Sunday, June 28, 2009

Information without knowledge

I’ve just started reading a very promising book, Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free, by Charles P. Pierce.

From page 8: “The rise of Idiot America today reflects—for profit, mainly, but also, and more cynically, for political advantage in the pursuit of power—the breakdown of the consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people we should trust the least are the people who know best what they’re talking about. In the new media age, everybody is a historian, or a scientist, or a preacher, or a sage. And if everyone is an expert, then nobody is, and the worst thing you can be in a society where everybody is an expert is, well, an actual expert."

In my own parochial way, I said something similar earlier this year in a post, “Crisis of authority.” But Mr. Pierce makes the point more forcibly and more entertainingly: America “is drowning in information and thirsty for knowledge” and suffering from “lazy, pulpy tolerance for risible ideas.”

If you are curious about these risible ideas, his introduction describes a visit to the Creation Museum in Hebron, Kentucky, where visitors can marvel at a model of a dinosaur wearing an English saddle — since, of course, human beings and dinosaurs were contemporaneous when the world began in 4004 B.C.

Expect a fuller report once I finish the book.


  1. "But Mr. Pierce makes the pot more forcibly and more entertainingly: "
    makes the point?
    smokes the pot?
    stirs the pot?

  2. That's exactly the danger inherent in the blogosphere, in which everybody has a say, expounds his "expertise," and finds no limit to the degree to which one can become an unvarnished bore.

  3. Anonymous 1: The first choice, of course. Thanks for the correction.

    Anonymous 2: My ambition is to succeed as a varnished bore.

  4. One arena in which "expertise" really should be encouraging a little skepticism is that of financial advisement. I find it slightly astonishing that the various TV financial pundits who blabbed their optimistic way through the last 5 or 10 years still have jobs. How can one demonstrate such a dramatic and failure of expertise and still have the nerve to go on TV and continue to pretend to be an expert? An amusing (or appaling, depending) mashup on YouTube shows financial experts dismissing Peter Schiff's prescient commentaries before the crash: Most (all?) of them are still working. Point being, that kind of "expert" gives expertise a bad name.

  5. Knowing nothing while pretending (and actually even becoming certified) to know everything is nothing new. It was an epidemic in this country from just after WWII until the Sputnik crisis caused a rethinking of the American public school curriculum (cf. the quiz show mania of the mid/late-50s, "New Math" in the 1960s, the MBA fever in the 1970s, the Trivial Pursuit craze of the 1980s, "Who Wants to Be a Millionnaire" in the 1990s, the IT certification programs of the early 00s, etc.). There's some laser-like, spot-on thinking on this very topic from the late 1950s in Jacques Barzun's essays on our "lowbrow" culture and in J. Robert Oppenheimer's lecture, "Prospects in the Arts & Sciences." All that's happened recently is that the Internet has caused the phenomenon to work at the speed of byte.

  6. Some comments from Facebook

    Steve Sullivan: Take it a step further: Knowledge without wisdom is maybe even more dangerous.

    Paul Soucy: On one side, an entire body of scientific research. On the other side, Jenny McCarthy. And guess which side gets interviewed.

    Denise Krakowski Covert: Mike Judge explored this hypothesis in a hysterical yet really thought-provoking way in the movie "Idiocracy." I highly suggest you rent it. Sounds like the movie version of the book you're reading, with fart jokes. :-)