This American Life featured a fascinating–as in, car-crashtastic–example of the war on expertise that I thought many of you academic readers might be interested in, if you haven’t heard it already. In a story called “Sucker Mc-squared” (Mc-squared as in Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, not Mc- as in McDonald’s), Robert Andrew Powell tells the story of Bob the Electrician, and of Bob’s conviction that he alone had discovered a fatal flaw in Einstein’s theory. You can hear the entire story here–it’s well worth 20 minutes of your time.
To summarize: Bob takes a year-long self-funded sabbatical to study physics and prove that Einstein had it all wrong. Powell tries to get real physicists to read the paper that Bob produces over the course of the year, which turns out to be quite a chore because it turns out that Bob is kind of like the old joke about asylums being full of Napoleons: there are thousands of cranks around the world who believe Einstein’s theory–and by extension all of modern physics–is wrong, and they are a plague upon real, working, university- and U.S. government-affiliated physicists in much the same way that Holocaust Deniers, Constitutional Originalists, and Lost Causers are to historians; climate change denialists are to real climate scientists; and anti-vaxxers are to real physicians. In sum, these cranks have no confidence whatsoever in expertise or in the value of the credentials that real historians, scientists, or doctors have. But yet, they crave their respect and demand to be acknowledged by the experts.
Why does Bob believe that all of physics has it all wrong? Why is he argumentative and defensive when finally Powell convinces a real physicist (Brant Watson of the University of Miami School of Medicine) to explain to him why he’s all wet? Why does he admit that he doesn’t understand the advanced training in mathematics that physicists receive, and still believe he’s right? SPOILER ALERT!
As Powell explains Bob’s thinking, “E=MC2 doesn’t make sense because it’s difficult to understand. The fundamental law of physics should be self-explanatory.” Bob himself explains that physics is “waaaayyyy to complicated. I mean, you have to go to school forEVer, you have to know this outrageous amount of uh, calculus, things. . . when I see all that, I know that physics has gone off the rails.” Bob understands the knowledge-based discernment of physicists as “the party line,” rather than legitimate, earned expertise that they possess and he does not. According to Bob, Watson and all of the other physicists have nothing to teach him–they just need to help him put his proof that Einstein is wrong “into a form where people will understand.” In other words, expertise is valuable only when it’s at his service, and when it’s used to contradict its own epistemological foundation.
I had exposure to some of this kind of thinking with respect to American history recently when a graduate student of mine did a paper on pretend historian David Barton‘s Christian nationalism–that is, the insistence that the United States was founded as a “Christian nation.” It was exceedingly difficult for me to even understand Barton’s work as historical, because while he takes pains to mimic historicity by using the apparatus of scholarship—like close readings of texts, footnotes to sources—his interpretations are incredibly, unbelieveably daft. He is prideful about his ignorance of the professional scholarship on early America and the founding era–but his readers don’t care. They know they’re right.
I completely understand why most physicists refused to speak with Powell and Bob, because what would it gain them other than a terrible headache? As Notorious Ph.D. likes to say, “never look crazy in the eye.” (Me, I’m interested to hear what the statistics are on the gender and ethnic breakdown of this kind of grandiosity. Are there any psychologists or psychiatrists out there who can ballpark this for me?)
This story was a little reassuring to me, in that it’s a clear example of someone insisting that science–as much as history or other humanities disciplines–should be clearly understandable to everyone, rather than an academic discipline that must of course use specialist knowledge and language in order to communicate complex ideas. But mostly it cast me into a slough of despair. Yes, disciplinary training and credentials are elitist. They are not democratic, and that’s the whole point–not everyone can be an expert. So what hope is there for expertise in a democracy? Do democracies not need, or depend upon, expertise?