Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The Wiki-Hospital

Former Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has gone on the warpath against all of those so-called “experts” who think that just because they’ve gotten advanced degrees in complex economic theory that they know more about economics than… well, plumbers for example, or professional bowlers. At this point, hoping to capture the ever-critical idiot vote, she’s also on the warpath against expertise in general, not to mention informed opinions, or maybe even just knowledge.

Scienceblogger James Hrynyshyn, who saw her speak in NC:
Only ordinary Americans, and, because this Clinton campaign stop was in a
rural corner of the state, only small-town Americans, can be trusted to do
what's right. It's sad, really. Not only is everyone else the enemy, but
intelligence itself is suspect. What we need, she seemed to be saying between
the lines, is someone at the top who's just a simple yokel. More of the last
eight years, in other words.

Upping the ante a bit, Ben Stein has said in an interview that he doesn’t trust scientists because, after all, science gave us the Holocaust. It’s a banner year for the know-nothing party.

In the humanities, we used to have a handful of “postmodernists” who said the same sort of thing. I remember reading a book that actually had a sentence to the effect that there was a straight line leading directly from the Enlightenment to Auschwitz. In various places I’ve argued against such claptrap, which seems to me to ignore the entire nineteenth century, race theory, Romanticism, and the whole bloody Counter-Enlightenment; and yet, the Ontario Science Center, as recently as two summers ago, was running an exhibit on “the Dark Side of Science”, blaming scientists not only for the Holocaust, but American slavery as well. I suspect however that the Sokol Hoax pretty much put the kibosh on anti-science talk in the humanities, not to mention the fact that creationists have been quick to co-opt that talk.

And, lest I be mistaken here, of course there has been a god-awful amount of pseudo-science and tragically mistaken expert opinion over the years. I’m not about to argue that everything in the scientific tradition has been right or just, and yes, the “scientific establishment” has the same blind spots as all other establishments. The Tuskegee experiments, lobotomies, phrenology- I’m not trying to say that these things weren’t once called science, or that they aren’t also a part of the tradition that gave us relativity and the polio vaccine. But, when I think of “science”, in the sense of a constantly evolving body of knowledge about how the world works, it’s very hard for me to understand that as somehow innately threatening to anyone aside from those people who already know how the world works, thank you very much, and who don’t want a bunch of egg-heads mucking that up. My point: the answer to bad science is better science, not anti-science.

As you might have noticed, anti-intellectuals are legion now- they’re as common as resentment- and of course, the political parties, who have long since given up on searching for new ideas, will gladly exploit that resentment. In the age of the Internet, the ill-informed opinion is King. Truthiness, and all of that.

So, maybe it’s time for me to get in on it too. Here’s what I’m proposing: a Wiki-Hospital. Because, let’s face it, isn’t there something snobby and arrogant about the so-called “medical establishment” telling me that I can’t perform brain surgery? And why is some fancy-pants, New York City, voodoo shit like “X-Ray machines” and “Magnetic Resonance Imaging” better at detecting heart problems than, say, tapping on the person’s ribs and listening to their chest with an empty milk glass? And who are those loafer-wearing, egg-heads to say that some supposed “medical doctor” understands cancer better than my Uncle Larry, the plumber? Maybe Larry isn’t an “expert”, but wouldn’t the combined knowledge of say ten plumbers, collaborating online, be better than one oncologist? Of course it would! We all know that!

Besides, what does some doctor have that I don’t have? I’ll tell you: the only thing that makes him different from me is a piece of paper; that’s it! Granted, he earned that piece of paper through several years of arduous study, hard work, and experience in a clinical environment. But, nevertheless, I have lots of pieces of paper all over the place!

So, please, I’m calling out to all of the regular people now, the real Americans, the silent majority: if you’re sick of those “experts” with all of their effete book-related “knowledge” looking down their noses as us, jes folks, and if you’re in desperate need of medical attention, well by all means, come on out to my Wiki-Hospital. It’s in my basement, right behind the washing machine and the cat box. Now, I’ll admit that it’s not really all that clean down there at the moment. But, what kind of snob needs a so-called “sterile” operating room? You’re not some kind of elitist, are you?


Holly said...

While we're at it, let's go ahead and work out that low carb cure for polio.

Rufus said...

Ah, you almost got me, but everyone knows that you use crystals to cure polio!

Brian Dunbar said...

Everyone who is smart knows that crystals only cure the symptoms of polio.

Pyramids are what cures polio.

Seriously, I'll bet small town Americans in rural North Carolina contain a fair number of subject matter experts in their area.

They might not be brain surgeons - although any small town has it's share of GPs - but plumbers, electricians, computer guys, truck drivers .. disregard their expert advice at your peril.

Getting down to it - who would you trust with a fork lift? Hillary or the fellow who drives one around the warehouse for a living?

We can always find pols with inflated egos - they're thick on the ground. Expertise in things that matter can be in short supply.

Rufus said...

Well, that's exactly it- my father was an electrician for 22 years, so if I have a problem with my wiring, I'm calling him. It's not arrogance on his part to think he knows more about electrical wiring than... well, me, for instance. Expertise comes with experience. I'm sure all electricians begin at the same point, but with years of hard work, they become experts.

So, I don't have any problem with looking up to experts in any profession. When politicians bash those "know-it-all" economists, I think of Claire's father, who is the most humble man I know. He just happens to know a lot more about economics than the rest of us. I might know more about French history than him, but maybe not.

I'm all for respecting the experts- I hope I didn't give the impression I don't respect experts in plumbing as well!

As for small towns, trust me, *most* of the smartest people I've met were living in 200 person towns.

Incidentally, I watched a locksmith replace my lock today, completely dismantling and repairing the entire mechanism in like five minutes and it was pretty amazing. This was the lock I broke recently. So, clearly, here is an example of someone whose expertise is greater than my own!

narrator said...

I'll argue that post-modernists rarely disputed that there was knowledge or expertise, they questioned how that knowledge and expertise was organized, how it was used, and they questioned the certainty of knowing. After all, "expertise" only gets you as far as the next expert. Think Thomas Edison's absolute belief in DC current, or whole generations of Smithian economists born of the University of Chicago who did, indeed, think science justified Pinochet.

But Hillary is trying to tap into something essentially American - anti-intellectualism. I honestly can't think of another nation in which someone can be perceived as "too smart" to lead, or in which a key leadership priority seems to be, "I'd like to drink beer with him."

That anti-intellectualism rises out of America's peculiar idea of equality, in which people are - of course - not equal at all but are seen as being "born equal." America doesn't believe in inherent differences (thus no affirmative action is necessary, thank you, or even a truly graduated income tax). So Hillary is making the smart (ie: GWB) political move - telling a bunch of morons in the worst educated US state north of the Mason Dixon line that no one knows more than they do (they, who don't even know what time zone they are in).

It seems to have worked for her there.

Brian Dunbar said...

I'm all for respecting the experts- I hope I didn't give the impression I don't respect experts in plumbing as well!

Not at all.

I honestly can't think of another nation in which someone can be perceived as "too smart" to lead, or in which a key leadership priority seems to be, "I'd like to drink beer with him."

I think there is a bit of the frontier heritage at work there. Leaders in a frontier community needed to be smart, but book smart wasn't enough - you needed to be streetwise and canny.

It's startling to read biographies on, say, Texas Ranger captains in the 19th century and find out how many of them were doctors, lawyers or held college degrees from the East.

They didn't get men to follow them because of their education but because of demonstrated leadership - they knew Plato and Indians and could drink their men under table.

If you look at it right it's not anti-smarts but pro 'can he get the job done'.

telling a bunch of morons in the worst educated US state north of the Mason Dixon line that no one knows more than they do.


Scienceblogger James Hrynyshyn, who saw her speak in NC:

Hey, buddy: I used to live in North Carolina. Smile when you call 'em that.

narrator said...


A nice reading of the American view, though one might imagine that their ability to lead well may have sprung, at least in part, from knowledge. Still, the myth grows instead of recedes. It is probably true that Shakespeare was more common in small-town America - at least the frontier west - in the 1870s and 1880s than today. And nobody really played dumb running for US President until Harding in 1920.

On Indiana, ok, I was giving them extra credit for a few good universities. It isn't deserved.

Rufus said...

Re: Postmodernism- I see what you're saying. I guess what I was trying to say, and not doing so well, was that a lot of the pomo critiques of "expert opinion" and the establishments that support it really were valid, particularly the ones you mentioned and especially given the history these people were often writing about (i.e.- lobotomies, sterilization, etc.) but that the arguments have tended to get taken to extremes.

I'd agree with many of the critiques of how knowledge has been organized and how it has been used. But, I've also listened to papers from colleagues in history who really do see no difference between say, using crystals to fight polio and using the polio vaccine, aside from the fact that the vaccine people have "power" that they're using to suppress the crystal people.

To give an example, we were studying a history manuscript at one point that discussed how the medical establishment had worked to suppress mesmerism, and it was certainly interesting. But, I had to ask at one point about the "bullshit factor" because the book really did refuse to take into account the fact that, just maybe, mesmerism didn't work. In other words, they saw the case against mesmerism as having been determined *entirely* by power, which I would disagree with.

However, it's fascinating to me that the creationists also see the case for evolution as having been determined entirely by power. They see an establishment organizing its power to suppress other forms of knowledge, and to that extent, I'd say the creationist argument is entirely Foucaultian.

Rufus said...

As for NC, it's worth smiling at the fact that the anti-intellectual stuff clearly didn't work with them.

And she won Indiana by like 1 point, right? Although you'd probably be amused at the woman who they interviewed there who said she was voting for Clinton because she thought Obama was "the anti-Christ from the Middle East".

Rufus said...

One last thing, and then I'll shut up- I think the economist bashing really hurt Clinton. Right now, I think a lot of people are concerned about the state of the economy. I'm actually worried about Obama's economics talk as well, due to the age-old econ axiom that you can't tax your way out of a recession. However, my feeling is that President Obama will gladly turn to economics experts for help. I hope McCain will too, if he gets elected. But, when you have a candidate saying, yeah, I know the economy is in trouble, but there's no way in hell I'm listening to what those know-it-all economists tell me to do, well they just seem nuts to me.

It's like my father said- he's a Reagan republican, whose opinion I respect very much, and I asked him what he thought of Bush. He paused and said, "Well, honestly, I think he's insane."

narrator said...

Just a few last thoughts - part of the problem goes back to the claim that "social scientists" are "scientists." But "social scientists," who do not even have a passing understanding of the scientific method, are not "scientists," but they say they are, and the nonsense spouted by "social scientists" gets used as this kind of bizarre evidence against science itself. Your medical example is perfect. Lots of "social scientists" claim to be using some kind of "medical research model" - but actual medical research is based in a unique idea known as the double-blind study - an impossibility in the "social sciences." But "the average person" of course only hears the words, doesn't know the differences.

And so, yes, it is easy to pick on economists. Hell, you have Milton Friedman as that great old god of economists and he was one of the 20th century's great enablers of torture and murder. And you have those who signed onto absolute lies during the Reagan administration (during which taxes were indeed raised, and raised dramatically, and the US climbed out of recession - as it did after the Clinton tax hikes). And you have those who refuse to acknowledge obvious facts such as that all of Europe is not starving despite high minimum wages. And thus people doubt.

But I think, well, it's a great sign that voters in state like North Carolina - lots of voters, even white not-rich voters, could distinguish between complaints about certain faux "scientists" and the value of analytical study itself.

Rufus said...

And there was a real push in the mid twentieth century to make every study into "science". We have plenty of old school social historians who still think that anything aside from quantifying levels of coal extraction per mine per year in the 1860s is not real history. Actually, I sometimes think my dissertation director is that way.

As for Friedman, it's a shame because there are some really good ideas in The Road to Serfdom, but he just seemed to take them to such extremes. Most economists I've met take him with a very large grain of salt, but clearly it's not the same with politicians.

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