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Misguided animosity: The irrational fear of expertise

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“The case against intellect is founded upon a set of fictional and wholly abstract antagonisms. Intellect is pitted against feeling, on the ground that it is somehow inconsistent with warm emotion. It is pitted against character, because it is widely believed that intellect stands for mere cleverness, which transmutes easily into the sly or the diabolical. It is pitted against practicality, since theory is held to be opposed to practice, and the ‘purely’ theoretical mind is so much disesteemed. It is pitted against democracy, since intellect is felt to be a form of distinction that defies egalitarianism. Once the validity of these antagonisms is accepted, then the case for intellect, and by extension for the intellectual, is lost.” – Richard Hofstadter, 1964

 

Certain assessments of political and popular sentiment truly withstand the test of time. Hofstadter’s words, though written nearly 50 years ago, underscore a sobering and disturbingly lengthy trend in American culture: the importance of expertise has become discredited to an alarming degree. Indeed, in today’s landscape, merely being identified as an “expert” significantly increases the likelihood that such person will be met with scorn and animosity.

In fact, many of you reading this article today have probably been guilty at some point of dismissing or discrediting the testimony of experts. I myself have often been chided with a dismissive, “Oh, Nick, I don’t rely on the work of professors, scientists, researchers or experts to arrive at my conclusions, because I form my own unbiased views of the world.”

Let’s put aside for a moment that such a dismissal leaves a person with nothing other than his/her own limited personal experiences — and the Magic 8 Ball — to make decisions. More importantly, such a mindset is not only hopelessly narcissistic, but also creates an insidious false equivalency.

Recall that I recently wrote about the rise of the self-proclaimed expert, or one who truly feels that personal experiences hold equal or greater weight compared to systemic data. Here’s the problem, folks: opinions and theories are not the same. Not at all. Ever.

As I have stated in the past, scientific theories are systematic, heavily grounded in previous research, verifiable, falsifiable and based on an accumulation of knowledge. More importantly, scientific theories can be systematically tested, verified, replicated and generalized – all of which add to the validity of the theoretical framework.

So why do we see all of this animosity towards experts and the notion of expertise? In an earlier article on anti-intellectualism, I alluded to the premise that knowledge comes from a willingness to constantly examine one’s beliefs for meaning and justification.  As you probably have guessed by now, this process is very difficult and requires quite a bit of introspection and – gasp – the ability to admit when one is wrong.

Experts and, by extension, their scientific findings produce a great deal of cognitive dissonance in others, since the very nature of their findings often forces a person to undergo this type of introspection. And as we have learned from research in cognitive dissonance, many individuals would rather hold onto their erroneous beliefs than reexamine their own personal worldviews. Experts and scientific discoveries remind people of their own shortcomings, since it can be particularly sobering to arrive at the realization that your limited personal experiences fall exponentially short of accurately describing the world around you.

As an educator and clinician, I lament the pervasiveness of this sentiment of anti-intellectualism. Unbeknownst to many, few things destroy one’s credibility to a greater degree than the dismissal of systemic research and data.

As a society, we owe it to our children to demand nothing short of excellence, to exalt science and reason, and to be highly informed global citizens.

About Nick Baez

Nick Baez, M.S. is a native of New York, New York (Lower East Side) and currently resides in Denver, Colorado. Throughout his academic and professional career, he has been a scholar in the fields of psychotherapy, anger and aggression research, trauma, youth leadership initiatives, and teaching. Committed to sound research and program development, Nick has been instrumental in tailoring programs to fit the needs of various communities, and subsequently evaluating those programs to ensure that they meet goals and standards. Most recently, Nick was the Mental Health therapist at Centennial High School in Fort Collins, CO. He has been a psychotherapist for 7 years, and specializes in adolescent populations. He has worked extensively with the National Hispanic Institute for 15 years, serving initially as a junior volunteer and currently as a senior staff member and senior alumnus. Through his work with the National Hispanic Institute, Nick has worked closely with thousands of high school students in helping develop initiatives to prepare them for leadership in the 21st century. Nick has conducted peer-reviewed research on risky behavior, anger, anger expression, and aggression, and has been previously recognized for his work by the Rocky Mountain Psychological Association. Nick has also done research on psychological trauma and its effects on cognition and interpersonal relationships. He has been invited on numerous occasions to give special lectures on trauma, co-dependency, ethnic identity, and social conflict.

A cum laude graduate of the College of Natural Sciences at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, CO, Nick holds a degree in Psychology. He additionally holds a Masters degree in Counseling Psychology from Colorado State University, and is currently a doctoral candidate there.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and should not be understood to be shared by Being Latino, Inc.

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