more humanities lament: it’s the politics, stupid

The Chronicle of Higher Education has yet another article combatting the supposed loss of status of the humanities to STEM.  Also, Evolutionist X reviews Tom Nichols’s The Death of Expertise lamenting the public’s insufficient docility toward the authority of experts.  About the Chronicle article and Nichols’s book, I will have nothing to say.  They make a number of interesting and perhaps valid, but ultimately tangential points.  As in my review of Prof. Fish’s article, what strikes me is the odd omission of what is clearly the main issue:  politics, the question of loyalty, of friend vs. enemy.  I don’t trust sociologists and literary critics not because I don’t see the use of what they’re studying, or because I imagine that every opinion no matter how uninformed is as good as any other.  I don’t trust them because they are clearly hostile partisans.

In a way, this is common sense.  Historians themselves are careful to account for the biases in their primary sources, to be skeptical of narratives that blacken the reputations of the narrator’s enemies.  We commoners have noted the evident hostility of the expert class for us, and we see how their interests sometimes diverge from ours.  Why should we believe the nasty things they say about us, our parents and co-ethnics, and our religion?

Can we afford to ignore them, though?  That is the real worry of these social scientists and humanities professors; the people know they can’t stop listening to scientists, no matter how disloyal the scientists seem, but that we must listen to these others is less clear.  If the climatologists are right about global warming and I ignore them, my children might pay for it.  But if the social scientists tell me that I am wearing an invisible knapsack to unfairly privilege myself against the negroes, and I laugh them off and ignore them, what harm could come to me for it?  If they tell me that Newton and Lincoln were gay and I roll my eyes and ignore them, how will it harm me, even if the gay-advocating historians should turn out to be right?

We cannot trust these experts, for they do hate us, but they have studied things we have not.  If we always dismiss critics, we might never be delivered from our errors.  One reply would be that we should not trust experts, but we should evaluate their arguments and evidence.  This would be the ideal, but in practice one must become almost an expert just to evaluate the claims of experts.  A non-expert might catch logical fallacies but would be helpless against trickery based on selective presentation of evidence.  I agree with Nichols that democratic decision making by a populace that will not listen to relevant experts is folly, and with Evolutionist X on the problems with limiting the populaces choices to those that are expert-approved.  Not only is the latter undemocratic (which I wouldn’t mind in itself); it is not properly aristocratic either, since these experts would have rule without acknowledged responsibility.

If one wants to have a democracy (I don’t, but I prefer a functioning one to a dysfunctional one), one needs to have a critical mass of experts on every political side, whether sides are decided by class, race, or religion.  That way, if there really is an expert consensus (as opposed to a partisan body trying to leverage its status to partisan ends), each group can hear it from someone it can trust.  The very fact that such a consensus could be reached among men of divergent loyalties would speak in its favor.  Of course, for this to work, experts of various political camps would have to recognize each other’s expertise.

Experts may reply that academia’s embrace of liberal monoculture is not a problem, because resistance to this monoculture is a temporary thing.  As soon as the media and universities have eliminated the cultural resistance, the converted masses will submit to them in all docility.  Clearly this isn’t working, because liberal-Leftism has been routing its enemies for centuries, and never faster than today, and yet the credibility of experts continues to fall.  One problem is that just because one has converted the people to Leftism 1.0 doesn’t mean they will meekly follow along with Leftism 2.0.  Leftism is always on the move, always finding new villains and scapegoats.  It may well need some resistance from the populace in order to function and will always escalate its bullying in order to get it.  Another issue is that even liberals know deep down that there is only one safe set of opinions for experts.  This doesn’t cause them to doubt their mandated beliefs, but it can’t help but make expertise somewhat superfluous.  If activist students know what the professor’s results must be at the beginning of his research (and heaven help the professor if he concludes anything different!), what need is there for the professor?

13 Responses

  1. I think I have told you that I have a brother who has a PhD in physics. His politics are standard academic progressive. When we discuss some point of history, sociology or politics, he yields not one millimeter to my relative expertise. This is especially true if I voice an opinion that runs contrary to what he might have heard on NPR. It is curious, since I will always defer to his knowledge of physics, and if I noticed that this was outside the mainstream, I would find it interesting rather than provoking.

    This can annoy me, but on reflection I see that my brother (like all amateur sociologists) is partly right. Every human has some direct knowledge of the human world and how it works, whereas only a very small elite know anything at all about quarks and mesons. This doesn’t mean that the opinion of every human is of equal value, but that the opinion of every human has some epistemic standing when it comes to social questions. Sociologists have long worked to undermine folk sociology, but people have rightly resisted their arrogation of all authority in this area.

    When it comes to history and literary criticism, I think we are really talking about a split between academics and amateurs (in the good sense). There are a great many people who know as much history as your average history professor, and who laugh at the fussy clericalism of that field. In my experience, professors of English literature are not especially well read or discriminating, and some are, of course, risible. The internet has shown us that there are thousands upon thousands of people who have interesting and informed opinions on humanistic questions–indeed that these amateur opinions are often superior to those on offer from the clerisy.

    Consider this blog. Over the years you have written a great many words on a great many topics, most of them at or very near the level of erudition one finds in an ordinary academic journal. Your posts may lack some of the furbelows of precisian pedantry, but that’s because you write them in your spare time rather than while funded by the NEH. As far as I can see, there is really nothing equivalent in the way of amateur natural scientists. There are no amateur physicists working in a basement laboratory who are at or very near the level of the physicists in the university and government labs.

  2. Very good comment, JMSmith.

  3. Hi JMSmith. If you have told me, I have not remembered. I realize it’s a bit tangential to your point, but I’m surprised at how physicists keep on popping up everywhere. When I decided it was what I wanted to do (sometime in grade school), I thought I was making an unusual, low-status, nerdy choice. On the other hand, given the materialist beliefs of the upper class, perhaps I should rather be surprised that not everybody wants to become a physicist, since physics is taken to be the ultimate truth about everything. And yet a great many materialists seem content to affirm that physics describes everything real about the world without bothering over what that description actually is.

  4. The distinction, friend vs enemy, is proper to war and not to politics, unless politics be war conducted otherwise, say the politics of a totalitarian country. If normal politics of rational discourse is impossible now, we indeed live in a totalitarianism.

  5. This can annoy me, but on reflection I see that my brother (like all amateur sociologists) is partly right. Every human has some direct knowledge of the human world and how it works, whereas only a very small elite know anything at all about quarks and mesons.

    I’m not a fan of this line of reasoning. Everyone takes for granted that former sportsmen make the best coaches, yet nobody thinks that Secretariat would have made a good horse trainer.

    Back when I talked to other academics, non-economists used to say things like “I don’t believe economics because their theories say that humans solve these difficult, non-linear, multi-dimensional optimization problems in order to decide what to have for lunch.” Don’t thrown rocks have to solve difficult, non-linear, multi-dimensional, partial differential equations in order to decide where to land? Why don’t we have rocks lecture at physics?

    I used to run laboratory experiments in economics. One thing we would do is re-create a demand-and-supply system in the lab (using explicit monetary incentives). You’d get to the price and quantity predicted by theory quickly. Then we would shift the demand curve or the supply curve in a way invisible to any individual subject. The price and quantity would quickly settle at the new theoretically-predicted levels. If you talked to the subjects after the experiment, you got incorrect theories about what had happened, usually theories involving collusion or ludicrously self-destructive behavior on others’ parts. To be clear, we are economists not psychologists—we did not lie to, trick, or in any way deceive anyone (well, I guess somebody told the funding agency that the experiment was worth the money spent on it).

    There are other examples like this. Humans seem to be terrible at intuiting how systems work by observing them from the inside. I’m skeptical that most of them are even good at predicting their own behavior or understanding their own motives.

  6. I don’t mean to say that vernacular social science equals theoretical social science in predictive power, only that a human is justified in thinking that he knows something about the human world simply from having lived in it. Bonald can tell me anything he likes about the behavior of neutrinos or black holes, since I’ve never met either of these things. But when a sociologist tells me something about lesbians, or a psychologist tells me something about consciousness, or an economist tells me something about incentives, I have some personal experience against which to test their claims. I may fully recognize the limitations of my experience as compared to their well-designed studies, but my experience may nevertheless give me grounds to doubt these studies if there are great discrepancies.

    Think of it this way. I’ve never been to the third planet orbiting Alpha Centauri (assuming such exists), so if someone who has tells me it is covered with banana plantations I not dispute him. I have been to New York City, although there are a great many people who know the city far better than I. If one of those people tells me New York City is covered with banana plantations, I will dispute him. And I will not be deterred by his telling me he has driven a cab in that city for forty years.

  7. Bedarz Iliachi makes a good point. Man is a political animal, so wouldn’t we still have politics if we had no enemies? Had there been no Fall, wouldn’t we still have a political community? It seems that all that would be necessary for politics to exist is for the need for a community to make decisions somehow.

  8. Bendarz Iliachi and Ian,

    I am of course invoking Carl Schmitt’s somewhat uncommon definition of politics, because he put his finger on a qualitative difference between the adversarial politics we have now and the sort of political disagreements that might have occurred in a pre-lapsarian or ideologically harmonious polity. In such a state, there might still be experts and non-experts and disagreements about means but not ends. People would probably be much more willing to trust experts in such a case. As it is, the goals toward which our experts are working are ones that I do not find desirable. Their greater knowledge is beside the point.

  9. DrBill,

    I’m willing to believe that experts can predict the aggregate behavior of large numbers of humans, since in such cases personal idiosyncrasies will tend to wash out, but I don’t believe that these experts understand my own motives better than I do. Where is the evidence for this? They say, “No, no. You say that you have this reason, but it’s really just because you hate women and blacks / are repressing your homosexuality / are afraid of ambiguity / are too stupid to empathize with other people.” Why should I believe them? I have an inner access to my own thoughts that they lack. And if I don’t believe and act for the reasons I think I have, then how can they know that when they judge me they are really driven by the reasonings they think they have? They think they are following a trail of logic without irrational bias, but I think that too about my own beliefs. And they are clearly as biased against me as I am in favor of myself. Saying we don’t know our own minds is an invitation to general skepticism.

    It may be that people are not good at predicting their own behavior. That would only mean that they can’t predict what their mind would be in other circumstances, not that they don’t know what it is now. But I doubt that these experts can predict my behavior better than I can.

  10. The claim to be able to predict individual human behavior is not a new one. Ancient “experts” said they had it down to a science, it was as predictable as the movement of the stars. 2000 years from now there’ll be a new group of self-proclaimed experts who say they can predict individual human behavior, and 21st century psychology will be dismissed as a bunch of primitive mumbo jumbo.

    Something that differentiates physics (or economics for that matter) from psychology is that we actually know more than we did 2000 years ago. The specifics of psychology have changed of course, but the correlation with reality seems to be about the same.

  11. “my experience may nevertheless give me grounds to doubt these studies if there are great discrepancies.”

    As Maritain says in Introduction to Philosophy
    “Common sense may accidentally judge philosophy”.

  12. The experts have agreed on global warming. Doesn’t that blow the whole concept of trusting experts out of the water?

    It would be better to have the view that experts are a certain caste working in their self-interest, such as promoting global warming to get funding for themselves. Therefore their claims are suspect.

    The folk or regular person’s view that these types are not to be trusted has been right for decades now if not longer so I would say the principle itself of generally trusting supposed experts is suspect.

  13. […] Benjamin Schmidt puts together a good case that humanities majors are declining because of the impression of poor job prospects.  I appreciate that he defines the humanities “crisis” in a clear and quantitative way.  Talk of a “crisis of the humanities” often conflates several issues.  As for the enduring influence and declining prestige of the humanities, I still say “it’s the politics, stupid“. […]

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