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.

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Flawed Scientific Research

Twilight of the Elites:
America After Meritocracy
by Chris Hayes

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.

Public Intellectuals As Thought Leaders

“We are at a curious moment in the marketplace of ideas. It is the best of times for thought leaders. It is the worst of times for public intellectuals. It is the most disorienting of times for everyone else.”

That is what Daniel Drezner writes about in his piece at the Oxford University Press blog, The decline of public intellectuals. I understand the complaint, as it is far from unjustified. But I must admit that my perspective is different. I’ve seen too many bad examples of public intellectuals to be able to blame it all on thought leaders. Of course, that isn’t to say many thought leaders don’t deserve to share the blame.

My attitude on the subject is from taking a broader perspective on what it has meant to be an intellectual in the past and what it means today. In the past, most people were silenced, people such as myself. But it isn’t just that more people have access to being heard today. People also have more access to information and education than ever before. There simply are more smart educated people than there once was. Along with higher rates of high school graduation and college degrees, the average IQ has jumped up 20 points these past generations.

Yes, there are more thought leaders today. But there are also more public intellectuals. And generally there is simply more people involved in public debate. That is the only hope that we might one day have a functioning democracy. That is far from public intellectuals being in decline. It’s just that people don’t automatically bow down to them. When I think a public intellectual is wrong, I’ve challenged them and have done so with knowledge, even though I lack higher education. I’m more widely read than the average public intellectual, as understandably most public intellectuals have a field of expertise that has allowed them to gain public attention.

Is the world a worse place for there now being people who will force public intellectuals to be accountable and won’t let them slip past based solely on their claims of authority? This is a good thing and the author begrudgingly agrees to an extent, although one can sense that he is nostalgic for an earlier time when he imagines public intellectuals were respected. I’d point out that it wasn’t only the average person who was silenced in the past. Even most intellectuals and aspiring public intellectuals were silenced while a few public intellectuals dominated nearly all public debate, not always the cream of the crop rising to the top. There is no better time in all of history than right now to be a public intellectual or be involved in public debate in any manner.

Besides, anyone who thinks bad ideas didn’t flourish in the past is utterly clueless about history. And when a public intellectual makes statements to that effect, he should be confronted about it. The role of the public intellectual hasn’t fundamentally changed. And don’t for a moment think that public intellectuals never spread bad ideas. In fact, bad ideas would rarely become popular if not for public intellectuals. This is because there is no clear distinction between a public intellectual and a thought leader.

To be fair, he does make a good point about think tanks. There is big money promoting bad ideas. And it is hard for public intellectuals to fight against that. And he is right that the only solution is “is more discord and more debate.” But also more demand for honesty and integrity, especially from public intellectuals, whether working for think tanks or not (unfortunately, even scientists are increasingly getting their funding from corporations and corporate-related organizations). When a bad idea gets spread by a public intellectual, which happens on a regular basis, it gives that bad idea legitimacy. That is more dangerous than a thousand thought leaders spouting bullshit.

I read a Wall Street Journal article the other day, Jonathan Haidt on the Cultural Roots of Campus Rage by Bari Weiss (full text). He quotes from an interview he had with Haidt, a public intellectual who has increasingly become a thought leader. I found it a depressing experience to read his view because it was once again framed by a standard right-wing culture war narrative. He asserted college activists as being part of a dangerous campus religion, ignoring the incident in question at UC Berkley was instigated by unknown masked agitators who may have had no association with the student body.

Anyway, what about the long history of students protesting, sometimes violently, at universities that goes back centuries? Why is students protesting now all of a sudden a sign of activism turning into a religion? And what about all the other threatening acts by those who aren’t students: the attacks by Trump supporters, the recent increase in hate crimes, the violence directed at women’s clinic workers, the rancher supporters pointing guns at federal agents, the right-wingers who occupied federal land with weapons, etc? Is every act of protest to be considered religious or quasi-religious in nature? As always, there is historical amnesia and a lack of larger context.

Because Haidt is a respected public intellectual, his weird brand of conservative-minded liberalism gets pushed to center stage, the supposed ‘mainstream’, where he has immense influence. Worse still, many other public intellectuals will defend people like him, even when they step far outside their narrow field of expertise. To be honest, Haidt’s opinion on this matter is no more relevant than that of any random person. He is the kind of public-intellectual-cum-thought-leader that is disconnected from reality, arguing that academia has shifted far left even while being oblivious to the fact that the majority of Americans have also shifted left, further left than academia on such issues as economics. This has left those like Haidt trying to hold their ground in center-right liberalism, as the rest of the society moves further away in the opposite direction.

More than anything, what we need is more common people closer to realities on the ground, yet those who are well read and well informed enough to be involved in public debate. Their voices need to be promoted, as they often have perspectives that are lacking among the formally educated. For example, if we want to have a debate about poverty, the voices that are most important are the poor who have genuine insights to add, insights that most in the economically comfortable intellectual class would likely never consider. That came up in recent corporate media obsession with Appalachia, where a few desperately poor whites get all the attention while intellectuals and activists in Appalachia get ignored because they confuse the narrative, a point made by Elizabeth Catte among others. We need to rely less on a few famous public intellectuals to have an opinion on everything. That just leads to an increase in the incidents of the smart idiot effect.

I’m not sure the exact solution. I wish everyone involved would take truth-seeking more seriously, such as not making wild claims and accusations in order to get corporate media attention. I feel like the role of public intellectual has been cheapened, as so many attention whores chase the spotlight and compete for book deals. But I guess that is to be expected in this kind of capitalist society where even academics win the competition of ideas through fame and money. It doesn’t matter that there thousands of scholars with deeper understanding and insight than someone like Haidt. They don’t tell the corporate media hacks what they want to hear, the popular narratives that sell advertising.

* * * *

As a side note, this is hardly a new issue for me. I’ve long fought for a more inclusive and democratic vision of public intellectuality. If you publicly express your intellect on a regular basis, then you are a public intellectual. All that it takes is to be curious with a love of learning, willing to question and doubt, and a desire to engage with others.

I take this seriously. And I’m not tolerant of bullshit. I hold public intellectuals to a high standard because their role in society is so important. That standard remains the same no matter who the person is. Authority, perceived or real, doesn’t change the fact that a public intellectual has a responsibility to the public and so the public has the responsibility to hold them accountable. Public debate is a two way street, a discussion and not a lecture.

In that light, I’ve seen it as one of my roles to offer judgment where I deem it necessary. Along with criticism of Jonathan Haidt, I’ve turned my critical gaze to other public intellectuals, sometimes interacting with them directly in the process: Rick ShenkmanPaul BloomKenan MalikCris Campbell, and I suppose there might have been others.