This article appears in the Winter 2020 edition of The New Liberator, published by the Rationalist Association of NSW. Back issues of The New Liberator are available on the association’s website. Membership of the NSW Rationalists is very reasonable and includes 4 hard-copy issues of the New Liberator per year and the chance to participate in the ‘RATS’ lobbying efforts. Established in 1912, The Rationalist Association of NSW is currently headed by Meg and Max Wallace and Steve Maxwell. For membership and enquiries, email: firstname.lastname@example.org. You do not have to live in NSW to join.
It’s been a hell of a year. We’re only half way through 2020 and already Australians have battled bushfires of unprecedented scale and ferocity, watched a global pandemic kill hundreds of thousands and send countries and individuals into self-isolation. Now, we’re looking on as America’s tinder-box of racial and cultural polarisation begins to ignite.
Crisis brings out the best and the worst in us; it throws trends which have been bubbling along in the background into stark relief. One of those trends is not new, but perhaps more prevalent as politicians and populations grapple with how to understand and manage a tsunami of apocalyptic challenges. There’s an old saying, “Opinions are like arseholes – everyone has one.” That’s never been so true. Today, the unqualified, unfiltered, and often unwashed denizens of social media fill our news feeds with their self-confident, and often contrarian, views on current affairs. Lately, the world seems to be full of Renaissance men (and, to a lesser extent, women) who appear to have in-depth, expert knowledge on any subject you care to mention. As an American Facebooker, Tyler Boshoven, recently observed:
“I think the coolest thing about this entire Coronavirus thing is realizing how many people I know have been secret expert virologists this entire time! Like, I know most experts are warning about the severity of the virus, but Johnny drop out over here says it’s no big deal!”
What caused Australia’s bushfires? Climate change? That’s certainly the view of climate scientists and pyrologists. In November 2019, fire chiefs warned “the climate crisis was making bushfires deadlier and bushfire season longer.” But, because that narrative didn’t suit the Coalition and big business, the issue quickly became politicised. Murdoch journalists, coalition politicians and right-wing commentators deflected attention from climate change by pointing the finger at arsonists. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence that this was not the case, people with no expertise in climate science or fire-fighting dug in.
What caused COVID-19? Virologists who examined the virus closely say it has none of the tell-tale signs of genetic manipulation. Yet social media buzzes with conspiracy theories that the virus is a Chinese biological weapon, deliberately released to bring down Western democracy. Some conspiracists argue that radiation from 5G phone networks has compromised our immune systems and that the virus is a ploy to introduce legislation for compulsory vaccination and inject us all with tracking chips. That this fear-mongering directly contradicts the views of experts matters very little. One in eight Australians now believe 5G is spreading Coronavirus and nearly half believe the virus came from a Chinese laboratory (Essential Poll, 2020).
Recently, when Professor Peter Doherty warned that Australians are becoming too relaxed about COVID-19, The Australian’s economic journalist, Adam Creighton, responded, “I’m concerned people aren’t relaxed enough!” Twitter wit, @DocMelbourne pondered:
“Hmmm. who to trust? One of Murdoch’s lackeys or a Nobel Prize winning immunologist?”
For those of us who value expert opinion, scientific consensus and the importance of evidence, the world seems to have become a Huxleyan dystopia in which experts are untrustworthy no-nothings while @WuhanWarrior from Twitter, a high-school drop-out who works at the local Higgledy-Piggledy, knows the ‘real truth’ because he’s ‘done his own research.’
Fire and pestilence are not the only crises we are confronting this year – we have been afflicted with a plague of ultracrepidarians – people who give (usually contrarian) advice and opinions outside their own area of expertise.
While ultracrepidarianism is a contemporary issue, it is far from a modern affliction. The etymological roots of the word ‘ultracrepidarian’ come from the story of the artist, Apelles of Koa, recounted by Pliny the Elder around 4BC. When Apelles put his art on show, the artist liked to hide behind his paintings in order to eavesdrop on people commenting about his skill. Apelles was a reasonable man. When a cobbler noted that Apelles’ rendering of a sandal was flawed, the artist recognised the man’s expertise and repainted it. Emboldened by the artist’s respect for his knowledge, the cobbler then ventured to suggest the subject’s leg could also do with some correction. This was a step too far for Apelles who rebuked the cobbler, “Sutor, ne ultra crepidam!” – literally, “Shoemaker! Not beyond the shoe!”
Photo: Apelles fresco by Giorgio Vasari, Casa Vasari, Florence
Following Pliny, English satirist, William Hazlitt, recorded the word, ultracrepidarian in 1819. In a put-down that would not be out of place in a Facebook flame war, Hazlitt railed at a newspaper editor:
“You have been well-called an Ultra-Crepidarian critic. From the difficulty you yourself have in constructing a sentence of common grammar, and your frequent failures, you instinctly presume that no author that comes under the lash of your pen can understand his mother-tongue … There is an innate meanness and vulgarity in all you do.”
It should come as no surprise that, 200 years after Hazlitt, ultracrepidarianism is taking over the interwebs. After all, the free world is now led by America’s ultracrepidarian-in-chief, President Donald Trump. Trump is the poster-child – the apotheosis – of ultracrepidarianism. Never, in the history of the world, has there been a greater ultracrepidarian! Trump (who lied about graduating first in his class), graduated from Wharton business school without honours. Six of his businesses were declared bankrupt between 1991 and 2009. Yet, he claims to have an almost super-human breadth and depth of superior knowledge. According to Trump:
“I think nobody knows more about taxes than I do, maybe in the history of the world.”
“Nobody in the history of this country has ever known so much about infrastructure as Donald Trump.”
“I know more about renewables than any human being on Earth.”
“I know more about ISIS than the generals do. Believe me.”
“There’s nobody bigger or better at the military than I am.”
“Nobody knows banking better than I do.”
“I understand the power of Facebook maybe better than almost anybody.”
“Nobody knows more about debt.” (That just might be true!)
Omnisciently, Trump even claims:
“I know more about Cory [Booker] than he knows about himself.”
Completely undeterred by his lack of medical training, President Trump recently astonished his medical advisers when he suggested that ingesting or injecting household bleach might be a good way to treat COVID-19. Why not? It works on your kitchen benches!
“I’m not a doctor,” the President admitted, but (pointing to his head), “ … I’m, like, a person that has a good you-know-what.”
While Trump clearly values his own expertise, he is not a fan of it in others.
“You know,” he said at a 2016 rally, “I’ve always wanted to say this … the experts are terrible!”
This anti-intellectualism is not confined to Trump. Climate-change denier, Myron Ebell, director of an American libertarian activist group, has derisively dubbed climate change scientists “the expertariate.” Ebell has a masters degree in political theory from the London School of Economics, but no expertise in climate science. Yet, he says:
“The people of America have rejected the expertariate, and I think with good reason because I think the expertariat have been wrong about one thing after another, including climate policy.”
For ideologues, hampered by the fact that science doesn’t support their views, inflating the frequency of scientific error in order to damage the prestige of (and public trust in) scientific institutions is a common strategy.
Anti-intellectualism is not a purely American phenomenon. In 2016, when ten Nobel prize-winning economists warned about the dire economic and social consequences of Brexit, conservative British politician, Michael Gove replied that “people in this country have had enough of experts with organisations from acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.”
And it seems, Gove, who has no economic credentials (he read English at Oxford), was right. The nation’s leading economists were derided as ‘Chicken Littles’ and Britain voted to leave the EU – 52 to 48 per cent.
Anti-intellectualism flourishes in a world that has embraced a bastardised version of ‘cultural democracy.’ As Salon’s cultural critic, David Masciotra, explains:
“The true villain in a cultural democracy is the intellectual. The intellectual insists on standards of evidence, reason and logic when attempting to reach a conclusion regarding a matter of social import. She undermines the dogma that all nonsense is created equal, which renders her (or indeed him) unfit for participation in the increasingly masochistic rituals of liberty.”
Ironically, the blurring of class barriers and the democratisation of education and knowledge has not lead to a greater respect for expertise. Instead, says Professor Tom Nichols, author of the book The Death of Expertise, democratisation has fostered:
“… the growth of an irrational conviction among Americans that everyone is as smart as everyone else.”
This is not a position of intellectual snobbery. The argument isn’t that experts are smart while everyone else is dumb. Nor is it an argument that people should not seek out information and voice opinions. The problem is not that people are stupid or uneducated, but that people have been encouraged to believe that having a degree, or professional expertise in any area, qualifies them to advance contrarian views beyond their own specialisation. Vocational education bares some responsibility for this compartmentalisation of knowledge. Now, students are educated to be specialists rather than receiving a broad-based education in humanities. An Arts degree is widely viewed as worthless because “it won’t get you a job.”
On Facebook, recently, I was put in my place by an anti-vaccination advocate:
“A confirmed sheeple indeed! You would do well to research before making such ignorant statements!!! You’ve been blind-sided by incedious [sic] manipulation. As a Natural Health Practitioner, I have been directly involved with the victims of vaccines.”
I am not a scientist, but I am an academically-trained, professional researcher, with 10 years experience researching and debunking vaccination myths. I have actually done my own research.
“Do your own research” is the last resort of the online ultracrepidarian. The problem is that many have no idea how to do their own research and have no appreciation of research as a career in its own right, requiring years of training and professional experience. As Professor Tom Nichols says:
“I fear we are witnessing … a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers—in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.”
This will resonate with those who recently heard celebrity chef and self-appointed ‘wellness guru’, Pete Evans, opine that “doctors don’t know much about biology” while defending his promotion of a machine that flashes coloured lights as a cure for COVID-19. Palpably ‘fed up to pussy’s bow’ with ultracrepidarians like Evans, Michael Vagg, a clinical associate professor at Deakin University School of Medicine says:
“Of all the weasel words immunisation deniers use, I get most infuriated by the ‘do your own research’ trope. You don’t need to. Unless you’re a senior research scientist with your own lab, a posse of postdocs and serious wad of cash, we don’t need your help” (Vagg, The Conversation, 2017).
When people say ‘do your own research’, says Vagg, they want average people to be allowed to disagree with decades of rigorous, serious scientific effort. But, he warns, when relying on the internet:
“The average person with high-school knowledge and healthy faith in human decency has no chance [of distinguishing fact from fiction].”
What drives people, with no relevant expertise, to dissent from the consensus opinions of those who have spent a lifetime gaining academic and professional credentials in their field? Research confirms Aristotle’s maxim: “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” Similarly, psychology has identified the Dunning Kruger effect: “The less you know, the more you think you know.” Like the cobbler in Pliny’s story, when someone is confident in, or recognised for, specialist knowledge they do have, they tend to become hubristic about areas beyond their expertise. Psychologists call this ‘over-claiming.’
Learning new information makes us feel good. Thinking that we’re smart gives us a buzz. But having our opinions or beliefs challenged makes us feel bad. Psychology suggests humans have an innate need to think highly of ourselves – even if this requires a breathtaking level of self-deception. For example, someone can be as dumb as a post and still feel justified in pointing to their head to claim, “I’m like a person who has a good you-know-what.” This is called ‘belief-superiority’ – the conviction that your preconceptions are right, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And don’t be feeling smug! Who among us hasn’t stood on a bathroom scale, exclaimed, “That can’t be right!”, weighed ourselves again (maybe repeatedly), then insisted, “This scale must be broken!”
Belief superiority is nicely illustrated in the Netflix documentary, Behind the Curve. When proponents of the ‘flat earth’ theory invested a substantial amount of time and money into experiments to support their hypothesis that the world is both flat and static, every experiment they conducted proved the opposite. The flat-earthers acknowledged the findings but said, “We obviously were not willing to accept that.” If their scientific experiment had proved their assertion they would have crowed about being right. But when repeated experiments proved they were wrong, they insisted either the equipment or their methodology must have been at fault. As journalist, David McRaney (2011), says on his “You’re Not as Smart as You Think” blog:
“When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.”
Because of the ‘buzz’ we get from validation, people tend to seek out a ‘tribe’ that shares their views. The internet has facilitated that task. People with belief superiority congregate in groups that feed their confirmation bias. The result is the extreme polarisation we are witnessing in today’s ‘culture wars.’ Statistics show that, in America at least, fewer and fewer voters and politicians identify as moderates. The middle-ground is disappearing as people scream at each other across a deepening chasm; each side intransigently convinced they are right – often in absolute ignorance or contradiction of reliable data and evidence.
So what is one to do when confronted with an ultracrepidarian in the wild? While it’s true it’s almost impossible to sway the opinion of the person you’re arguing with, there is a good chance you might influence the bystanders. “Fight for the crowd” is a strategy which dates back to the gladiators in the Roman Colosseum. You are not fighting to win against your opponent, but to convince the audience that your argument deserves a ‘thumbs up.’ Argue to persuade the jury, not the person whose position is clearly entrenched. You almost certainly won’t convince them – but you might just persuade the onlookers that online ultracrepidarian is talking a load of old cobblers.