I’m coining a new word.
Sophophobia: fear of experts. (from Greek: Sophos: wisdom + Phobia: fear)
Why? As I was driving home from my bloodwork appointment this evening I was listening to Marketplace on XM Public Radio and I heard this enlightening exchange between Kai Ryssdal and his guest, Stacey Palmer:
Ryssdal: OK, so now back to the downsides, and those experts you were talking about. That’s kind of a scary term, when somebody else, some other expert decides how you get to do what you do, right?
Palmer: That’s one of the problems: Who gets to decide.
(For the complete interview and transcript see here.)
What I found fascinating and disturbing about this exchange was the almost unchallenged assumption that expertise is somehow bad. It seems that in the United States experts and expertise are the enemy, some sort of elitist cabal out to subvert democracy and enslave mankind. Granted, this is not a new phenomenon. Toqueville wrote in the 1830s:
Men seldom take the opinion of their equal or of a man like themselves upon trust.
Not only is confidence in the superior attainments of certain individuals weakened among democratic nations, as I have elsewhere remarked, but the general notion of intellectual superiority which any man whatsoever may acquire in relation to the rest of the community is soon overshadowed. As men grow more like each other, the doctrine of the equality of the intellect gradually infuses itself into their opinions, and it becomes more difficult for any innovator to acquire or to exert much influence or the minds of a people.
I am also reminded of the vehement opposition to the “egghead” presidential aspirations of Adlai Stevenson. His intellectual demeanor was ridiculed by Republicans, led by Stewart Alsop, the newspaper columnist who, himself, boasted a Yale diploma. But it was precisely at that time that America’s experts were at their peak, building nuclear bombs and soon after putting man on the moon. Apparently, America’s brief intellectual apex tapped the deep natural vein of anti-intellectualism that has brought us to this present moment, when expert is a scary term.
But, you might argue, experts have brought on us all the recent economic calamity. When so-called experts can cause such a mess, what value can we place on expertise, and who can say who is really an expert and who is not?
This is a problem we American’s bring on ourselves. When we don’t like the answer experts supply, all to often we go “shopping” for a different expert to give us the answer we want, or that reaffirms our own beliefs, since we are really intellectually equivalent to any supposed expert, as Toqueville so presciently observed. It’s never hard to find someone who will claim expertise in order to fill a void. This is the root of the problem: Americans don’t want experts; they want sycophants. They want someone to tell them they are right, not someone to tell them the truth. This was alarmingly obvious during Bush the Younger’s administration, but it really reflected the culture of America as a whole, not some deviant aberration. And little has changed since George W. left office.
Which brings me to a final point. If as Toqueville observed more than a century and a half ago, Americans are predisposed to discount expertise, and we have managed despite that fact to create a modern nation that boasts the largest economy in the world, what’s wrong with that? Well, perhaps this predilection to disdain for the intellectual has brought us this far, but no further. Perhaps we have reached the realistic limits of our cultural capacity. China is rapidly advancing on us economically, and Europe has long since passed us by in most measures of social and cultural development. By some measures, particularly regarding public health, we are being overtaken by many third world countries. Perhaps we have gone as far as amateurism, duct tape and sophophobia will take us.
Perhaps it’s time for a revolution…