‘Arrogance’ and Knowledge

Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition, a conservative religious organization, delivers what could be the signature line for our backwards times in America:

There’s an arrogance in the scientific community that they know better than the average American.

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. This resentment of competence was first made vivid to me when I appeared on CNN more than a year ago to discuss the textbook selection process in Texas. When I dismissed the argument that the textbook selection process should be “democratic” (which it isn’t, though it pretends to be) on the grounds that competent educators should vet textbooks, not political and religious groups, the CNN host, Anderson Cooper, cut me rather short: that reply clearly made him uncomfortable, and he changed the topic to how the selection process wasn’t really democratic anyway.

Resentment of competence was also a motif suggested by my exchange with Professor Eastman – one of the ignorant law professors shilling for teaching creationist lies to schoolchildren–who used that favorite rhetorical device of the anti-Darwin crowd by referring to its “tyrannical orthodoxy.” Unfortunately, as I noted on that occasion, “views that are correct ought to be orthodox, and they ought to exercise the tyranny appropriate to truth, namely, a tyranny over falsehood and dishonesty.”

But when truth and knowledge clash with deep-seated prejudices–especially those reinforced from the pulpit and in the public culture–resentment towards the “arrogance” of those with knowledge and competence grows.

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.

Could there be a greater failure of the Enlightenment project than that a huge majority of U.S. citizens actually believe there is an intellectual competition between Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection and “intelligent design” creationism? Or that the President of the country publically affirms their skepticism, without being held up for ridicule in the media and the public culture?

These are, for various reasons, scary times in America, but the increasingly brazen haughtiness of the purveyors of ignorance and lies–who cloak their backwardness in the judgmental rhetorc of “arrogance” and a none-too-subtle appeal to the “ordinary” person’s sense of democratic equality–may be the most worrisome development of all. That the empire of ignorance spreads its domain portends calamities from which it could take centuries to heal.

This article first appeared on The Leiter Report and is republished here by permission.

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