So smart and yet so stupid
Prof Richard Lindzen, a giant of the skeptical debate delivered the 2018 Annual GWPF lecture this week talking about two cultures of two different educated elites. Those at the higher intellectual level may be more prone to groupthink than ordinary folk…
The two different kinds of elites and a vast gap between them
Lindzen quotes C.P.Snow who was both a scientist and a writer and who lived in both elite worlds — the scientific and the arts.
C.P. Snow felt only 1 in 10 of the most highly educated in the western world had even a basic grip on physics:
A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?
I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question – such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? – not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had. — C.P. Snow
Lindzen fears little has changed and warns that the gulf in understanding between each elite culture is open to malicious exploitation. When science is used as a vote winning issue, non scientists have to pick sides and then belief and faith inevitably trump understanding.
The “trivially oversimplified false narratives” help reassure the non-scientists that they are not completely stupid. Even the smart-but-dumb folk love being told how smart they are. (Don’t we all?) So when a complicated debate is reduced to a binary “yes-no” situation, like renewables “clean”: fossils “dirty”, educated elites get drawn in…
Why the educated elites are vulnerable to being fooled
… ‘ordinary’ people (as opposed to our ‘educated’ elites) tend to see through the nonsense being presented. What is it about our elites that makes them so vulnerable, and what is it about many of our scientists that leads them to promote such foolishness? The answers cannot be very flattering to either. Let us consider the ‘vulnerable’ elites first.
- They have been educated in a system where success has been predicated on their ability to please their professors. In other words, they have been conditioned to rationalize anything.
- While they are vulnerable to false narratives, they are far less economically vulnerable than are ordinary people. They believe themselves wealthy enough to withstand the economic pain of the proposed policies, and they are clever enough to often benefit from them.
- The narrative is trivial enough for the elite to finally think that they ‘understand’ science.
- For many (especially on the right), the need to be regarded as intelligent causes them to fear that opposing anything claimed to be ‘scientific’ might lead to their being regarded as ignorant, and this fear overwhelms any ideological commitment to liberty that they might have. None of these factors apply to ‘ordinary’ people. This may well be the strongest argument for popular democracy and against the leadership of those ‘who know best.”
His lecture at the Global Warming Policy Foundation.