Periodically I see articles like this, and I’ve been meaning to respond.
To be clear, by the definitions of most articles like this, I would be considered part of the “elite”: I graduated from the California Institute of Technology with a degree in Mathematics, having studied abstract topological spaces and computational geometry. I work as a software developer, a field which requires a relatively high level of logic and intellectualism. I also spend a lot of time studying human interfaces and the limits of human cognition; this comes as part of my job. Economically my wife and I are not quite 1%ers by income, but we certainly are ahead of most of the population. I have a few political connections (though politics is something I’d rather comment on than participate in), and I have a respectably high IQ, meaning I’m good at seeing patterns others don’t see right away.
So when I respond to an article like this, I am not responding as a “populist”: as someone who is suspicious of the “privileged elites” and believes power needs to be given to the “common man” regardless of what station those privileged elites hold.
To be clear, while I am highly supportive of right of everyone to live their lives as they will (different strokes and all that), I am highly suspicious that “common wisdom” exists, and I am highly suspicious of the idea that the “common man” has the ability to process the highly technical aspects we see in some corners of our society. (On the other hand, I do believe it is the responsibility of those who understand to simplify and explain: for those in the know to prepare a “freshman lecture”, both to recognize if they understand, and to explain to others who are less learned than they are.)
So when I respond here, I’m hardly the stereotypical knuckle-dragging moron that most so-called “experts” think of who respond to stuff like this.
In Defense of Elitism
Why is it, then, that in intellectual spheres elitism is criticized and shunned? A comparable amount of talent and training may be necessary to a respected professor or scientist, and yet many people think their opinions are just as valuable with respect to their specific ares of expertise.
Because intellectual elitism is also intellectually narrow.
Take Stephen Hawking, for example, one of the most intellectually gifted theoretical physicists in the modern world. His research in the fields of black holes, general relativity and the like are absolutely cutting edge, and his knowledge in the fields of theoretical physics (and the frameworks which carry you there, such as calculus) is top-notch.
To suggest some random hacker like myself is equal to Stephen Hawking’s knowledge in theoretical physics is beyond absurd. I could spend the rest of my life trying to understand what Professor Hawking knows–and never understand it all.
Stephen Hawking is, thanks to his knowledge of the Universe, a well known celebrity.
And this is where it all goes haywire. Because lately Professor Hawking has been wading into the debate about Artificial Intelligence, a field that Professor Hawking has not studied to the same depth as his prior work on black holes and space-time. It’s not to suggest that his arguments aren’t worth listening to–that’s a logical fallacy–but to amplify his words given his celebrity status, when (in all humility) I’ve probably spent more time in the field of Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence–and at that point this whole “expertise” thing comes off the rails.
Why is it, then, that in intellectual spheres elitism is criticized and shunned?
Interestingly, Dr. Novella, the author of the article, answers his own question without realizing it:
Interestingly, the more physical and immediate the outcome, the more elitism is tolerated. Compare surgery to medicine. The skill and talent of the surgeon is unquestionably recognized, and no one sane would allow a self-trained and uncredentialed “surgeon” to perform major surgery on them. But I have news for you – many areas of medicine are just as hard and take as many years of training.
Though–having spent a lot of time in a medical setting recently (thanks to the passing of a couple of people I know), I wouldn’t use the word “tolerated” but “respected.”
And yet… notice that even in the medical setting, we don’t go to an ENT (Ear-Nose-Throat) specialist in order to do open heart surgery.
Expertise is narrow.
The cry of “elitism” has become a major component of anti-intellectualism, denying the value and legitimacy of intellectual pursuits. Everyone might be entitled to their own opinion, but that does not make all opinions are of equal value.
On this point I whole heartedly agree.
Where it goes wrong for me is how improperly this idea is applied in real life, ironically by so-called “experts.”
For example, take Neil deGrasse Tyson, whose Ph.D. is in astrophysics and cosmology. If we wanted to talk to an expert about astrophysics and cosmology, then clearly Dr. Tyson is your man. He’s also your man if you want to (say) talk about the wonders of astronomy.
He is, however, not an expert in Climatology or Philosophy. At best he is an intelligent celebrity–but then, would we also give the same credence to Queen rock guitarist Brian May? After all, Dr. May’s Ph.D. is also in astrophysics.
Where the rubber meets the road with the supposed “anti-intellectual” movement “decrying the value and legitimacy of intellectual pursuits” is when science and experts meets politics.
You can consider politics its own field of expertise–a sort of cross between the practical art of engineering solutions with the practical art of reaching compromises. In politics its all about framing problems and selling solutions, while considering the impact those solutions may have on people who are being affected.
And in this field of expertise, people like Dr. Tyson, Dr. Hawking, Dr. Novella or (to use more charged names here) Dr. Michael Mann or Dr. James Hansen, who supports a national carbon tax are all strangers in a strange land: non-expert intelligent celebrities like Dr. May (whose celebrity came by playing the guitar). To call them “elite” in this context does a massive disservice to the very sort of “expertise” Dr. Novella pretends to advocate for.
None of these people are “elite” in the field of politics. They are just well-connected, using a larger microphone than they deserve.
The problem is not that people are anti-intellectual–though undoubtedly you can find a lot of anti-intellectualism at the fringe of our society, or of any society for that matter. (There are always people who believe in the literal healing power of crystals or ancient alien astronauts building the pyramids.) By and large, as Dr. Novella noted, we do respect experts in their personal field of expertise.
But when so-called experts leverage their expertise to gain celebrity status, then use their celebrity status to opine on subjects not in their field of expertise–expect people to take their words with a grain of salt.
And rightfully so. Because a world where we cede political control to a small elite group of supposed “experts” operating outside of their narrow field of expertise is not “meritocracy”. It’s classical oligarchy, but where our high priests rulers proclaim the religion of scientism.
Perhaps a first step to improving the situation is to stop selectively demonizing intellectual elitism. We praise elite athletes, give our money and adulation to elite performers and artists, and trust in those with elite technical skills. We should also recognize the value of elite intellectual talent and skills.
I once had a doctor–an Ear-Nose-Throat expert I had gone to regarding my snoring–tell me to stop eating microwaved foods because (I shit you not) he told me “microwaves change the molecular structure of the food.” My wife (a Registered Dietitian) basically rolled her eyes when I told her that. Sure, microwaving “changes the molecular structure of the food”–but through a process called “cooking.”
So I suggest to Dr. Novella that perhaps as a first step to improving the situation, experts need to start recognizing the limits of their expertise.
Because the one thing Americans hate more than anything else is someone who clearly has no expertise in a particular topic (even if they have expertise elsewhere) talking down to us like we’re a bunch of fucking fools.
Now if I wanted an opinion in neurology and neuroscience–trust me Dr. Novella, you’re first on my list of people to call.
Anything else? Get in fucking line.
Because despite your apparent protestations to the contrary, outside of your narrow field of expertise–you’re not an elite. You just think you are.