Democracy in the time of the rejection of expertise

We are morphing into a society in which ignorance has become a virtue, moral decency has been relegated to a mere afterthought (if even that) and knowledge has turned into the favourite punch bag.

The Cartesian “Cogito ergo sum” has been replaced, as the mob applauded in jubilation the pulverizing of Athena and Apollo’s figurative statues, with the modern, “cooler” version of “Ignoro ergo sum”.

Look no further than President Donald Trump, of course, but either liberals or conservatives have blood on their hands: both are suffering of this “narcissism” epidemic that is spreading like wildfire, endangering the vaguely civilized society we have been decent enough to cobble together after millennia in which we used to solve disagreements with the latest weapon available. People of any walk of life wear their “I reject experts” badges as some sort of telling sign of cultural erudition and intellectual freedom.

As much as it is difficult to accept it, few of us are Aristotle, Leonardo or Newton, writing on Rhetoric at dawn, classifying animals as breakfast, painting the Mona Lisa as lunch, designing planes as dinner and coming up with the three laws of motion as bed-time, sleep-preceding pastime. Because of our imperfect nature, we have, slowly and painfully, come to accept the reality that ever-increasing specialisation is, evidently, socially efficient. We found to be acceptable that somebody would have more expertise than we do in most of the areas of human knowledge. Now that is not the case anymore.

Feeling Middle-East knowledgeable as we are about the palm of our hands after watching half-an-hour of pseudo-discussion between pseudo-experts on TV we feel entitled to go to tell diplomats and foreign ministers how to do deal with ISIS. Feeling full-fledged Justices after a random course in Criminal Law passed with C-, we feel entitled to go teach lawyers how to be lawyers. Feeling neurosurgeons after having read the “brain” entry on Wikipedia, we feel entitled to go tell neurosurgeons how to do their job. And this is what’s scary: the  rejection of know-how in so many areas with such frequency, with such enmity. It’s not even that we think we are as smart as everybody else: the issue is that we think we are smarter than everybody else. Most of us nurture the delusion of being a newly born Aristotle, Leonardo or Newton when the reality couldn’t be further from this.
Sane scepticism of orthodoxy has left space not just to a violent, full-throated rejection of established knowledge but also of rationality and science. In other words, there has been too much of a good thing. Because, yes, reasoned, informed and factual disputes over the status quo are the telling signs of an excellent strength of the democratic process. But unprincipled, uninformed and baseless arguments have no reason to exist and, incidentally, are bad for building a civilised society.

Unfortunately for the emotional, uneducated mob lurking out there somewhere, facts can’t be determined by a show of hands, science is not democratic, par-condicio is non existent and, consequently, no, you are not entitled to your half-baked opinion.

Tolerance of nonsensical positions might be fine for a distantly amiable tete-à-tete over a cup of tea, but it’s an astoundingly barmy way to make decisions, particularly so if the matter of discussion is not which celebrity has ended up in bed with which other celebrity but whether it is sensible to conceive bombing North Korea back to the Stone Age or not. We, then, live in an era that demands equality always where there shouldn’t be any and which forgets about the inequalities that, instead, are truly detrimental to our ability of juggling the balls of our lives in a reasonable manner. We have gone from the “Illuminism” of the end of the XVIII century to “Obscurism” of the XXI. Gone are the days of a Periclean-like era of grandiose cultural achievements.
A whole lot of different elements in society are to blame for such worrisome development. Higher education, for example, has evolved from a professor-student relationship to a seller-customer relationship, with universities providing more and more an “unforgettable experience” rather than a “sound education”. Media has turned from a bunch of relentless watchers on the wall, looking down upon the world and making sense of it for the viewers to little more than a chaotic circus of who hands the public the pseudo-news it wants to hear in the most dramatic, bombastic and gladiatorial fashion. The internet doesn’t just give the same voice to the fools as it gives it to Nobel Prize winners, reversing an inordinate amount of nonsense painted as truth onto people’s screen, with a consequential and broad dumbing down of society when viewers don’t care to check the validity of what they read (which is usually the case), but it also makes us nastier, more impatient, more prone to insulting and quarrelling rather than to paying attention and discussing. After all, Sturgeon’s law is quite clear: “90% of everything is crap”. Internet included. If even 50% of the people who have internet access are fed nothing but crap, it’s difficult to see how it’s possible to have reasonable understanding, opinion, arguments (in this order).
The dumbing down of society is not a myth. Roughly one quarter of adult Americans believe that the Sun revolves around the Earth rather than the other way around. Moreover, the average American believes that roughly a quarter of the U.S. Budget is handed out as foreign aid and more than one tenth of Americans believe that more than half of the U.S. Budget is handed out as foreign aid. The real figure? Less than three quarters of a percent of the U.S. Budget. The sheer, chuffed ignorance about basic facts, let alone policy issues, threatens the correct functioning of our Republics.

After all, Thomas Jefferson, who knew a thing or two, is quoted having said or written the following:

An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.

Accountability of government depends on the knowledgeability of the public. An uneducated public won’t hold anybody accountable for anything. The “elite” will be free to capture power and resources for themselves. The public will be even worse off than before, it will disengage further from public life, precipitating the downward spiral movement. Given how the citenzry is anything but educated, the logical consequence of the Jeffersonian reasoning is that we won’t survive as a free people: our governments will turn into a series of, best case scenario, banana republics and, worse case scenario, failed states. Is there reason to hope? Without a turnaround in our regression as a species, made clear by our attitude toward knowledge, science, facts and, even before than that, learning (as not something that smells of “elitism” but of “human”), it is difficult to see a way out. Yet, democratic institutions have shown a remarkable resilience in face of adversity. We are not dead yet. But all around the smell of death lingers in the stale air as we slowly gather for our funeral.

Marco Canal
Aspirante economista, lettore, amante dei dibattiti intellettuali e gin&tonic, alpinista, film il pane, viaggio il vino e i Pink Floyd come religione. Pecca di insaziabile curiosità, battuta facile, smodata ambizione e decisione. Alea iacta est.