March 31, 2018

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, March 2018

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste. I also have no qualifications to opine on the sociology of experts and anti-intellectualism, or on the history of Islamic civilization.

Andrea Camilleri, A Nest of Vipers and Pyramid of Mud
Mind candy mysteries, the nth and (n+1)st in the series (previous entries to be found here), with all the usual pleasures. But Nest was first one I can remember where I worked out whodunnit before Montalbano. Whether this means I am getting better, or Camilleri (or Montalbano?) is slipping, is not for me to say. §
Ruth Downie, Memento Mori
Mind candy historical mystery: latest (previously) in her series about an ex-legionary doctor and his British (i.e., barbarian native) wife, and their misadventures in Roman Britain --- this time, Aquæ Sulis (i.e., Bath). It continues to be really good, though I am a bit worried about where the end of this book leaves our protagonists. §
Ausma Zehanat Khan, The Bloodprint
Mind-candy epic fantasy. On those terms, it's enjoyable enough, though unremarkable. What makes it really notable is that it's entirely based on the recent history of Afghanistan and environs, with a magic system based on Quranic recitation. Many reviewers have noticed that "the Talisman" = the Taliban, but none I've seen have remarked on the other correspondences. (This does not pretend to be a complete list.)
  • Khorasan = Afghanistan
    • West Khorasan = eastern Iran
    • North Khorasan = Trans-Oxiana, ex-Soviet Central Asia
  • Candor = Kandahar, Hira = Herat (I did not notice counter-parts for Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, Jalalabad, or Ghazni)
  • Sailing Pass = Salang Pass
  • Zergil tribe = Gilzai tribe
  • Valley of the Five Lions = Panjshir
  • the Claim = the Qur'an (I'm not sure which translation Khan used, but I am pretty sure every verse of the Claim is in fact from the Qur'an)
  • the Hazaras and Hazarajat = the Hazaras and Hazarajat
  • Turquoise mountain = Turquoise mountain
  • the Wall = the border with the former Soviet Union
  • The Authoritan = Karimov
  • basmachi = basmachi
  • Jaslyk prison and boiling dissidents alive = Jaslyk prison and boiling dissidents alive

My only surprise is that Khan's family are evidently Pashtuns from Pakistan, rather than from Afghanistan. §

Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters
This is an expansion of a blog post that went viral. It's easy enough to find summaries (e.g.), so I will skip giving one. It's good, as far as it goes, but I don't think it really goes far enough, or probes deeply enough. I will offer some critical remarks, but I want to emphasize that I do think this is a good book, by a skilled and well-intentioned writer, and worth reading. (Also, I realize that some of my complaints amount to wishing he'd written an academic treatise rather than a popular essay.)
  1. Nichols starts with a sensible definition (p. 29): "I will use the words 'professionals,' 'intellectuals,' and 'experts' interchangeably, in the broader sense of people who have mastered particular skills or bodies of knowledge and who practice those skills or use that knowledge as their main occupation in life". Unfortunately, he does not really wrestle with how this opens up a line of attack on expertise, which is that a profession is really a group of people who make their livings by claiming to have mastered what they say is a shared, unusual body of knowledge. But maybe all they have really mastered (whatever they might think) is a shared body of jargon, mistake, fallacy and delusion --- their purported knowledge might really be bogus. Haruspicy, or even homeopathy, would be too easy as targets. Take something more mainstream: there are many people who claim to be experts in personality testing, and sell their services to schools, corporations, law courts, etc. But the methods they use are well-established to be scientifically worthless, even by the not-exactly-demanding standards of social psychology. Or, perhaps more consequentially, we have created a profession of "forensics" ("forensic science", even), which we use to help make literally life-or-death decisions in the courts. It turns out that most of the methods employed (and taught, and certified) are unscientific and untrustworthy, and that's before we get to admissions of massive failure stretching over decades. (Beside things like this, my pet peeve of statsiness hardly matters, but it's in the mix, too.) The personality testers and the forensic scientists, while organized professionals, aren't really experts, just specialists. And if that's true of those professions, how many others might also be mere bogus specialisms? What about, say, the law?
    Yes, we live in a vastly elaborated division of labor and responsibility, where different professions claim jurisdiction over different specialized tasks, but how much of that is jargon and bullshit, rather than genuine knowledge? Maybe that's inevitable, maybe deferring to specialists who are just (collectively) making shit up is the price we pay for our prosperity, but can you really blame anyone for resenting that, or for refusing to acknowledge the authority of non-existent knowledge? (Proverbially: "Don't piss on my leg and tell me that it's raining.") Most people are, after all, much more likely to be told by a boss to take a personality test than to interact with, say, a rocket engineer.
    Or, worse: I have been writing as though some profession just are bogus, no question, because that's what I happen to think. But a more neutral description would be that these are conflicts between rival groups of professionals, where one group (personality testers, forensic technicians) claim expertise and the authority that goes with it, while another group (social psychologists, statisticians) attacks the first group's claims. If you are unable or unwilling to enter into those specific debates on their merits, you might well think that all the claims to expert knowledge here are bogus, perhaps merely rationalizing professional interests. At the very least, you should be willing to entertain it as a possibility.
    Now, I do not think this nightmare vision is correct. (I also do not believe in my neutral model of inquiry.) And I know that the overwhelming majority of the people driving Nichols to despair aren't making an argument this coherent. But this is kind of idea many of them are fumbling towards, and I wish this book had addressed it. Instead, the chapter on "when the experts are wrong" limits itself to specific mistakes (e.g., is it healthy to eat eggs?), rather than the possibility of global, albeit sincere quackery (do "dieticians" actually know anything?).
  2. This brings me, indirectly, to a curious omission. The book never mentions the well-funded and well-organized campaigns by vested corporate interests to cast doubt on expert opinions when those are inconvenient. The paradigm case is tobacco companies trying to obfuscate the dangers of smoking, but of course the same tactics, and even the same personnel, got recycled for global warming. (Merchants of Doubt is the essential reading here, but good journalists following the public relations industry have been warning about this stuff for decades. [I don't think Nichols ever mentions PR; it's not in his index.]) Some of this has been, pretty explicitly, about attacking scientific expertise as such. Even more of it has been about creating confusion about who is an expert and what the expert consensus is. The goal is to get lay people to see dueling experts who can't agree on anything. To the extent this has been successful, sensible lay people should show less deference to self-described expert opinion. More precisely, once lay people are persuaded that experts are always in deep disagreement, and that there is even no consensus on who the experts are, they should show less deference to opinions which are presented to them as those of experts. [0]
    (Relatedly: if many people are now telling their doctors what drugs to prescribe them, might this have something to do with drug makers spending massive amounts on advertising at patients, aiming to achieve just this? Update 22 July 2022: Nichols has come around on this topic.)
  3. Nichols has his political and ideological commitments, which show through in places. This is fine (at least, I hope it is, for my own sake), except that I think it may have led him in places to pass over facts and cases which would complicate (though perhaps not refute) his argument. For instance: as an example of journalists failing to abide by the principles of their calling, he mentions Sabrina Ederley and Rolling Stone (pp. 163--4). He does not mention, say, Stephen Glass and The New Republic; that comparison would have been instructive, since, after all, Glass's fabrications happened decades before what Nichols sees as the recent corruption of journalism.
    Or, again, Nichols is very unhappy about the way many college students these days seem to be very resistant to hearing opposing viewpoints (chapter 3). Well, so am I [1]. Here, though, are some things which are notable by their absence from this chapter:
    1. evidence that this failing of undergraduates is worse now than it has been in the past;
    2. evidence that contemporary undergraduates are worse about this than their age-mates who don't go to college;
    3. evidence that college makes this worse among those who attend;
    4. argument, and supporting evidence, connecting this failing to the way colleges and universities increasingly treat undergraduates as customers to be pleased, rather than students to be taught, something the book righteously, and rightly, denounces [2].
    None of this means that he's wrong, but it is a failing, by the standards of argument and inquiry which Nichols, very properly, espouses, and which I'm sure he'd adhere to in his more strictly-scholarly work.
    As it happens, since the book was published we have had some evidence about (1)--(3), which would at the very least complicate the argument of the chapter. Of course, no one study is definitive, and there are specific ways one might attack this one. (E.g., perhaps different cohorts, or different educational groups, use the word "racist" very differently, so that apparently small variations in tolerance for "racist" speech conceals huge actual differences [cf. Becker].) But this is the kind of thing I wish Nichols had engaged in, or at least marked out as a very clear area of relevant uncertainty, rather than simply editorializing.
  4. That last point brings me to a larger failing of the book, which is its failing to make the necessary historical case [3]. The book wants to argue both that the relationship between experts and the lay public is bad now, and that it has gotten worse, that it is in a uniquely bad state. For the first part, examples of contemporary dysfunction are persuasive, though I would have liked those to have been more systematic (if not necessarily quantitative, though that would have been nice too).
    But for the second part, the claim that things are worse now than they've ever been, there needs to be comparative, historical evidence, and that's just not there. Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life gets mentioned (pp. 18--19; oddly calling Hofstadter a "political scientist", rather than a historian). But this book never really wrestles with Hofstadter's, or with the larger historical literature of which the latter is a part. Those histories at least seem to show that there has always been a very strong current in American life which despises intellectuals, experts, and education (even if it's still fascinated with technology). One could even make out a counter-scenario that Nichols's "death of expertise" is just America reverting to normal, after a transient, out-of-character Cold War episode, when competing with the USSR over the Space Race and the Third World lent value to all sorts of obscure skills. That wouldn't make our current plight any better, but it would change the diagnosis! N.B., I am not not claiming that's the right interpretation; I don't know, but I wish Nichols had considered such alternatives, or at least made his necessarily-historical case better.
    To put it more briefly: Chapter 3 ends (p. 104) with the heart-felt plaint that
    [I]f college graduates can no longer be counted on to lead reasoned debate and discussion in American life, and to know the difference between knowledge and feeling, then we're indeed in the kind of deep trouble no expert can fix.
    I'm a bit skeptical that we ever could count on college graduates to play that role in American life, not least because many generations of earlier writers lamented that they didn't [4].
Again, just to recap: I liked the book, and I share a lot of Nichols's exasperations and anxieties. I think the book is worth reading. But I wish, in the name of the standards it very rightly advocates, it had gone much deeper. §
[0]: There is another, related issue which should have made it into the book, but didn't. This is the trend, over the last few decades, towards removing expertise from public bodies, in favor of relying on private industry and its lobbyists. The last chapter of this book is about the role of experts in democratic policy-making. It emphasizes, correctly, that in a modern, representative democracy, people delegate power and authority to elected representatives, who are expected to know more about issues than most citizens. At the same time, even those representatives cannot master all of the intricacies of every issue, and so must consult experts. (Such consultation isn't, or shouldn't be, just doing what experts say to do.) At most, some areas of policy might be further delegated to appointees, but even that is revocable. All this is basic and right as far as it goes, but the disturbing development over recent decades is the on-going erosion of the government's own capacity for expertise, whether in the legislative or the executive branch, in favor of relying on private industry and its lobbyists, sometimes laundred through think-tanks. To be fair, this continues to trade on the appearance of disinterested expertise, rather than de-legitimizing it. ^
[1]: For the record, as threats to academic freedom, I rank ranty undergraduates, however appalling, below administrative branding and fund-raising practices, interfering state legislatures and/or trustees and donors, and the increasing use of un-tenured teachers. The actions of administrators, legislators, and donors are, arguably, relevant to the topic of decreasing deference to expertise, but I also think it is defensible for the book to not generally explore the threats to academia. ^
[2]: The book doesn't say why schools have come to see undergraduates that way, though it leaves the impression that this was a sort of unforced error on the part of university faculty and administrators. It might be that, but it might also have something do to with a shift in how we support the bulk of higher education, away from state governments directly funding their universities and towards the federal government underwriting student loans. (This would seem to be worth investigating, if it hasn't been already.) ^
[3]: I realize that I made a similar complaint about Chris Hayes's Twilight of the Elites. I would pay good money to read a dialogue between Hayes and Nichols. ^
[4]: Another encounter I would pay good money to observe would be Nichols's grappling with the late Jacques Barzun's 1959 The House of Intellect. ^
Richard W. Bulliet, The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization
This is in some ways a period piece, the period being 2002--2003. It is nonetheless full of good sense, especially in the title essay. (Cf. the proposed nested civilizational regions in Lewis and Wigen's The Myth of Continents.)
--- I cannot decide whether the definite description of Edward Said on p. 59 ("Elegantly attired Palestinian professors at renowned universities write cutting-edge works that command worldwide respect", etc.) is affectionate or catty. §
Disclaimer: Bulliet was my wife's thesis adviser, so it'd be awkward for me to write publicly that one of his books was bad, but at the same time I'm under no obligation to say anything about them at all...

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; Writing for Antiquity; Afghanistan and Central Asia; Scientifiction and Fantastica; The Beloved Republic; Learned Folly; Islam; Tales of Our Ancestors

Posted at March 31, 2018 23:59 | permanent link

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