism that either Nichols or Furedi share. At some point, people will get tired of being surrounded by stupid and the idiocracy will subside.
Information, after all, is a lot like Brawndo… and for all the misgivings of the information age, we should take care not to sound like 16th century Catholic inquisitors fretting over feckless Protestant interpretations of scripture. Sure, it happens… but that’s why we have universities; to give people a love for learning and research.