Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The rise of the psuedo-expert

Andrew Sullivan highlighted this graphic a few days ago: it is a translation of a note by Leonardo da Vinci. He also points to this analysis, which I find telling in our particular historical moment today:
I think it's pretty interesting that of the nine tasks shown, six involve consulting and learning from other people. Leonardo da Vinci needs to find a book. Leonardo da Vinci needs to get in touch with local merchants, monks, and accountants who he hopes can help him better understand concepts within their areas of expertise.
Leonardo da Vinci knows he doesn't know everything.
The climate debate is of course saturated with people who believe they know everything. Monckton is a particularly egregious example, but this behavior extends on the way down to the lowly comment-leaving "skeptic." An important aspect of their rhetoric is its implicit populism; how dare so-called "experts" with their "training" and their "lifetime of peer-reviewed scientific work" fail to respect the blog-taught skeptic auteur.

This behavior extends beyond the climate wars; it has become a key element of dishonest rhetoric in the internet age. Bill Keller's recent essay "The Politics of Economics in the Age of Shouting" tells the story from another angle:
Back in the very pre-digital days, the writer A. J. Liebling famously remarked that freedom of the press was guaranteed only to the man who owned one. Nowadays, of course, freedom of the press belongs to anyone with Internet access, from the information guerrillas of WikiLeaks to the blogger next door. The democratization of media has diminished the authority once held — and sometimes abused — by a few big newspapers and broadcasters. In many ways this has enriched society, creating a great global buffet of information and opinion, pooling the knowledge of the masses and providing an almost instantaneous reality check on the conventional wisdom.
The consequences have not all been happy, though. The easiest way to stand out in such a vast crowd of microbroadcasters is to be the loudest, the angriest, the most outrageous. If you want that precious traffic, you stake out a position somewhere in oh-my-God territory and proclaim it with a vengeance. Global warming is a hoax! Vaccines make you sick! Obama is a Muslim! In vanquishing the conventional wisdom, sometimes it seems we have vanquished wisdom itself. . . . In the Internet age, anyone can be an expert, and anyone who says otherwise is an elitist.
When people take the time to actually become experts, or at least competent, the internet free-for-all is valuable. But pseudoskeptics, whose ultimate goal is to forestall action, rarely take that path, and it's not hard to see why:

1. Loudly asserting expertise may not convey authority upon you, but it does serve to create confusion. Creating an environment in which real scientists are not trusted is just as effective -- and far easier -- than building a solid argument that convinces people who know the science.

2. Expertise is narrow. Leonardo da Vinci is perhaps the most famous polymath in human history, yet, the areas in which he trusts his own knowledge exclusively are rather narrow; his dependence on other scholars is quite extensive. That's the reality of knowing something well; it takes time and effort. Fake expertise, based upon expensive claims, arrogant assertions, and vicious, slanderous attacks on real scientists, is a Swiss Army knife of rhetoric.

Fake skeptics need fake expertise because they change their accounts of the science and critique of emissions restrictions on a daily basis, according to the needs of the situation. One minute they are attacking the temperature record. The next they scorn the idea that anyone ever questioned the world was warming. The next day they are economists, knowing that warming will be beneficial to human welfare. On Tuesdays they are experts in international politics, certain that there will never be an agreement to cut greenhouse gases, and by Wednesday, if the winds are favorable, they will once again be experts in radiative physics, proving that carbon dioxide cannot warm the planet.

Real expertise will speak to one of those arguments. In part. Fake expertise is easily invoked to support them all.

My favorite recent example of fake experts in their natural habitat is this thread, in which the subject of how Easter Island with deforested attracted the attention of Judith's pseudoscientists, who instantly, instantly -- use their "common sense" to become experts in archeology. Just one example:

Overall I find Diamond’s work absurd and consider him to be equivalent to other obvious cranks and charlatans like Von Daniken. He’s popular only because modern day eco-silliness and cultural revisionism is popular, and it is popular for the same reason the Victorians had such asinine views of societies that preceded theirs — projection in the form of disbelief that previous societies could be quite clever. (e.g. until very recently the prevailing view of Tudor England was informed by a number of victorian works, all of which were breathtakingly wrong, and only recently has been overturned by real scholars like David Starkey.) Diamond isn’t even qualified to serve lunch to real scholars, much less waste their time with his ridiculously slanted and partisan opinions.

This thread is no different. An anti-western (typical postmodern revisionism purporting to reject colonialism therefore “cool” and oh so intellectual) eco-warrior like Diamond highlights a suspect eco-warrior opinion paper so as to wield this as a club to make a blunt and wrong point, and the usual suspects chime in with the “hey it was published therefore must be TRVTH” meme.
I’ve seen the easter island eco-rubbish before and have considered it a real hoot. I had no idea anyone took Diamond et al seriously. The notion that islanders who know they’re living on a remote rock would blow the only resources necessary to leave said rock so as to roll giant heads about is absurdity on stilts.

. . . People were clever even back then. Imagine that. Dragging was invented by those who have a romantic notion of the cleverness of the modern era and a presumption that the ancients were stupid. Diamond et al conjure up the image of imbecile natives deforesting the island to drag statuary assuming they were too dumb to figure out how to move statues any other way. “Scholarship” depending on the notion of stupidity of the people of the past is worthless.

And so on and on. Ultimately, the strategy of the fake expert is a bluff; by bald assertion, frequent repetition, and rapid escalation to hysterical carpet-chewing, they seek to train others to let their ridiculous claims pass unchallenged. If others do engage with them, they seek to assert a false equivalence with informed commentators; they have their opinion, and (scientists, archaeologists, economists, etc) have theirs.

This rhetoric is highly effective in rallying those already predisposed to disregard politically troublesome facts. It is strengthened by the hyperpartisan  atmosphere in which everything is contested, and nothing one's own "side" says can ever be a simple mistake -- as the online legions who rushed to defend Sarah Palin's Paul Revere blunder can attest:
nomedawson 5 months ago
The sad, snide, sappy, snarky, superlious attacks on Sarah Palin by lachrymous, lugubrious, liberal latte-sippers is soooo sanctimonious & shallow. All revolutionary/foundational events soon become encrusted in myth & legend. The truth is too mundane. So, simple minded jingles from Longfellow become rigid doctrine. Who would dare to look deeper? Complexity, nuance? Oooooh, sooo mean! So, if Sarah Palin ever goes to Italy, she must parrot the rubbish that two abandoned babies named Romulus & Remus were sustained into puberty on wolf’s milk; then they founded Rome. Because “it’s one of the key stories” in Roman history.

How does real expertise -- in all its necessary humility, walking its narrow path of specialization, with its retinue of caveats and qualifications -- assert itself in an internet age in which, as Yeats prophetically predicted, the worst are full of passionate intensity?

That is the key question for those on the side of science in the global warming online free-for-all.


  1. This post is so informative and makes a very nice image on the topic in my mind. It is the first time I visit your blog, but I was extremely impressed. Keep posting as I am gonna come to read it everyday!
    air duct cleaning West Miami florida