Friday, April 25, 2014

Knowledge Without Wisdom

Helen Rittelmeyer had an excellent piece in the February edition of First Things on the perils of relying on expertise as our primary and often sole source of authority. Bloodless Moralism:

The mistake most frequently made by modern anti-social-science polemicists is to focus too much on their target’s philosophical shortcomings. This would be excellent high ground to stake out if Americans were attached to terms like “empirical” and “falsifiable” because they had all given deep consideration to the works of Bertrand Russell and Karl Popper, but the reality is more superficial. They put their faith in academics and research analysts because they have an idealized picture of the sciences as a self-policing community of disinterested truth-seekers with laboratories and databases and state-of-the-art modeling programs.

This superficiality is not negligence, really. Most of our decisions about whom to trust take place at this aesthetic level. You and I do not know enough neuroscience to refute a convinced phrenologist, but if we have a feel for the pseudoscientist type (say we have read Martin Gardner), we will have no trouble identifying our bumpologist as a textbook example. So it is, in reverse, with social scientists. We come to them with a jumble of opinions and half-formed personal judgments, and they repeat them back to us as facts. Their main contribution is not information, but authority.

But there are other kinds of authority than a philosophiae doctor. The civil rights movement deployed not only the authority of the gospel but also the moral authority that comes from nonviolent protest. Anyone who can withstand brutal treatment and still speak in a calm voice is someone saintly enough to demand a hearing. It is not so different from the moral authority of ex-generals, another phenomenon with precedent in American politics. In circumstances less conducive to displays of moral authority—and political issues very rarely invite actual heroism—there are other options. Christopher Hitchens was not an expert in anything, but people cared what he had to say for two reasons: It was evident that he had read widely, and he expressed himself beautifully. Both of these are forms of authority. Things that require discipline often are.

Authority does not have to be self-generated. It can also be borrowed, or rather assumed, like a mantle. When Rep. Herbert Parsons spoke in favor of child-labor laws on the floor of the House in 1909, he quoted Matthew 18: “Our doctrine . . . is that, if possible, ‘not one of these little ones should perish.’” I would guess that Congressman Parsons began with the same starting point a modern politician would have: a vague but definite conviction that the law ought to address child labor. When he proceeded to ask himself what it would sound like to make that assertion in a public forum in a way that would command agreement, the answer came back to him: Scripture. To a modern, it would have been: lifetime earnings differentials.

I do not mean to say that all political arguments should be made more biblical. I only suggest that, when we find ourselves looking for ways to bring some authority to our political convictions (or looking for spokesmen who might carry such authority), we should broaden our search. It may be that integrity, erudition, literary genius, holiness, or wisdom carry as much weight in a democracy as expertise.

Statistics, studies, and experts all have a place in the discussions and debates that we have on how to address the challenges we face. However, all too often they are the only things considered and are unchallenged and unquestioned. Even worse, we assume that they will not only help us understand the extent of the problem, but are also best equipped to provide the solution.