Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Nesting Dolls and Invisible Work

Much of what I've been writing about this year is linked to how we argue with people who can't agree on what is known.

Over in philosophy, they'd say I'm focused on conflicts of epistemology.

I didn't realize a theme was developing, but when I look at many of the arguments in the public discourse today, these kinds of conflicts have clearly created an "issue of the moment."

Part of what is going on is simple. We all see the world through our lenses, and new information is sorted into categories that match our worldview.

This aspect of the issue explains a wonderful new addition to the stack of nesting dolls that is Philip K. Dick's "Man in the High Castle."

Dick wrote a novel set in an alternate history where the fascists win WWII and take over America, but it's PKD, so of course there's a mind-bending twist:
In that alternate universe, there's another author who created another alternate universe in which the Allies won and then turned on each other.
The idea is that readers have to navigate meaning across three realities, ours, the book's, and that of the book within the book.
More recently, a tv series based on Dick's book has been made, and as a promo, the marketing team set up an online "resistance radio station" set in the alternate United States where fascists rule. Here's the next nesting doll: Many Trump supporters assumed the radio station was a real protest of the real president.

It's easy to make fun, but without the dizzying context of Dick's fiction, a resistance radio station does feel pretty explicitly anti-Trump. Not to mention, the show itself is being viewed by many critics and commentators as anti-Trump. So, I'm not sure we should be making fun.

And that's just one example of how not knowing a single piece of the larger puzzle makes navigating today's public discourse a new kind of challenge. I think the Tom Nicols got a lot right in his essay published in Foreign Affairs.
It’s not just that people don’t know a lot about science or politics or geography. They don’t, but that’s an old problem. The bigger concern today is that Americans have reached a point where ignorance—at least regarding what is generally considered established knowledge in public policy—is seen as an actual virtue. To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to demonstrate their independence from nefarious elites—and insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong.
I've tried to say something similar here, but Nicols composed a much stronger argument for the point.

Beyond the rejection of expertise for the reasons Nicols describes, I believe there is something else going on as well.

It's a manifestation of a certain lack of empathy.

A lot of people work hard to get to where they are in life. Some of those same people, however, are reluctant to believe others have worked hard enough to be respected as experts. Now that technology has granted everyone the ability to "do our own research," it's easier to dismiss the work required to actually become an expert.

Reading papers written by economists is a good practice if you want to be informed. It does not, however, grant a person the ability to create statistical models that predict how certain incentives will impact human behavior (one of the things economists can do that most people cannot). It takes years of hard work for aspiring economists to get to a place where they can perform as an expert economist. Those years of hard work happen in classrooms, offices, conferences, and other settings most of us would find boring. This makes the work of becoming an expert invisible.

Athletes have to deal with a similar issue. Most of the work that makes professional athletes so good at what they do is hidden from the fans.

But at least athletes have fans.
Economists, small business owners, cognitive psychologists, restaurant managers, linguists, plumbers, and biologists rarely earn acclaim from outside of their disciplines. Sure, they might have clients or students who value their work, but those relationships are more complex than fandom.

If a person claims to be an authority, then we have every right to ask them, "Who gave you that authority?"
With legitimate experts, the answer is usually some version of, "I have been working in the area for 15 (or more) years and have earned several honors."
Unfortunately, too many people are too quick to dismiss those years of hard work.