Ponderings on experts and knowledge

The vast resources devoted to research and education or at least schooling today seem to ensure that we’re in a position to carry on everything intelligently. That turns out not to be so. We can’t grasp the world as a whole in thought, and the assumption that we can do so through expertise divorces our thought from the realities of our situation and keeps us from grasping as much as we otherwise could.

Part of the problem with expertise is mechanization. Thought requires a certain lightness of touch. It steps back from categories, at least on occasion, and asks if they need be taken quite seriously. It questions what a particular study has to do with the world, and what’s known from other sources. It makes use of everything available to the knower, including things that can’t be articulated. That’s the way perspective and common sense creep in. The scale and bureaucratic organization of expert thought make those things much harder to do. Each sticks to his specialty and obeys its standards, providing a brick or two for the tower of knowledge, but the design of the tower can’t be made an expert specialty so it’s left to chance or the collective interests or prejudices of expert investigators as a class.

To do their job, expert investigators try to reduce all things to simple uniform principles they can grasp and use to control outcomes. That means, for example, that modern investigations of religion and family are generally useless to religion and family. Religion deals with things that can’t really be grasped, and family life when healthy excludes external control. When experts reduce religion to nonreligious categories, or treat family life as a branch of politics or economics, they miss the point and distort what they are studying. It’s no accident when they make obvious blunders like failing to distinguish marriage from cohabitation in analyzing issues such as child welfare and domestic violence.

More abstractly, modernity increases the power of thought by simplifying its principles and narrowing its focus. It develops Pascal’s esprit de geometrie at the expense of his esprit de finesse. The conclusions of the latter, everything that can’t be demonstrated, become subjective opinion not worth taking into account in serious affairs. Nothing is treated as knowledge unless there’s a study behind it.

Naturally, not everything can be proven, so the demand for demonstration makes critical thought difficult in connection with things that require experience, intuition and judgment. Consequences include:

  • The decline of the ideal of connoisseurship, and more generally of qualitative distinctions of all kinds.
  • Reduction of thought to ideology and power. When an expert studies thought and tries to reduce it to simple principles that can be clearly understood, excluding intangibles that can’t be proven, that’s what it looks like. The thing that makes it actual living thought escapes him.
  • The spread of mindless dogma that can’t recognize itself as dogma and so seems to form the limit of possible discussion. Examples would include principles of equality, “diversity” and “inclusiveness” with regard to race, sex and gender. As the recent upset regarding Larry Summers and feminism demonstrates, those things can’t be questioned and so set the boundaries of what can be treated as truth.
  • Ultimately, the death of thought. The idea of truth that transcends and serves as a standard for thought, and of rationality and evidence that don’t reduce to arbitrary decisions of the experts who control the relevant part of the intellectual bureaucracy, drop out.

The moral: expertise is a good and useful thing, but it can’t be the ultimate test of what’s real. For the latter question we need a more general intelligence that can be developed and refined but can’t be expert, because it can’t reduce the things with which it deals to a demonstrative system, and therefore has difficulty finding respectability or a home in today’s intellectual world.

19 thoughts on “Ponderings on experts and knowledge”

  1. Veogelin made this point deca
    Veogelin made this point decades ago: the degeneration of the social sciences by positivism, which he viewed as the mad accumulation of irrelevant facts.

    Which facts are relevant? What slice of reality do you analyze?

    By the way, your third point—the mindless dogmas—I view as “unprincipled exceptions.” Equality, inclusiveness, and diversity are essentially arbitrary categories; I don’t see that any positivistic, analytic method necessarily reduces to these. One could make that argument that these categories derive not from modernism, but more likely from American Protestantism.

    Moreover, once equality, inclusiveness, or diversity are chosen as guiding principles, one can devise endless arbitrary adjudications as to their implementation within any circumstance (that is, they are cognitively meaningless categories). They demonstrate your final point: the death of thought.

    • It seems to me that once you’
      It seems to me that once you’ve gotten rid of qualitative distinctions then equality, inclusiveness and diversity become the obvious standards. All goods and therefore all desires become equal, which means it’s most rational to treat all of them the same and try to satisfy them all as much and as equally as possible.

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

      • I think, as a general proposi
        I think, as a general proposition, that’s certainly true.

        But what qualifies as a “desire?” Some “desires” don’t qualify. The desire to be exclusive certainly doesn’t, but why should it be treated differently from any other desire?

        The supposedly equal treatment of competing desires is actually a cover for the erection of preferences (and arbitrary adjudications between competing desires). These preferences are then rationalized as tools to achieve “equality.”

        Note also that the desires of a community apparently don’t qualify as legitimate desires (at least those of traditional communities).

        • All desires are equal, but some are more equal than others …
          “But what qualifies as a ‘desire’?” —MD, 10:28pm

          If you are a woman( * ), this qualifies: the wish to show the false-liberals in your social circle how “moral” you are by making believe you really and truly want more immigration of groups you actually don’t like being around or want your kids around. Of course when more of these groups immigrate, thanks largely to your kind of false-liberal phony hypocrite, you certainly won’t live among them or send your kids to school with them,( ** ) but the false-liberals in your social circle will make believe they don’t notice your sickening hypocrisy (as you’ll make believe you don’t notice theirs) if you (and they) make a big show of denouncing the “racists”( *** ) who aren’t hypocritical enough to deny they don’t like so many of these folk immigrating into the country and don’t want to live among them or send their kids to school with them.

          Steve Sailer (“Sailer” is redundant, there being really only one Steve) sheds a bit of light on how this lot thinks, in a piece up tonight at Vdare.com:

          “Do what wealthy liberals do with their own offspring: insulate! Move to an expensive suburb where the schools have good students, or finagle your children into a magnet program, or homeschool them, or pay for private schooling. Do what it takes so that the minorities they come in contact with are predominantly middle class. In 1977, when Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter arrived in Washington D.C. from Georgia, they had to subject their daughter Amy to a D.C. public school to prove they weren’t Southern racists. But by 1993, when Billy and Hillary Clinton rolled into town from Arkansas, everybody who was anybody accepted that the D.C. public schools were awful (even if you had Secret Service bodyguards). So when the Clintons enrolled Chelsea in an expensive Quaker private school, Sidwell Friends Academy, they didn’t pay a political price for their hypocrisy. Howard Kurtz wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review in 1994:

          ” ‘Equally revealing was media response to the Clintons’s announcement that they were sending their daughter, Chelsea, to Sidwell Friends, an $11,000-a-year private school in northwest Washington. When columnist Mark Shields praised Sidwell on The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, he had to note that his children went there, as did Jim Lehrer’s and Judy Woodruff’s. Woodruff’s husband, Al Hunt, made a similar disclosure while defending Clinton on Capital Gang. Carl Rowan touted Sidwell on Inside Washington, pointing out that his grandchildren attended the school. Howard Fineman, whose daughter was in kindergarten at Sidwell, said he “shamelessly lobbied” the Clintons to choose the school.’

          “So don’t worry about being duplicitous. Do what the Clintons and all those media liberals, white and black, did—put your children’s welfare first!”


          ( * This particular desire is way more prominent among women, women being more society-conscious than men and more desirous of appearing pleasing to false-liberaldom by not giving grounds for being thought “selfish” or “uncaring.”)

          ( ** Hey, that was never part of the deal! By the usual false-liberal lights, your obligation to society was discharged when you made believe you wanted more of these groups coming into the country. One certainly hopes no one expected you to actually live amongst or in close proximity to these groups! And you a mother with school-age children, no less! The nerve of some people! And after all the pretending you’ve done, in order to advance false-liberal society in this country! Why, the ingrates!)

          ( *** Definition: A “racist” is someone who can’t afford to move his family far enough away from neighborhoods and schools rendered dangerous and bad by the presence of certain groups, while the opposite of a “racist,” i.e., a “non-racist, moral person,” is someone who can afford to move his family far enough away from such neighborhoods to not be significantly affected by them.)

          Long live Flanders!

          • Scrooby,

            Excellent post (c

            Excellent post (complete with footnotes no less).


            Your post reminds me of some of your earlier posts on pluralism (pluralism as hegemonic). Pluralism must dilute and banish all particularisms as a matter of dogma.

            Going back to your earlier post on the rationality of equality, inclusiveness, and diversity as guiding principles, you set a precondition: the elimination of qualitative distinctions.

            Is it rational, in the first instance, to eliminate qualitative distinctions?

            It seems to me that such a step is rational only if one has already adopted the guiding principles of equality, inclusiveness, and diversity.

            It all seems like a circular argument to me.

          • For what it’s worth, I came a
            For what it’s worth, I came across this from Judge Richard Posner, commenting in general on the “thought” behind leftist positions (he was commenting in particular on the Summers affair at Harvard):

            “Today in the United States, most of the leading research universities are dominated by persons well to the left of Larry Summers, and they don’t take kindly to having their ideology challenged, as Summers has now learned to his grief. There is nothing to be done about this, and thoughtful conservatives should actually be pleased. As John Stuart Mill pointed out in On Liberty, when one’s ideas are not challenged, one’s ability to defend them weakens. Not being pressed to come up with arguments or evidence to support them, one forgets the arguments and fails to obtain the evidence. One’s position becomes increasingly flaccid, producing the paradox of thought that is at once rigid and flabby. And thus the academic left today.”

          • I don’t think it’s circular.
            I don’t think it’s circular. Getting rid of qualitative distinctions makes sense because they can’t be quantified and agreed on by all technically trained and properly equipped observers. That means the possibility of irreconcilable dispute will remain and you won’t be able to build a demonstrably perfect world. (I’m not saying that modernity in general or contemporary liberalism in particular are sane, just that they represent an attempt at thoroughgoing rationality and so make sense in their way. They aren’t illogical and incoherent in the simple-minded way one might think.)

            Rem tene, verba sequentur.

          • It seems your second sentence
            It seems your second sentence encapsulates relativism, and no rational person (on the risk of incoherence and self-contradiction) could be a relativist. Perhaps I’m misreading what your thought is. Are you saying that quantitative analysis leads rationally or inevitably to relativism?

            In traditional societies, your second sentence wouldn’t apply—distinctions could be agreed upon by all properly trained observers. In fact, that was a definition of a properly trained observer—he could see and discern the appropriate distinctions (is that from Aristotle?).

          • The point is that insistence
            The point is that insistence on the kind of public clarity and distinctness on which natural scientists (and Descartes among others) insist means relativism. Even in traditional societies you can’t quantify manifestations of the Good, Beautiful and True, the judgments of reasonably competent observers often differ, at least somewhat, and in any case one becomes a reasonably competent observer of such things less by technical training than by a broader form of education as well as natural gifts that not everyone has. (I’ll add “technical” to “training” to make my meaning somewhat more clear.)

            Rem tene, verba sequentur.

          • I agree, the true and the goo
            I agree, the true and the good can’t be quantified; thus, in traditional societies reliance is placed on elders, tradition, experience, and esteemed teachers to guide the community. Sounds like hierarchy, doesn’t it?

            However, empiricism, combined with cause and effect, (along with some statistical analysis) can quantify at least some good and some evil. There are some strong correlations between some behaviors and some outcomes. For example, it’s extremely unlikely for a monogamous married couple to contract AIDS. It’s also unlikely for a married couple, both of whom have completed high school, to live in poverty. And so forth.

            I suppose if one no longer grants legitimacy to the category “good,” such results aren’t all that interesting or relevant. But, if that’s the case, why the strong reaction to “The Bell Curve,” which attempted to quantify the outcomes associated with certain behaviors and quantified attributes (such as IQ)?

          • The Bell Curve gummed up the
            The Bell Curve gummed up the sole remaining basis of morality, equality, and so was thought to open the door immediately to Auschwitz and what not else. So in a way the hateful and bigoted reaction to the book was comprehensible. It threatened to destroy people’s whole moral world.

            TBC said that people aren’t equal in important ways and can’t be made equal. That was felt to be an outrage because it suggests that it’ll be hard to maneuver things so everyone’s desires get equal treatment. Worse, in the absence of a transcendent basis of human dignity innate inequality is felt to suggest that some have more of the specifically human qualities that entitle their desires to be taken into account in the first place. And finally, in the absence of any notion of a common moral nature or common good any assertion of inequality is felt to imply a right to unlimited domination. If desire and ways of satisfying desire are all there is, why not?

            Rem tene, verba sequentur.

          • A short summary:

            The good,
            A short summary:

            The good, the true, and the beautiful can’t be quantified by the appropriate certified experts; therefore, the good, the true, and the beautiful don’t exist.

            When the research of some experts is summarized, revealing some arguably relevant distinctions, the summarizers are condemned. Apparently, the summaries threaten a morality based upon equality (What comes first: the inability to quantify or the dogma of equality?).

            If the good can’t be quantified by some officially approved methodology or dogma, why would one assume: 1. That it doesn’t exist, or 2. that all goods are equal?

            Perhaps if the good cannot be quantified to one’s satisfaction, one should conduct some more research.

            It seems to me that research itself is suspect, regardless of the methodology used.

            I still see a collision ahead between geneticists, neurobiologists, and psychologists and the dogmatic liberals.

            By the way, conservatives as well as liberals ignore this research. The left half of the bell curve simply doesn’t exist; “equal opportunity for all” and all that.

            After the Lawrence Summers story broke, Hugh Hewitt said that Summers had committed a “gaffe,” and should make it right. He went on to comment to the effect: How would Summers like to tell parents that they can’t tell their daughters that they have every opportunity to make a career in science and mathematics.

            I was stunned by the mindless dogmatism based upon the article of faith of “equal opportunity.” With respect to certain professions or fields of endeavor, there is no equal opportunity. I never had an equal opportunity to be a world class sprinter (and remember, Summers was addressing science and mathematics at a world class level; he wasn’t talking about becoming an 8th grade science teacher). There is no equal opportunity to become a concert pianist or a front line firefighter.

            In Either/Or, Kierkegaard talked about, among other things, the ethical requirement of taking ownership and possession of one’s self, as it is, with all its particularity, history, and limitations. He implied, if he did not specifically say, that it is unethical (or at least comical) to pretend to be, or aspire to be, something that one is not (one thinks of such people as Joseph Ellis or Al Gore). Is it therefore ethical to tell a young person that they have the equal opportunity to be anything they wish, even though that’s a lie (not because of societal restraint, but rather because of the limitations inherent within each individual)?

          • To follow my own line of thou
            To follow my own line of thought a bit more, and answer MD’s questions:

            1. It seems to me the demand for certainty and exactitude came first. You see it fully developed in Descartes. The thought that since distinctions can’t be proven things should be treated the same followed shortly thereafter but has taken a long time to work its way through social practices and institutions.

            2. If you can’t show distinctions among goods you can’t say there’s no good because then you’d have no way to think about your actions and decide what to do. As a practical matter you have to be able to do that. Saying all goods are equally good at least seems a usable rule that gives a definite result that a lot of people will agree on since it’s not clear to any one of them how he can do better.

            I agree, by the way, that all reputable mainstream conservatives are fully on board the equality bandwagon. That’s why reputable mainstream conservatism really goes nowhere. It’s mostly a matter of debater’s points and foot-dragging (and also alarm at the insanity of the Left).

            Rem tene, verba sequentur.

          • We are the liberals, not they. Let’s take back the name, then.
            “I agree, by the way, that all reputable mainstream conservatives are fully on board the equality bandwagon. That’s why reputable mainstream conservatism really goes nowhere.” —Jim Kalb, 12:19pm

            Not to bore people by bringing this up yet again, but in view of the above nugget of truth I’ll say once more that if “conservatism” includes things like being “fully on board the equality bandwagon,” and things like believing what President Bush believes on a whole range of issues on which I’m diametrically opposed, I for one am certainly no conservative and the same likely goes for many who call themselves that for lack of a better alternative. Politically-aware people who, as did I, once considered themselves liberal and felt perfectly comfortable with that designation, then got pushed out of the liberal space they occupied by the barging-in of the intellectually unfit, the mentally unsound, the morally unclean who never, ever belonged there but wouldn’t get out and now pose as “liberals,” ought perhaps to reclaim that appellation; ought perhaps to barge back into the liberal space they were driven out of and instead drive the outrageous impostors out for a change.

            Why is conservatism getting nowhere? So many of us are liberals—true liberals, not alienated Marxist nutcases born without certain brain circuits essential for sanity—driven here against our will, who can’t act in ways that advance things because conservatism is something without any content. It’s a phantom. Contemporary U.S. conservatism is mindless rich people perpetually attempting to buy off the Marxist radicals. I mean, look what Bill Buckley did! Look who he installed in control of his organization—the likes of Jonah Goldberg! Can it even begin to be BELIEVED? But he did it!

            Liberalism was once normal, healthy, whole, and good. Look what they’ve done to it. Just look at it. You wouldn’t even want to touch it. It’s the sort of thing you step in by accident on the street then must quickly scrape off the sole of your shoe.


            Long live Flanders!

          • By “liberalism” Fred might me
            By “liberalism” Fred might mean things like “to each his own,” “there’s no disputing about taste,” and “what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.” If so, it’s fine to be liberal as long as you don’t make liberalism the final standard. Most likely Fred would make normality the final standard. “Normality” might include things like recognition that some choices don’t deserve respect, some things really are disgusting, and there are real differences between a goose and a gander that sometimes do matter. Those things would limit liberalism and keep it sane

            What happens though if you can’t rely on normality? In America you used to be able to rely on it. European observers described that situation as American conformity. Once normality has come under attack from the Left though taking the liberal side on issues means joining the attack on it.

            Now that normality has largely been destroyed as a standard you can’t act as if it goes without saying. You have to say what normality is and insist it comes before liberalism. You have to say that X, Y and Z should take precedence over liberalism because they’re needed to make the situation normal. But then it becomes hard to describe yourself as a liberal because you’re an Xist, Yist and Zist instead.

            Rem tene, verba sequentur.

          • Jim, I agree. Classical libe
            Jim, I agree. Classical liberals like John Stuart Mill were parasites on the traditional societies in which they lived, and they left the debt unaknowledged.

        • A desire qualifies for inclus
          A desire qualifies for inclusion if it accepts inclusiveness and therefore allows the system of universal inclusion to exist. It’s true that the “universal” in “universal inclusion” can’t be quite universal, because it has to suppress things like desires to be exclusive that are opposed to the system itself. It seems to me though that liberalism does try to be as consistent as possible. After all, PC depends on a sense that it’s glaringly obvious that desire X is a wonderful addition to our diversity while desire Y is dangerous and disgusting and has to be squashed. How could that be so obvious to so many people if there’s no principle that enables them to distinguish the situations?

          The issue of community self-assertion is somewhat complicated but I think the liberal position is reasonably principled. Liberalism wants to get rid of the authority of particular culture because particular cultures always favor some desires over others for reasons other than relative consistency with the ideal of inclusiveness. So what liberals do is tell the dominant culture (in America, white Christian culture) that it can’t assert itself, because it’s the overall cultural authority that has to be overthrown, and tells minority cultures that it’s good for them to assert themselves, because when they do so it makes it all the harder for any culture than the bureaucratically-administered culture of inclusion to claim authority.

          Rem tene, verba sequentur.

  2. Chesterton paradox
    . That means, for example, that modern investigations of religion and family are generally useless to religion and family

    Very Chesterton, I like it!

    Kevin V.

    (God asks for our obedience, not our opinion)

    • kj,

      Positivism divests eve

      Positivism divests every object of investigation of its particularity, history, and transcendent value. All objects (whether it be family, religion, or a hydrogen atom) are the same, subject to reductive, quantitative analysis.

      This analytic reductionism has found at least one counter-reaction in postmodernism, which openly mocks it and its pretensions. For the past 200 years, conservatives have accommodated, even erecting a “two-world” view, a world of scientific reductionism and a world of transcendence (religion, ethics, etc.). That strategy, it seems to me, has failed.

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