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Experts get a lot of respect. They have high status in western culture, some of which is deserved. But being an expert doesn’t mean that you’re always right. Experts can see themselves as the information authorities; the high priests of Intellectual Land.
But even though some people let power go to their heads, we need some experts to perform certain tasks for us, right? Don’t you want a certified mechanic to fix your car? Don’t you want a surgeon with an expensive piece of paper proclaiming him or her as an expert to cut you open and fix you up? We want people with a lot of experience and fancy credentials. Don’t we?
Well, maybe people don’t need these positions of status to be able to know what they’re talking about and doing. There’s an awesome podcast called Freakonomics, with the authors of the Freakonomics books. In these, a journalist, Stephen Dubner, and an economist, Steven Levitt, examine social issues from an economic perspective. There’s an awesome episode of this that among other things, examines the notion that doctors with more experience are better at their jobs. Dubner interviews a bunch of highly respected doctors. He comes to the startling conclusion that more experienced doctors are actually MORE likely to kill you! I wrote a blog about this idea because it gave me such a huge mindgasm. Check it out here if you’re interested:
Basically, a doctor with grey hair being associated with adept knowledge is a flawed concept. Most doctors tend to get less knowledgeable as they age. There are many great older doctors of course. But think about how often medical information gets updated. It happens so much that by the time you finish medical school, what you learned is out of date and maybe even obsolete.
Biology is phenomenally complex, and scientists learn more about it all the time. If you’re an older doctor with a successful practice, you don’t necessarily need to keep learning. I can only imagine how busy most doctors are. But if you’re experienced and have plenty of patients, it’s not in your financial interest to keep up with the newest knowledge.
While older doctors likely have greater experience with treating patients, newer doctors have more updated information. So more experienced doctors might have a better idea of how to account for many variables, particularly in an emergency room. But people who are fresh out of medical school are more likely to know of better treatments for a lot more conditions.
After listening to an episode of Mixed Mental Arts, I was reminded of my blog about doctors, and the podcast that inspired it. Mixed Mental Arts is a podcast with the author and tutor, Hunter Maats, and the comedian and actor, Bryan Callen. They discuss ideas from a wide variety of fields with fascinating and smart people. In this episode, the postmodernist historian, author and podcaster, Thaddeuss Russell, discusses ideas like postmodernism. Russell and Maats criticize the concept of expertise. But Callen defends them with examples like the fact that we want qualified doctors to treat us. Here’s the link for that podcast:
Postmodernism is a branch of philosophy. Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault are regarded as seminal postmodernists. They’re French philosophers who developed this way of thinking in the 70s. There are great postmodernist texts like Madness and Civilization, by Foucault. This is about the different ways in which mental illness has been objectively classified by science throughout history. It used to be objective scientific truth that women are “hysterical”, gay people are mentally retarded, and black people are inferior.
Jordan Peterson is a clinical psychologist and psychology professor at the University of Toronto with a famous Youtube channel about mythology. He likes to intellectually shit all over postmodernism. He argues that postmodernists want to bring down every institution because they claim that authoritarian scientific definitions deliberately oppress us. He combines postmodernists with Marxists due to their apparent desire to force all of society to cater to their philosophical views.
I have a great deal of respect for Jordan Peterson, and I’ve learned a lot from him about psychology, mythology, and pragmatic Christianity. I love his biblical lectures even though I’m an atheist. But it seems like he conflates postmodernists with neo-Marxists. Not all postmodernists are Marxists, and not all Marxists are postmodernists. I’m not an expert on postmodernism. But my limited research tells me this: Spreading postmodernist thought over all of society through authoritarianism is not a fundamental aspect of postmodernism. It seems to me that philosophers like Foucault and Derrida accomplish three main tasks. They deconstruct definitions, criticize institutional authority, and highlight that objective scientific truth changes throughout history. I don’t think that they’re calling for a revolution. They’re just trying to take some of the culturally constructed status away from science and institutions.
Thaddeus Russell points this out in that Mixed Mental Arts podcast; since he used to be a socialist and he travelled in Marxist circles on college campuses, he’s seen and heard many Marxists and postmodernists who hate each other. Authoritarianism seems much more common among Marxists than postmodernists. So it seems like the problem that Jordan Peterson is fighting is authoritarianism rather than postmodernism.
In my opinion, Jordan Peterson is justifiably angry with authoritarian Marxists and leftists shutting down debate, censoring people, and ruining people’s lives on university campuses. But deconstructing concepts doesn’t automatically mean that you want to force your mindset on all of western culture. Peterson appears to be a huge fan of objective truth and scientific institutions. But he also understands from his perception of Christianity that metaphorical truths can be scientifically false but pragmatically true. So objective truth can sometimes be more false and less pragmatic than metaphorical truth.
So what is truth? From a postmodernist perspective, it’s a socially and culturally constructed concept. That doesn’t necessarily mean that close approximations to truth are useless. But postmodernists point out that there is no such thing as universal, objective truth that has always and will always be true. So someone claiming to have objective truth is wrong. But it doesn’t mean that they’re evil or that we should throw out the scientific method. I’m paraphrasing this quote, but as Thaddeus Russell says, “Objective truth is authoritarian. If you say that you know the objective truth, it means that it’s established and can’t be questioned. So objective truth is also anti-intellectual and anti-scientific because it means that you’re claiming to have facts that shouldn’t be studied further.” As Russell also asks, shouldn’t we endlessly investigate our fundamental assumptions, like that the earth is round, gravity is a workable theory, and global warming is harming the planet? This is crucial if we want to follow the scientific method.
As with truth, the concept of expertise is also culturally constructed. Different cultures across different times and places associate wildly varying characteristics with the status of experts. What qualifies someone as an expert is different in the western world than it is in other countries. It’s also not the same as it used to be, and it will change in the future.
That doesn’t mean that if you want your car fixed or you need surgery, you should get some random dude on the street to do if for you. As Hunter Maats pointed out in that Mixed Mental Arts podcast episode, if you need your car fixed, you use your social intelligence to ask around. People will tell you who has done the best job. We can use the wisdom of crowds. So if someone is a good mechanic or doctor, people will notice. Credentials and experience don’t automatically make someone good at their job. There are experienced people with fancy pieces of paper who are terrible doctors and mechanics. If you’re bad at fixing cars and treating patients, you arguably won’t survive in these careers. People who don’t use their social intelligence to find good mechanics and doctors are the probably the only ones who will pay you. You won’t get a whole lot of repeat customers if you’re killing patients and destroying cars.
This is why the concept of expertise is authoritarian. The subjective status symbols that we associate with experts allow them get away with sometimes being delusional about their abilities. They are just as capable of causing harm as inexperienced idiots who pretend to know what they’re doing. Amateurs are equally able to understand a field as someone with an expensive piece of paper. They just need the right amount of discipline to learn enough. But today, they won’t be taken as seriously, even if they’re smarter about a subject than someone with several degrees.
Everyone makes mistakes, so no one’s words should be taken as gospel. But amateurs can be more knowledgeable than experts and experts can be less knowledgeable than amateurs. So the concept of experts is authoritarian. Are you worried about random people with no medical knowledge buying people’s organs and pimply teenagers offering to fix your car? Then ask yourself if you know anyone who would agree to that. There are definitely desperate and gullible idiots out there. But I don’t think that very many people would trust someone to do something that requires a lot of skill unless many others can vouch for them.
Maybe in an ideal world, an expert would be defined as someone with a lot of skill who is promoted by word of mouth. This could happen instead of institutions holding the keys to credentials and shutting down career opportunities for smart people who don’t have expensive degrees. Perhaps then, the world would be better for all of us. This may sound ludicrous. But I bet that there are many historical and cultural examples of societies looking at experts in this way. Changing mindsets this much is almost a naive goal, but it might be achievable. All we can do is hope, and explain the subjective nature of expertise when people call us anti-intellectual for criticizing intellectuals. Deconstructing concepts is important for the scientific method. The more that ideas are questioned, the more society benefits as a whole.