Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website, www.rhysy.net



Tuesday, 12 July 2016

I Don't Own You


We've gone and got ourselves into a right pickle. Anyone holding even a single non-mainstream opinion is derided as an "anti-intellectual", while anyone who ever says "anti-intellectual" is seen as part of the "establishment" or worse, the "elite", a snob bent on telling people what to think in order to keep the plebs/old people/the great unwashed in line. This was merely annoying when this was confined to the criticism of so-called "ivory tower" scientists, but as it strays into politics we might - potentially - be witnessing the development of something very dangerous.


A little while back I wrote about the supposed historical conflict between science and religion. It's not entirely unfounded, but the extent to which it actually happened appears to have been vastly exaggerated. It is, with certainty, not necessary that such a conflict occur, provided science and religion mind their own business. I also referenced this interesting article, which has it that most people believing non-mainstream ideas actually try and use science to support their claims, which is clearly much more subtle and complicated than a simple anti-science crusade. And I also gave a personal example of two very intelligent staunchly pro-science people, who both hold some non-mainstream opinions, getting quite cross with each other.

This would all suggest that maybe things are not as bad as those proclaiming widespread anti-intellectualism would have it. The "flaw of averages" means that hardly anyone believes in all mainstream ideas; human beings being fallible and irrational creatures, it's scarcely an extrapolation to say that everyone believes at least some things which just aren't true. To take this to extremes, not all Creationists are hell-bent on taking down the entire scientific establishment - a few are actually entirely respectable radio astronomers. That certainly came as a shock to me, but it's quite true - they treat the whole thing as a sort of cute intellectual exercise.

If your basis for "anti-intellectualism" is, "anyone who disagrees with the consensus on anything", then we're all anti-intellectuals. And yet... if you're going to say things like, "we've had enough of experts", or "experts said the Titanic was unsinkable" to justify your ideological beliefs... then yes, you are being anti-intellectual - the vast majority of Six Day Creationists do seem to be willing science deniers; Flat Earthers are science deniers by definition. It is foolishness indeed to pretend this never happens. It can be very unpleasant to say it, but some people are genuinely very stupid and/or not only refuse to think rationally, but wish everyone else would refuse to as well. The truth can often be the most offensive thing of all.
The consensus does get it wrong, obviously. But it's an extreme Nirvana fallacy to say that "because you got this one thing wrong, all these other things are probably wrong too". Literally everyone in the entire world is wrong about some things - sometimes for good reasons and sometimes for bad ones - so it's completely unrealistic to expect that the "wisdom of crowds" (people arriving at independent conclusions) will always produce the right answer, even if it had all the relevant facts. You can harp on about the Titanic or continental drift as much as you like, but the fact is that the vast majority of ideas which seem like utter bollocks are indeed just utter bollocks.

The comments on the above tweet make it clear that, unsurprisingly, people don't like being told what to think, and they especially don't like having their own stupidity pointed out to them. E.g., "Rhetoric like this is why so few were swayed by your arguments. You are self defeating." And this is indeed one of the biggest problems I have with Neil deGrasse Tyson : he talks the talk (science is about getting things wrong) but he can't walk the walk (he wouldn't admit he got anything wrong if it hit him with a hammer). The attitude of some science popularisers* succeeds for precisely the same reason that demagogues like Donald Drumpf succeed : they're uncompromising men who are easy to admire, using the same old "us versus them" rhetoric which has been fabulously, destructively successful for so much of human history.

* This is a somewhat subjective opinion, however, as certainly not everyone gets the same impression as NGT as I do - a smug, supercilious, arrogant little SOB with the charisma of an erudite yet pedantic turnip.

And yet, for all that, the problem is that the "anti-intellectualism" cry seems to me to be a response to some really batshit crazy extreme positions - positions so extreme that normal rules do not apply. Like the Flat Earth. Now, I like to think I'm a patient person. Some of my art takes months, some papers take years. Yet when presented with the notion that the Earth is flat or that vaccines cause your genitals to drop off or your cat to grow sixteen extra heads, I give up. Some people don't - they maintain the pure evidence-based arguments with saintly devotion to the cause of logic, gentle persuasion, and reason. Yet even these people are not enough to convince some hardliners, who seem to earnestly believe that knowledge is no match for wilful ignorance. And then we end up in this horrible, ghastly, bias spiral in which anyone who holds some opinion is seen as irrecoverably biased, an idiot not worth arguing with.

"Not a late paleolithic era supporter are you ? Think you're better than me ? I'll have you, you scrawny twat !"
The bias spiral is one of the most successful of the bullshitting techniques of modern politics and pseudoscience alike. Can't win against the objective facts ? Then don't try - attack the nature of the arguments, which are far more subjective and therefore much harder for your opponents to debunk. If not strictly impossible to refute, debating the nature of the argument at least shifts the debate away from those pesky facts. It's good to understand popular fallacies, but as a general rule, when the argument shifts to identifying what fallacy your opponent is using, everyone has lost.

I don't want to tell you what to think. I certainly don't want to tell you what to do. I just want most people to agree, most of the time, that objectively measurable facts are indeed correct. I don't want to enforce a false consensus (in fact a consensus is stronger, not weaker, when there are dissenting voices because a consensus arises through considering alternatives), I don't even want to stop people from questioning scientific findings - but I draw the line when legitimate skepticism (the basis of science) shifts to paranoid denial. And I'm sorry, but if you're going to go off spouting gibberish about the Earth being flat they said Galileo was crazy hahahah look at my pie chart, then I for one can't help but call you an idiot.

Well... actually, in another world, perhaps I could. If we were limited to purely academic disputes with zero real-life consequences, this might all be fun and games - but being able to think rationally matters in politics as much as science. If your voting rights are going to affect me, then I want to know that you're capable of making at least half-sensible choices. Moreover, were we still limited to slowly writing letters, I might have the time to write back saying (in more polite terms) that you just have an idiotic belief - which is altogether different from saying you're an idiot, because everyone's got some idiotic beliefs. Unfortunately we've got this wonderful thing called "the internet", which is an incredibly powerful mechanism for sharing pictures of kitties.


Like almost anything of great power, the internet is capable of being used for both virtuous and nefarious purposes. Cat pictures can tell us profound truths...


... or outright lies.


The internet is a great and terrible thing. Everyone can have their say, every opinion counts, every voice can be heard. The problem is that even the true idiots get their say as loudly as people who've studied issues for decades, expert opinion is not given any extra weight, every voice must be heard no matter how utterly stupid it is. Simply by tail-end-of-the-Gaussian effects (a small fraction of any population always believe arbitrarily ridiculous things), we now have to listen to people who really aren't worth listening to, as though open-mindedness were always a virtue in any circumstance. It isn't. And depending on who you believe, we must either not allow anyone to say anything offensive at all, or we have to allow people to make death threats for any reason (woe betide any who say we should find a middle ground between the two !); perhaps most dangerously of all we can't call out people's stupidity or disrespect them because "that's offensive" - even when what they're saying is dangerous and deserves to be shot down. The democratic process is being perverted to an absurd absolute.


The sheer mass of misinformation on the interent forces quick responses. If you ever try moderating a large community, you'll quickly find that fighting the tide of pseudoscience is like Canute's (deliberately) vainglorious attempt to hold back the sea. Would I like to try and respond in detail to absolutely every non-mainstream idea ? You betcha. The problem is that if I did that I would have literally no time left at all to do anything else whatsoever, including pooping. And I need to poop. So that demands the wholly unsatisfactory, "I'm sorry we don't allow that here" response, which people naturally object to.

Small wonder that if you see me dismissing your theory out of hand you might see me as "biased" or a "true believer" - but you're not seeing the full picture. You're not seeing the dozens of other, completely different theories about the exact same topic I could also spend hours and hours refuting. Would you choose to do this in your free time voluntarily ? A few saintly individuals would, and I commend them, but it obviously isn't for everyone.

Entropy, the sea, pseudoscience... poor Canute.
But would you really see me as a member of the "elite" ? Or at least seeing myself as a member of the elite, which is just as bad ? Because that's just so neeeeeeaarrggooooooaaaaargh level of wrong that words fail me. Saying, "the opinion of a heart surgeon should count for more than the opinion of an eel catcher when it comes to doing heart surgery" is not elitist. Unless, of course, that heart surgeon also professes an intimate knowledge of eel-catching despite having caught exactly zero eels. Such intellectual snobbery does exist, but my impression is that this behaviour is now assumed (by some) to be the case for any and all academic experts.

Professional athletes don't have this problem. No-one describes an Olympian as an "elite" with the implication that they're some sort of snob. Yet anyone who's ever been seen as a nerd in school will recognise this as the more adult version of "swot" or "geek" or indeed "nerd", with "intellectual" itself having the same connotations in some quarters. "Oh, he thinks he's better than us !" they say, after repeated insults on the basis of a presumed greater intelligence*. It's nothing more than the politics of the schoolyard, writ large.

* It's actually, in my opinion, nothing of the sort - people are just good at solving different sorts of problems. I think we'd all be a lot happier if we stopped assuming that people good at astrophysics must know the slightest thing about climate change.

Fortunately, public perception of experts may not be as bad as it may appear if you spend much time on the internet / verbal diarrhoea dispensation network, where the anti-intellectuals are given an undeservedly loud voice. In at least some circumstances, experts are still more trusted than any other group. Maybe the reason that public opinion contrasts strongly with the expert consensus is because the expert voice is drowned by politicians, media commentators, and other enthusiastic but malevolent interest group. The media may over-report experts who go against the consensus in an entirely legitimate (but extreme) effort at impartiality, or, far worse than that, because of inherent media bias. Hence trust in experts may not be all that low, it's just that the experts aren't being reported accurately or completely.

Yet clearly if a government minister can say, "we've had enough of experts", we've got a real problem on our hands - even if that remark wasn't widely appreciated, the fact that he said it at all is a cause for concern. All social groups have their stigmas - models are seen as dumb bimbos, pop stars are seen as wildly hedonistic socialites, golfers are seen as boring, experts are seen as aloof or even hostile. As this very nice article from The Independent puts it (slightly edited here) :
In a study published in 2015... The authors argue that for an expert to be high on trustworthiness they need three characteristics: expertise, integrity and benevolence. For us to rate a person as a trustworthy expert they need to know their information, to be honest and to be good-hearted. This is problematic when we live in a world in which the idea persists that experts are mad geniuses with no moral compass who constantly need their egos stroked. As it turns out, most of us don’t trust people we believe to be narcissistic psychopathic geniuses. 
When experts talk, they often fill the air with complicated words and unintelligible acronyms. Experts seem to want non-experts to rise to their level of sophistication, rather than approaching non-experts with appropriate language... Using words and phrases that most people don’t understand in everyday conversation and through the media can be seen as an elitist attempt to assert intellectual dominance. In this time of crisis and expert shaming, we need to stop blaming the public for not listening to experts and give a stern talking to the experts themselves.
I hope that's true, because if it is, the problem is relatively easy to address. To re-iterate, do you really see me as an elitist snob ? I hope not. If the problem is that experts aren't seen as being nice : well, we are ! We're very nice ! Look how nice we are !

The back of the shirt reads, in large pink friendly letters, "ARECIBO : THAT'S THE PLACE THAT I'M REPPIN'"

Here I am, hard at work suppressing the plebs.
LOOK AT MY CUTE PUPPY, DAMMIT !
OK, if not me, then what about this guy ? Are you seriously going to look me in the eye and tell me Professor Ethan Siegel is any kind of a snob, and if you are, WTF is wrong with you ? Do you think the blue spandex angel costume company is a tool of oppression ?


That said, and notwithstanding the vast amount of excellent outreach material available on the internet (though it's not always easy to find), experts have long tried to main an air of cool, authoritarian detachment. There's a certain logic to this, the idea being to convey an impression of total objectivity, unhindered by the emotional passions that sway the rest of us. In some cases, that's probably still a good thing - I'm not sure I'd want a surgeon to go around dressed in a skin-tight bright blue angel costume. But then with doctors and nurses and the other healthcare professionals, benevolence is an intrinsic part of the job, everyone already knows they fundamentally care about people. Not so with astrophysics, climate science, economics or politics. Consequently, attempting to appear detached can all too easily make such experts appear completely detached : an unfeeling robot, from which the step to "monster" is all too small.

So certainly experts themselves are partially to blame when the public refuse to accept even very strong consensuses. But the media also have to accept responsibility when they give undue weight to minority viewpoints. Yes, fringe ideas do deserve to be heard - but not 50% of the time if only 3% of the experts think that's a better explanation. In the case of climate science in particular, journalists need to take a much bigger step back and let the experts speak directly to the public - too often, journalists are given far more screen time than the scientists. There are certainly experts out there who are great at public communication, but in the vast wastes of the internet their voice is not always heard. The mainstream media is still hugely important.

This "nice friendly experts" approach appears to be very successful - few people (except the vocal minority on the internet) seem to be genuinely distrustful of astronomers. Then again no-one has any reason to distrust astronomers to start with, but there's pretty good evidence that this approach could also work for economists and politicians. Oh, irony of ironies, look no further than Nigel "bigoted idiot with a pint" Farage ! He's worth about $3 million, yet rarely is he accused of the elitist snobbery that plagues wealthy Tory politicians. Boris Johnson's tactic is very different but no less successful : he doesn't hide his Classical education, but he deflects it by deliberately playing the buffoon, a sort of political version of the harmless absent-minded scientist, clearly very intelligent but with a weakness and therefore not trying to oppress anyone at all.

As David Cameron correctly put it, "If any other politician anywhere in the world was stuck on a zip-wire it would be a disaster. For Boris, it's an absolute triumph." Only someone with a very carefully cultivated image of buffoonery can get away with this.
Farage and Johnson go to extremes. But most other politicans and economists go to the exact opposite extreme, trying to appear as consummate professionals. Politicians are intensely public figures so it's understandable that they don't want to expose one whit more of their private lives than they have to. And I'm not sure I particularly want the Governor of the Bank of England to appear as a beer-drinking blue angel stuck on a zipline... but surely, a more moderate level of "I am not a robot" behaviour is possible. Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn retain immense popularity in some sectors (the latter not with me) by simply being who they are, even if who they are are middle-aged men who like gardening. That's hardly a recipe one would think would guarantee popularity. The thing is that the rest of the political establishment appear so incredibly corporate that almost anything seems like a better alternative.

Ordinary politicians don't have to go to the extremes of Boris or Nigel, but they do need to make more of an effort to appear less as corporate drones. The media have also got to stop dragging them over the coals over every minor infraction, yet hold them fully to account when they say something genuinely offensive. It's not an easy circle to square.
Trust in experts is not about keeping the plebs in line or the Establishment fat-cats in place. It's about unqualified people being able to make rational choices without the years of training needed to establish real expertise : because all experts have to do this outside their specialist area too. Expertise, in many fields, is not the same as authority - but it's a damn sight better than blind ignorance.

I believe a world run purely by experts (essentially Plato's Republic) would be an immensely poorer place, not least because self-determination is (by Plato's own extremely lengthy admission) the essence of justice, and it's important to let people make their own mistakes... but like all things, this is only true to an extent. You want to allow children to scrape their knees, you don't want them to fall off the edge of a cliff. A world based purely on evidence and rational thinking would not only be impossible (because not every decision can or should be made rationally), but it would also be monstrous because people have come up with all sorts of crazy ideas about what logic and evidence suggest.

I don't want to tell anyone what to think. I just think we should work towards a world in which expert advice counts for more than it does now, where evidence plays more of a role, where the ability to think rationally is celebrated but not worshipped. In that way, I think, we'd have a world with far fewer major mistakes and much less angry controversy over the big decisions.

I know this isn't as popular as the uncompromising ideas that we should all have three rounds of voting to decide what to eat for breakfast, or insist that that no-one be allowed within 50 ft of a can opener without a Master's degree in civil engineering. Moderate ideas seldom have the emotional appeal of simpler, but usually wrong, more extreme messages. But as Western politics feels increasingly polarised, it's moderate voices that are needed - fighting extremism with extremism only drives the wedge in further.

The notion that are experts are elitist snobs needs to be nipped in the bud, but that can't happen without a multifold effort. A few experts, it's true, need to get over themselves and realise that they're not fundamentally better people than anyone else. More generally, experts have to learn not merely to tolerate but to embrace outreach, and its needs to be done by actual "practising" experts, not "science advocates" or "economic advocates" or whoever - but people who actually understand the nitty-gritty details. This is true for both the institutions who want to promote themselves and the media who want to consult a friendly expert. Generic "advocates" (or experts in another field) look very silly and undermine confidence in all specialists when they say something later revealed to be inaccurate by a true expert. Solution ? Stop relying on advocates ! Train more experts to talk directly to the public - it's not that difficult ! Don't say, "we'll get this professional science communicator to talk about blah blah blah" - that's fine for very basic stuff, but not for the complex issues we face today. Instead, get an actual expert in blah blah blah to come and talk about it. I think you'll find that in that situation, the idea of any kind of widespread, snobbish elite will rapidly disappear.


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