Elitists and Anti-Intellectuals Think the Same Way

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Posted by Andrew on Sep 17, 2017 in philosophy

As I often say, people on polar opposite sides of various issues are often more similar than different. Extremists tend to not be neutral, open-minded, and accepting of the possibility of being wrong. They have unwarranted certainty, oversimplify their positions, and act as if people who disagree with them are delusional idiots.

In my opinion, anti-intellectuals and elitists demonstrate this principle. This is a subject in which my views have changed through learning and thinking. I used to be very elitist. I thought that science always has the correct answer, it shouldn’t be disputed, and that scientists are smarter than everyone else. I believed that logic and reason were the solutions to every problem.

Now, I’m certainly not an anti-science person. I believe that the scientific method is the best way to find most answers, and that experts overwhelmingly often know more about their chosen fields than amateurs. I also think that generally, scientists are smarter than the average Joe who rarely bothers to learn and think.

However, scientists are not special. They’re just as human as everyone else, and they’re not super-geniuses with awe-inspiring intellectual superpowers (with a few obvious exceptions like Stephen Hawking.) They’re just as capable of being wrong and making mistakes as everyone else. In my opinion, the most honest scientists like Lawrence Krauss and Neil Degrasse Tyson admit that no one can be 100% certain about anything. Krauss has talked many times about how he enjoys being wrong because that’s how you learn.

This goes back to the Socratic method of always asking questions. There’s a story about Socrates being called the wisest man by the Oracle of Delphi. He didn’t believe it, so he sought out the other contenders for the title. He found out that they all claimed to know things that they couldn’t possibly know. Assuming that Socrates actually existed and that there is a grain of truth to this story, since he never wrote anything down, this lead to one of his most famous quotes: “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

Sometimes, elitists have the attitude about science that I used to follow. In my opinion, this is arrogant and unwarranted because it’s always possible that we’re wrong about even the most basic assumptions. This is because, among many other reasons, we don’t know with 100% certainty that our view of reality is correct. We could be living in a simulation, which seems very unlikely, but has been mathematically calculated and theorized by physicists. Also, even the great physicist named Richard Feynman said that no one understands quantum mechanics. According to my amateur understanding, this makes it more possible that reality could be very different than we might think. Quantum mechanics is bizarre and counterintuitive. Particles can be in superposition, which basically means that they can be stationary but simultaneously moving. They can also be in two places at once, if I understand this correctly. (Though this is a simplified explanation.)

Like I said, I don’t believe that this all means that we should throw science out the window. That sounds like a terrible idea, and it’s why in my opinion, anti-intellectuals take their occasionally valid criticisms way too far. This is how elitists and anti-intellectuals think the same way. They’re both arrogant about how smart they think they are, and they demonize the other side. Yes, there’s a lot of uncertainty in science, but less so than anywhere else. Yes, science has been wrong in the past, but it still gives us the closest approximations to the truth.

Anti-intellectuals seem to think that since science doesn’t offer objective truths, even though some scientists claim to have it, this means that it’s all bullshit. This kind of flawed, lazy thinking can easily lead to anti-vaxxers, flat earth proponents, climate change denial, (though the 97% consensus and predictions seem to be smaller and less accurate than some people claim) and all manner of conspiracy theories. These include the moon landings being faked, the goverment dropping “chemtrails” from planes to poison populations, and that 9/11 was a false flag attack. You don’t have to spend much time investigating these claims to find out that they’re at the very least, oversimplified and exaggerated.

On the other end of the spectrum, elitists appear to believe that science offers objective truths, is always right, and that anti-intellectuals never have valid criticisms. Countering arrogant certainty with arrogant certainty doesn’t lead to productive conversations and learning. It just makes people more entrenched in their positions. Yes, many opinions of anti-intellectuals are dumb. But scientists make mistakes because this is part of human nature, and sometimes, amateurs can have more correct information than experts. Asserting that elitists should control the world is an awful idea in my opinion because no one knows everything, and arrogance can easily lead to flawed thinking. The more you think you have the intellectual high ground, the easier it can be to make enormous avoidable errors.

Intellectuals in different fields also have agreed-upon assumptions that are incompatible with those in other subjects. Sociology seems to argue against basic principles in biology, and vice versa. Historians don’t appear to examine topics from philosophical and psychological perspectives. This parochial mindset seems to extend to psychology and philosophy too, though to a much lesser extent with the latter. I love philosophy, but in one of my classes, my teacher didn’t want to discuss a different subset of it when I mentioned free will in terms of philosophy of mind. This seemed crazy to me because free will is almost inevitably relevant in that subject. That’s anecdotal, and these are generalizations, but I think that it’s largely true that science is too narrow-focused. In physics, even the so-called theory of everything wouldn’t actually be that. Figuring out the equation for how particles and atoms are organized and interact in the universe would explain very little. It wouldn’t tell you how to fix a car, what shirt to wear on a date, or how to be a good person. Spiros Michalakis, who is a physicist, mentioned this in a Mixed Mental Arts podcast.

I think that science is phenomenally important. It benefits society in countless ways, and helps us solve ample problems. But it doesn’t answer every question, it may never do so, and it’s crucial to question it instead of taking it as gospel. The good thing about anti-intellectuals is that they cast doubt on science. They take their conclusions too far in my opinion, but arrogance seems harmful, regardless of which ideology it comes from. Scientists are human, so they can be wrong, but they help society a lot more than people who argue that the earth is flat, or other seemingly crazy claims.

I think that questioning everything is important, which doesn’t mean replacing arrogance about science with arrogance about uncertainty. The more people accept science with a grain of salt, but give less credibility to specious arguments and anti-intellectuals, the more we can all learn from each other. Hopefully, this can help us more easily solve the world’s problems, while getting along with each other enough to avoid unnecessary violence. Maybe this is idealistic, and animosity about ideas can be good because drama helps people learn. But there doesn’t need to be a war between elitists and anti-intellectuals for us to make the world a better place. Perhaps, the more we respectfully talk to people we vehemently disagree with, the more we can reduce cognitive blind spots and transform society.

Originally published at mindgasms.theblogpress.com on September 17, 2017.



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