A common trope about Americans is their supposed predilection for cranks and pseudo-science, as opposed to experts and technocrats – hence the common stereotype of Americans as dumb. Nowadays, the discourse gravitates around Trump, who equates climate change to some Chinese conspiracy, and filled his royal court with cranks and billionaires. A couple of months ago this protest against Trump’s idiocracy took a street-activist form, with rallies under the banner of “March for Science” – a reaction to the “anti-scientific” excesses of Trump. This narrative of anti-scienific authoritarians is a very common progressive shibboleth. After all, the radicals of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth century used the discoveries of Darwin, Maxwell and Newton to struggle against kings, priests and emperors. In the late 90s, and early 2000s, science and expertise was contrasted against a conservative right that denied evolution, abortion rights, and justified islamophobia with fevered dreams of biblical apocalypse. Yet this narrative, of “pro-science” liberalism opposing a pseudo-scientific conservatism is very limited. Although in the current era, “pro-science” and “pro-expertise” statements may seem progressive, given the right wing’s love for radio cranks, oil engineers masquerading as climate scientists, and youtube racists, “scientism” by itself can only lead to the mediocre centrism typified by the Democratic Party – a technocracy staffed by teachers’ pets and Lisa Simpsons, specialists that produce stacks of white paper and graphs to justify war, austerity, and ecological annihilation. Furthermore, scientism leads to the unwarranted rule of the credentialed, professional and managers – a hierarchy based on claims of expertise and knowledge that are epistemically shaky. In other words, technocratic managers claim mastery on subjects where study and experience lead to diminishing returns in knowledge, given the extreme difficulty of modelling political and economic phenomena accurately. Because study and experience on politics and economics will only lead to authentic knowledge up to a certain low threshold, it follows that educated civilians have the necessary understanding to rule themselves, which contrasts with the current outsourcing of political administration to career-politicians and technocratic specialists. I will sketch in the following paragraphs why political expertise is dubious at best, and why the fetishization of it can be politically reactionary.
Political and economic phenomena are extremely complex and non linear systems that are opaque to rigorous, careful study. I’ve written a couple of posts on this subject matter. To summarize, in linear systems, the behaviour of a system can be deconstructed into the behaviour of its units. For example, white light can be decomposed into various colors. Two water ripples can interfere and create another ripple that behaves as the sum of its parent ripples. Therefore, careful study of the unit will reveal also the behaviour of a larger linear system that is composed by those units. Much of the physical sciences reduce to the research of linear systems, precisely because they can be rigorously studied. Yet most of relevant systems are nonlinear, therefore they cannot be understood as a sum of their parts. For example, understanding the individual human psyche will not extrapolate to an accurate picture of society. Furthermore, socio-economic systems are complex because different units of the system influence each other even when the distance between the units is large. A tweet by Donald Trump, typed from his Tower in New York, could affect the global stock-market, and increase the price of tortillas in Mexico the next day. The complexity and non-linearity means that returns in the study of that system diminish sharply. For example, it seems unlikely that someone with a PhD in economics will predict better the onset of the next economic crisis than someone with just a bachelor’s in economics, simply because these systems are so complex and vast, and therefore some understanding, while possible, is severely limited beyond a couple of heuristics. Paper-pushers in the Pentagon thought in 2003 that the Iraq war will be a clean, smooth and fast operation, yet, many untrained, liberal teenagers sensed intuitively that it the war was going to be a mess – as we know from hindsight, the intuitive teenager was more correct than the trained, military “scientist”.
So if what is knowable is severely constrained, what is expertise? Much of professional and academic expertise is not necessarily about the dominion of true facts, but in understanding a method. In other words, advanced credentials train you to do things a certain way, regardless if that way reveals the truth or not. This is true, even in the physical sciences. Theoretical astrophysics is a good case study of this phenomenon. For example, neutron stars, the zombie remnants of massive stars that have depleted their fuel, are very extreme and compact objects, given that they are so dense that their gravitational field distorts space and time, and the laws of nuclear physics as we understand them start to break down. For example, it’s theorized that the neutron stars’ core densities are so extreme that exotic phases of matter appear, such as the melting of neutrons into quarks. However, the interior of these objects are almost epistemically opaque to us, given that these extreme densities cannot be recreated in labs, the astronomical observations are poor, and quantum chromodynamics, the theoretical framework that studies matter at those extreme conditions, faces computational problems in that regime, such as the so called “numerical sign problem”. Yet, these large obstacles and uncertainties do not not stop scientists from creating their own models and equations to study the interior of the neutron star. These scientists follow an identifiable method for their models, which not only respects the known laws of physics, but also uses specific forms of scientific activity, such as computer simulations, mathematical descriptions, and peer-review publishing. In other words, although it is very hard to prove the veracity of these models, given that many different approaches can reproduce the scarce observational data of neutron stars, “model-creation” is done in a scientifically valid matter, respecting all known physics, publishing in the right journals, and containing certain quantitative rigour. In that sense, this research is scientific, yet, just because it is scientific, does not mean it reveals an accurate description of reality.
My point is not so much to debunk expertise, or the study of neutron stars (research that I find fascinating), but that sometimes expertise in a specific field will not necessarily lead to factual knowledge, but instead, training in a way of doing things that has an ambiguous track record in delivering accurate descriptions of reality. This implies then that up to a certain point, training and experience will deliver diminishing returns of knowledge about the world, given that further study and experience will only lead to understanding of a particular way of doing and seeing things – a method, not necessarily into the mastery of world-facts. So to return to the example of the bachelors in economics versus the PhD economics, although the PhD spent six more years in school than the bachelor’s, both will probably have a similar track record in predicting the next economic crisis, given the diminishing returns of knowledge.
The difficulty of studying neutron stars is revealing, because the problem of the political adminstration of society is orders of magnitude harder. Thus, it follow that the point at which credentials and “experience” stops returning knowledge about true economic and political facts, but instead only returns understanding about the particular method, is a very low threshold, lower than the one for theoretical astrophysics. This is because the problem of political adminstration is much more nonlinear, uncertain and complex, than the problem of neutron stars. If the threshold is low, then it means that any reasonably educated person should be capable of reaching this threshold, and participate in the political administration of their reality with the same competence than heavily groomed polticial-careerists that spent all their life padding their resumes. Yet, the current capitalist state is an opaque machine where experts with impressive credentials operate largely without the input of their subjects – directing their white paper and conferences at each other, only receiving input from a minority of politicized civilians (in the U.S., only about 35 percent of the population votes) in the form of a mediocre vote for a roster of choices filled by career-politicians, who justify their positions through the language of expertise and science. Yet, up to a certain point, they are merely experts at “expertise” and “careerism”. Finally, not only these “experts” know very little more about the political and economic realities of the world than the educated civilian, but they transform the State into their own image. This is what is commonly referred as “rule of law”, where administrative transactions that should be straight-forward become bureaucratized as they most follow a set of labyrinthine laws and regulations only accessible to specialists and lawyers. So rather than the State accomplishing things in the most effective and leaner sense, it needs to incorporate other “specialists” to navigate the labyrinthe of laws, regulations, and forms, created by specialists themselves.
The right-wing has so far incorporated a critique of the specialist, albeit from a crack-pot and cynical perspective. We see this in the stereotypes of the leftist as an “ivory tower academic” that doesn’t actually know the true facts of the ground. This vulgar criticism of the specialist is weaponized by the right also against scientists that endanger reactionary beliefs, such as climate scientists or pro-choice biologists. However, socialists shouldn’t fall into the uncritical defence of the political specialist, such as the weak-kneed centrists do. Nor we should embrace uncritically the idea of “scientists” ruling the world, as Neil Degrasse Tyson recently did, given that the problems studied by scientists do not give them more expertise about our political reality than the average, educated worker. We should instead argue that there is no legitimate expertise that justifies the rule of unaccountable specialists. Instead, any reasonable educated population should be able to rule itself through transparent, democratic mechanisms; political administrators should be democratically chosen from the population of workers, be accountable, recallable, and have stringent term-limits. Furthermore, such a State, instead of being structured in the image of the specialist, with complicated and opaque regulations and laws, and therefore, always chained to lawyers, courts, and judges, should be transparent, lean and de-emphasize “rule of law”. Finally, higher education, which is nowadays chained to the imperatives of the division of labour and the market, should be used to create a rounded, well educated population, in contrast to how capitalists use universities as outsourced job-training centers that they do not have to pay for, shifting the financial burden on workers and tax-payers.