Tom Nichols is one of those individuals who straddles the line between elitism and sense. At times, he acts intelligently and contributes valuable insight into current affairs. At other times, he demonstrates a certain elitism, a sort of smugness little different from the Jon Stewart liberals, a sort of technocratic disdain for the layman, or, indeed, anyone that is not within his small circle of approved smart people.
Recently, he had this to say about the public’s view of science: How Does the Public’s View of Science Go So Wrong?
It’s one of those pieces that demands a fisking, a point-by-point rebuttal, because this notion of the stupid layman, the idiot who is unaware he is voting against his own best interests, as determined by the credentialed wise men of government, is central to the dispute about where the West is heading, and why.
You need only recall Brexit, and the groans of the remainers, to understand this. A majority of Britishers, it would seem, were too stupid to understand that the EU was better for them. And so all sorts of legal chicanery was deployed in the service of preventing Brexit, or rolling it back.
Of course, this isn’t the first time I’ve taken issue with Mr. Nichols and his view of the American citizenry as what you might call expertise deniers. A sort of equivalent of the climate change denier writ large, as if most Americans hate experts for no good reason, and are too stupid to realize that they ought to willingly subordinate their wills to greater men.
But enough of that. Let the fisk begin:
Do Americans hate science? They certainly seem to hate it more than they used to, as they rage against experts in every field. This is more than a traditional American distaste for eggheads and intellectuals. Americans, increasingly, are acting (and voting) on myths and misinformation about science, and placing themselves at significant risk.
What traditional distaste for intellectuals? When I was young, I remember how the engineers and scientists who supported NASA were regarded as quasi-gods. Everybody wanted their kid to be a rocket scientist, or an aeronautical engineer. No, America never had a tradition of hating intellectuals. At worst, there was a time when being nerdy was regarded poorly. But nerdy and intellectual are not the same thing.
Furthermore, Tom tells us that they rage against experts in every field. This is observably false. They do not rage against airplane pilots, or automotive engineers. They do not malign physicists and mathematicians. There are very specific fields which have attracted the ire of a sizable fraction of the citizenry. More on this later.
In Texas, for example, “personal-belief exemptions” among parents refusing to vaccinate their children increased from 2,314 in the 2003-2004 school year to 44,716 in 2015-2016. Although these parents were, they say, galvanized by the election of Donald Trump—America’s most prominent vaccine skeptic—this reflexive dismissal of science long predates the 2016 election, even if it has intensified in the last few years.
This anti-vaxxer thing is a frequent political bludgeon deployed by the Left to make the Right look like morons. Except there does not appear to be strong correlation between conservatism and vaccine skepticism. Observe. For one, only 13% of Americans disagreed with the statement that “vaccines are safe.” The French were much more skeptical, at 41%. Meanwhile, the article cites Marin county, California as a bastion of strong vaccine skepticism. This is a county that votes strongly Democratic. So it is not exclusively (or even strongly) a Right-wing issue.
Tom, of course, doesn’t claim that it is Right wing (he probably knows better). But nonetheless, the skepticism bothers him. Another interesting tidbit of information comes to us from the same article’s citations. In it, we find that one out of four French doctors are telling their patients that many vaccines recommended by the public health authorities aren’t even necessary. I wish there was better data in America on this, but nonetheless, the French statistics are useful for illustrating one possibility, namely that citizens aren’t distrustful of qualified doctors and medical practitioners, they distrust public health bureaucrats. That’s very different from distrusting science, or expert opinion, or just smart people in general.
Of course, Americans don’t really hate science: they rely on it every day in ways they don’t even notice. From tens of thousands of safe and effective over-the-counter drugs to the directions on a car’s GPS system, Americans trust the work of experts on a daily basis. Rather, it is more accurate to say that the American public distrusts scientists, rather than science itself. Scientists, however, should be consoled by the fact that they are disdained not for their work, but for being part of an undifferentiated mass of “experts” whom a fair number of Americans now view as, at best, a suspect political class, and, at worst, as an enemy.
There is an interesting intellectual sleight-of-hand here. Note that Tom starts off talking about science, then switches to the word expert. Scientist and expert do not mean the same thing. Neither, it should be noted, do Americans distrust scientists in all fields. It’s not a general hatred of science, it’s much more specific than that.
Tom is right on one thing, however. The ones who are disdained are subjected to this because they are seen as a suspect political class. It is the politics that engenders the hate, not reliance on the scientific method.
In one sense, this attack on the defenders of established knowledge was inevitable. It is not only fueled by an obvious culprit—the internet—but also by the unintended side effects of otherwise positive social changes. Universal education and increased social mobility, among other changes, have thrown America’s experts and citizens into direct contact after nearly two centuries in which they lived segregated lives and rarely interacted with each other. And yet the result has not been a greater respect for knowledge, but the growth of an irrational conviction among Americans that everyone is as smart as everyone else. To understand this, and to think about solutions, requires a deeper look at causes. Both the professional community and the public it serves bear some responsibility for our parlous condition.
Tom spoke before on how he thinks the Internet was actually a bad thing, because in his view, the proliferation of bad information on the Internet has given rise to a politically active class of idiot. He explained that he believes the media was better when it was in the hands of a few expert firms, and such clout was effectively denied to the layman. The rise of blogs like this one horrified him.
Trouble is, the layman may in many ways be uneducated, and not inclined to intellectualism. But that does not mean he is stupid. America doesn’t have a tradition of hating scientists, it has a tradition of hating tyrants. The layman may not know anything about climate statistics, ice sheets, the ozone layer, or a host of other things, but he may have the vague sense that he’s getting screwed, that he’s being taken advantage of. It is similar to when a man goes to the car dealership, and may not understand all of the arcane math spouted by the sales weasel. Indeed, the sales weasel may be far more intelligent. Yet the man still realizes the salesman is trying to screw him, and acts accordingly.
In other words, the average American is on the look out for a tyrant trying to sell him a lemon.
For its part, the American public is in the grip of a sullen, almost paranoid, narcissism about science and experts. This is not a function of education; the anti-vaccine movement, for example, is actually concentrated among parents with more education than their poorer counterparts.
The poor and uneducated do what they’re told. The middle class doesn’t. It’s been a bone of contention for a long time. The elite doesn’t like the middle class. Tom’s second statement here is borne out by the data… it isn’t the uneducated and stupid who are vaccine skeptics, generally. Saudi Arabia has only a 2% skepticism rate, and we’d hardly call it a bastion of high education, or particularly high IQ.
This actually contradicts his earlier implications that this is primarily driven by stupidity. It isn’t.
Instead, the public rejection of science is an extension of our politics, which in turn have become an expression of our constant outrage about everything that offends our deepest beliefs about ourselves. As social scientist David Dunning has put it: “Some of our most stubborn misbeliefs arise not from primitive childlike intuitions or careless category errors, but from the very values and philosophies that define who we are as individuals.” When those misbeliefs are challenged, laypeople take it not as correction but as a direct attack on their identity.
Now we get to it. This reminds me of the common atheist superiority complex, wherein an atheist believes himself to be superior and more intelligent because he isn’t so stupid as to believe in a sky wizard. To the atheist, God is misbelief.
It’s funny to hear this sort of thing from social scientists – the same sort of folks who are going over to this idea of gender as an infinite spectrum rather than anything concrete. Tell a genderqueer androgynous person that this is all made up nonsense, misbelief in other words. Does that not get viewed (by them, as least) as a direct attack on their identity? The experts in social sciences have been spewing a lot of nonsense lately, things that are directly and easily contradicted by observation.
Now they are bothered when, suddenly, folks don’t trust them anymore?
The expert community, however, must shoulder some of the blame for the collapse of the relationship between science and the public. Experts often trespass across from empirical knowledge to normative demands—I am not without sin as an expert myself in this regard—and thus validate the suspicions of laypeople that the real goal of expert advice is to force compliance with expert policy preferences.
Well, at least he admits it.
The debate over climate change is a good example of this problem. Is the earth’s climate changing? Most experts believe it is, and they believe they know why. Whether their models, extrapolated out for decades and centuries, are accurate is a legitimate area for scientific debate. What experts cannot answer, however, is what to do about climate change. It might well be that Boston will be underwater in fifty years, but it might well also be that voters— who have the right to be wrong— will choose to shift that problem to later generations rather than to risk jobs (or comfort) now.
This is so stupid. “Is the Earth’s climate changing?” Of course it is changing. This is axiomatic, it categorically must be. The Earth is not static. When the experts say “the climate is changing” the proper reply is “duh!” This is why I hate the label “climate change.” It would be like calling weather forecasting “weather change” and acting like it’s somehow the mark of an intelligent man to say that the weather tomorrow will be different than the weather today. Duh! It also strikes the layman as a weaselly term. The layman knows that the climate will change, and may view the expert as hedging his bets. In other words, he may think the salesman is trying to screw him.
It doesn’t help that “fighting climate change” almost universally requires the government to take more of his money. It isn’t the science that bothers John Doe, it’s the potential for tyranny.
Now, as to making specific predictions, to say the climate will change in this direction, by this amount, and for these reasons… that’s a much more difficult ball of wax. As I’ve stated before, I essentially have no opinion, except that I don’t trust the government or the academic establishment, because I’ve caught them in many other lies.
And that goes back to why Tom’s appeal is likely to fall upon hearts of stone. The public has been lied to with such frequency that it is hard to trust anyone in a position of power anymore. Politics has always been a business of lies, but the last few decades have become much worse. Tom wants to blame the Internet for this.
I blame our “leaders” and their way of trying to piss down my back while telling me it’s raining.
Letting Boston slide into the harbor is not my preferred outcome. But experts cannot compel civic engagement, and they must accept that their advice, which might seem obvious and right to them, will not always be taken in a democracy that may not value the same things they do. The job of mediating those values and policies lies with elected officials, not with scientists or other experts. The knowers cannot—and in a constitutional republic, should not—be the deciders.
This is the sort of stupid, transparent rhetoric usually peddled by Leftists. Tom should be ashamed of himself. Sure, he admits the technocrats shouldn’t be the ultimate decision makers, but then makes sure to jab the stupid hoi polloi by implying they’d be fine letting Boston slide into the harbor.
Actually, with the way Boston votes these days, he might be right. Maybe they wouldn’t care. It would be like if the California coastline sunk into the Pacific, there’d probably be a party in middle America the next day. But that has nothing to do with climate change, per se.
Tom is making sure to tell us that it sucks that stupid people (i.e. people not like him, the anointed intelligentsia) get to make decisions.
At the same time, experts cannot withdraw from a public arena increasingly controlled by opportunistic demagogues who seek to discredit empiricism and rationality.
Tom is talking about Donald Trump here, of course. He can’t resist a dig at the President, either.
Instead, the expert community must help to lead laypeople, who find the modern world intimidating and even frightening, back along the road to a better day when the citizens of the United States valued scientists and other professionals as essential parts of the American story. Experts must continue, as citizens, to advocate for those things they believe to be in the public interest, but the most important role they can play is defend a stark but empathetic insistence on science and reason as the foundation for public policy.
In the end, Tom tells us that the experts must lead the laypeople, shepherding the flock of idiots who find the world intimidating and frightening. He then admits openly that America once valued these people (you know, back when Academia wasn’t the shining beacon of Marxist-Leninism and Social Justice weirdness). Earlier, you recall, he told us that America traditionally hates these people.
Which is it, Tom?
He tells us that experts shouldn’t make the decisions, but must advocate and lead the laypeople. Which is it, Tom?
I can only guess at what’s going on in his head, because he appears very conflicted and contradictory here. He doesn’t want to espouse open technocracy, to seize control openly. And yet he wants his chosen to lead the people nonetheless.
He fails to mention the real reason we are in this mess. Academia is full of loons and crazies. The education system is a disaster, and full of leftist agitprop. The experts in certain fields have been caught in egregious lies, obviously designed to serve a political narrative. Having been lied to about so many things, many Americans find it hard to trust those people.
And that’s what Tom’s experts (at least in those fields closely tied to Academia and government) need to address. Trust. They need to stop crying wolf, stop lying, stop trying to cloak wealth redistribution and globalization with a thin veneer of environmentalism.
The layman feels strongly that he’s being sold a false bill of goods by a fast-talking salesweasel. And quite often, he’s right on the money about that.