Your master’s in a bullshit field doesn’t give you the right to rule.

zac-nielson-113313Western societies aspire to be ruled under meritocratic principles – that the president, the congressman, the dean of a university, and the manager of McDonalds’ are employed to rule and give orders based on their expertise. Good examples of this phenomenon are the polemics around Donald Trump. During the electoral campaign, Trump’s lack of expertise was often contrasted with Hilary Clinton’s impressive resume. Clinton graduated from the best schools, and had a long career in politics, such as her tenure in congress and also as secretary of state. Obama’s expertise was also frequently compared with Trump’s – Obama was a lawyer from Harvard, ands also an editor of a prestigious academic journal. Although I’m writing about presidents, the same meritocratic principle applies in many administrative and managerial positions of variable prestige, both in the private and public sphere.

This valorization of expertise is historicized. That is, it wasn’t always that rulers justified their dominance through expertise. For example, kings had a divine right to rule, regardless of how capable they were. High ranking military positions were inherited through noble pedigree. Although meritocracy has existed for thousands of years, for example, bureaucratic posts in ancient china were given based on the results of a very hard, standardized test, this logic wasn’t universal. The ideology of expertise probably has at its root the historical success of the natural science in the context of Capitalism. The capitalists found that by using mathematics, engineering, and studying in controlled environments the natural laws that govern the Universe, they could make more widgets per second, more efficient engines, and generate more profit.

Today we have a whole cadre of order givers that justify their positions of power with a master’s in business administration, a PhD in international relations, graduate school in economics. Some paper-pusher in Ontario can decide the fate of hundreds of thousands of human beings because they got a master’s degree in public administration. Their claim to power is justified by the congealed knowledge of their credentials and work experience. Yet, what if that knowledge isn’t real? Maybe the subjects they studied are hard to extract authentic knowledge from. Perhaps, our limited instruments, models, and cognition place hard constraints on the subject matter. In other words, the phenomena they claim expertise on are  so complex and sprawling that finding the causal links between the  different sub-parts of the system is so daunting that very little meaningful information can be acquired. Because of the lack of authentic knowledge, a fake knowledge is created to pad the field so that sufficient information exists to manufacture expertise. A very good example of this phenomenon of fake expertise is the economist. A figure reviled by many, blamed as the chief priest behind the current neoliberal turn of capitalism. Their expertise was called into question in the wake of the economic crisis of 2008. Their failure to forecast these crises is seen as evidence of the bullshit status of their credentials.

Why some subjects can generate more authentic knowledge than others, or at least are perceived by society at large to do so? For example, the majority doesn’t called into question the knowledge of a physicist. The main reason is that many of the more prestigious natural sciences are built upon the careful study of simple, controlled systems that can be described by clean mathematics. A common joke made by physicists is that physics is the study of harmonic oscillators – simple oscillatory systems such as the pendulum, a spring that compresses and stretches, a pebble oscillating in a cereal bowl, the creation and annihilation of particles. Much of the formalism in physics is built upon these simple, equilibrium systems which can be described by elegant mathematics. However, fields dealing with the affairs of human beings, don’t have have the privilege of such simple systems. Instead, the systems that are dealt by subjects like economics, are highly complex, nonlinear, and not in equilibrium, which makes them unpredictable and subject to shocks that can cause extreme consequences. Complexity implies that different parts of the system are coupled in non-intuitive ways and they influence each other in manners that many times are intractable. Furthermore, systems dealing with humans, such as economics are not deterministic – human beings are not billiard balls that can be tracked by specifying their initial velocity and positions, the human universe is not one of clockworks. This makes many human systems mathematically intractable. In fact, economics often times tries to emulate physics by studying simple, equilibrium systems. However, there aren’t simple, economic systems in the same way simple, physical systems exist.

Technocrats justify their positions of power by claiming expertise in the system of human beings. Yet, this system is highly complex, non-intuitive and difficult to describe. Therefore, the authentic knowledge that can be acquired is limited and heuristical. Thus, the limited authentic knowledge that is acquired is padded with artificial, just-so stories, in order to create sufficient information and metrics to generate an “expertise” that can be accumulated. This in turn creates a filtering system in a slack labor market. Although realistically, many of the applicants can perform satisfyingly in the job, the lack of job vacancies forces the creation of an expertise that erects a guild-like system to regulate the labor market. Thus, the faker the expertise, the more important the pedigree of the fake degree becomes – an engineer from a state university can be hired anywhere, given that engineering knowledge is authentic and easily standardized, while an MBA is useless unless it was acquired from a selective, prestigious university.

The victory of Trump scared liberals because they interpreted it as a twlight of reason. However, they are mistaken – its not reason voters reject, but instead, the rule of fake experts. Voters revolt against the plots of scattered points and crude lines that are weaponized against them. They spoke against the kilograms of white policy paper used as scientific justification for the destruction of pensions. They fought back against the obsolescence of human workers and their replacement by strange machines. They revolted against the hubris of the president, a modern, constitutional monarch that justifies their rule with an Oxbridge degree rather than by divine appointment.

Although this revolt against technocracy is monopolized by the right, it offers the Left an opening. If the expertise behind professional order givers amounts to little more than bullshit, then it seems most human beings are well equipped for political power. If there is no such thing as a science of order giving, then institutions can be more democratic and participatory. Lenin was right when he said cooks can govern.

2 thoughts on “Your master’s in a bullshit field doesn’t give you the right to rule.

  1. An interesting analysis but many “experts” who are on the offensive against Trump do not have MA’s in political science or sociology. They are climate scientists, engineers and epidemiologists who are genuinely worried about having government agencies run by men who are opposed to their aims. The public good is not served by having a corporate tool running the EPA, for example.

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    1. That’s true. But people who have political power (politicians and bureacrats) have overwhelmingly that type of credentials. Also, people involved in policy aren’t generally scientists, even when it concerns science. see for example, James Hansen’s beef with the obama’s administration, where he was accused of not knowing about “politics” when calling the cap and trade policy bullshit.

      I’m not saying scientists would make “better politicians” or anything like that. But I do think there’s a resentment present against the “ivory tower guy” who is perceived to not know what’s going on in the ground.

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