The Rubicon Of Knowledge

As the great legal philosopher, Ron White, warned, “you can’t fix stupid.” But ignorance isn’t the same as stupid. The latter is forgivable because stupid people can’t help themselves. That’s the best they can do. Ignorance, on the other hand, is a choice.

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Tom Nichols contends that schools are turning out rubes.

You know,” then-candidate Donald Trump said during the 2016 campaign, “I’ve always wanted to say this: … The experts are terrible.” Trump has often been caught at a loss over basic issues of public policy and has repeatedly bashed intellectuals who criticized his lack of substance. He famously exulted, “I love the poorly educated,” demanded that President Obama prove his American citizenship, and cited the National Enquirer approvingly as a source in charging that the father of one of his opponents, Ted Cruz, was involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Hah, the twitters laugh at this idiot. He’s so stupid. He’s such a moron. The critics range from teens to grandmas, every one of whom is so much smarter than this. There are two things that can be true at the same time: that President Trump is a dolt and that you are too.

Higher education is supposed to be a bulwark against these kinds of frontal assaults on established knowledge, empowering voters with the ability to know fact from fiction, and to fight fantasy with critical reasoning.

How’s that going? Not well. In the wake of the 2016 election, half of Republicans believe that Donald Trump won the popular vote (he didn’t), while half of Democrats believe that Russia hacked America’s voting machines (it didn’t).

If it wasn’t so pathetic, it would be hysterically funny to watch Ken White try to explain First Amendment law on the twitters, only to be informed by eggboys that he has no clue what he’s talking about. Mark Bennett too. So what if he’s had laws here and there held unconstitutional? What does he know compared to the random twitterer? And when these lawyers with actual knowledge try to explain the error of thinking, they are accused of being condescending, among a plethora of other words, as if they are soooo much smarter than the typical 12 year old or the deeply passionate grandma.

Except they are.

Nichols offers some examples of his own to bolster his point:

When I arrived at Dartmouth, at the end of the 1980s, my colleagues told me a story about a well-known scientist there who gave a lecture to a group of undergrads on international-security affairs. During the question-and-answer, a student waved away the professor’s views, saying, “Well, your guess is as good as mine.” “No, no, no,” the professor said emphatically. “My guesses are much, much better than yours.”

There is a grossly misunderstood aphorism at work here, that we’re all entitled to an opinion. In an absolute sense, this is true. No one can stop you from having an opinion, whether you’re right or wrong, knowledgeable or ignorant, or, sorry to say, stupid. But as Nichols’ example shows, opinions grounded in knowledge aren’t the equivalent of opinions grounded in . . . nothing.

But the problem is more common than some Ivy League smart aleck cracking wise. To take a less rarefied example, a young woman in 2013 took to social media for help with a class assignment. She apparently had been tasked with researching the deadly chemical substance sarin. “I can’t find the chemical and physical properties of sarin gas someone please help me,” the student tweeted.

Her request was quickly answered by the director of a security-consulting firm in London, an expert in the field of chemical weapons. He offered his help and corrected her by noting that sarin isn’t a gas. The student responded in a storm of outraged ego: “yes the [expletive] it is a gas you ignorant [expletive]. sarin is a liquid & can evaporate … shut the [expletive] up.” The security professional, clearly stunned, tried one more time: “Google me. I’m an expert on sarin. Sorry for offering to help.” Things did not improve before the exchange finally ended.

This was a rather famous exchange at the time, as it reflected the nexus of objective fact and the mistaken assumption born of social media equivalence that we’re all peers. On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. But then, sometimes, when you reach out on social media, the person who responds is not a dog, but Einstein. And yet, this distinction is lost on too many.

Nichols ascribes this shift to the softening of the pedagogical relationship fostered by schools seeking to cater to their “customer-centric” treatment of students.

Faculty members both in the classroom and on social media report that incidents like that, in which students see themselves as faculty peers or take correction as an insult, are occurring more frequently. Unearned praise and hollow successes build a fragile arrogance in students that can lead them to lash out at the first teacher or employer who dispels that illusion, a habit that carries over into a resistance to believe anything inconvenient or challenging in adulthood.

But it’s not quite so simple. The same downward spiral of knowledge that manifests itself in these flagrant examples has been happening for decades (hence, the 1980s example), and produced scholars and educators who themselves have bought into the nutty theories and taught them to following generations. The days of multicultural math are upon us.

Nor should anyone ignore the “appeal to expertise” logical fallacy, that just because someone carries an expert card in his wallet he’s right about everything and everyone who disagrees loses. We should all be well aware of how experts can disagree, how expert certainty one day morphs into totally wrong the next. How experts are manufactured out of thin air, whether on the internet or doctoral program of Social Justice University.

One of the jokes for lawyers who are engaged by random people on the internet informing them of “the law” is that they got their formal education at Twitter Law School. So every Trump supporter who can’t distinguish between “your” and “you’re” is now a constitutional scholar. And every Trump adversary instructs that hate speech isn’t free speech. Ironically, some of the adversaries are putative “constitutional scholars.” You can’t fix stupid.

26 thoughts on “The Rubicon Of Knowledge

  1. jaf005

    Tax Law Professor in my University Days (30 yrs ago) standing in front of a huge stack of books: “This is United States tax law; it changes in a material way every year. In this class you will learn how to recognize the right question to ask in a given situation so that you can efficiently and intelligently zero in on the appropriate statute or case law.

    Old boss and mentor: “If you always think you’re the smartest person in the room, you may be hanging out in the wrong rooms”

    1. SHG Post author

      Non-lawyers think lawyers are taught “all the laws” in law school. Then again, they used to teach students how to think like a lawyer. Now, they just take the money, give them As and watch them fail the bar. But they’re much more diverse about it.

      1. JAF

        Unfortunately I’m not a lawyer, by the time my interest was piqued, I was firmly entrenched in my career and couldn’t really justify going back to school. But that professor (Ned Scwartz at WNE) really imprinted on me and my classmates the proper way to analyze and breakdown a given scenario in an unbiased way.

        In todays polarized world it seems that most opinions and statements of fact start with a bias that taints the narrative. To some extent this may have always been the case on controversial topics but it now seems to have infiltrated even the most benign issues.

        Your disdain for this kind of thinking is what makes SJ appointment reading for me every day.

        1. SHG Post author

          The trend toward confirmation bias (not to mention a few others) may be irresistible, but it’s unhelpful. The worse the situation, the more we need to fight the bias and think clearly. As you note, it seems to have infiltrated everything, even the most benign issues. This is very bad.

          1. JAF

            Some of the stuff that Scott Adams (Dilbert guy) has written on Cognitive Dissonance, and how to recognize it, is really enlightening when trying to understand how it could have gotten this bad.

  2. Erik H

    Faculty members both in the classroom and on social media report that incidents like that, in which students see themselves as faculty peers or take correction as an insult
    Faculty is largely to blame for this, for playing outside their boundaries.

    There is one area in which faculty are not peers to their students, which is “the area in which they have specific training.” And faculty certainly deserve respect and a degree of deference–when it comes to that area. But these days faculty spout dictates on everything, from social policy to philosophy to economics to science. When professors act like experts in areas outside their doctorates, they become human like the rest of us.

    For example, Law faculty have special expertise (though little agreement) for their claims regarding the constitutionality or general legality of Trump’s order. But the average law faculty member has no special expertise on whether the order is a good idea, whether it is moral, whether it is just, or what the worldwide results will be. And when the professors assert such expertise, they generally lose credibility. When they try to assert what might best be called “generic powerful person claiming intelligence,” they had better be able to back it up.

    Some of my professors were brilliant and incredibly widely educated, and their opinions were incredibly valuable even outside the subject matter. Others, not so much.

    1. Noxx

      With all due respect, which isn’t very much, bullshit. A nineteen year old kid isn’t the peer of a sixty-five year old matriarch in many things at all, and it’s the woefully misbegotten belief that all of their random thoughts are “just as valid” that prevents them from learning anything of substance.

      1. Erik H.

        You’re completely wrong.

        First, you’re misinformed about your facts. The youngest realistic age in law school is 21, not 19. And 21 is not as common these days; the average age is closer to 26, and is even older at many schools. And of course that’s only an average; a significant number of students are older than 26–it is common to find students in their early to mid 30s, with considerable work experience under their belts. Many of them have other graduate experience or training. I started law school at 30 with a decade of work experience and graduate school. They are certainly less-skilled in law, but as for everything else, that is not true; your assumptions are wrong.

        Second, you obviously don’t understand the math. Even if you were correct that profs usually know more than students, you are ignoring the factor of how that plays out in a group setting:

        Assume an average class size of 30 students. Assume a brilliant 65 year old matriarch, perhaps a Wise Latina if you’d like. And assume that any individual student and for any topic other than law, the law professor is 80% likely to have superior knowledge–which is an incredibly high percentage of knowledge outside a specialty, but I’ll toss you that bone for now.

        Please answer:

        1) When she holds forth on a non-legal topic, what is the probability that the law professor knows more than all of the students in the class? Remember, each student only has a 20% chance to be more expert than the prof.

        2) Maybe “knows more than all students” is unfair? I’ll head that off: we can all probably agree that a professor should avoid holding forth on a topic where they know less than a significant portion of their students. So… for a given non-legal topic, what is the probability that at least a third of the students in the class know more on that subject than the law professor?

        Good luck.

        1. SHG Post author

          And down the butthurt bunny hole we go. Someone disagreed with your tangential point, so that means you get to hijack my comments? Nope. It ends here. Take it somewhere else. Reddit perhaps?

  3. PVanderwaart

    You describe exactly why any appeal to common sense by a politician is immediate cause for suspicion.

  4. JimEd

    “[ed] Ignorance isn’t the same as stupid. The latter is forgivable because stupid people can’t help themselves. That’s the best they can do. Ignorance, on the other hand, is a choice.”

    Are you really prepared to defend this statement, or were you just being lazy?

    1. SHG Post author

      If you have a problem with it, you should say what it is. If it’s worth addressing, maybe I’ll address it. But to ask a silly passive aggressive question doesn’t do it.

      1. JimEd

        You are proposing that there is a class of stupid people people. If you are stupid, you are beyond redemption and therefore not worth engaging and cannot be cured. Then there are the ignorant people. They simply lack the knowledge. If they were intellectually curious, they could cure themselves.
        You are using a trope to invalidate them and their opinion. And you have been railing against elitists who don’t understand real world issues faced by the stupid and ignorant. How their lofty ideals of free speech and equal protection don’t mean sqaut when it comes to the rent or the grocery bill. And then you trot out the “stupid and ignorant argument.” You seem to respect the working man when it suits you and then levitate above it when it does not.
        Or perhaps I am drunk.

        1. SHG Post author

          Stop drinking! What makes you believe that working men are stupid? And even stupid people deserve protection of their rights. It’s not a crime to be stupid, just what some people are. Some might argue that we are all stupid, just about different things, which has some merit. But don’t layer on your issues to what I wrote. And stop drinking before commenting!

        2. Noxx

          I don’t understand this automatic conflation of “stupid people” and the “working man”. No one proposed that, you went right to it. I would suggest you go open the hood of a malfunctioning car and let us know how bright you feel.

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