Experts Misinformation Marx Emerson Whistling (in the dark?)

Woman whistling, ceramic sculpture, MaidOfClay website

 


A
s once we developed a vaccine for small pox, do we now need to develop one for expertise—and for media noise, advertising, and other forms of propaganda (all of which often involves “experts”)? The authors of Freakonomics call attention to experts’ involvement in “information crime”: disseminating misleading information or withholding useful information in order to profit from people’s ignorance and confusion. Certainly our greatest teachers—perhaps our only good teachers—are those who, in addition to helping their students learn how to get what they need from other people, help their students learn to think for themselves, to include by being skeptical of expertise and wise to misinformation.[1]

Almost two hundred years ago, Marx and Engels proposed that writers not unlike me (ideologues) end up, intentionally or not, serving the interests of dominant or rising classes and of wealthy groupings, and this at the expense of most everyone else. In a Zeteo essay published last week, I explored this proposition further and using an analogy: to masks.[2] Experts, many academics included, both hide behind masks and mask the dynamics of human life. Thus they join the many priests, ministers, popes, gurus, and other peddlers of religion who have long lived off the people’s—our—weaknesses, our gullibility included. And thereby, too, the experts lead people, including other experts and political representatives, away from what they would otherwise know, were it not for the experts and their and our commitment to expertise and its illusions.[3] We might say that experts—and we ourselves at times—prey on our native intelligence and prey on the wild hopes and fears of human beings, on our wishful thoughts and feelings. And again, whether this is any given expert’s intention or not, often a major result of all this masking and confusion goes beyond run-of-the-mill “information crime” to advancing the interests of dominant or rising classes and of wealthy groupings.

Case in point: increasing economic inequality. Some experts have distracted us with naïve, technical solutions, taking our minds off the fundamental forces that channel, if not govern our lives. Other experts have developed elaborate lies—for example, that relaxing anti-trust regulation and enforcement would not be harmful but beneficial, and this not simply for big business but for everyone, for the economic well-being of Americans on the whole. And, were it not for these expert distractions, would it have been difficult for us, making a little use of our native intelligence, to realize that allowing economic power to concentrate in a few hands would lead to greater inequality? (See Inequality, Experts, Krugman, Masks for the fuller discussion.)

That human beings are beholden to their ignorance, I get this. Often we do not want to see clearly our predicament, or predicaments. Wishful thinking and delusion are so much more fun. Especially since, when we do try to see, we find our sight is quite limited. May “experts” not, on top of all this, intervene to try to encourage us to deny or ignore what we, in our hearts of hearts, can know and need not be so afraid of knowing.

 

double-globed clay musical instrument from whistling-water-vessel blogpost of one Paul Chenoweth.The goal of the present piece is to underscore some of the conclusions of the longer, Zeteo piece. At one point it dipped into a Brechtian (and Russian Formalist) idea of “verfremdung”—making strange.[4] It was proposed that, rather than or along with trumpeting or wallowing in expertise, a text might call attention to its non-expertise and to the questionable value of expertise. A text might even be obliged to do such calling in order to be taken half seriously. The most sophisticated (and thus most deceptive?) intellectuals would retain the forms of expertise and yet a sufficiently parodic or self-doubting tone as to promote a chronic calling into question of expertise (and of its cousin, information). Imagine an echo—“But there is no wisdom”—traveling within a hollow wisdom.

Beyond this fallen log would lie a presumably unenterable forest utopia: a land of non-experts, of people with the courage, mental strength, and good sense to think for themselves. And to not be so emboldened by this capacity as to begin trying to think for others as well.

In addition to Marx, Engels, and Brecht (and Krugman, Paz and Socrates), the Zeteo text harkened back to Emerson, to include to his most famous essay, “Self-Reliance.”

A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages.

“I am more of a Quaker than anything else,” Emerson once said to a relative. “I believe in the ‘still, small voice,’ and that voice is Christ within us.”[5]

Non-believing and a not quite lapsed American, I ask: Shouldn’t there be something about our democracy (over-advertised though it now seems to be), and about our egalitarianism (a mirage on life support?), and about our wide open spaces and bountiful land (rapidly being “developed” and consumed) . . . Shouldn’t something about all this give us, Americans, a rare capacity—to think for ourselves? That, again, would involve both setting our experts aside and not trying, even in the privacy of our own homes, to set ourselves up to take an expert’s place. (We are back again to Quaker practice, in which there are no ministers; no idols or decoration besides windows, walls and benches; no music; no dialogue.)

I must stress that I am hardly seeking to support a new form of know-nothingism. The point is not, say, that, thanks to their big hearts or common sense, uneducated people do or can know more than egg-headed, Ph.d’d intellectuals. Rather, it is up to each individual, however degree’d or not, to keep trying to learn to think better for herself or himself. Sapere aude, Dare to know, as Kant and other champions of the Enlightenment put it.

Nor would I deny that we can learn a great deal in conversation with—to include through reading the works of—other people. Daring must involve wrestling with the ideas and feelings (and the simple fact) of other people, and also wrestling with ourselves.

 

Emerson’s family had little money and thus his comfort came to depend on becoming an intellectual-religious servant of a well-established and wealthy class. Once, in jest, he proposed that we are either left to whistle by ourselves, “or thrust into a mob of emperors, all whistling”.[6] An image of the American experience, perhaps at its best. And perhaps Emerson’s analogy, and the resulting imperial music, describes, too, my utopian forest of non-experts, all whistling. Certainly such a verdant cacophony would be an improvement on the current one, in which a few well-established and wealthy lips, or the megaphones of their various lobbyists and experts, overwhelm the rest of us with misinformation and expertise. [See “Independent” analysis; class warfare (think tanks)]

 

— Wm. Eaton

 

William Eaton is the Editor of Zeteo. A collection of his essays, Surviving the Twenty-First Century, was recently published by Serving House Books. See Surviving the website. The present piece might be thought of as an attachment to a Zeteo series that began in December 2015 with Class Warfare Poverty Death. See also, a rather older piece: The Master.

 

Endnotes

"WOLF-WHISTLING will NOT be made illegal in Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron promised yesterday" -- story in The Sun, 8 March 2012[1] For more on misinformation, see “I Don’t Know What to Believe Anymore”, Zeteo, March 2015.

[2] This from a point that Octavio Paz made about how, during the Mexican Revolution period, intellectuals had gone on playing with ideas que no tenían más función que la de mascaras—that served only as masks. [El laberinto de la soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude), 1950.]

I note also lines from by the Irish critic and diplomat Conor Cruise O’Brien, made in reference to the ongoing rape of Africa: “the ingratiating moral mask which a toughly acquisitive society wears before the world it robs: ‘liberalism’ is the ideology of the rich, the elevation into universal values of the codes which favoured the emergence, and favour the continuance, of capitalist society.” Conor Cruise O’Brien, Introduction to Writers and Politics (Pantheon, 1965). For more on liberalism, see Blind Fanatics, by Pankaj Mishra, London Review of Books, 3 December 2015.

[3] For a discussion of experts’ involvement in “information crime” (disseminating misleading information or withholding useful information in order to profit from people’s ignorance and confusion), see Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, pages 65-74 of the 2009 edition.

Devil’s advocates might well point to how expert climate scientists have called the world’s attention to global warming. I would not seek to minimize either that phenomenon or the value of exceptions that prove rules. However, did we really need experts to tell us that massive industrialization, with all its waste products, was going to significantly change the Earth’s environment? Or are we, rather, now leaning (if half-heartedly) on one group of experts, making them responsible for reminding us of what we had long been enjoying pretending we did not know?

[4] From a Wikipedia article (January 2016) entitled Distancing effect (a.k.a. the alienation effect or estrangement effect; German: Verfremdungseffekt). This

is a performing arts concept coined by playwright Bertolt Brecht. Brecht first used the term in an essay on “Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting,” published in 1936, in which he described it as “playing in such a way that the audience was hindered from simply identifying itself with the characters in the play.” [For present purposes we will equate these with experts.] “Acceptance or rejection of their actions and utterances was meant to take place on a conscious plane, instead of, as hitherto, in the audience’s subconscious.”

Verfremdungseffekt is rooted in the Russian Formalist notion of the device of making strange (Russian: приём отстранения), which literary critic Viktor Shklovsky has claimed is the essence of all art. [And, we are now suggesting, of all expertise? Science most definitely included?]

[5] From Ralph Waldo Emerson, Uncollected Lectures: Reports of Lectures on American Life and Natural Religion, Reprinted from the Commonwealth, edited by Clarence Gohdes (William Edwin Rudge, 1932), p. 57. The relative had asked Emerson if he were a Swedenborgian.

[6] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Montaigne; or, the Skeptic, from Representative Men (1850). A brief discussion of the style of the whistling emperors passage may be found at the Agni blog.

 

Images

Woman whistling, ceramic sculpture, MaidOfClay website.

Double-globed clay musical instrument is from whistling-water-vessel blogpost of one Paul Chenoweth.

Man whistling, illustration from article in The Sun (London), 8 March 2012.

 

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Experts Misinformation Marx Emerson Whistling (in the dark)



Categories: Denial the American Way, The Real World

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