We Don’t Care about Expertise

The Atlantic released an interview with Barack Obama this week. Here’s the full article, but I want to bring attention to this quote from the former president:

If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work. We are entering into an epistemological crisis.

Truer words haven’t been spoken.

Let’s juxtapose this with some news commentary I read this morning from The Dispatch (headed by David French, the unrelenting never-Trumper):

  • The Trump campaign was dealt a series of legal defeats over the weekend in their effort to overturn the election results. A lawyer for the campaign on Friday dropped the “Sharpiegate” lawsuit in Arizona’s Maricopa County, acknowledging that not enough votes were at stake to change the results of the election. A few hours later, a Michigan judge denied an emergency motion filed by two GOP poll workers requesting to halt the certification of an entire county’s results. On Sunday, Trump’s attorneys dropped allegations that Pennsylvania election workers violated the president’s constitutional rights by preventing his campaign’s observers from watching the count. Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said Friday the state would not be conducting an automatic recount for any statewide races, because no candidate finished within the 0.5 percentage point-threshold. Any recount would need to be paid for by one of the campaigns involved.
  • Sixteen assistant U.S. Attorneys charged with investigating irregularities in the 2020 election wrote a letter to Attorney General Bill Barr saying they had seen no evidence of substantial election fraud.

So, here’s what seems to be happening — nearly all of the allegations of fraud, wrongdoing, and electoral conspiracy against the current administration have been either dropped or proven to be baseless or blatantly false in a court of law. This is not surprising to nearly anyone actively following experts in politics, by the way.

But the problem is not really the legal battles, is it? We all know that. What the current president is trying to do is not win in the eyes of the law, or with evidence that passes muster when examined closely. Instead, the president is doing what he has nearly always done: he has thrown as many claims as possible into the air just to see what will stick in the mind of his base, and what might convince those on the fringes of that group. This is a classic tactic of conspiracy theorists. He is in some way aware of the current epistemological crisis, even if it’s an emotional or calculating awareness rather than an academic or intellectual one. I heard Alan Jacobs say on the Give & Take podcast recently that the president is not necessarily an intelligent man, but he certainly is a shrewd man.

So, back to President Obama’s point: we are entering an epistemological crisis. We can see the evidence of this in what has happened this past two weeks in American politics. Many, many of us (including myself) do not have the capability of separating truth from falsehood. Many do not trust our core institutions, our medical experts, our lawyers, our journalists, or our politicians to present facts and evidence. And when we are presented with evidence, we question its legitimacy. We question the bias of the “left-wing media” or the “fascist politicians,” and so we pick and choose our legitimate sources for ourselves. And we do not trust the long, slow work of experts ought to be weighted much more heavily than the baseless claims of those seeking to hold power.

Who wins in such a system? The ones who have the power to exploit the will and passions of the people.

Or, in the evergreen words of Professor Quirrell: “There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.”

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