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Helping Understand Where We Are In America At This Time

March 3, 2017

I want to bring to the attention of my readers a brilliant essay in the magazine Foreign Affairs.  For the past months I have been trying to better understand how we arrived at the point we now find ourselves.   How did Brexit occur and how does white nationalism have such tug of success in places like France and in America with the election of Donald Trump?  Over the winter Thomas Friedman has been one of my continuing sources for discovery.  When I read How America Lost Faith In Expertise by Tom Nichols I knew it was a post-worthy article.    I post a portion below but hope some of my readers will venture through the entire online article.    While it is important to follow the daily news and keep abreast of developments it is vital to understand the foundations of how we got here.  I trust the following assists in that mission.  Signing up to read it is free.

“Americans have developed increasingly unrealistic expectations of what their political and economic systems can provide,” wrote Tom Nichols, “and this sense of entitlement fuels continual disappointment and anger. 

“When people are told that ending poverty or preventing terrorism or stimulating economic growth is a lot harder than it looks, they roll their eyes. Unable to comprehend all the complexity around them, they choose instead to comprehend almost none of it and then sullenly blame elites for seizing control of their lives.”

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Ask an expert about the death of expertise, and you will probably get a rant about the influence of the Internet. People who once had to turn to specialists in any given field now plug search terms into a Web browser and get answers in seconds—so why should they rely on some remote clerisy of snooty eggheads? Information technology, however, is not the primary problem. The digital age has simply accelerated the collapse of communication between experts and laypeople by offering an apparent shortcut to erudition. It has allowed people to mimic intellectual accomplishment by indulging in an illusion of expertise provided by a limitless supply of facts. 

But facts are not the same as knowledge or ability—and on the Internet, they’re not even always facts. Of all the axiomatic “laws” that describe Internet usage, the most important may be the predigital insight of the science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, whose eponymous rule states that “90 percent of everything is crap.” More than a billion websites now exist. The good news is that even if Sturgeon’s cynicism holds, that yields 100 million pretty good sites—including those of all the reputable publications of the world; the homepages of universities, think tanks, research institutions, and nongovernmental organizations; and vast numbers of other edifying sources of good information.

The bad news, of course, is that to find any of this, you have to navigate through a blizzard of useless or misleading garbage posted by everyone from well-intentioned grandmothers to propagandists for the Islamic State (or ISIS). Some of the smartest people on earth have a significant presence on the Internet. Some of the stupidest people, however, reside just one click away. The countless dumpsters of nonsense parked on the Internet are an expert’s nightmare. Ordinary people who already had to make hard choices about where to get their information when there were a few dozen newspapers, magazines, and television channels now face endless webpages produced by anyone willing to pay for an online presence. 

Of course, this is no more and no less than an updated version of the basic paradox of the printing press. As the writer Nicholas Carr pointed out, the arrival of Gutenberg’s invention in the fifteenth century set off a “round of teeth gnashing” among early humanists, who worried that “printed books and broadsheets would undermine religious authority, demean the work of scholars and scribes, and spread sedition and debauchery.” The Internet is the printing press at the speed of fiber optics. 

The convenience of the Internet is a tremendous boon, but mostly for people already trained in research and who have some idea what they’re looking for. It does little good, unfortunately, for a student or an untrained layperson who has never been taught how to judge the provenance of information or the reputability of a writer.

Libraries, or at least their reference and academic sections, once served as a kind of first cut through the noise of the marketplace. The Internet, however, is less a library than a giant repository where anyone can dump anything. In practice, this means that a search for information will rely on algorithms usually developed by for-profit companies using opaque criteria. Actual research is hard and often boring. It requires the ability to find authentic information, sort through it, analyze it, and apply it. But why bother with all that tedious hoop jumping when the screen in front of us presents neat and pretty answers in seconds? 

Technological optimists will argue that these objections are just so much old-think, a relic of how things used to be done, and unnecessary now because people can tap directly into the so-called wisdom of crowds. It is true that the aggregated judgments of large groups of ordinary people sometimes produce better results than the judgments of any individual, even a specialist. This is because the aggregation process helps wash out a lot of random misperception, confirmation bias, and the like. Yet not everything is amenable to the vote of a crowd. Understanding how a virus is transmitted from one human being to another is not the same thing as guessing the number of jellybeans in a glass jar. And as the comedian John Oliver has pointed out, you don’t need to gather opinions on a fact: “You might as well have a poll asking, ‘Which number is bigger, 15 or 5?’ or ‘Do owls exist?’ or ‘Are there hats?’”

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