Anti-Science America and More On Experts

Gap Between Scientists and General Public

President Tells Parents to Vaccinate Their Children

The first article is about the gap between the opinions of the general public and the second is about how the President had to remind people that it was safe to get vaccines.  One of my last blogs (I will link it at the end.) was about how our society relies too heavily on experts, especially the kind on TV that are used to shape public opinion on moral and political issues.  However, where experts are really valuable is on technical issues, which Howard Zinn, in the excerpt I published, eludes to, although perhaps not strongly enough.  Scientists can’t teach you morality, but scientists can give you the technical facts on which to base morality on.  Scientists are not experts at complex ethical questions regarding manmade climate change, but they can in fact tell you that man is contributing to climate change.  Scientists should not be the ones laying out the reason why it is ethical to vaccinate your children, but they should be the ones that tell you if vaccines are safe or not.  Yet on climate change, vaccinations, and other topics of the day, we have a large percentage of the population that ignores the cold hard evidence on such issues.  What does it mean when a President has to waste his time telling people that it is safe to get vaccinations when the overwhelming scientific evidence is that it is indeed safe?

Again the only way a democracy can work is if the general population actively tries to stay informed.  We have too many people that believe in nonsensical unsupported gibberish.  There is a great deal of senselessness on the internet, but at the same time it is actually pretty easy to get the correct information if you diligently search for it.  A democracy is supposed to put leadership in the hands of people, but people, in order to deserve that leadership, must also assume the burdens of that leadership.  That means spending at least part of your life trying to stay informed as to what is actually going on.

Why are we spending so much of our time arguing over things that are settled science?  I think it is because of the corrupting influence that the god of money has on our society.  There scores of think-tanks that have been created, often by corporate money, to try to influence public debate and public policy.  There are a great deal of political “leaders” that are often shills for different industries.  Many of the so-called “experts” on TV have been bought and paid for by different industries.  People like the Koch brothers are purposely trying to dismantle education, particularly science education, but really education that gets people to think critically.  In an age when we are bombarded with information, it is more important that people can think critically than ever before.  People need the ability to actually tell the difference between respected technical experts of certain fields and bought and paid for talking heads, which I admit can be hard to do if you don’t actually have the time to read up on stuff.  The media, especially the mainstream corporate media, does not do its duty in telling its audiences who is receiving checks from where.

There is so much to discuss on this topic, but for the time being I will leave it to you to explore on your own.  Try to teach yourself about the role of think-tanks in our society.  Also, google Barry McCaffrey, who was a military expert often brought on TV shows in the lead up to the Iraq War.  Then spend some time googling where he gets his various paychecks from.  He is a great example to understand how money corrodes public debate.

My previous post on experts here:

The Problem With Experts

Hat tip to my friend Peter for the second article.

The Problem With Experts

My friend Trey recently gave me a book to read in the back of the van.  The following passage seemed correct to me in its diagnosis of a modern problem:

There is in orthodox thinking a great dependence on experts.  Because modern technological society has produced a breed of experts who understand technical matters that bewilder the rest of us, we think that in matters of social conflict, which require moral judgments, we must also turn to experts.  

There are two false assumptions about experts.  One is that they see more clearly and think more intelligently than ordinary citizens.  Sometimes they do, sometimes not.  The other assumption is that these experts have the same interests as ordinary citizens, want the same things, hold the same values, and, therefore, can be trusted to make decisions for all of us.  

To depend on great thinkers, authorities, and experts is, it seems to me, a violation of the spirit of democracy.  Democracy rests on the idea that, except for technical details for which experts may be useful, the important decisions of society are within the capability of ordinary citizens.  Not only can ordinary people make decisions about these issues, but they ought to, because citizens understand their own interests more clearly than experts.  

Now the only thing I want to add to this is that for democracy to function properly, it also depends on citizens being well informed.  Citizens are capable of educating themselves, but they must want to.  It is important that a certain percentage of citizens read, pay attention to national and world events, and I also think, in such an interconnected world, travel if not in other countries, than at least in their own.  It should be important in a society that citizens understand that they have an important role in events and take that burden seriously.  One of the problems in the U.S. is that there are not enough people that understand that a democracy, for it to work properly, needs people to be involved at more than just a superficial level.

The writer of the above passage is Howard Zinn.  It is from his book Passionate Declarations.  While I usually would not wait to the end of a blog to name a source, I know that there are many that view Zinn as an unreasonable lefty, and I wanted the idea to live on its own terms for a moment.  (I personally think Zinn has a lot to offer people of all political stripes.  Because he is someone that speaks truth to power, there are those that want to label and discredit him.)

I have posted this video and song before, but I think that the Laurie Anderson song Only an Expert deals brilliantly with this same topic.

P.S.  I apologize to those of you that subscribe to this blog for sending an incomplete version of this post to your emails.  It simply was the cause of human error on my part.  I fucked up!  

The Herd Mentality of “Experts”

All these effing geniuses: Ezra Klein, expert-driven journalism, and the phony Washington consensus via @Salon

A really interesting article that I think has a lot of truth to it. 

Only an Expert Can Deal With the Problem

I should note that the above video is different from the original recording.  It is shorter and features different lyrics.  If you would like to see the lyrics in the full recorded version go to this post:

I’m finally back from tour.  I haven’t had internet for the last few days so posting was not an option, other than sending a few brief thoughts out from my phone.  One of the things that I love about blogging is how you can use it to create different idea colleges from different sources.  Above I posted the video for Laurie Anderson’s Only an Expert.  The song is pretty self explanatory.  We often hold people in high regards due to either wealth or fame without asking too many tough questions.  I’ve been reading Hampton Sides’s In the Kingdom of Ice while on the road.  In it there are several high ranking cultural figures that are completely batshit insane behind the scenes.  Here is a brief look into the life of James Gordon Bennett, the owner of the New York Herald during the late 19th century:

He was “Bennett the Terrible, the mad Commodore, the autocrat of the transatlantic cables,” one biographer wrote; he saw himself as “one of the lords of creation.”  A longtime Herald editor later remarked of his boss that he “was a ruler over a domain of romance; he himself at times a romantic ruler.  If impulse called he obeyed, and no rule existed but to be broken.  

Bennett had a habit of strolling into one of the finest establishments in Paris or New York and snatching the table linens as he proceeded down the aisle, smashing plates and glassware on the floor, to the horror of the dining patrons, until he reached his reserved table in the back.  (He never failed to write a check for the damages.)  Once after a musical show in Amsterdam, he invited the beautiful lead actress and the entire cast to tour his yacht.  Then he quietly slipped out to sea and for several days cruised the Atlantic, essentially holding the cast hostage and demanding repeat performances – all the while attempting to seduce the young starlet.  Upon returning to shore, Bennett gladly paid an enormous sum to the Amsterdam theater to cover its losses.  

It was difficult to keep track of all of Bennett’s fiercely held likes and dislikes.  For breakfast, he insisted on plover’s eggs.  He would not allow facial hair to be worn by any man serving on his yachts.  He owned hundreds of thermometers and barometers and was fascinated by the slightest change in the weather.  He and a doting love for Pomeranians – he kept dozens of them and served them only Vichy spring water to drink.  Bennett believed his happy little pooches were such astute judges of character that he would sometimes hire editors, or choose not to, purely on the basis of his dogs’ reactions when the prospective employee walked into the room.  (Some job candidates, having learned of Bennett’s odd deference to his dogs, would arrive at interviews with their coat pockets stuffed with morsels of raw meat.)  Bennett also had a fetish for owls – he kept them everywhere: living owls, pictures of owls, busts of owls, owls on cuff links, owls on stationery.  They decorated his brownstone, his yachts, his country houses.  Something about their winking, swivel-headed, nocturnal ways struck his deepest fancy.  

This was one of the masters of the universe of that time.  What are the masters of our universe up to in their spare time?