“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.