The Expert's Expert
January 24, 2014 10:51 PM   Subscribe

The Death Of Expertise An expert serves up the argument that online culture is bringing about the death of expertise.
posted by Annika Cicada (89 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
Go home Dad. You're drunk.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:07 PM on January 24 [17 favorites]


A real expert wouldn't glibly cite the popularized and inaccurate understanding of the Dunning-Kruger effect. He also probably wouldn't appeal to a fable about demons manipulating human language so that evil things can happen but nobody minds because they say the word "democracy".. while complaining that people don't defer to him sufficiently when he talks about politics, because they live in a democracy and think their opinions should matter too.

Nice try, so-called expert!
posted by edheil at 11:08 PM on January 24 [19 favorites]


In any discussion, you have a positive obligation to learn at least enough to make the conversation possible. The University of Google doesn’t count.

Which is to say, reading things doesn't count. One does not learn by reading things.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 11:12 PM on January 24 [16 favorites]


I don't think it's online culture so much as the successful demolition of any respect for learning or experience and the widespread conviction that even facts are pretty much just opinions you can challenge and one guy's opinion/fact is just as good as any others and a good, witty cut-down trumps fact OR opinion.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 11:14 PM on January 24 [44 favorites]


There's some value in what he says (e.g. problems with the idea of amateur opinions being just as valid as an educated perspective), but his death knell is premature. It's easy enough to demonstrate by simply talking to a seasoned grad student about what they research.
posted by spiderskull at 11:19 PM on January 24


Well, I for one find it interesting the esteemed gentlemen manages to fall victim to his own arguments repeatedly without apparently realizing it, yet still manages in the end to raise thought provoking questions regarding privilege, equality and perceived equivalence.

His most inadvertently provocative idea for me is the idea that experts in their own spaces deserve to be given the right to "own" what they know and enter a discussion with the implicit understanding that their points of view might be worth giving more consideration than someone else's because they have met the threshold of expert in a space. Whatever that means per expert in a given space, I suppose?

For the most part, he and the whole site annoys me, but that article has a couple of nice double-edged, yet ironically tragic plays.
posted by Annika Cicada at 11:36 PM on January 24 [5 favorites]


An article in The Federalist complaining that no one listens to experts anymore is like someone who's killed their parents throwing themselves on the mercy of the court as an orphan.
posted by asterix at 11:40 PM on January 24 [53 favorites]


I guess it all started going downhill when we invented paper.
posted by Dr Dracator at 11:43 PM on January 24 [5 favorites]


He strikes me as someone so lost in his own internal world that his mind no longer functions. This is a guy who literally says it's too soon to judge whether or not the war in Iraq was justified and successful, because liberals hate Bush too much to have a rational discussion. Seriously.
posted by euphorb at 12:09 AM on January 25 [7 favorites]


Still, we used to have some really nutty conversations here on MeFi, e.g. actual biochemists fending off Wikipedia-fueled halfwitted arguments on a biochemistry-related topic from people who seriously didn't know what it means to actually know something; that all they had to do is hastily read a related Wikipedia page to be caught up and ready to show the so-called experts with their la-de-da degrees and aren't-you-special career experience how dumb they really were. The worst offenders don't seem to be around recently so perhaps the local culture has gotten a bit better at tamping that down. But it was incredibly annoying.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:16 AM on January 25 [5 favorites]


I really wonder who he's been arguing with, because no one acts that way any place I spend time. Maybe he likes to debate the people who write YouTube comments?
posted by Kevin Street at 12:32 AM on January 25


Still, we used to have some really nutty conversations here on MeFi, e.g. actual biochemists fending off Wikipedia-fueled halfwitted arguments...

I'd much rather have halfwits spewing easily unmasked nonsense than self-pronounced experts making unchallenged claims because "I don't do citations" or handwavily saying that they can't be bothered to explain how they reached their conclusions because it's just obvious to anyone in the know, here's a list of books or links to go off on a goose-chase to read before I will condescend to respond to your question.

Those sorts of people being held to standards is undoubtedly annoying to the ones who are actually experts but you too often run into people who are full of shit and simply trying to strike a pose of expertise so they can make claims without worrying about whether they can really be backed up. If halfwits running amuck is the price of maintaining higher standards when claims of fact or expertise are made, it's a small price to pay.
posted by XMLicious at 12:48 AM on January 25 [16 favorites]


So what can we do? Not much, sadly, since this is a cultural and generational issue that will take a long time come right, if it ever does. Personally, I don’t think technocrats and intellectuals should rule the world: we had quite enough of that in the late 20th century, thank you, and it should be clear now that intellectualism makes for lousy policy without some sort of political common sense. Indeed, in an ideal world, experts are the servants, not the masters, of a democracy.

But when citizens forgo their basic obligation to learn enough to actually govern themselves, and instead remain stubbornly imprisoned by their fragile egos and caged by their own sense of entitlement, experts will end up running things by default. That’s a terrible outcome for everyone..


Not so sure about that. I'm an urban planner in the public sector (an expert I guess) and my job mostly involves softly lobbing logic and fact into a political tug-of-war between Council and the public, both by interpreting legislation and by offering recommendations for solutions to a problem informed by my expertise. I'm at the sharp end of these conflicts all the time. Sometimes I get listened to. Sometimes I get thrown under the bus. Most of the time it seems like I'm just being annoying for bringing up legalities and impossibilities dictated by our enabling provincial legislation, or by looking beyond to a hypothetical, worst-case situation totally lost on whatever current political entanglement is befouling the matter at hand. I get dismissed as a cranky technocrat who's attempting to hold up reason with red tape, even though the 'red tape' is really the only thing keeping the giant tent together. I disagree with his notion that 'political common sense' is what drives good policy. No. Politics aids your understanding of how far to take policy, but ultimately your understanding of the breadth of the issue writes it the best.

I'm an expert, sure. I can look at a problem and see it in a much bigger regulatory context than a member of the public, or a town councillor. I may not know 1% of the history of a piece of property compared to the owner, and as a result I often get scoffed at because a farmer has been there 40 years and I've only known about it for 5 minutes. But, I'm much better at collecting relevant information and parsing that into something useful. Lay people are terrible at that. They bring up irrelevance constantly, because the irrelevant things are very important to that person.

So, often experts and laymen come about problems from vastly different angles. The challenge for the expert is really not to know more about everything in the situation, but rather to discard irrelevant things and deal with the matter at hand. The expert, in my case, must be a good advisor based on experience. But unlike, say, a doctor, I cannot typically execute my recommendation. It always has a political filter, and years of gain can be erased by one Council decision. I can't ever see a situation where I would be 'running things by default'. Nor can I see that the sort of failure of governance he's referring to will lead to experts swooping in.

I think what's really going on here is that idiots have simply gained an online platform and foothold through comments sections. Step away from the comments sections and that whole segment of society just melts away. Until, at least, they arrive at the front desk wanting a higher fence...
posted by jimmythefish at 12:51 AM on January 25 [39 favorites]


Also an actual expert doesn't mind being challenged, because they actually have the answers, and can back them up. Of course, things start getting hairrier when you are trying to use your expertise in one field to push your viewpoint on another.
posted by Dr Dracator at 12:52 AM on January 25 [4 favorites]


But mostly, experts have a pretty good batting average compared to laymen: doctors, whatever their errors, seem to do better with most illnesses than faith healers or your Aunt Ginny and her special chicken gut poultice.

On the other hand, it turns out that a lot of people will feel much better (and some are even cured) if someone takes only an hour or so and actually listens to their problems. And usually, the "faith healer" or Aunt Ginny do a much better job at that than some high-paid expert who only takes two minutes to take a quick look at you before he's off to the next conference.
posted by sour cream at 12:58 AM on January 25 [6 favorites]


Of course, things start getting hairrier when you are trying to use your expertise in one field to push your viewpoint on another.

Yep, there's a lot of that around, and it's embarrassing to watch. Even worse when said person is actually an expert at something fairly narrow and would never presume to stretch their expertise at, say, a conference where many others are likely to actually possess it... but they allow themselves much looser conduct under cover of pseudonymity or just because they know themselves to be mostly surrounded by lay people.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:02 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]


There is a range between the less-provable and the more-provable. Social science, because we shouldn't expirement on humans is less provable. Physics doesn't suffer from the same problem.
posted by vapidave at 2:09 AM on January 25


Democracy: one straw man, one vote.
posted by univac at 2:28 AM on January 25 [4 favorites]


Q.E.D.
posted by KMB at 2:30 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]


Seriously, I have no patience for anyone who can name the "appeal to authority" and complain in the same breath that they can't just coast on their Expert merit badge.
posted by univac at 2:34 AM on January 25 [4 favorites]


But, I'm much better at collecting relevant information and parsing that into something useful. Lay people are terrible at that. They bring up irrelevance constantly, because the irrelevant things are very important to that person.
That's not a problem with lack of expertise, that's a problem with your lack of perspective. Something which experts (I'm one of those too) have a tendency to suffer from.
posted by fullerine at 2:37 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]


But when citizens forgo their basic obligation to learn enough to actually govern themselves, and instead remain stubbornly imprisoned by their fragile egos and caged by their own sense of entitlement...

I could swear I've read pretty much the same rant from Robert Heinlein, circa the mid 1970s. As in, this isn't a problem with the internet, but the usual distrust of modernity and dislike of the common people.
posted by happyroach at 3:30 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]


I'd have more sympathy with Nichols' position if it wasn't so blatantly "open communication raises the modern Mobb from their rightful place".

From the liberal perspective, there are good, solid, historical reasons to be suspicious of anything said by those in power. That's why we try to rely on evidence and proof, rather than Words From On High. Of course, this can be taken too far: an appeal to authority is just as fallacious as an automatic dismissal of everything said by an authority.

What Nichols fails to mention is that it is the conservatives who have waged an anti-intellectual war for the last 20 years. It is they who have raised "Joe The Plumber" to the status of a domestic policy expert, while enshrining a "traditional Christian family" that no longer reflects the plurality. It is the conservatives who don't believe in evolution or global warming, and who have actively sown seeds of ignorance, doubt, and distrust of science.
On the other hand, it turns out that a lot of people will feel much better (and some are even cured) if someone takes only an hour or so and actually listens to their problems. And usually, the "faith healer" or Aunt Ginny do a much better job at that than some high-paid expert who only takes two minutes to take a quick look at you before he's off to the next conference.
And if all they want is a quiet chat to feel better, they should absolutely do that. If, on the other hand, they actually want treatment, they should go to a doctor. The two approaches may be complementary, but they should never be confused with each other.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 3:57 AM on January 25 [15 favorites]


Reminded me of this classic by Charles Pierce.
posted by TedW at 4:02 AM on January 25 [2 favorites]


All those 'experts' in pseudo-social-science fields like public policy have helped royally fucked up our world by dressing up exploitation, environmental destruction, etc. with academic jargon. In particular, Tom Nichols assertion that "today .. too many Americans hurl hatred at their own government and institutions not because they are oppressed or impoverished, but because they can’t get what they want all the time suggests he has no clue what's going on.

We're sick of authoritarian plutocrats and kleptocrats squandering all our labor on useless self-aggrandizing, environment destroying, murderous, etc. shit. Those fuckers obviously have not worked towards the common good, have no clue what they're doing, and therefore have no legitimacy to lead us. At least Snowden and Manning took concrete actions that improved the situation, while public policy experts like Tom Nichols just pile up bullshit defending oppression.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:46 AM on January 25 [13 favorites]


Also, there's a weird "Western Civilization" angle. I'm not sure 3000 years of Chinese scholar-bureaucrats would agree with him about expertise in the East....
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:53 AM on January 25 [4 favorites]


Exactly, GenjiandProust. When he writes
Yes, I said “Western civilization”: that paternalistic, racist, ethnocentric approach to knowledge that created the nuclear bomb, the Edsel, and New Coke, but which also keeps diabetics alive, lands mammoth airliners in the dark, and writes documents like the Charter of the United Nations.
he reveals a lot of the underlying problem with his argument. I have no problem with acknowledging and celebrating the benefits of studious attention to a particular field of knowledge or for the existence of specialized knowledge and critical understanding that requires such sustained, rigorous attention.

But the list he gives us is hilarious, conflating racism and ethnocentrism with careful study, as if one can't be had without the others, and implying that only Western culture is rational, the excuse of imperialism since at least the 17th century (and further back if you consider the etymology of the word "barbarian"). Even better, he smuggles in an argument that consumer culture and technological achievement are inseparable without really showing how that idea connects to the "culture of expertise" part of the argument. (Aren't most of these experts, Nichols included, trained and employed at public expense, rather than through the free market?)

It's weird; in the course of arguing that facts aren't opinions and expertise matters, he treats conservative ideology as fact and makes a bunch of arguments that would seem to fall well outside his own proffered field of expertise. (As edheil points out, he's clearly not an expert on psychology given how far off his version of the Dunning-Kruger effect is.)
posted by kewb at 5:35 AM on January 25 [10 favorites]


Heh, I can't wait for the next awesome physicsmatt post on some esoteric aspect of physics. Then I'll show him!
posted by marienbad at 5:36 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]


while public policy experts like Tom Nichols just pile up bullshit defending oppression.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:46 AM on January 25 [3 favorites +] [!]


"Bullshit defending oppression"?

Amazon description of Nichols' most recent book:

In No Use, national security scholar Thomas M. Nichols offers a lucid, accessible reexamination of the role of nuclear weapons and their prominence in U.S. security strategy. Nichols explains why strategies built for the Cold War have survived into the twenty-first century, and he illustrates how America's nearly unshakable belief in the utility of nuclear arms has hindered U.S. and international attempts to slow the nuclear programs of volatile regimes in North Korea and Iran. From a solid historical foundation, Nichols makes the compelling argument that to end the danger of worldwide nuclear holocaust, the United States must take the lead in abandoning unrealistic threats of nuclear force and then create a new and more stable approach to deterrence for the twenty-first century.
posted by Luminiferous Ether at 6:21 AM on January 25


That's not a problem with lack of expertise, that's a problem with your lack of perspective. Something which experts (I'm one of those too) have a tendency to suffer from.

Outside their field, experts are just regular, uninformed people. But within their field, experts bring precisely that richness of perspective, which the majority of laypeople do not -- and yet, it takes non-experts to cross-check that, and ensure that the expert's approach makes sense in a broader perspective. A good decision making process draws on the field-specific perspective of the experts, while using lay input as well -- the physicist tells you how to run the nuclear reactor, and laypeople help decide whether to have nuclear power. A crappy process just makes a simplistic balance, where expert knowledge and lay input are given equal voice and then largely ignored.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:44 AM on January 25 [3 favorites]


This is a great topic for an article, and surely a relevant one. I buy into the prognosis, if not quite the diagnosis.

I also think the way Nichols wrote the article colors this issue as more recently emergent than perhaps he actually believes it is. This surely isn't something that cropped up suddenly in the 2000s alongside the Internet.

Google and Wikipedia do not cause people to question expertise, but are a symptom of an already existing and growing distrust of authority ("an incredulity toward metanarratives", if you will). The democratization/globalization of the world's knowledge hasn't created a distrust of expertise; that distrust has been in large part a response to the already fractious nature of the competing narratives of State, Capital, and Polis.

Secondly, there could be some measure of selection bias that makes this problem appear more immediate than it truly is. For instance, the anti-vaxxers that Nichols cites--people with a paranoid distrust of authority didn't need Google, they've existed forever. However, the same mechanisms that allow individuals to circumvent the "Gatekeepers" of knowledge also make everyone more aware that these attacks on authority and expertise exist. So I'd question exactly how recent an occurrence this "death of expertise" is, and just how fast it's growing.

Definitely willing to read more from this author.
posted by Room 101 at 7:03 AM on January 25


And if all they want is a quiet chat to feel better, they should absolutely do that. If, on the other hand, they actually want treatment, they should go to a doctor.

I've got a compromise that'll work really well for both of you. How about a nice nurse practitioner?
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:05 AM on January 25 [5 favorites]


I fear we are witnessing the “death of expertise”: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.

Oh, honey. Just because people are publicly saying that you're wrong about something doesn't mean they're saying that all experts are wrong. Just that you are.

Tackle a complex policy issue with a layman today, and you will get snippy and sophistic demands to show ever increasing amounts of “proof” or “evidence” for your case

Which is fine, because if you're actually an expert you should be able to describe the evidence in ways a layman can understand.

This subverts any real hope of a conversation

But you don't want a conversation, you want a lecture.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:12 AM on January 25 [9 favorites]


Fundamentally, it’s a rejection of science and rationality, which are the foundations of Western civilization itself. Yes, I said “Western civilization”

Funny, the experts who taught me history also taught me to treat anyone using the term "Western civilization" in a serious argument as a cretin.
posted by moo at 7:12 AM on January 25


This is a horrible metafilter post. Seriously, this guy has his head so far up his own ass he can see Russia from there.

He wrote back in August that everything to be written about Snowden and Manning was already written.

Even if he has points to make I feel like someone is trying to convince me to eat an apple I've been told to leave alone by a higher authority.
posted by cjorgensen at 7:17 AM on January 25 [2 favorites]


That's not a problem with lack of expertise, that's a problem with your lack of perspective. Something which experts (I'm one of those too) have a tendency to suffer from.

It's not a 'problem of perspective' I don't think. Consultation with the public (lay people) is excellent for determining what people value. What they value, of course, is all over the map in terms of what can be addressed at a municipal level; some of their issues are benign, some private between two landowners, some are wildly illegal. The public knows way more than me about what they value. They are also simply terrible at implementation, which is the realm of the expert. Municipal politics rubs up against this all the time; people think they should have a say in things far further into the implementation of a plan than they have any right to be. They get out of their depth pretty quickly.
posted by jimmythefish at 7:31 AM on January 25 [2 favorites]


He wrote back in August that everything to be written about Snowden and Manning was already written.

OK, now THAT article reads more like "young people need to get off my lawn," effectively claiming that the cultural disdain for experts which is the subject of the OP article (which I still think he elaborates reasonably well), has a direct causal link to the Snowden and Manning leaks. He's also basically conflating whether what Snowden and Manning did was right with why they did it and who they are as human beings.

So yes...I get your point.
posted by Room 101 at 7:33 AM on January 25


Cjorgensen: I agree, the article provokes all kinds of madness in me, yet there's some stuff in there that's almost interesting.

It's weird how the articles manages to fail and prove every point by example.
posted by Annika Cicada at 7:38 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]


metafilter: stuff in there that's almost interesting.
posted by cjorgensen at 7:50 AM on January 25 [2 favorites]


the problem with this is that many experts have either lied to us or spun their expertise to benefit the corporate and political players who pay them

i am not an expert on public transportation, city government or design - but yesterday, i was driving down division st south of grand rapids and saw some remarkably ugly bus "shelters" - now, something like this seems fairly reasonable and inexpensive to me

this is what i drove by yesterday

now i'm no expert but it's obvious to me that first, these cost a hell of a lot more money and aren't anywhere as effective a shelter from wind, snow and rain as the plain little plastic box

needless to say, some transportation "expert" and design "expert" will come up with all sorts of reasons why i'm wrong and don't know what i'm talking about

screw that - the taxpayers' money was pissed away on an horribly ugly series of shelters that cost way too much and won't even do a good job of protecting people from the weather - even if they do dispense tickets and give people a digital readout of the next bus' arrival and have cameras so people can be spied upon

but i'm just some common jerk who drove past the things - what do i know?
posted by pyramid termite at 7:54 AM on January 25 [4 favorites]


I wonder if Nichols would sit there with “trust, docility, effort, and thinking,” to listen to a psychologist tell him why he writes articles like this. 'Cause the psychologist is an expert and Nichols a mere student in that field, right?
posted by XMLicious at 7:58 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]


and have cameras so people can be spied upon

It's Saturday, and yet I feel like I'm at work all of a sudden.
posted by jimmythefish at 8:21 AM on January 25 [2 favorites]


I'm teeth-grittingly annoyed by his trotting out the Dunning-Kruger trope. Knowing that this term exists doesn't magically place you above the fray. In the first instance, he misuses it. It doesn't apply to "dumb" people but to incompetent people. We're all incompetent in various domains and therefore D-K, to the extent that it holds true, holds true for all of us. And being a self-described "expert" doesn't necessarily make a person competent in a field either. I almost feel there should be some kind of rule of thumb that whenever someone attempts to smugly apply Dunning-Kruger to other people, the writer should be the first to fall under scrutiny. (Myself totally excepted, naturally.)
posted by xigxag at 8:22 AM on January 25 [4 favorites]


The article is worth the read if only for the use of the term "blog-sodden."
posted by anothermug at 8:22 AM on January 25


Well, I for one find it interesting the esteemed gentlemen manages to fall victim to his own arguments repeatedly without apparently realizing it, yet still manages in the end to raise thought provoking questions regarding privilege, equality and perceived equivalence.

Even a blind pig finds a nut once in a while.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:26 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]


I have a really hard time not rolling my eyes when a white dude from Harvard gets annoyed that his authoritah is not respected sufficiently, particularly when he complains about having to respect other people (or at least fake it in print). I couldn't help but think "I love the smell of outraged privilege in the morning" while I read it. (And I say that as a white chick from Rice, so if I feel that way, I can only imagine what the rest of the universe feels like.)
posted by immlass at 8:32 AM on January 25 [3 favorites]


Even a blind pig finds a nut once in a while.

Pigs have a great sense of smell. They are used heavily to seek out truffles.

Am I an expert yet? Am I doing this right?
posted by Nanukthedog at 8:34 AM on January 25 [2 favorites]


Also an actual expert doesn't mind being challenged

Try being a physician who talks to a non-vaccinating parent. I've given up. It's worse than trying to have a discussion with someone who speaks a different language, it's like two computers with different hard wired logic systems in place trying to communicate with each other. If every citation, study, past horrible experience shared is viewed with suspicion, it really calls into question the whole notion of "objective truth" and whether there can be such a thing as an expert at all. Arguing with someone who rejects that experience can inform an opinion is a hole from which there is no way to reason your way out of, at least not without a Socratic dialogue, and it's not something most experts have the time or the education to do.

I agree with the main points of the article. It *is* dangerous. It's why the USians would rather have an idiot president they could have a beer with.
posted by Random Person at 8:36 AM on January 25 [11 favorites]


Also an actual expert doesn't mind being challenged, because they actually have the answers, and can back them up.

Actual experts mind being challenged when they have the answers and can back them up, and the person they are having the discussion with ignore that points to plow ahead anyway, reasserting their points as if the expert had said nothing at all, certain in the knowledge that they just keep talking eventually they will stumble onto something that win the argument.

Why yes, I did just deal with one of those people recently. I eventually had to tell him he simply did not know what he was talking about and that his continued insistence in trying to talk his way clear of his ignorance was making him look worse, not better. It's tiresome and annoying.

Shorter: Experts mind being challenged when the challenger has no actual intention of listening. Everyone's time is wasted.
posted by jscalzi at 8:57 AM on January 25 [19 favorites]


Experts mind being challenged when the challenger has no actual intention of listening.

This chap perhaps?
posted by arcticseal at 9:00 AM on January 25


If experts are no longer valued, why the hell are so many students paying so much money to go to college? The author sees this argument coming, and claims that students see their professors as "intellectual valets." That's ridiculous. I have a kid who just spent four years at college, and she very clearly saw the expertise and pedagogical abilities of each of her professors. And the experts, whether her anatomy teacher or her piano teacher, clearly impressed her, and she took advantage of their expertise in expanding her own.

I do have to say that my favorite professors were the ones who were not showing off like peacocks, but the ones who were not afraid to say "I don't know;" the ones who were not afraid to be seen learning from their students. But, then, I knew they were experts, too.

Now, if you are going to point at the Internet when saying "I don't get no respect," well, duh.

But in the real world of work and family and academe, people know who has expertise in what.

I think John Nichols is just angry that he can't find government work. Now, the value of expertise inside the Beltway…that is a different can or worms, and I'm not the one to open it. But people at The Federalist are clearly peeved.
posted by kozad at 9:06 AM on January 25


Actual experts mind being challenged when they have the answers and can back them up, and the person they are having the discussion with ignore that points to plow ahead anyway, reasserting their points as if the expert had said nothing at all, certain in the knowledge that they just keep talking eventually they will stumble onto something that win the argument.

This is something that happens here on metafilter with dismaying regularity.
posted by Annika Cicada at 9:07 AM on January 25 [8 favorites]


If experts are no longer valued, why the hell are so many students paying so much money to go to college?

Credentializing for the sake of job opportunity vs becoming an expert in a field are two mostly unrelated things.
posted by jimmythefish at 9:08 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]


I think John Nichols is just angry that he can't find government work.

He works at the Naval War College.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:21 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]


f experts are no longer valued, why the hell are so many students paying so much money to go to college?

I'm going to answer this question in just a moment.

But in the real world of work and family and academe, people know who has expertise in what.

Yes, ignore the people who took math and stats, have advanced degrees in anything from economics to applied mathematics, and instead make your business decisions from the gut feeling of Marketers, Politicians, Lobbyists and Fox News. That's the real world.

Your University and the government does this. Midwestern grandmas do this. Jenny McCarthy did this. That's what this article is largely about... the lack of people picking the right expert in favor of confirmation bias and poorly written, but loud enough argument parading as authority.

Students respect their college professor because they paid to respect them. Look to see what happens when a student gets a bad grade and see how justification and reality suddenly enter BizzaroLand as the student becomes invested in showing how their wrong answers justify a higher grade.
posted by Nanukthedog at 9:32 AM on January 25 [3 favorites]


This is something that happens here on metafilter with dismaying regularity.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, though - because it's happening in public everyone else who is following the argument gets the benefit of the demonstrated expertise, even if the interlocutor does not. It's annoying for the expert themselves in those situations but the alternative of erring in the other direction, with anointed experts not being challenged enough, would be worse.
posted by XMLicious at 9:42 AM on January 25


In the last couple of days alone, I've encountered news stories that, because they are supposed to give "both" sides of a story, have given air time to people who literally know nothing about the thing they're being interviewed about (in one case, drug and public health policy, and in the other, medical care for trans people). It's infuriating and disheartening.
posted by rtha at 9:51 AM on January 25 [7 favorites]


I remember Tom Nichols from H-DIPLO (a mailing list for diplomatic historians). His work on history and national security is worth reading: his political views are definitely conservative, but that doesn't affect the quality of his professional work (as far as I can tell, not being an expert myself!).

Room101: Definitely willing to read more from this author.

A couple random examples:

H-Diplo Article Review No. 191- Nichols on Liakhovsky, CWIHP WP 51. Reviews a paper by a Soviet historian on the origins of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Nichols on Payne, _The Fallacies of Cold War Deterrence and a New Direction_. Reviews a book on nuclear deterrence.

List of books, from his website. An amusing note:
This book [Eve of Destruction] generated a lot of objections to its subject before anyone read it. In the three years I took researching and writing it, I would tell people that I was working on a book about preventive war. Of course, a lot of folks immediately thought I was in favor of the idea, which I wasn’t; rather, I was just trying to unravel the puzzle of why so many countries — and Putin’s Russia was the case that interested me at first, not Bush’s America — no longer felt a compunction about attacking even remote threats to their security. I think I was ahead of the curve on this: I noted in the book that we’d be likely to see an increase in such actions, the Iraq fiasco notwithstanding. Sadly, I was right.
posted by russilwvong at 9:54 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]


That's not necessarily a bad thing, though...

I see what you are getting at and I hope someday more people are able to reflect upon their interactions here and everywhere and become self-aware enough to the point that we are able to admit being flawed so much so that we are proving our point by being the example we wish to avoid. As opposed to being completely ignorant of what is happening in the course of our online interactions and barreling through blissfully unaware of all the crap we are laying down.

A girl can dream, no?
posted by Annika Cicada at 9:57 AM on January 25


Let us raise a toast to that fine day when everyone on MeFi will RTFA and read all the comments in the thread before they speak and give each sentence they encounter its due consideration and weight.
posted by XMLicious at 10:03 AM on January 25 [2 favorites]


I think the internet would asplode the day that happens, LOL
posted by Annika Cicada at 10:05 AM on January 25


Human sacrifice! Doges and lolcats, living together! Mass hysteria!
posted by XMLicious at 10:11 AM on January 25 [5 favorites]


> He strikes me as someone so lost in his own internal world that his mind no longer functions. This is a guy who literally says it's too soon to judge whether or not the war in Iraq was justified and successful, because liberals hate Bush too much to have a rational discussion. Seriously.

That really is a fascinatingly conflicted piece of work. It's well-observed except in the area of his own rather huge blind spot, all around which it becomes extremely slippery and which is in truth the real reason for the article's rather silly thesis. He agrees without reservation that the war was a catastrophe, but only in execution, that the casus belli was sound. He does some pretty intellectually dishonest things in service of this, such as "there was a time when almost everyone on the planet agreed that there were WMD in Iraq." This glosses over so much, but mostly that the CW is not fact and getting at the fact was what was specifically and even brutally opposed by the Administration. The result was the demonization of Hans Blix and Joe Wilson, throwing Valerie Plame under a bus, pressuring Colin Powell to make a career kamikaze dive into the UN building, and so very, very much else. Tom Nichols says we can't have this conversation because liberals hate Bush so blindly, but the fact is he doesn't want to have this conversation because this conversation must include how the case for it was made, so in the end he just calls everyone who goes there "haters".
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:25 AM on January 25 [6 favorites]


^^^ Yet he manages in his failure to somehow make these amazing inadvertent points via his actions alone!!!!

Fascinating person, even though I personally don't think I can stand the guy.
posted by Annika Cicada at 10:28 AM on January 25


I have a hard time, for example, imagining that I would be called to Washington today in the way I was back in 1990, when the senior Senator from Pennsylvania asked a former U.S. Ambassador to the UN who she might recommend to advise him on foreign affairs, and she gave him my name. Despite the fact that I had no connection to Pennsylvania and had never worked on his campaigns, he called me at the campus where I was teaching, and later invited me to join his personal staff.

It's hard out there for an expert, yo
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 11:09 AM on January 25 [2 favorites]


One problem with expertise is knowing the limits of your own when you are an expert in one area or another. I'm reminded of this article on truss uplift by an engineer who specializes in structures, where he goes on to show his lack of familiarity with the subject matter.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 11:57 AM on January 25


Listen, people, my mom is an expert so I grew up around this sort of thing. I know more about this subject than you can possibly imagine.
posted by Our Ship Of The Imagination! at 12:00 PM on January 25 [5 favorites]


All those 'experts' in pseudo-social-science fields like public policy have helped royally fucked up our world by dressing up exploitation, environmental destruction, etc. with academic jargon. [...]

We're sick of authoritarian plutocrats and kleptocrats squandering all our labor on useless self-aggrandizing, environment destroying, murderous, etc. shit. Those fuckers obviously have not worked towards the common good, have no clue what they're doing, and therefore have no legitimacy to lead us. At least Snowden and Manning took concrete actions that improved the situation, while public policy experts like Tom Nichols just pile up bullshit defending oppression.


The US isn't exactly famous for having culturally ingrained deference towards people in power. *Not* having that deference is actually a point of pride for a lot of people. That's why there's a lot of emphasis on things like militias and protestors playing major roles in the Revolutionary War, why our right to do things like form militias and protest is enshrined in the Constitution -- along with the separation of powers, which is also supposed to mean that people's power is checked at every level. That distrust of power and lack of deference why we have democracy in the first place. So saying that we've suddenly become *less* deferential is already up for debate as far as I'm concerned.

On the other hand, I think that there is some truth to the idea that people are currently very apt to question whether someone's power is legitimate. That's not coming out of nowhere -- *a lot* has happened in the last fifteen years to make people question whether people's power is legitimate, whether that power is political or economic.

People have had every reason to question whether: elections are legitimate (2000 election getting "decided" by the Supreme Court for example), whether elected officials exercise their power legitimately (Gitmo and due process, for example), whether the checks that are supposed to check officials' power are working (Cheney building up the exec branch's power so much and having virtually free reign to do what he wanted), whether what officials are doing is transparent enough to be checked by the people (I'm sure everyone can come up with a million examples of that, though "panopticon" comes to mind)...People also have had every reason to question whether the people at the top of the economic pyramid are there for legitimate reasons or use their power in an acceptable way (the crash, lack of class mobility, anything even glancingly touched by the Koch brothers...etc etc etc).

I don't think "social science experts" have taken and abused power through some kind of smoke-and-mirrors intellectualization scheme. To me, the power has pooled not toward social scientists (or even fake social scientists) but to rich ideologues/sophists. Sometimes rich ideologues dress up their ideology in pseudo social science to make claims of legitimacy (anything coming from "The Heritage Foundation"), but that's because people do at least have some respect for truth and knowledge and that's one of rich ideologues' ways of pretending that they have truth and knowledge on their side. The same way that they try to coopt the media (Swift Boating and 60 Minutes, Dan Rather's blacklisting), they try to coopt other sources of knowledge and truth (like founding "think tank" organizations that WHAT DO YOU KNOW always have findings that are perfectly in line with their benefactors' ideologies). That's always been something that rich ideologues have done to a certain extent (the Tobacco/Cigarette industry pushed that very hard), but it has gotten incredibly aggressive in more recent years, to the point where I personally find it hard to trust any source.

I do think that it makes sense to question whether the people who have been (ostensibly) granted their power through democracy and capitalism, meaning *through individual people's choices to grant them that power,* really do have legitimate claims to that power after all and whether they're using their power in legitimate ways. I do think it makes sense to distrust sources. However, I think it misses the point (in a self-destructive, "playing into their hands" kind of way) to pick some mid-/low-level patsy and spend our time questioning the hell out of his power and his use of it while ignoring the people at the top and *their* claims of legitimacy. To me, that's missing the forest for the trees.

the physicist tells you how to run the nuclear reactor, and laypeople help decide whether to have nuclear power.

That's exactly how our government was set up to work -- the decision-making power comes from the people, and is bestowed on their elected representatives, and the bureaucracy (non-elected officials) work to implement those decisions. However, if you question whether the elected officials are legitimately working according to the people's will, then you have to question whether they really should have the decision-making power. So you have lots of civil disobedience/insubordination, and you also have huge swaths of "the people" feeling that there is nobody in our current system who can legitimately decide how they should run their lives and lots of "the people" feeling voiceless.

I think that "the people's" distrust and lack of deference has trickled down the power pyramid from the people at the very top, like the president or financiers, to the people at the mid-level, like "experts." If "the people" trusted and deferred to people at the top, I guess that would resolve the "nobody respects us experts anymore!" complaint, but since we haven't really been given much reason to trust and defer to people at the top over the past decade or two, and since we're culturally very suspicious of people at the top in a way that is literally written into our national constitution anyway, I'm not holding my breath.
posted by rue72 at 12:04 PM on January 25 [3 favorites]


I noticed it starting in at the middle school level in the humanities. I can’t really speak to a similar phenomenon in the sciences, because that’s not where my main interests lay. The descriptivism that took over language instruction and made it redundant from the inside crept into other subjects in the humanities at the K-12 levels, and from what I’ve heard and observed since, it starts at an even younger level now. It may be different with AP students going into top-level universities, but I see plenty of average students going into average universities having been trained with water-is-wet levels of certainty that they’re just as qualified to decide what’s “right” or “wrong” as the experts hired to teach them. The biggest change from my student days is that they seem to get by on it now. But it’s a whole different world in many, many ways, so more power to them. They're probably being fobbed off on slave-labor adjuncts with bigger fish to fry.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:18 PM on January 25 [1 favorite]


The descriptivism that took over language instruction and made it redundant from the inside crept into other subjects in the humanities at the K-12 levels, and from what I’ve heard and observed since

Could you explain this in more detail? I suspect I'll agree with what you have to say, but I'm not sure I follow what you're getting at.
posted by thegears at 1:40 PM on January 25


rue72, I used pseudo-social-science as a dig at public policy specifically, as opposed to real social sciences like anthropology or sociology. Anthropology, history, etc. do not invent "just so" stories to legitimize the status quo, while public policy, economics, etc. do. There is certainly legit social science done under the banner of public policy and economics, but rich ideologues have a vastly easier time finding favorable public policy and economics experts than say climatologists.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:54 PM on January 25 [1 favorite]


The descriptivism that took over language instruction and made it redundant from the inside crept into other subjects in the humanities at the K-12 levels

I'd really like to see an explanation too, since as a linguist, I suspect that I'm not going to agree at all -- but I may be misreading here.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 2:20 PM on January 25


Could you explain this in more detail? I suspect I'll agree with what you have to say, but I'm not sure I follow what you're getting at.

I should have included more detail; it’s always a struggle for me to balance detail and brevity.

Well, I knew descriptivists were in charge of language education when they stopped grading for spelling and structure in ELA assignments. There were a lot of examples in my time in school of the creep into other subjects in the humanities, but the one that springs immediately to mind is the semester we spent on the American Civil War in the sixth grade.

There was constant pushback from students and parents: “Why are you making us learn dates?” “You’re doing them a disservice by making them learn facts and figures!” “Why do I need to know when Fort Sumter was fired on?” “My kid shouldn’t be memorizing when the Civil War happened like some kind of parrot! That’s not LEARNING!” “We don’t need to know a bunch of names and places!” “Why are you force-feeding them dull old documents like the Gettysburg Address?” “Rote!” “Parrot!” “Dates!” “Facts!” “Irrelevant!”

There wasn’t time to rebuild the entire unit, so everybody was just given a passing grade on the final whether they did the work or not. I actually did the work, and it was a wonderful foundation for lifelong learning on the subject. When I spot a date or a name in my reading, I can automatically connect it to the events and people of the war and I’m able to evaluate the new information in context and plug it into the big picture. If I read that So-and-so left Bowdoin College in 1862, I can bet that he was a student of Joshua Chamberlain and followed him off to war, and there’s a fascinating story right there. Anything I hear of that happened between 1861 and 1865, I wonder if and how it’s related to the war. American literature can take on a new meaning by checking the date it was written. I’ve met several otherwise intelligent, educated Americans my age who aren’t even clear on what century it happened in – how can they have any concept of its impact on society?

In a time when we’re still allowing the causes of the Civil War to be debated, I was given a firm foundation on which to base higher-level research when I was ready. Missouri Compromise. Nullification Crisis. Free Soil Party. Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Dred Scott. Harpers Ferry. They may have been facts on a page, but they all mean something now. My classmates were allowed to piss that away because it’s not fair to punish poor kids with a low grade for not knowing things about the stupid old humanities.

I wasn’t cheated out of an education in the humanities by being taught names and dates as a child, I was given the tools for one.

I agree that prescriptivism and rote learning can’t constitute an entire education by any means. But they have their place, and if you completely remove them too early, most average students won’t be ready to navigate on their own yet. You can tell some kids that whatever they do is good enough to take them on to the next level, and that expecting them to know things they don’t feel like knowing is unfair, and they’ll still grow up motivated to learn on their own when it's time. But I’m pretty sure that’s going to be a minority of kids with atypical living situations.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 3:17 PM on January 25


Well, I knew descriptivists were in charge of language education when they stopped grading for spelling and structure in ELA assignments.

In what state were you that this happened? I have not run across it in my personal or professional experience.
posted by thegears at 3:22 PM on January 25 [1 favorite]


The cult of the amateur is definitely a serious problem, but while there are a complex mix of factors responsible for it including technology and a history of suspicion, experts themselves are largely to blame for the public's mistrust of them.

As has been mentioned upstream, especially in the public and social policy areas the author particularly references, the "experts" are all too often to the point of almost always nothing more than paid propagandists essentially - thinktank members with an ideology to promote, industry shills, or otherwise having conflicts of interest.
Another big cause of people's mistrust is that the experts themselves completely denigrate each other for political reasons, leading to further lack of credibility among the general public.


I think the real underlying complaint the author and others like him have, although they wouldn't admit it, is that, thanks in large part to electronic media, people now know too much to be as easily fooled anymore. At the same time, like the adage goes, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing - to say nothing of areas of complete ignorance without admitting/realizing it.

The article is worth posting on Metafilter because, partly in spite of itself, it does make many valid points on an important topic and is generating good discussion. I recall another post to Metafilter a while back, although I can't remember all the details, that a study done with experts in a variety of fields showed that their predictions were less accurate than those of laypeople (for reasons such as overthinking, over specialization, pet theories, ego involvement, etc.).
posted by blue shadows at 3:26 PM on January 25 [1 favorite]


If I read that So-and-so left Bowdoin College in 1862, I can bet that he was a student of Joshua Chamberlain and followed him off to war, and there’s a fascinating story right there. Anything I hear of that happened between 1861 and 1865, I wonder if and how it’s related to the war.

Did you in fact attend one of those "preparatory schools" located in the Northeastern, where children from European royal families would study Greek and Latin, and could only be shaken up from their stupors by Robin Williams?
posted by Apocryphon at 3:30 PM on January 25


As has been mentioned upstream, especially in the public and social policy areas the author particularly references, the "experts" are all too often to the point of almost always nothing more than paid propagandists essentially - thinktank members with an ideology to promote, industry shills, or otherwise having conflicts of interest.

Some experts are shills, I think we all agree. But many aren't. I think one of the big questions we have at this point in time is how to promote the voices of the disinterested experts, be they in academia or otherwise, and how not to overstate those that are bought and paid for.
posted by thegears at 3:48 PM on January 25


but rich ideologues have a vastly easier time finding favorable public policy and economics experts than say climatologists.

I think that depends on who you define as an "expert." I think there are a lot pseudo "think tanks" and the like, and on those ideological organizations' payrolls are hordes of power-hungry people happy to spout political or economic ideology/sophistry in order to advance themselves (even at the expense of the common good). The people bankrolling and staffing those organizations often have fantastic educational credentials (because they're privileged, almost by definition) and love to slap the "expert" label on themselves. I think that they especially tend to slap the "policy/political" and "economics/finance" expert labels on themselves because politics and money are where they think the power lies.

To be honest, I'm not sure whether they're experts or not, or whether they're a monolith in that regard. I think it's irrelevant, though, because even if some/all of them do have expertise in policy or economics (or something else), they're not using that expertise to draw their conclusions or weigh in on the conclusions of others. It doesn't matter whether they are experts because they don't have integrity. They're repeating ideological lines and bullshitting "data" or "arguments" etc for prearranged ideological conclusions in order to further ideological goals. Whether they have the expertise to do something other than that is irrelevant.

a study done with experts in a variety of fields showed that their predictions were less accurate than those of laypeople (for reasons such as overthinking, over specialization, pet theories, ego involvement, etc.).

Yeah, a lot of experts get arrogant and that makes them hardheaded. In my experience, they also tend to live in little bubbles of privilege and ease. And for a lot of people who consider themselves experts:

Hardheadedness + Bubble Living --> Being Out of Touch

I don't think arrogance/hardheadedness/being out of touch is a problem for many experts when it comes to their actual, specific area of expertise -- usually, it seems that people have become experts in a specific area because they genuinely care about that field and are therefore always very interested in learning more about it. I think the problems occur when people who are experts in one thing decide that they're experts in everything.
posted by rue72 at 4:01 PM on January 25


blue shadows: I recall another post to Metafilter a while back, although I can't remember all the details, that a study done with experts in a variety of fields showed that their predictions were less accurate than those of laypeople (for reasons such as overthinking, over specialization, pet theories, ego involvement, etc.).

Perhaps Philip Tetlock's Expert Political Judgment, reviewed by Louis Menand in the New Yorker: Everybody's an Expert.

A study by five Hamilton College students on the unreliability of pundits.
posted by russilwvong at 4:19 PM on January 25 [1 favorite]


-Well, I knew descriptivists were in charge of language education when they stopped grading for spelling and structure in ELA assignments.

--In what state were you that this happened? I have not run across it in my personal or professional experience.


New York State, small-town public schools.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:46 PM on January 25


I disagree, rue72. Integrity is not a requirement even for publishing in peer reviewed science journals, and certainly not for public policy, economics, etc. publications. Worse, we're extremely good at interweaving our knowledge and desires to honestly believe falsehoods, even happens in the sciences.1 I'd expect most status quo supporters simply delude themselves, and maybe avoid contradictory evidence, but posses integrity by most yardsticks.2

'It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.' - Upton Sinclair

The Economist provides quite solid reality based work on many topics, but pushes a corporatist agenda in parallel.

A priori, I'd give the conservative think tanks more credit than you do as well. All the CATO staff I clicked on at least held PhDs or Honorary Doctorates, with the couple younger ones I checked actually doing stuff. Amusingly though, The Heritage Foundation might employ as few as 16 PhDs out of 300 staff, which suggests that integrity plays some role.

1 In undergrad, a physics professor told me about one physicist friend who committed suicide after having his delusional theory crushed by finally going and doing the experiments my prof and others had told him to do. 2 Only vaguely related, I've heard that Göring locked himself in a cabin for a week to convince himself to support the holocaust, while Tony Blair convinced himself to support the Iraq invasion.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:50 PM on January 25


New York State, small-town public schools.

I was just about to mention a friend who described a similar experience, who as it happens also attended a small-town public schools in New York State. It was weird because I attended a small-town public schools in nearby New England, and although her school system seemed to have more resources devoted to it and had things like distance learning and "advanced placement' college prep courses, whereas my high school didn't have advanced placement courses, she said that she didn't know anything about European history and was unaware, for example, of the significance of the French Revolution when we were discussing a related topic. She did okay in college but felt underserved by her earlier education. Though she was better than me at using commas properly and avoiding run-on sentences.
posted by XMLicious at 5:34 PM on January 25 [1 favorite]


I disagree, rue72. Integrity is not a requirement even for publishing in peer reviewed science journals, and certainly not for public policy, economics, etc. publications.

We must be talking past each other, because I don't know how publications or making counts of employees with PhDs come into the discussion I thought we were having. Not even saying you're wrong or I disagree, just that something major must be getting lost in translation. Are you using "integrity" as a term of art?
posted by rue72 at 5:44 PM on January 25


I just ended a three-year run as editor of a local news website and this sense of anecdote as fact, demand that experts PROVE everything when the facts are obvious, definitely occurs in the comments on news stories. If I wrote, the cops said XYZ happened, people would challenge me personally since I wasn't there--they assumed--or tell some story about something vaguely related to prove that XYZ couldn't have happened. The misquoting of the Constitution, including the none-existent right to be allowed to say anything on the website under claims about the First Amendment, is one of my favorites. But it is the presumption of knowledge without any effort to actually learn anything that I found disturbing. I grew up at the tail end of the 1960s, so I'm all for challenging authority that claims its position with no basis. But ignorance and borrowed rhetoric that then spreads to others is more than a little disturbing. On the other hand, this article is mildly irritating for the whining and it's also a little late to the game.
posted by etaoin at 3:01 AM on January 26 [1 favorite]


On the other hand, this article is mildly irritating for the whining and it's also a little late to the game.

Yeah, there's definitely some Cassandra/Pete Campbell Syndrome going on there.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:27 PM on January 26


Well, I knew descriptivists were in charge of language education when they stopped grading for spelling and structure in ELA assignments.

What you go on to describe in your comment has almost nothing to do with 'descriptivist' approaches to language education, however. What descriptivist linguists actually advocate are methods of instruction based on scientific research, instead of unscientific language ideology. The best example of this is the "multidialectal" approach, where the counterproductive* belief in "good" and "bad" language is discarded and instead kids are taught how to "translate" their colloquial, native language into something that is widely regarded as professional.

The only descriptivists I have seen who advocate for an abolishment of teaching "standard English" in classrooms don't believe in it as an immediate goal, because it's not practical as long as language prejudices will impede students.

You go on to describe a lot of stuff that has little to do with language education at all, so I am really not sure where you're getting this idea that this is due to "descriptivism." What do you think that descriptivism is? Can you point to a proponent?

* It's counterproductive first because it's unscientific, but second because it demoralizes kids whose language is considered "bad"--something that falls disproportionality on minorities and the poor. Confident kids who aren't made to feel alienated perform better.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:15 PM on January 28


-Well, I knew descriptivists were in charge of language education when they stopped grading for spelling and structure in ELA assignments.

--What you go on to describe in your comment has almost nothing to do with 'descriptivist' approaches to language education, however.


Then I guess they were either doing it really badly, or just picking and choosing a few elements without really taking the full approach. Whenever a teacher or administrator was challenged about not actually making students learn how to use English, their rationale was that it was unfair to “punish” students with a low grade because language was something that came from the user, and as long as the user could somehow make himself generally understood in the end there really were no wrong answers.

So, in retrospect, with your explanation of the theory (thank you for being an expert – your explanation was easier to understand than what I’ve read on the subject), it seems like they were just skimming the surface of descriptivism without really embracing the whole package, in order to rationalize an opt-out for kids whose parents might make trouble over low grades. (I went to schools that happened to have no minority students, except for the one Black kid in my high school.)

I guess I really don’t really know what to call it if descriptivism’s not the right word. Maybe “Descripitivism” with euphemistic quotation marks? Faux-descriptivism? Anyway, it’s the approach to early humanities education wherein children aren’t actually taught things, because one group of misguided adults thinks their undeveloped little brains are ready to come to adult conclusions by themselves in a shower of pixie dust, and another group of misguided adults either doesn’t care, can’t do anything about it, or is working some other agenda. So, they grow up thinking that any idea they pull out of thin air or hear on talk radio is valid.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:41 AM on January 29


Since writing your comment, I have looked into the misconception about what 'descriptivism' means therein, and have found that many of them are part of this David Foster Wallace essay. I'm linking to languagehat's excellent debunking of the essay, which has this particular, relevant paragraph (emphasis mine):
“…Descriptivism so quickly and thoroughly took over English education in this country that just about everybody who started junior high after c. 1970 has been taught to write Descriptively—via ‘freewriting,’ ‘brainstorming,’ ‘journaling,’ a view of writing as self-exploratory and -expressive rather than as communicative, an abandonment of systematic grammar, usage, semantics, rhetoric, etymology.” But descriptivism in the relevant sense (describing the observed usage of language rather than prescribing how it should be used) has nothing to do with “freewriting” and the like; you can be “self-exploratory and -expressive” using the most traditional Oxbridge prose style (and indeed many have). He’s trying to tar scientific linguists with any brush that comes to hand.
The crux of it is this: What you called descriptivism does not actually seem to have roots in descriptivism. Linguists have not--to our dismay--actually made significant inroads in language education. Ideology is still taught rather than facts; children are still torn town; prejudice is still perpetuated by well-meaning teachers. There are a few programs of limited scope that have been piloted but that's it.

I would say it's highly unlikely that the people responsible for the approach took their ideas from descriptivism, misconception or no.

My department actually had a meeting last week that was primarily about why no on listens to us last week, actually.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 2:27 PM on January 29


I've gotten a real education here. Thanks, experts!
posted by The Underpants Monster at 3:41 PM on January 29


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