Anti-Intellectualism remains in the eye of the beholder

Alex Berezow of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) is raising a serious concern about American society and the future of the republic. It’s not ISIS or poverty or fiscal collapse that Alex is losing sleep over, but rather what he views as a cultural phenomenon he describes as anti-Intellectualism. You’ve heard this complaint before, though perhaps described in other terms, generally from people who don’t like the answers you’ve arrived at through your own research or consideration, particularly if they conflict with the speaker’s interpretation of conventional wisdom. But rather than describing it that way, it’s probably easier to ask why people enjoy being stupid. (ACSH)

As a society, we never grew up beyond high school. Not being smart continues to be cool. Rejecting the collective wisdom of scientists, economists, academics, and journalists is applauded. Spurning the “establishment” (defined, it seems, as anybody with expertise on any subject) has become the new national pastime.

This trend has lethal consequences. Every single year, public health experts beg and plead for people to receive influenza vaccinations, but most Americans ignore them. Despite the fact that the seasonal flu vaccine is imperfect (due to the unpredictable nature of the virus), thousands of Americans have died unnecessarily because they choose to reject their doctor’s advice.

Less dramatically, the thoughtless dismissal of expertise ultimately underlies all of the anti-science movements in America, from denial of evolution to rejection of biotechnology. Regulation and litigation have replaced scientific investigation.

Alex blames this trend on three things. Beyond the politicization of anything and everything (fair enough) and a tendency to shoot the messenger if we don’t like what they’re saying (regrettable, but frequently valid), he focuses on what he calls the “democratization of information.” By this he means the internet and its ability to turn everyone into an “instant expert” on any subject in a matter of minutes.

Overall, what Berezow seems to dread might be more simply described as the twilight of the elites. It’s some dangerous territory we’ve entered over the past couple of decades, but then again, all change is painful I suppose. To be clear, the Alexander Pope warning regarding a little knowledge being a dangerous thing is as valid as ever, so what you get from researching any given subject matter on your own depends entirely on your underlying motives and how much effort you’re willing to put into it. If you’ve dealt with trolls on the web for any period of time that requires no further explanation.

But the fact remains that the general sharing and availability of knowledge is a net positive, and not all who set out to deceive you are chat room bomb throwers. Sometimes they come in much more sophisticated attire. Examples are legion, but consider the fact that the climate change discussion is still going on, not because some heathens refuse to believe a unanimous consensus among the scientific community, but precisely because there are members of that community who disagree that the science is settled and others who have been caught fudging the data in their favor. If you relied on one or two “highly scientific sources” to figure out the dangers of fracking (as told by Josh Fox) you would think that we definitively know that the process of hydraulic fracturing is about to empty the planet of human life. But by reading a bit further you’d find that even the EPA has recognized that it’s safe and the claims of people showing you exploding sink faucets were faked.

The list goes on, but Berezow’s essay, in a counterintuitive fashion, points out precisely why you should continue to think independently and seek multiple sources before being satisfied with any answer you are handed. The “expert” in the room may indeed turn out to be correct, but particularly when the answer seems particularly convenient to some political cause de jour, always express doubt and seek out additional sources.

In all matters, turn back to one of the greater “experts” of the past age, Albert Einstein: Question Everything.


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