Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Knowledge Problems and the Value of Academics (and Journalists)

In my last two posts, and in some previous writings, I've asserted that the loss of cultural authority of academics and journalists, although quite likely deserved, is a bad thing for the culture as a whole. Each of those posts was already too long, so I just let the assertion hang and asked my readers to trust me. Now I need to argue for that assertion.

I'll begin by saying that I accept a lot of the critique of contemporary academia and journalism (and I've made some of it myself): I don't think it really can be denied with a straight face that journalists and profs skew heavily toward one end of the political spectrum, that this skew is self-reinforcing and that non-conforming individuals have a very difficult time in both fields. It's a little more controversial to argue that both journalists and academics have tended to present a one-sided view of the world in their work, but I think it's pretty clear from recent journalistic events and simple inspection of the titles of papers at MLA that the bias in these fields extends beyond personnel-selection and into actual scholarship and journalism.

But I don't think that the above is prima facie bad. Bias tends to wash out in the end, and I'm enough of an idealist to believe that the truth of any issue has such a great advantage in the long run that eventually it comes out. If academics and journalists all hold a certain basic set of views, and that set of views includes incorrect views along with correct ones (and obviously many views are normative and can't be broken down to correct/incorrect), I think that the correct ones will ultimately prevail.

No, I don't think the general left-liberalism of the professoriate and the press corps is a terrible tragedy. But I think the abuse of authority that has become so apparent recently is a cultural disaster in the making.

Here's why: if we do live in a 'knowledge society,' it is one in which it can be very, very hard to find out the truth of many issues. For example, between us my wife and I have seven college degrees, including two Ph.D.'s and degrees from MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford and Northwestern. And yet we are completely unable to be sure that we are not making hideous mistakes in a variety of circumstances, including mortgages and fees, life insurance (in fact, I'm sure we've gotten ripped off here), safety issues,local politics, and telecommunications. The problem is, it's nearly impossible to find honest, informed and disinterested advice in these fields. Every piece of advice that you get, unless you're lucky enough to find a family member or a close friend who is knowledgeable, is potentially a trap. And my wife and I can, in fact, do the math.

Journalists and academics are supposed to be disinterested experts whose word you can trust. Seriously. Our students and readers should be able to trust us absolutely. But many people are starting to believe that they no longer can. Right now that lack of trust may only extend to national politics, but the cancer is spreading.

Let me give an example: what is the maximum safe speed to drive on any road? The posted speed limits are obviously bogus, since no one follows them. But is it really safe to take a curve at 80, or should you slow down to 70? Signs with real safety information would be useful, but the culture is such right now that we instead put up a bunch of uniform 65 mph signs. Do traffic engineers expect everyone to go 65? No, they're not idiots. But they assume that if they post the road at 75, everyone will go 90. There's been a breakdown in trust at every level (the drivers don't trust the signs; the traffic engineers don't trust the drivers). Bad information has driven out good information.

I could give another 20 examples easily. How long is medicine really good for? What are the real nutritional/health effects of various foods and drugs? How many pounds can the swing actually hold? How much does the kid really have to weigh before the child seat is no longer safe? How much life insurance do you really need? For many of these, you simply have to play it safe and accept the 'official' advice, but you get the nagging feeling you're being played for a fool.

I think my point is pretty obvious by now: if people stop being able to trust information from experts, if the experts are spinning or skewing the information for their own interests, you're working up to a collapse of, or at least immense damage to, an information-based culture. I know that people are certain that they're on the side of the angels by distorting their data and manipulating their readers. And for any given issue, this may be the case (i.e., it's a least theoretically possible that more social good could come from such a manipulation if it led people to do the 'right' thing more than the unmanipulated data would). But in the long run, once people catch on that they are being manipulated, you end up with the disaster of no one trusting any one except people they know personally. One of the great accomplishments of Western culture was to break free of the bonds of 'I only trust family,' thus allowing people to trust strangers and easily cooperate. Lack of trust of strangers is one of the great stumbling blocks to development in the third world (I speak from experience, as a dual citizen of Jamaica and the US--there is a great lack of honesty and trust in any situation in which one doesn't have personal connections).

The mass media and the professoriate had, in our culture, built up a huge reservoir of trust. But now, and this is what I meant by 'eating their seed corn,' that trust is being eroded. Each distortion or manipulation eats a little bit more, and eventually there will be none left, and we'll have to rebuild. That process will be very, very painful.


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