Monday, January 11, 2010

Socrates, Experts, and Populism


It occurred to me that the recent distinction I made between book knowledge and knowledge gained by doing an activity repeatedly is actually very similar to a distinction made by Socrates in the Gorgias dialogues. Socrates makes the distinction between Techne, what we could call a skill, and Empeiria, which is nicely translated as a "knack". Techne we gain through knowledge, and so it can be taught in a classroom, while a knack is something that we gain through experience; Socrates (or perhaps Plato) sees it a knack as a sort of fake skill. And yes, this is the sort of thing I think about before falling asleep!

On one hand, what Socrates is saying is not controversial. In specific, he thinks that rhetoricians, or speech-makers, have a knack, but not a real skill. He believes that political leaders have the real skill that speech-making imitates. I think few of us would have a problem with the idea that politicians are the fake version of genuine leaders!

However, there's an authoritarian implication here because Plato (I think more accurately) believes that the people who have genuine knowledge (as techne) should therefore lead, while people with an acquired knack, should not. In fact, it's most accurate to say that Plato does not believe in democracy; not entirely surprising since his teacher was killed by the will of the people! What he is arguing here, and more clearly in the Republic, is that democracies fail because the people who actually have the knowledge to lead are few in number and, in a democracy, they have to bend to the will of the masses, who don't know what they're talking about, for the most part. If an expert has knowledge that can help the state, Plato believes they should be listened to, whether or not the mass of uninformed people agree.

You can see where this leads to a sort of technocratic rule by experts, which is exactly what Plato wants. In fact, he'd rather that the majority of people be given convenient, pleasant myths to keep them in line and be kept away from all political power. It's understandable why authoritarians have always been attracted to Plato. However, when we watch democracies try, and fail, to address issues like climate change, because they can't sell their entire populace on what's already a scientific consensus, one wonders if Plato wasn't on to something.

Of course, if we recognize the authoritarian aspects of giving political power and prestige only to those who have the degrees and book-learnin', we should also recognize that populist argument that maintains people who have learned by books or taking classes are "out of touch" and less intelligent than the "real people". This argument is especially enduring- many Roman comedies, for example, center on the clash between an arrogant, bookish city-slicker and the wiser, laboring peasant.

Given how much government regulation is sold by appeals to "scientific opinion", it is understandable that working people would come to resent scientists. A recent example: while in Maine, I was talking with a fisherman about the government body that regulates fishing, which is widely-hated, of course. His take on them was, "They have all these scientists who tell them that fish stocks are depleting. Meanwhile, fishermen are catching as much as they ever did. But these 'experts' say they have to throw back the 'endangered fish'!" If you can imagine, he pronounced the word 'scientist' in much the way you might describe something that gets stuck to your shoe if you walk through a public park without looking where you step! A "scientist" then is akin to a troublemaker, a know-it-all, an elitist, and someone, most importantly, who has fake knowledge, as compared to the authentic knowledge of people who work with their hands.

You can hear this populist argument made in any number of fields. What struck me about the argument made here recently by a former reader that climate scientists are led astray by their "interest" is that the suggestion is that, by being funded, they cannot be wholly objective. In other words, pretty much everything we call scientific research is questionable in that it's all funded by someone else, which subconsciously motivates researchers to tell funding bodies "what they want to hear". If it's possible to still do research in this scenario, I don't see how.

The stronger critique is essentially Foucault- it's that scientific knowledge is a form of power, and nothing more at its root. It's interesting how often one hears this argument made about both climatologists and evolutionary biologists: they're said to maintain an illegitimate "scientific establishment" that creates a false discourse to maintain its power. The suggestion is that science as a collective description of the physical world cannot exist. We cannot know how things are because, as humans, we are all self-interested.

I often hear a similar argument made about higher ed- it's seen as somehow being a hindrance to genuine learning because academics are isolated from "the real world". Not only are academics seen as having a very specific sort of knowledge instead of being objectively "smarter"- which is exactly what I would say!- they're seen as being objectively dumber than the volkish, blood and soil peasantry, which does "real work", such as construction or masonry. In the last election, it actually looked like a plumber would lead them!

The populist argument is anti-elitist, but often borders on outright contempt for the "so-called intellectuals". Maybe not even outright: in history, it's often been a short hop from kicking an intellectual to goose-stepping. Blaming the problems of society on its critical thinkers often implies we should instead rely on "action" for its own sake. Forward motion is placed at odds with the eggheads who would hold us back by questioning everything we do. Of course, this wasn't just the position of fascists- the Maoists, for example, were quite good at kicking the professors who stood in the way of forward motion. The Khmer Rouge went so far as killing the glasses-wearers because they were "intellectuals" and the real work of history would be done by the peasants.

Plato, of course, saw where society's discomfort with people who ask difficult questions, and stand around thinking patiently about them, can and does lead. Ideally, societies should operate by separate spheres, I think. The scientists can stick to science, the politicians stick to politics, the economists stick to economics, and the people should not be asked to make decisions on matters of which they have no real understanding, nor to follow regulations based on knowledge they have no access to.

But, that'll be the day.

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