Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Stop the Funeral Dirges for Academic Rigor, Please

 

I admit to being a hopelessly disorganized individual, and working in a cluttered corner “office” in my home. The “logical (to me) chaos” of my workspace right now says something meaningful about the state of academic rigor today, thanks to a couple of completely coincidental items. On my desk there is a pile of paper that represents the first 50 or so pages of a nearly 500-page manuscript, and an iPad with a somewhat related book in my Kindle queue waiting for me to complete.

The book is The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters, by Tom Nichols, and the manuscript is on a theory of “political Darwinism.” They are definitely polar opposites on just about any scale one would like to use to compare them, which makes them remarkably similar. Nichols is pointing out how society — particularly America — has shifted to a point where all experts are considered untrustworthy. The author of the manuscript is showing how the shifting trends in politics are actually following a fairly logical evolutionary process that needs a severe interruption if we prize freedom at all. The similarity between them lies in both their serious tones of warning against the track our society is following now, and their extreme attention to detail in an academic sense. The other item of note about them is that the book is authored by someone who is generally conservative, and the manuscript’s author is essentially a libertarian.

One statement that Nichols repeats often in his tome is that no matter how the public views experts, there will always be some in our society. He is absolutely right, even if he generally restricts that comment to the context of obvious professionals like medical doctors and lawyers. Of course, he suggests that experts like himself — on politics and military studies — will continue as well. But at least in my interpretation of his writing, he is at least a little hesitant about assuming experts will perpetually exist in areas that do not require professional licenses to be employed. Who can blame him, in a time when publications like The New Criterion are offering examples of laissez-faire scholarship involving theories about the human penis being merely a social construct, as opposed to an anatomical organ?

Of course, this is yet another example of what the left considers serious academic work today, and because so many from that portion of the political spectrum hold positions of power in the academy, we should be concerned about the future of academic rigor in general. But the manuscript that I’m currently tasked with reviewing is a strong indication that all is not lost in the world of academia. While it has not yet been accepted for publication, at least one refusal was offered grudgingly because the publishing house lacked intellectual resources to verify its validity. So, the search is on to find a publishing house with an expert on Darwinian theory, or at least one which is willing to accept the comments of an outside expert. That sounds like anything but the death of expertise and academic rigor, and it is thanks to a writer and researcher who did not get pulled into the maelstrom of leftist politics.

I’ve offered this here as nothing more than something to think about, when the headlines about the death of true intellectualism are too depressing to consider anymore. There is some hope for the future of academia, and it lies somewhere other than the left-wing political agenda driven drivel we see so often today in academia. Those elder pseudo-scholars are aging out, and while they did manage to indoctrinate some of the next generation, they haven’t managed to get them all. Hold onto that thought, and put the funeral dirges for academic rigor on hold, at least for a few more decades.

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  1. ZStone Inactive

    The decline of the experts is, at least in part, of their own making. For too long, a certain class of expert has been willing to pontificate outside of their very narrow range of expertise, and much of the laity is beginning to realize that the mandarins are speaking out of turn. If, for example, Noam Chomsky were to stick to linguistics rather than making rather tenuous forays into politics, his value as an expert would not be in question.

    As an undergrad I remember being shown a film called Nobelity. The first interview in the documentary was with Steve Weinberg, eminent theoretical physicist and Nobel Laureate. The interviewer decided to ask him his thoughts on preventing climate change. I’ve had the privilege of hearing Steve speak on various subjects within the realm of physics, and the man is undeniably brilliant— but what indication is there that he has any particular expertise related to climatology?

    • #1
    • June 27, 2017, at 2:00 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  2. Mark Wilson Member
    Mark WilsonJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    ZStone (View Comment):
    The decline of the experts is, at least in part, of their own making. For too long, a certain class of expert has been willing to pontificate outside of their very narrow range of expertise, and much of the laity is beginning to realize that the mandarins are speaking out of turn.

    • #2
    • June 27, 2017, at 2:37 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  3. Mark Wilson Member
    Mark WilsonJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    ZStone (View Comment):
    The interviewer decided to ask him his thoughts on preventing climate change. I’ve had the privilege of hearing Steve speak on various subjects within the realm of physics, and the man is undeniably brilliant— but what indication is there that he has any particular expertise related to climatology?

    The interviewer most likely took his expertise in physics not at face value, but as a totem indicating that he’s ultra-intelligent. To a layman, various complex problems involving science and engineering are roughly indistinguishable. Put those two facts together to build my working hypothesis and answer your rhetorical question.

    • #3
    • June 27, 2017, at 2:41 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  4. ZStone Inactive

    Mark Wilson (View Comment):

    The interviewer most likely took his expertise in physics not at face value, but as a totem indicating that he’s ultra-intelligent. To a layman, various complex problems involving science and engineering are roughly indistinguishable. Put those two facts together to build my working hypothesis and answer your rhetorical question.

    That’s the issue precisely— the premise that technical problems are interchangeable is faulty and hence the conclusion that expertise is transferable is not necessarily true. The trend today is for experts to specialize in increasingly arcane and abstruse sub-sub-sub-fields (indeed, if you hope to win a Nobel prize you practically must), which makes it very difficult for the lay person to critically evaluate expert testimony. Accordingly, there is neither the inclination to wonder nor the sophistication to judge whether Steve Weinberg is qualified to speak about climatology. Perhaps Clarke’s third law applies? I tend to think this disconnect is a problem in our increasingly technocratic society, but I don’t rightly know what the solution is.

    • #4
    • June 27, 2017, at 3:36 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  5. Steve C. Member

    ZStone (View Comment):
    but I don’t rightly know what the solution is.

    Vote Democratic, they are the party of science and they care about people like me.

    Or so they claim.

    Maybe we should be skeptical of those who claim expertise absent demonstrated performance.

    ‘Tis a puzzlement.

    • #5
    • June 27, 2017, at 4:39 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  6. doulalady Member
    doulaladyJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    According to my husband, who is a physicist, all babies are physicists until their parents/teachers spoil everything.

    I concur.

    • #6
    • June 27, 2017, at 4:40 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  7. Gossamer Cat Coolidge

    We should consider the nature of the expertise. Academic research should be investigating the unknown. I believe academics when they give me the particulars of a current theory, or when they cite the results of current research papers or when they expound about research methods. But are these theories an accurate explanation of some underlying phenomena and are these research results eventually confirmed? If we know everything, then why do we need research? Being an expert in the theory is different than the theory being correct or even useful. Scientists in the 17th century were just as convinced of the veracity of their mechanistic explanations as scientists are today, until the theories were disproven. And that means science is working as it should be.

    • #7
    • June 27, 2017, at 5:38 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  8. John Walker Contributor

    Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls these “experts” IYI—Intellectuals Yet Idiots.

    An archetypal example is John Maynard Keynes, of whom his biographer, Roy Harrod, wrote,

    He held forth on a great range of topics, on some of which he was thoroughly expert, but on others of which he may have derived his views from the few pages of a book at which he happened to glance. The air of authority was the same in both cases.

    Intellectual yet idiot.

    Thomas Sowell has expanded upon this in detail in his book, Intellectuals and Society.

    Another reason for the well-deserved death of expertise is the growing perception among the public that these self-proclaimed “experts” have no skin in the game: they pay no penalty when they are wrong, despite the costs borne by others as a consequence of their flawed counsel.

    When the legacy media repeatedly trot out “analysts” who have been utterly wrong in their supposed domain of expertise, it doesn’t take long for people to twig to the fact that these people are on camera because they support an agenda promoted by the media rather than any genuine expertise.

    • #8
    • June 27, 2017, at 5:39 PM PDT
    • 10 likes
  9. Mark Wilson Member
    Mark WilsonJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    ZStone (View Comment):
    That’s the issue precisely— the premise that technical problems are interchangeable is faulty and hence the conclusion that expertise is transferable is not necessarily true.

    On the other hand, I don’t fault people for having this notion. The farther I have advanced in graduate studies and professionally in engineering, the more I see different fields get reconnected at a fundamental level. For example, some of the same mathematical techniques are used to optimize complex flight control systems for supersonic aircraft and to analyze pricing in economic markets. Likewise similar methods are used to find feasible paths across rough terrain for a Martian rover as show up in some biological research — in fact some of these methods are literally called genetic algorithms.

    To one extreme it is wrongly assumed that all smart people are experts in everything, and to the other extreme all experts are merely stovepiped specialists with no insight in other fields. Neither story helps civilization.

    • #9
    • June 27, 2017, at 5:52 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  10. ZStone Inactive

    Mark Wilson (View Comment):
    The farther I have advanced in graduate studies in engineering, the more I see different fields get reconnected at a fundamental level.

    Certainly— I cut my teeth as a dynamical systems theorist, which seems to undergird every discipline to some degree.

    Mark Wilson (View Comment):
    To one extreme it is wrongly assumed that all smart people are experts in everything, and to the other extreme all experts are merely stovepiped specialists with no insight in other fields. Neither story helps civilization.

    I don’t endorse the latter viewpoint— however, the examples you cited were the result of years of incremental progress and peer review. It’s important to distinguish between the genuine interdisciplinary work that you hold up and the tendency of some scientists/engineers/etc to speak beyond their expertise. The quote regarding Keynes in a comment above is illustrative. In my own experience, I encountered a faculty member here at Berkeley physics who, when asked to explain why he thinks Jim Mattis is a poor choice for Secretary of Defense, said “well, you know he was the one ultimately responsible for all of those crimes at Abu Ghraib.” As I mentioned above, it’s essential to recognize that expertise in e.g. physics is not necessarily transferable to politics, economics, etc.

    • #10
    • June 27, 2017, at 6:21 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  11. Dan Hanson Thatcher
    Dan HansonJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    One of the problems is that we now have ‘experts’ in fields where no expertise is possible, such as macroeconomic forecasting, social psychology, and other fields that confuse measuring the emergent properties of complex systems with the systems themselves. The problem is compounded when these ‘experts’ latch on to political power because they can non-falsifiably offer predictions to powerful and wealthy people in exchange for money, power and prestige.

    Another problem is that we have an engorged professoriat in the social sciences made up of substandard, highly politicized thinkers, and they are producing reams of bad studies which taint everyone.

    Still another is the rise of ‘experts’ in fields that are not amenable to scientific reductionism, and for which new theories are not falsifiable.

    Real sciences don’t go off the rails because ultimately new theories can be tested against reality. If you are an expert in a field whose core theories are little more than untestable opinion and consenus, all you have shown is that you have managed to gain standing in a field of similarly ignorant practitioners.

    We have no problem recognizing the expertise of a scientist doing drug research or an engineer designing a bridge. We have big problems with people declaring expertise in say, predicting stock movements or what the climate and economy will look like in 100 years. And rightly so.

    • #11
    • June 27, 2017, at 6:46 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  12. Stina Member

    ZStone (View Comment):
    The decline of the experts is, at least in part, of their own making. For too long, a certain class of expert has been willing to pontificate outside of their very narrow range of expertise, and much of the laity is beginning to realize that the mandarins are speaking out of turn. If, for example, Noam Chomsky were to stick to linguistics rather than making rather tenuous forays into politics, his value as an expert would not be in question.

    From my understanding (and I don’t recall my source… it could have been here) the field the experts encroached on was that dominated by religious leaders – morality.

    • #12
    • June 27, 2017, at 8:31 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  13. bill.deweese Coolidge

    Curious, but also giving you the benefit of the doubt, but the “conceptual penis” article that you tangentially referenced was actually satire in true Onionesque fashion.

    It is quite bizarre that this was not evident to the body that published it and took it seriously, but that actually was the point Boghossian was making and they eagerly made it for him.

    I think the challenge regarding expertise is the democratization of skill is good and measurable and the ease of access to gaining skill is a clear benefit. Knowledge and Thought being sort of crowdsourced, as if that can lead to truth is a social construct for providing social constructs.

    By the way, David Rubin’s interview with Boghossian was eye-opening. Postmodernism creates a cannon of thought, purely by fiat and uses that ever expanding cannon to develop more thought. Obviously, it’s not without perils.

    • #13
    • June 28, 2017, at 5:50 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  14. I Walton Member

    Regarding Foreign Policy/economics/politics/ area expertise/ human systems in general the most the term “expert” can mean is specialized knowledge, experience, more knowledge of everything else than average and worth listening to if proven to be wise. The primary characteristic of these complex systems is that even the most well informed and dedicated student can know only a fraction of the totality and can know almost nothing in real time. Therefore it is sound to be wary of experts in these areas especially if they are making predictions or advocating positions that could cost you or benefit them. At the same time the absence of specific real time knowledge about a complex subject such as the US economy or politics, or Iran and or Russia makes those with real experience, specialization and knowledge more valuable not less. What I expect from an “expert” is humility, the absence of hubris and a passion for truth.

    • #14
    • June 28, 2017, at 5:54 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  15. DigiBee Thatcher

    @gossamer (View Comment):
    Scientists in the 17th century were just as convinced of the veracity of their mechanistic explanations as scientists are today, until the theories were disproven. And that means science is working as it should be.

    Each time I hear some idiot use the phrase “settled science”, I am reminded of those whose convictions included things like leeches, a flat earth, or a sun revolving around the earth. I believe in evolution..at least when it comes to man’s evolving knowledge, but in many academic circles, there is no room for challenging what is believed. For the time being the expansion of our scientific knowledge seems to be hampered by minds like the ones that called Galileo a heretic for his challenges to the existing orthodoxy.

    • #15
    • June 28, 2017, at 6:09 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  16. Liz Harrison Contributor
    Liz Harrison

    Dan Hanson (View Comment):

    One of the problems is that we now have ‘experts’ in fields where no expertise is possible, such as macroeconomic forecasting, social psychology, and other fields that confuse measuring the emergent properties of complex systems with the systems themselves. The problem is compounded when these ‘experts’ latch on to political power because they can non-falsifiably offer predictions to powerful and wealthy people in exchange for money, power and prestige.

    Another problem is that we have an engorged professoriat in the social sciences made up of substandard, highly politicized thinkers, and they are producing reams of bad studies which taint everyone.

    I make no claims of being an expert in social psychology, in spite of at least a few people in the field thinking that I have every right to do so. Then again, I also consider the field (and most others in the realms of psychology and sociology) more art than science. So much of what I know is based on years of observation of group behaviors, and when I do take the step beyond observation to prediction, it is based mostly on intuition as opposed to any scientifically measurable variable.

    At most, the “science” in these fields tends to boil down to a standardized way of observing and reporting human behavior. Analyzing those observations and reaching conclusions is about as scientific as voodoo in most cases, because we are just guessing why people do what they do. We’re simply not capable of measuring the root causes, primarily because we’re not at a point where we can accurately measure what people’s brains are actually doing. When we get to the point where the human brain is no longer a mystery at all, then psychology and sociology will be able to legitimately be called pure sciences, because they will involve measuring brain activity and chemistry instead of just guessing.

    • #16
    • June 28, 2017, at 6:59 AM PDT
    • Like
  17. Liz Harrison Contributor
    Liz Harrison

    bill.deweese (View Comment):
    Curious, but also giving you the benefit of the doubt, but the “conceptual penis” article that you tangentially referenced was actually satire in true Onionesque fashion.

    Yes, it was, and the point made at New Criterion and here is that we’ve reached the point where the gatekeepers in academic research – the publishers of peer-reviewed journals – now take jokes as serious research. Let’s be brutally honest here. Given psuedo-research on gender and sociology today, it’s entirely possible that a scholar somewhere would write something like that in complete seriousness. Sadly, it’s a believable theory, not because it could be possible. It’s just highly possible someone would suggest it, and offer a paper on it.

    • #17
    • June 28, 2017, at 7:10 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  18. ZStone Inactive

    Liz Harrison (View Comment):
    Yes, it was, and the point made at New Criterion and here is that we’ve reached the point where the gatekeepers in academic research – the publishers of peer-reviewed journals – now take jokes as serious research.

    I’m sure you’ve heard of the Sokal affair before— this trend isn’t new but nevertheless sketchy research and theory seems to be increasingly mainstream.

    • #18
    • June 28, 2017, at 7:20 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  19. Liz Harrison Contributor
    Liz Harrison

    I Walton (View Comment):
    Therefore it is sound to be wary of experts in these areas especially if they are making predictions or advocating positions that could cost you or benefit them.

    This is something that regularly annoys me, particularly in the realms of climatology and medical research of cannabis. We are so quick to say “follow the money” in everything else in politics, yet it’s a rarity when I see anyone pointing out that the vast majority of funding for research in climatology is skewed for the environmentalist agenda. There is no money to speak of in disproving the theory that humans are contributing to climate changes, but piles of it available for anyone who wants to show how evil industry is. On cannabis, research is also hampered, but by governmental directive. Studies that seek to show any medicinal uses of it are generally verboten – researchers can only try to prove the government’s contention that it is harmful. I know that’s a hot-button issue, but for those of us who will never fall prey to the opioid addiction crisis because those drugs can kill us, the lack of real research into cannabis is beyond frustrating. My arthritis isn’t getting better with time, and the vast majority of prescription drugs out there for it are either deadly to me, or a severe gamble that can leave me with far worse problems than I already have. But, we need agenda-driven science.

    • #19
    • June 28, 2017, at 7:27 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  20. Songwriter Inactive
    SongwriterJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    John Walker (View Comment):
    Thomas Sowell has expanded upon this in detail in his book, Intellectuals and Society.

    Should be required reading to get a high school diploma.

    • #20
    • June 28, 2017, at 7:51 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  21. Steve C. Member

    I Walton (View Comment):
    What I expect from an “expert” is humility, the absence of hubris and a passion for truth.

    Zero out of three ain’t……. well it’s actually terrible. And sadly about what we get each night.

    • #21
    • June 29, 2017, at 5:28 PM PDT
    • Like
  22. Liz Harrison Contributor
    Liz Harrison

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    I Walton (View Comment):
    What I expect from an “expert” is humility, the absence of hubris and a passion for truth.

    Zero out of three ain’t……. well it’s actually terrible. And sadly about what we get each night.

    I know one, and had the pleasure of dealing with him years ago when he published his memoir and wrote a novel. Look up Edwin Yoder, Jr. on The Weekly Standard. I doubt you can find someone with more humility, since he is a man who considered both his Pulitzer Prize in Journalism and the fact that he was a Rhodes Scholar “happy accidents”.

    • #22
    • June 30, 2017, at 7:04 AM PDT
    • Like

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