Gongol.com Archives: August 2021
While it's hazardous to deify the Founders, the United States counted some true geniuses among its first national leaders. Thomas Jefferson wasn't just the main author of the Declaration of Independence, he was an inventor, an architect, and the keeper of such a vast personal library that it became the foundation of the Library of Congress after the first one was burned. James Madison was the father of the Constitution (in only his late 30s) and an academic groundbreaker. John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton are all widely acknowledged for their exceptional intellects. One study estimated Adams, Jefferson, and Madison each with smoking-hot IQs of 155 to 160. ■ One might look at the late 1700s and be bewildered at the country's good luck at having so much intelligence assembled in its service. Or one might look instead and assume that with a population just shy of 4 million compared with today's 332 million, we ought to have 83 times as many people of the Founders' native intelligence living among us today. (And, considering how women and racial minorities were systemically excluded from decision-making at the time, the true number is probably more than double that again.) ■ Just imagine that: Statistically speaking, we ought to have among us no fewer than 166 modern-day Jeffersons, 166 Hamiltons, 166 Franklins, and 166 Madisons. And that is to say nothing of improvements made to our educational system since then, nor of our ability to attract many of the world's smartest and most ambitious immigrants. ■ With that much talent on hand, it seems so much stranger that people are so wary of committing "epistemic trespassing" (that is, the power of making strong assertions outside one's personal field of expertise). It's not that expertise isn't real (it certainly is), nor that people would do well to bring some humility to bear on any debates which they enter (they certainly would). But to get riled up about "epistemic trespassing" sounds very much like rising to the defense of gatekeeping and credentialism. ■ The whole idea of representative democracy is that politicians think themselves fit to be able to make decisions about nearly everything, and voters think themselves fit to select the deciders. By definition, self-government is an assertion of being able to figure out everything we do not know, either by ourselves or by proxy. ■ That's a pretty heady assertion. But there's no real alternative. There is no technocracy or epistocracy that has proven itself superior to a system based upon votes. We are forced, by our choice to have any say in the matter of how we are governed, to have a say in every matter. ■ Thus the role of experts isn't (and mustn't be) to keep others out of the debate, but rather to bring everyone else in and to win them over to whatever their legitimate authority on a subject says is right. Bad persuasion with good evidence is a failure: Experts must be able to convince others just as well as they judge for themselves, as long as everyone is obligated to argue in good faith. ■ Even experts depend upon reviewing the literature before embarking on the rigorous study of a question. No expert gets to pass unquestioned in their own field, nor should they expect to remain respectable if they aren't aware of what others are saying. Self-government effectively insists that we be able to "review the literature" on virtually every field that might be touched by public policy, even if we aren't doing the original research itself. ■ It's hard not to be troubled by the rise of credentialism (prejudicially putting formal academic credentials above all else), nor by the rise in people who think reciting the phrase "Do your own research" is a substitute for research itself (it's not), nor by the rise in people leveraging professional credentials for personal gain (in express contradiction of the purpose of having professions in the first place). It's a goulash of factors that obscure the truth. ■ A world with ever-increasing gray space is a strong argument against pure deference to academic silos and expert gatekeepers. Interdisciplinary exposure should only serve to enhance decision-making by testing new ideas from many angles. Not everyone is a polymath like Isaac Asimov, but we do have to see that complex problems rarely fit neatly into a single field of expertise. Is online privacy a subject for computer science or law? Is extreme weather a problem for meteorology or sociology? Is the job of avoiding war a matter for generals or economists? ■ Obviously, all of those problems (and most of the ones we face) require attention from people with all kinds of differing perspectives. Should people with limited expertise to offer remain humble about what they do or do not know? Absolutely. At the same time, people who engage in a debate that may be outside their "lane" -- so long as they do so in good faith -- ought to be met with charity and respect by the incumbent experts. ■ The idea that crossing lanes is a matter of "trespass" rather than of cross-pollination isn't just a perilous conceit, it's an abandonment of the very nucleus of self-government. The American Founding Fathers may have been dense with geniuses, but they also neglected to appeal to the ideas of women and the hundreds of thousands of enslaved people. With at least 166 times as many equally gifted people circulating among us today as were permitted "in the room" to make decisions at the time of the Founding, we should be hesitant to see anyone excluded from good-faith debates on any matter that touches public policy. The common good doesn't have enough room for turf wars.
"One hundred percent of the patients in Bryan Health's Intensive Care Unit are unvaccinated and 100% of the patients on ventilators are unvaccinated." It doesn't have to be this way. It just doesn't.
It's the Law of Unintended Consequences, not the "Law of I Always Meant to Do Exactly That".