Failure of Public Intellectuals

Over at Teeming Brain, Matt Cardin mentioned a book. It’s The Ideas Industry by Daniel Drezner. There is an initial response I gave in a comment to Cardin. I turned that comment into a post I made earlier, Public Intellectuals As Thought Leaders. And I added to that with another post, Thoughts on Inequality and the Elite. In a second comment to Cardin, I sought to put it into further context:

This is an important topic and this book being far from the only example of it being discussed. There is also The Death of Expertise by Thomas Nichols, another book I haven’t read. There are many other similar books as well, such as Rigor Mortis by Richard Harris where is discussed the damaging failure of expertise in a particular field.

As I thought more about it, I realized this should be put into a larger context. The whole issue of “fake news” has received focus as of late. But who determines what is fake?

It was quite shocking see what was in some of the leaked emails, that those in the mainstream media were working close with party insiders, even to the point of secretly sharing debate questions prior to the debate and sending articles to them for editing before publishing. Yet this same corporate media wants to judge alternative media, one of the last bastions of honest discussion of important issues. There is a fight going on right now between old media and new media, such as what is going on with YouTube and AdSense, a fight that could shut down the growing voices outside of the establishment.

It is all very concerning.

There are other books that I could point to. Some of them are listed below, along with a few reviews and articles.

I’m not a big fan of blaming the public in a society that gives so little voice and power to the public, such as calling the public stupid. It would be a fair criticism if this was a functioning democracy, but the fact of the matter is that this is a banana republic. The real power is some combination of neoconservatism, neoliberalism, military-industrial complex, deep state, corporatism, inverted totalitarianism, plutocracy, kleptocracy, oligrachy, and I’m sure others could add a few to the list. I’ve often prefer the lens of corporatism with its long history in progressivism, fascism, colonialism, and earlier ideological systems. Corporations have become the dominant institution of our age.

Here is another angle. The pseudo-meritocracy, despite the liberal and progressive rhetoric, is actually a rigidly stratified system of concentrated wealth and power that tends toward authoritarian expressions of technocracy and scientific management (see an earlier discussion). Those with power and privilege love to wield the authority of expertise. But who determines who gets to be called and perceived as an expert in the corporate media, corporatist political system, and increasingly corporate-funded academia and scientific research?

The simple fact is that public trust has been lost. In many cases, it’s uncertain that it was ever deserved. Consider the authority of our criminal system, as assessed by the National Academy of Sciences:

Rigorous and mandatory certification programs for forensic scientists are currently lacking, the report says, as are strong standards and protocols for analyzing and reporting on evidence. And there is a dearth of peer-reviewed, published studies establishing the scientific bases and reliability of many forensic methods. Moreover, many forensic science labs are underfunded, understaffed, and have no effective oversight.

Forensic evidence is often offered in criminal prosecutions and civil litigation to support conclusions about individualization — in other words, to “match” a piece of evidence to a particular person, weapon, or other source. But with the exception of nuclear DNA analysis, the report says, no forensic method has been rigorously shown able to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source.

Now consider an estimated 2-5% of prisoners and 4% sentenced to die are innocent of all criminal charges. It was a public legal system built on professional expertise that led to these sad results. It’s sadder still when one looks at the racial biases. And the very public intellectuals getting promoted the most are often those, like Charles Murray, who preach a racial narrative and so offer justifications for prejudice.

We can’t simply turn to public intellectuals in the hope they’ll sort it all out. They are often part of the problem. And it isn’t public intellectuals who are most harmed in the process. When even public debate among public intellectuals fails to lead to public good, where does that leave the general public that has little voice at all, specifically those among us who suffer the worst consequences?

The failure isn’t intellectuals as a broad category. It’s a minority of intellectuals who become members of the affluent and influential intelligentsia, often working for special interest organizations, lobbyist groups, and think tanks. This is what being a public intellectual has come to mean, at least as it gets presented in corporate media and corporatist politics. What we need is more public intellectuals from more sectors and levels of society, in order to have genuine public debate.

A technocratic ruling elite is not going to save us.

* * * *

Flawed Scientific Research

Twilight of the Elites:
America After Meritocracy
by Chris Hayes

Failed:
What the “Experts” Got Wrong about the Global Economy
by Mark Weisbrot

Experts and Epistemic Monopolies: 17
by Roger Koppl, Steve Horwitz, & Laurent Dobuzinskis

Escape from Democracy:
The Role of Experts and the Public in Economic Policy
by David M. Levy &Sandra J. Peart

Scientism and Technocracy in the Twentieth Century:
The Legacy of Scientific Management

by Richard G. Olson

Beyond Technocracy:
Science, Politics and Citizens
by Massimiano Bucchi

The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium
by Martin Gurri

Type of expertise and their goal matters
by d. doyle

The problem today is not necessarily a lack of experts as it is how to determine what is relevant and what the goal is behind any expert’s pronouncement.

The Limits of Expertise
A defense of experts exhibits the very problems it complains about.

by Noah Berlatsky

Believe the experts! Experts are not perfect, but they are more likely than non-experts to be right. Experts know what they do not know, and are therefore more cautious and better able to self-correct. Sometimes, in small ways, non-experts may outperform experts. But in general, America and the world need more respect for expertise.

That is the thesis of Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. It is also, as it turns out, a critique of the book itself. Nichols, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, is an expert on Russia and national security; he is not, however, an expert on expertise.* His hand wringing about kids today is not grounded in a scholarly background in education policy or the history of student activism. He is a generalist dilettante writing a polemic against generalist dilettantes. As such, the best support for his argument is his own failure to prove it.

There are two central flaws in The Death of Expertise. The first is temporal. As the title implies, the book is written as though there were once a golden age when expertise was widely valued—and when the democratic polity was well-informed and took its duty to understand foreign and domestic affairs seriously. “The foundational knowledge of the average American is now so low that it has crashed through the floor of ‘uninformed,’ passed ‘misinformed’ on the way down, and finally is now plummeting to ‘aggressively wrong,'” Nichols declares. His proof for this statement is that “within my living memory I’ve never seen anything like it.”

As Nichols would ordinarily be the first to point out, the vague common-sense intuitions and memories of non-experts are not a good foundation for a sweeping theory of social change. Nichols admits that Americans are not actually any more ignorant than they were 50 years ago. But he quickly pivots to insist that “holding the line [of ignorance] isn’t good enough” and then spends the rest of the book writing as if he didn’t know that Americans are not getting more ignorant. […]

The balance between trusting experts and challenging conventional wisdom is always difficult. How do you create discussions online where folks who have been traditionally marginalized are welcome without empowering bad actors determined to harass them or spread disinformation? How can political parties encourage participation and democratic engagement without opening themselves up to opportunists and quacks? Those are questions worth asking, but Nichols, alas, is not the writer to answer them. Someone with more expertise is needed. Or, possibly, with less.

Comment to above article
by VG Zaytsev

“Believe the experts! Experts are not perfect, but they are more likely than non-experts to be right. Experts know what they do not know, and are therefore more cautious and better able to self-correct.”

That is 100% wrong in two ways. First as the breadth of knowledge continually increases, the scope of expertise shrinks. Attaining and maintaining expertise requires an ever greater focus on an ever narrower field, which necessarily means less knowledge in other areas, getting progressive lower as the distance form their narrow specialty increases. Which is fine in itself, but it is not how humans perceive the world and their social groups. Instead we believe that wisdom, cast as expertise, is wide – to universal. So that an “expert”‘s opinion is valued on a wide range of issues, most of which he has less information and experience dealing with than a generalist. Experts themselves are prone to this flaw.

Secondly the trust in experts and the narrow scope of actual expertise creates,the opportunity for faux experts to claim a level of authority and deference that they have no legitimate claim to. We see this repeatedly with “experts” put forward by the media to push a pre determined agenda.

‘The Death of Expertise’
by Scott McLemee

A survey of 7,000 freshmen at colleges and universities around the country found just 6 percent of them able to name the 13 colonies that founded the United States. Many students thought the first president was Abraham Lincoln, also known for “emaciating the slaves.” Par for the course these days, right?

It happens that the study in question was reported in The New York Times in 1943. The paper conducted the survey again during the Bicentennial, using more up-to-date methods, and found no improvement. “Two‐thirds [of students] do not have the foggiest notion of Jacksonian democracy,” one history professor told the Times in 1976. “Less than half even know that Woodrow Wilson was president during World War I.”

Reading the remark now, it’s shocking that he was shocked. After 40 years, our skins are thicker. (They have to be: asking the current resident of the White House about Jacksonian democracy would surely be taken as an invitation to reminisce about his “good friend,” Michael.)

The problem with narratives of decline is that they almost always imply, if not a golden age, then at least that things were once much better than they are now. The hard truth in this case is that they weren’t. On the average, the greatest generation didn’t know any more about why The Federalist Papers were written, much less what they said, than millennials do now. The important difference is that today students can reach into their pockets and, after some quick thumb typing and a minute or two of reading, know at least something on the topic.

Beware: the experts are usually poor forecasters
by Allister Heath

To say that experts often get it wrong is an understatement.

Philip Tetlock, a brilliant US academic who has studied this phenomenon in detail, once concluded that the average “expert” was in fact “roughly as accurate as a dart-throwing chimpanzee”. Consumers of expert advice should thus always heed the old adage of caveat emptor, or “let the buyer beware”.

The record of private and public sector forecasters is all too often abysmal, and in some cases almost a counter-indicator. The world craves certainty, even though no such thing can possibly exist. Pollsters thought that Labour would win the last election, have miscalled many others around the world and didn’t originally foresee the rise of Donald Trump. Most economists and large companies supported the UK’s membership of the euro, for example, which would have been a complete disaster. With a few heroic exceptions, hardly any economists saw the financial crisis and Great Recession coming, and of the very few who did spot that something was amiss hardly any worked out how the collapse would unfold.

So much for the big calls; the smaller ones tend to be equally wrong. We tend to see a strong bias towards over-optimism at the top of a boom and towards excessive pessimism at the trough of a recession. GDP numbers are always at least a little incorrect, and nobody predicted the employment bonanza of the past few years or the disappointing productivity performance. Even the Bank of England cannot correctly predict its own actions. As to most active fund managers, again with a number of brilliant exceptions, they aren’t worth the money: they cannot consistently deliver above-market returns after costs, even though that is their job. It gets worse: even oil companies cannot accurately work out what’s going to happen to the price of oil. […]

The problem is that it is impossible to know from the outset which so-called expert is actually a superforecaster and who will turn out to be no better than a random prediction machine. We therefore need to be very careful when listening to the expert consensus.

What if Elite Experts are Wrong About What They Supposedly are Experts About?
by Peter Boettke

Ever since the Wilsonian period, the progressive agenda has come with trained experts who by design immune from direct democratic pressures.  This is most evident in the Independent Regulatory Agencies — CPSC, EPA, FTC, FAA, FCC, FERC, Fed Reserve System, FDA, ICC, NLRB, NRC, OSHA, SEC — but it is an embedded attitude in our universities, our legal system, our politics, our media.  Experts are expected to lead the way based on their expertise in the policy sciences. […]

The problem with experts isn’t that individuals can have superior judgement to others, or that one can earn authority through judicious study and successful action.  The problem is an institutional one, and institutional problems demand institutional solutions.  In the case of the Levy/Peart and Koppl stories, the problem results from monopoly expertise that produce systemic incentives and social epistemology which is distortionary from the perspective of correct policy response.  […]

In fact, this focus on institutions of governance, and the fragility or robustness of these institutions, has been a focus […] Our knavery comes in the form of arrogance and opportunism, and if we construct institutions of governance that fail to check our knavery, and instead unleashes experts immune from democratic pressures, we get expert failure.

Tremendous power and authority has been entrusted in these experts.  Yet, there are serious issues that potentially delegitimize large segments of the establishment in: education from primary to secondary to higher, media from traditional print to radio, TV and even the echo-chamber of social media, public services from police to infrastructure to public pensions, and government from local to state to federal.  One way to “read” the election results is that this was an indictment of the establishment of experts.

Comment to above article
by arun

I think experts who serve an ‘elite’ aren’t going to be objective because an elite, by definition, believes that it’s values and preferences are ‘hegemonic’ in the Gramscian sense- i.e. they are prescriptive because of some obvious virtue which everybody recognizes as attaching itself to the ‘elite’.

In other words, the elite has an incentive to employ an expert who predicts that which is in their narrow interest and tries to pass it off as a ‘Muth Rational’ solution.

If Elites are insecure or subject to rent-contestation, sure, they may consult ‘expert cognition’ mavens so as to hedge their bets but they still have an interest in supporting official ‘experts’ who either predict what they want them to predict or who make a policy space multidimensional in a manner that gives the Elite ‘agenda control’and thus the ability to rig the outcome in their favor.

Comment to above article
by BenK

This comes back to the local knowledge problem; that experts may indeed have general knowledge about class of problem abstracted from its setting, but that only works for problems that are truly able to be abstracted. As a result, effective experts usually need to embed, or ‘condescend’ to understand local conditions when addressing a problem in the specific. However, when community problems are fundamentally about the ‘community,’ the experts are likely to favor being ‘objective’ and ‘distant’ rather than ‘involved’ and perhaps compromised. As a result, there is a conundrum. They cannot sit on high in judgement on the community and still understand it; but if they become involved, the problem will not appear the same. It’s a kind of relativity, particularly well known in families.

The answer is not to have contests among the experts to see who is more frequently right. This favors cherry picking and all sorts of bad strategies. The answer is to have experts as local as feasible; and keep them local, not giving them broad authorities. They can learn from each other but not subsume each other. There are costs to this approach, but it will be more robust than the current brittle strategy.

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9 thoughts on “Failure of Public Intellectuals

  1. Hoisted from my Naked Capitalism Comment:

    Basically what has happened is that the rich have decided that they no longer need a middle class and have decided that they want to restore the Gilded Age or the Aristocracy of old.

    All of the productivity gains and then some have been captured upwards, for the rich and solely the rich. I suspect that real wages for the poor are falling and that the inflation statistics significantly understate the real rate of inflation.

    As for why this is happening? It goes back to the greed of the rich. Low wage workers who do not have stable employment are not a source of aggregate demand. They also lack the income for a viable tax base, an important consideration when the population is aging and the dependent to worker ratio is going down. Why are retail businesses and restaurants closing? People have no disposable income. Amazon has often been cited for retail, but that does not explain the collapse in restaurants.

    Businesses love their employees poor and their customers rich. Actually they would prefer slaves to employees or to have no employees, just temp workers, or apparently, in their dreams, just robots. In other words, they want something for nothing. The problem is that capitalism is its own worse enemy. It is a classic case of the collective action failure problem because if everyone pays their employees poorly, nobody has enough money to buy their goods and services.

    Then as others have noted, there are the ecological barriers. I suppose that is why right wing libertarians deny global warming. It is a fatal flaw of their ideology. For similar reasons, I suppose it is why the fossil fuel industry has tried to fund global warming denialism in a manner that mirrors the tobacco industry’s efforts to deny the causal relationship between tobacco usage and lung cancer.

    Likewise, there is a ton of other rent seeking. An economy that pays millions to Wall Street people for playing financial games or Private Equity or High Frequency Trading or frankly, crashing the economy, while leaving those of us who do things that keep the basic functions of society running is not a healthy society. It is not a reflection of the value they add to society (actually in the case of Wall Street, I think that their “value” is firmly in the negative). Rather it is the sign of a total imbalance of bargaining power.

    It seems the elites are not very good at long term thinking. Bright in finding ways to steal the riches of society for themselves. However willfully ignorant of long term problems like global warming or how inequality can lead to political revolution. They have a far deeper legitimacy crisis than they care to understand. It seems the rich who benefit most from this current arrangement are desperate to keep the charade up and to beguile people into thinking that this can work or that this is a true meritocracy.

    We can see this too when the rich are asked to pay their fair share of taxes. It seems that those who benefited most from the current regime are the ones who resist the most in contributing to the society that they benefited so much from.

    Capitalism and greed seem to be their own worst enemies. Left unchecked though, they will lead to a collapse.

    • Well, instead of intelligently discussing issues, we could simply embrace ideological-driven ignorance. That is one way of responding to the problem. But not discussing the issues goes hand in hand with the ignorance.

    • It’s amazing how clueless these people are. They have no comprehension that the situation has gone so far beyond such manipulations.

      As the majority of Americans increasingly demand something different, these corrupt corporatist politicians keep pushing the country closer toward the edge. Don’t they understand that once we go over that edge there is no coming back and the good times will be over for them and their cronies?

    • Yeah something like this seems like the norm these days:

      I think that deep inside they must know that this whole system is built on their lies and dishonesty.

      They ignore history at their own peril.

      • I consider that not just moral and public failure but political evil. That simply would never happen in a functioning social democracy. It is the complete betrayal of the public good, directly harming the most disadvantaged citizenry at their most vulnerable.

        You know the people living in wealthy communities and neighborhoods are getting the best services possible and probably still maintained publicly. As others have noted, we have socialism for the rich and capitalism for everyone else.

    • I imagine they must think that it will never collapse – that is they will build something like a banana republic in the developing world and get away with it.

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