Why You’re Not an Expert (And I’m Not Either…)
A Reaction to Sam Harris
Sam Harris commented for roughly ten minutes the other day on his latest podcast about why most people aren’t experts and why, therefore, we still need experts and institutions. I have a response.
Before getting into this, for those of you who don’t know who Sam Harris is, click HERE. Harris’s basic, brief biography goes as follows: Harris is a mid-fifties philosopher, atheist, neuroscientist, bestselling author and fairly famous podcaster. He has a PhD from UCLA, a BA from Stanford. He’s been doing his podcast, Making Sense, for roughly a decade. He got into the podcast game after a big flareup with Ben Affleck on Bill Maher’s show Real Time in 2014. Harris has been a stalwart of commonsense and finding middle ground between the two political extremes. Over the past near decade he’s been my #1 Go To for Rational Debate. (Lately he’s taken heat from the Right a la suppression by MSM of Hunter Biden’s laptop. A story for another time.)
Anyway, here is Harris’s latest podcast episode, which I am referring to. The first ten minutes address his commentary about expertise and institutions.
In a nutshell, and I am 100% paraphrasing here, this is what Harris says in those ten minutes: 1. Most people are not experts nor anything near experts on most if not all ideas. 2. #1 therefore indicates that we do in fact NEED actual experts, people who have high degrees and specialization in specific fields, who are actually qualified to speak on certain topics, especially topics of great societal importance which affect masses of human beings. 3. Yes, Free Speech is profoundly important, and yes, all platforms should exist for people to use openly, and yes, anyone is of course allowed to have and express a view, whatever that view may be. 4. However, given the proliferation of social media, Substack, Medium, Twitter, etc, and the mass followings of people such as Joe Rogan, Bret Weinstein, Tulsi Gabbard, etc etc, it’s important to grasp that likely millions of people allow their opinions and ideas to be shaped by the people mentioned above, and for the most part these people and many others are NOT qualified to make many of the unfounded claims they consistently make, whether that’s about mRNA vaccines, Covid generally, health, finance, biology, etc.
I 100%, wholeheartedly agree with Harris’s assessment. A clear example happened for me yesterday. I was browsing Substack and randomly came upon a certain writer. Now, I don’t want to start a Substack War, so I’ll leave this stack’s name, and its author, unknown. This Substack writer was covering points made by another person, a “philosopher” I’d never heard of. But these are the salient points: 1. This author had a large following, including hundreds of comments and likes; 2. The article was making massive claims which purported to basically be upending modern science as we understand it, including long-accepted ideas around evolution, brain function, etc. 3. The author sounded very, very confident about these claims. 4. Scanning quickly down the comments, it seemed almost every single one was agreeing with the article.
Now, I had never heard of the philosopher the Substack writer wrote about. So I Googled the guy. The first giveaway was: It was difficult to find anything on this man at all. Never a good sign. The few items that did come up said things which indicated in obvious ways that he was a kooky, discredited nonentity. One site mentioned he is known for “HIV/AIDS denialism.”
So this is a clear case of: Random Substack writer with big following picks up random kook wannabe philosopher and tries to make a cuckoo case for modern science being “bullshit.” C’mon.
I see this on Substack too often. It comes from both the political left and the political right, from young and old, women and men. The idea seems to be: Fill-in-the-blank writer read half a Wikipedia article on fill-in-the-blank person, and BOOM: Expert. One thing Harris mentions in his mini-diatribe is that, because of some of the failures of some institutions over the past few years, the result has been this wild, lurid fragmentation of “media,” cracking open MSM (Mainstream Media) and allowing in its place a million new “newsletters.” Now, in theory, on its face, this is a good thing. Especially for free speech and Democracy.
Like everything in life: It’s about tradeoffs. Nothing in life is free. What we gain is more democratic and easy access to information. What we lose is oversight. It’s now so easy to disseminate information that anyone, anytime, anywhere, for any reason, can do it, and almost immediately. We live in the “Instacart” of the Information Age. It’s too easy, and that’s precisely the problem.
A lot of people nowadays engage in what I’ll term C.P.R.—Copy and Paste Repeating. You see it with Woke leftism, and you see it with Conservative people on the Right. What I mean by C.P.R. is: Language copied consciously or unconsciously from favored news sites or commentators which then gets summarily dumped onto Twitter or Substack or Medium etc as if the writer is a long-held “expert.” One of my favorites on the left, as an easy example, is when leftists claim CRT doesn’t exist; they’ll say “But it’s just a ‘graduate level’ college course.” This phrase “graduate-level” was coined (not the phrase in general, but the phrase in conjunction with CRT specifically, I mean) on MSNBC, circa 2020. When someone makes this language gaff, I automatically stop listening; I can no longer take them seriously. Because it immediately tells me that they: 1. Don’t think independently; 2. Probably don’t read at all; 3. Are 100% tribal and entirely disinterested in serious, rational conversation or debate.
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I share your concerns as well as those of Sam. We live in strange times populated by strange ideas and mediums to share all ideas are mostly wide open. I don't know if we have ever lived in such times, but I imagine the dawn of print might have been a similar human adjustment. My questions circulate around how quickly we seem to be making adjustments nowadays, and then, how quickly our engineers and designers come up with another way to push us again. Do we need time to absorb these changes as a society? Let the wheat rise above the chaff naturally, before moving on to the next batch? I enjoy Sam's thinking as well. Especially his demeanor and his calming approach to sticky subjects. Like Jordan Peterson, however, I get the sense he gets stuck in his own loops, at times. Nonetheless, I think we need thinkers now. Even if what they say is sometimes wrong. Even if they do make mistakes. I can't fault anyone for trying, no matter the size of their platform. People are trying to make sense of a lot all at once.
Not bad; pretty good in fact, though you kinda peter-out there at the end ... 😉🙂
But generally agree with both you and Harris on the topics of "proliferation of social media, Substack, Medium, Twitter, etc.", and experts in general.
However, maybe more broadly -- a point you & he may have addressed -- there is the sad fact that too many so-called experts, and the journals where some hang out their shingles, don't know their arses from holes in the ground.
Something of a case in point is probably that of physicist Sean Carroll -- who should probably stick to physics ... -- pontificating on the sex-as-a-binary versus sex-as-a-spectrum "debate":
But sadly, that case is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg as I've argued in my own post:
While I'm hardly hanging out my own shingle as any sort of an expert on that topic, I think I've drawn from many who actually are to justify my conclusion that far too many "biologists" and "philosophers" also don't know their arses from holes in the ground when it comes to that "debate".
Rather murky topic, and somewhat of a challenge to understand the roots of it and the etiology of the "disease", but I think this passage -- from an article by a Belgian virologist that I link to and quote from in my post -- kind of gets to the heart of it:
"Sections 4–8 of this review followed a chronological presentation of recent developments in viral taxonomy which revealed that the field has been plagued by an uninterrupted series of conflicting views, heated disagreements and acrimonious controversies that may seem to some to be out of place in a scientific debate. The reason, of course, is that the subject of virus taxonomy and nomenclature lies at the interface between virological science and areas of philosophy such as logic, ontology and epistemology which unfortunately are rarely taught in university curricula followed by science students (Blachowicz 2009)."