27 March 2009

The Experts

Nicholas Kristof's latest column,"Learning How to Think," suggests that we find a way to "evaluate" or "regulate" professional "experts": those pundits who espouse on politics or finance and who prove incredibly influential in how people perceive the world. It just may be that we rely far too much on what authoritative folks proclaim as truth rather than sorting it out on our own. Kristof refers to two studies to make his case. One,

found that a president who goes on television to make a case moves public opinion only negligibly, by less than a percentage point. But experts who are trotted out on television can move public opinion by more than 3 percentage points, because they seem to be reliable or impartial authorities. (NYT)

Amazing, isn't it? David Gergen and the rest of CNN's political round table have more sway than the president.

The second study Kristof offers stems from an experiment in which a group of educators attended a presentation by an actor introduced as "Dr. Fox." "Dr. Fox,"
was described as an eminent authority on the application of mathematics tohuman behavior. He then delivered a lecture on “mathematical game theory as applied to physician education” — except that by design it had no point and was completely devoid of substance. However, it was warmly delivered and full of jokes and interesting neologisms.

Afterward, those in attendance were given questionnaires and asked to rate “Dr. Fox.” They were mostly impressed. “Excellent presentation, enjoyedlistening,” wrote one. Another protested: “Too intellectual a presentation.”(NYT)

So we bow to experts, and, apparetly, wo do so even when they're consistently wrong (cf. Cramer, Kristol, etc.). Primarily, this is because we're unaware of when an "expert" is wrong because they highlight their successes and ignore their failures (Kristol acknowledges that he's guilty of such behavior, by the way). Therefore, Kristol argues, a regulating body might not be too bad--it would help us "normal folks" choose who we actually listen to.

This kowtowing to experts--be they proven or self-proclaimed--isn't restricted to the TV watching, 'blogging, and Twittering common rabble; it's not that the general public consists of dummies who can't think for themselves whereas the "elite," the intellectuals, always do. If the "expert" sounds like an authority, if the rhetoric seems smart, anybody can be taken in. As Kristof says, "even very smart people allow themselves to be buffaloed by an apparent “expert” on occasion." I'd add "even people supposed to be the creme of the intellectual elite "can be buffaloed by an apparent 'expert' on occasion." Take, as one example, the following case:

In 1996 a pair of scientists, Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont pwned a group of famous literary and social critics whose intellectual prowess and expertise in postmodern philosophy was unquestionable. Sokal and Bricmont questioned these critics and revealed the hollowness behind their well-received theories. You see, if you stripped away the liberally employed jargon,
what emerged was. . .nonsense.

So how did Sokal and Bricmont manage to frsutrate such esteemed thinkers as Jacques Lacan, Jean Baudrillanrd, Julia Kristeva, Gilles Deleuze, Luce Irigaray, and Paul Virilio? the men submitted a paper, titled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," to the periodical Social Text. One the day that Social Text published their paper, Sokal and Bricmont announced that the paper was a hoax. A parody of then-current postmodern polemics in journals. The point? As Bricmont and Sokal explain in a 1998 article, "What is All the Fuss About,":

We show that famous intellectuals [. . .] have repeatedly abused scientific concepts and terminology: either using scientific ideas totally out of context, without giving the slightest empirical or conceptual justification -- note that we are not against extrapolating concepts from one field to another, but only against extrapolations made without argument -- or throwing around scientific jargon to their non-scientist readers without any regard for its relevance or even its meaning. (Bricmont and
Basically, too many noted intellectuals apply scientific language and theory to their arguments about culture and society when they didn't understand the scientific contexts. They didn't know what they were talking about but, because they were famous, because they used complex language, they were granted an authority that was, perhaps, undeserved.

Sokal and Bricmont's work met with huge hostility; rather than admit, "okay, perhaps that scientific hypothesis doesn't really square with my idea," intellectuals rounded on Sokal and Bricmont and accused them of having any number of ulterior motives (you can read some of the fallout here). But who "won"? Although the intellectuals named by Sokal and Bricmont continue to be famous and cited as experts, it seems that, with the publication of their work, Sokal and Bricmont had a hand in postmodernism's downfall; either that or the men simply represented the late-1990s zeitgeist. According to this chart, pomo has been on the wane ever since the time when Sokal and Bricmont published their 1997 parody.

Aside: Sokal and Bricmont published a book on the entire affair, titled Impostures Intellectuelles (Fashionable Nonsense), in which they revisisted the furor over the paper submitted to Social Text and elaborated upon cultural critics' misappropriation of science's ideas. Sokal and Bricmont also addressed the following:

A secondary target of our book is epistemic relativism, namely the idea -- which is much more widespread in the Anglo-Saxon world than in France -- that modern science is nothing more than a ``myth'', a ``narration'' or a ``social construction'' among many others.(Let us emphasise that our discussion is limited to epistemic/cognitive relativism; we do not address the more difficult issues of moral or aesthetic relativism.) Besides some gross abuses (e.g. Irigaray), we dissect a number of confusions that are rather frequent in postmodernist and cultural-studies circles: for example, abusing ideas from the philosophy of science such as the underdetermination of theory by evidence or the theory-dependence of observation in order to support radical relativism. (Bricmont and Sokal).
Is this an area where the extreme left and the extreme right merge? The suspicion that modern science is a "social construction" or a "myth"?

Further aside: Do visit the Postmodern Generator. After you've been wowed by the author's expertize, be sure to read the material at the bottom of the page.

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