Harry Hope's Saloon

This blog takes it's name from the setting for O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh -- a lousy gin-mill; a smoked-out, greasy dive where the habitues have all landed, it seems, permanently. Their lives, in each case, are paralyzed by fear and laziness. Like my own.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Expertise and the educated layman

John Derbyshire on National Review Online in response to a post on political parties and Intelligent Design, goes deeper:

The problem with science is that it's a gnosis -- a body of esoteric material you need to spend years mastering. It is therefore inevitable that the people who do master it become a gnostic elite; and it follows from that that any public issue involving science can, and usually does, degenerate into an elite vs. masses squabble.

I don't know any way out of that, but I do wish we could do a better job of showing people what a proper scientific attitude _is_, a thing which I think can be grasped by anyone, even without any specialized training in a particular science.

This speaks to what may be among the trickiest features for a technologically advanced pluralistic society to negotiate: while we certainly need oversight of specialized elites by well-rounded, critical-thinking laymen, this oversight needs to be infused with appreciation for what specialization requires and for the levels of analysis it allows. I myself depart from many libertarians in (consciously) allowing many of my values to be shaped by the expertise of others. For example, I don't take the primary job of a music or film critic to be informing be of stuff that I would like today (although that function is certainly nice), but rather showing me ways of liking new things, and new ways of liking old things. Similarly, but with graver import, I think that the primary job of an economist is not to provide me with ammunition for positions I am already determined to hold.

On a societal level, however, I'm worried about how well this balance will hold, and what the consequences (short- and long-term) might be if it further degenerates into "elite vs. masses" warfare.


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