This is a nice bit of dovetailing, of convergence, of two minds with but a single thought, of – okay, we get the idea. Brian Leiter was talking about different examples of exactly the same kind of thing I was talking about two days ago, in ‘Close Reading’. The Little Professor noticed the parallel. Leiter’s post is really interesting; it touches on several issues I have on my sort of mental list of things to discuss sometime. It quotes Andrea Lafferty, director of something called ‘the Traditional Values Coalition’ (oh please) saying ‘There’s an arrogance in the scientific community that they know better than the average American.’ Well – uh – yeah. Because they probably do, ya know? Seeing as how the ‘average American’ has a very good statistical chance of thinking the sun travels around the earth. But, you know, that there’s against the law around these parts, thinking you know better than the average American. The average Lithuanian, now, that’s okay, and as for the average Frog – ! But I’ll stop ranting for a moment and let Leiter take over.
In fact, of course, scientists do know quite a bit better than the “average American” about the matters for which their scientific expertise equips them. Those with knowledge, surprisingly, know more than those who are ignorant. Is that arrogance? As Chris Mooney remarked, ‘science is not a democracy,’ and in a democratic culture, that inevitably becomes a cause of resentment, as Ms. Lafferty’s comment attests.
Which might be a good reason to stop having a democratic culture. Maybe it’s time to learn to separate a democratic political system from a democratic culture? Or if not, if that’s too drastic – at least learn to think a little more clearly on the subject. First step: read Tocqueville and Mill. Try to get your mind around the idea that the majority is not automatically right about everything, that sometimes (often, in fact) minority ideas are better than majority ideas, and (most difficult of all, it seems) that knowledge really is better than ignorance, that people who know something really do know more than people who don’t, and that on any particular subject that is likely to be a minority situation.
Unfortunately, I don’t see much room for compromise in this domain. Knowledge and competence can not become meek and abashed merely to avoid offending the vanity of the undereducated, the parochial, and the unworldly. The Enlightenment dream was to extend the blessings of reason and knowledge as widely as possible. In the United States, that Enlightenment project has been stymied: at the highest echelons of the culture, the material and institutional support for the pursuit of knowledge and competence is unparalleled, yet the fruits of these labors are often either regarded with suspicion and resentment in the public culture at large–or simply go unrecognized and unnoted altogether.
Exactly so. And often in the name of ‘democracy’ and ‘anti-elitism,’ too, which is hugely ironic, not to say pathetic. What’s really anti-elitist is to ‘extend the blessings of reason and knowledge as widely as possible,’ not to prevent that extension by discrediting, mocking and despising those secular blessings.