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Declining Trust in - Rising Fear of - our expert castes
David Brin   Apr 28, 2017   Contrary Brin  

Having recently participated in the worldwide March for Science, I can only repeat my assertion that the “War on Science” is about a lot more than nerds and EPA grants.  You cannot name a fact-centered profession—from teaching and medicine, to accounting and economics, to the U.S. military officer corps—that’s not under direct assault

Given that these professions created the vast profusion of wealth that uplifted our nation and planet, this is not a matter of classic "left" or "right." So how in the world did we get to this point?

In the recent issue of Foreign Affairs, Tom Nichols (professor at the Naval War College) appraises:"How America Lost Faith in Expertise And Why That's a Giant Problem." An incisive discussion -- from his book, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge

Nichols is cogent and on-target. But today I want to dig even deeper, down to the very roots of this phenomenon, showing that the War on Fact People is rooted in core mythologies that all Americans share! (Along with millions of others, around the world.)

I'll get back to that. But first, what some others are saying about it.

== Fear is key ==  

Let's start with civil servants.  “Declining trust in government has spread across nearly all advanced industrial democracies since the 1960s/1970s,” writes political scientist Russell Dalton“Regardless of political history, electoral system, or style of government, most contemporary publics are less trustful of government than they were in the era of their grandparents.”  
This despite the fact that we are richer and better off by almost any measure you can name.

We all knew that Congress is the least trusted institution in American life, according to polls (yet, in each district, we keep re-electing our own crook.)  But surprisingly, churches have also taken a steep hit, and are now trusted by much less than half. Well, maybe not so surprising, giving the hysterical harpies who make up most of the boomer generation of pastors.  

Moreover “at last count, 1 in 4 Americans supports the idea of their state seceding from the union.”  Oy. What is driving this?

In a recent Stone Kettle blog, Jim Wright says: 
      "Conservatives, and many liberals too, have been conditioned by three generations of fear-mongering. It’s always something to be afraid of. Commies and Rooskies,  Red Chinamen and Black Panthers, Ebola, the brown horde south of the border, gangs and gays and atheism, with terrorists around every corner....

"75 years ago, in America’s darkest hour, a crippled man in a wheelchair told Americans that the only thing to fear was fear itself. Americans hitched up their pants, squared their shoulders and faced their fears. Today? Politicians tell people to be afraid. Media networks  invent things to fear, from Truthers to Pizzagate. Americans are addicted... we wallow in fear. But conservatives own the market...."
 
Wright is a veteran with a tough, rural background and the sort who might, in a different setting, be amiably libertarian-conservative. But he is also science and progress loving, sane and hence deeply angry over the hijacking of American conservatism. Indeed, he is on target about the role fear plays in our civil war. I'll get back to it soon.

== Don't trust people who know stuff! ==  

All right. I promised a set of different perspectives on why tens of millions of Americans -- who benefited  spectacularly from the rise of science and other kinds of expertise -- let themselves get talked into bilious rage toward all expert professions. I've been exploring this for years. This capsule summary (with links) reveals hidden factors:

1) Suspicion of Authority or SoA is the core lesson taught in almost every Hollywood film along with countless popular novels and songs, going back to the origins of the Republic. As a general reflex, this core mythology kept us free! No authority figures should be exempt. "Faceless bureaucrats" and "faceless corporations," snooty academics and zillionaire oligarchs. Any power center could be a source of Big Brother -- including elites you happen to like. 

And yes, in theory, one can imagine a technocratic dictatorship of nerdy know-it-alls -- pushy, conformist, patronizing perfessors. It's unlikely, for dozens of reasons! (Have you ever tried to herd cats? Now try getting ten million highly competitive, confidently curious and irksomely well-informed scientific "cats" to agree on an Orwellian agenda.) 

But sure, it's healthy for some citizens to express wariness toward that 'elite.' Even (ungratefully) toward all of the smartypants castes who engendered way more than half our wealth. Skepticism and criticism are fine.  Only...

2) One elite using another as distraction.

... alas, all this ire toward nerds-as-dangerous-oppressors is blatantly a scam! One that has latched onto Suspicion of Authority (SoA) as a propaganda tool. 

We've seen zillionaire oligarchs finance relentless propaganda -- on Fox and alt-right media -- aimed at riling millions into hating knowledge 'elites.' They accomplish this by stirring up that pre-existing SoA reflex to aim in just one direction. Never at neo-feudal aristocrats!  Always at the very fact-people who stand in oligarchy's way. 

Flattery is a big part of the technique. Hollywood teaches us to admire authority-resisting underdogs!  So every American political movement (yes, liberalism too) portrays its followers as brave underdogs, striving for righteousness against the momentum of a majority that marches, lemming-like toward cliffs of tyranny.

This approach has been especially effective in neutralizing the Libertarian movement.  In theory, libertarianism - which distills the very core of Suspicion of Authority - should have offered millions of liberty-oriented Republicans a place to flee, upon seeing that their party has gone mad. Given that the GOP now stands for repression of both economic and personal freedom, this should have been a no-brainer. 

Yet, there has been to mass desertion of Republicans to the Libertarian Party. Elsewhere I explain why those millions of libertarian-minded republicans have clung to a loyalty that makes no sense.

3) An Age of Amateurs.  

There's a wholesome side to questioning the authority of know-it-all experts. As I explain in this video, the 20th century's professionalization of everything served humanity well, but could not continue. That vast trend is fast being replaced by an era when hundreds of millions will have side avocations, wherein they are almost as capable as their day-work. 

It's already happening with burgeoning expertise among amateurs, ranging from black-smithing to inventing to volunteerism to (yes) science!

Naturally, there will be an adversarial edge to this. People rightfully fear that scientists will act like old-time priests and lords and guild-masters, erecting barriers, preventing interested outsiders from joining the fun. And yes, at times we do see glimmers of old fashioned guild-protection. Fortunately, it's not substantial. 

Today's experts have been largely welcoming of the amateur trend. Scientists compete with each other to get on PBS shows explaining the latest discoveries! And there are now countless opportunities for citizen science -- ways for aficionados to get involved in projects in astronomy, biology, ecology and so on.

Still, suspicion of jealous, careerist exclusion lurks, and the oligarchy's propagandists have exploited it.

4) Back to fear

As Frank Herbert put it in Dune -- "fear is the mind-killer." One study showed that just mentioning the word death in passing will bias what fraction of people soon after are willing to sit next to a person of another race, or prioritize terrorism, or even listen to scientific facts. And yes, study after study shows that Republicans are more fearful than Democrats

Says Sheldon Solomon (author of The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life) in Human Mortality Denial and Terror Management: “When people are reminded of their mortality, they think more about money, alcohol, consumption, short-term satisfactions, close-in loyalties and chauvinistic politics.”

As I've described elsewhere, fear controls so many of our perceptions, such as where we perceive our "horizons."  
   Horizons of worry -- whether over your next meal, your next harvest or the ecosystem a century from now.
   Horizons of inclusion -- whether you hunger to expand the tribal circle to include others... or resent constant pressure to do so.
   Horizons of acceptable change -- whether you dread/resent it (and the expert castes who propel change) or else hunger to leave feudalism far behind us and seek a better tomorrow. Perhaps even inspired by science fiction. 

Going back to Jim Wright: "Republicans have been leveraging that fear to get elected for decades, they’re coming for your guns, they coming for your religion, they’re coming for your daughters, they’re coming for your jobs, they’re coming for your way of life. Be afraid! Be afraid!  Trump was just better at tapping into that fear than anybody else."
 
Is this consistent with the bluster and macho preening of so many red-confederates? How can it not be? Blue Americans live in the cities that are terror targets, yet they mostly want to get on with life and big projects, aware that death-by-terrorist ranks way low on the list of likely dangers. 

Our parents in the "Greatest Generation" experienced more loss during any week than we have from the entire War on Terror. Our greatest defiance of terrorists would be to deny them our fear. 

5) The Strong Father.

Here's one that a few smart pundits have at least mentioned. The brilliant master of language, George Lakoff, tried to tell the Clinton campaign they were combatting Trump in all the wrong ways. 

“They decided that the best way to defeat Trump was to use his own words against him. So they showed these clips of Trump saying outrageous things. Now what Trump was doing in those clips was saying out loud things that upset liberals, and that’s exactly what his followers liked about him. So of course they were showing what actually was helping Trump with his supporters."

Indeed, why would fundamentalist Christians support the most opposite-to-Jesus human on the planet? As I explain elsewhere, it is because he so galls and infuriates all the same people they also hate!

Lakoff continues: “All progressives and liberals have a moral worldview, what I described as the nurturant-parent worldview. (But despite his many anti-hispanic statements,) many Latinos voted for Trump. Why? Because “strict father” morality is big in Latino culture. The campaign was not looking at values. They were looking at demographics, and they missed the role of values.”  

Indeed, this is why I will soon post my big demand!  That the Democrats recruit 3000 retired U.S. Army and Marine colonels and Navy Captains to go forth and run in every deep red district in America.  We have stronger fathers.  Strong enough to be calmly confident. Strong enough to not be hysterics. Strong enough not to be afraid of strong women.  Strong enough not to be afraid of facts and science.

6) The Old Switcheroo

Often, lies are rooted in truths. Take, for example, how propagandists justify the War on Science - and against every single knowledge caste - from teaching and economics to medicine and now the Officer corps. They begin by rooting it in an aphorism that everyone knows to be true!

"Just because someone is smart and knows a lot, that doesn't automatically make them wise."

Well, when it's put that way, I doubt you'd find a single human on the planet who disagrees. We are all delusional, at one level or another. Which is why science - one of the most competitive of all fields - teaches us to admit "I might be wrong."

Only watch the way the War on Science and Smartypants is conveyed on Fox etc. Listen carefully, and you'll notice that the aphorism is implicitly re-stated as:

"Just because someone is smart and knows a lot, that automatically makes them unwise."

How else could these svengalis get millions to reflexively despise all the folks who study and  understand ten thousand topics... including fine-grained, cellular, gas-vapor models that accurately model weather and climate on six planets? How else to cast spite toward the men and women you will run to, when cancer looms?

I have found that the best way to fight this sneaky attack is to lay it bare, as I just did. And then to point out again and again that scientists are among the most competitive humans our species every produced.  And hence, when they agree on something, perhaps it us unwise to ignore them.

7) The June Trauma.

All very well and bad. But I think the pain and anger run even deeper! Underneath all the confederate hatred lies a grudge with some real basis. Something searingly traumatic that Blue America does to Red (or gray) America every year... 

...stealing their children.

What hurts is an annual brain drain. Every June, at the local high school that's the center of all life in rural towns, the brightest kids weep and hug and swear to keep in touch… then scoot as fast as they can to universities and bright cities. 

 
See this portrayed in... Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, by Arlie Russell Hochschild.

Those cities and universities and smartypants fact-professions thereupon, at a deep, psychic level, become associated with blandishment and the stealing of hope! Quite literally the stealing of your children.

The city as Mordor. The university as a witches coven. The "fact people" as satanic. 

And yes, it is that bad, boys and girls. The very same cities and universities that created the wonders and medicines and toys and wealth that citizens take for granted... those glittering realms are viewed (with some cause) as child-stealing molochs.

Face the truth: it will do no good to use facts and evidence to show we aren't Sauron worshippers. Or that Blue America is in no sense less moral than Red America. (Compare rates of teen sex/pregnancy, domestic violence, gambling, divorce, obesity, STDs, crime, bullying, and show us the purported rural superiority.) Sure we must confront lies and slander, but actual victory will come only if we start by acknowledging these undercurrents.

There are ways to deal with each of these underlying causes... but we won't accomplish a thing by ignoring that they are there.
David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."



COMMENTS

(But despite his many anti-hispanic statements,) many Latinos voted for Trump. Why? Because “strict father” morality is big in Latino culture.

Agreed.

Horizons of inclusion —whether you hunger to expand the tribal circle to include others… or resent constant pressure to do so

Pressure to expand the tribal circle to include more male-dominated tribes in a world that is Man’s World.

Indeed, why would fundamentalist Christians support the most opposite-to-Jesus human on the planet? As I explain elsewhere, it is because he so galls and infuriates all the same people they also hate!

Plus because electing a crooked woman and her rapist husband into the Oval office a second time in 20 years was not something the electorate relished. For those who want a woman as POTUS, the scandals ensuing if Hillary had been elected president last November would have been extremely unpleasant.

Trump was just better at tapping into that fear than anybody else

A response to this is difficult to verbalize.  At any rate, we can both agree that Trump’s rise is ominous yet we have different reasons. You might personalize your reasons in the form of Trump himself- whereas I perceive Trump as a complete nonentity. As Reagan, Trump is an ‘ordinary’ [e.g. nonentity] person doing extraordinary things. IMO only the solid Midwestern Pence holds any significance.. an unspoken reason for his having been suggested to Trump, for the vice presidential slot, to begin with.

Trump did not elect himself; Trump is responsible for his actions now that he is no longer a civilian, albeit his being elected was the responsibility of the professionals and volunteers surrounding him. One cannot depict Trump as both a Svengali (he is not) and at the same time a nonentity (which he is).

Now for the depressing part: America created contemporary Trump—Donald Trump did not create contemporary America. As you say, America is wealthier and better off, however corruption goes along with wealthier and better off.
There exist two Internets, the Legitinet, and the underground Internet; the underground internet being the larger. Why is the underground Internet larger? Because corruption today is greater now that possibilities for feeding such corruption exist.
And such corruption is connected to the rise of Trump.

Not that you are mistaken in what you write in this article—it is what you neglect in it. Errors of omission.
 

The very fact that you would use the word “castes” to describe the various categories in society is a Freudian slip to the intrinsic superiority you feel over others who may disagree with you. The fact that you think it all boils down to those who are “educated” vs those who aren’t, is a akin to the kind of depiction the Nazis used to malign Jews, leading up to the 3rd Reich.

“And yes, in theory, one can imagine a technocratic dictatorship of nerdy know-it-alls—pushy, conformist, patronizing perfessors. It’s unlikely, for dozens of reasons! (Have you ever tried to herd cats? Now try getting ten million highly competitive, confidently curious and irksomely well-informed scientific “cats” to agree on an Orwellian agenda.) “

It’s already happened - the goose stepping pro-vaccine agenda, demonizing those who question it when the real issue is the simple fact that vaccine companies are protected from being sued for creating vaccines that harm people. It gives them the right to throw any kind of crap in those vials, with people like you providing them the cover against the people who rightfully so, fear such power given over their lives.

The same with GMOs. Forget the so-called “science” supporting that they’re safe, I want to know why the GMO people fight tooth, nail and claw to prevent the public from knowing that there’s GMO in their food, if their so damn safe. And once again, your “caste” is right there - fighting for the GMOs.

The entire “Oh we’re scientists and we’re under attack…Save SCIENCE”, propaganda line has already gotten the job done. See, this is where you spin your BS - your argument about cats is only true to a point. Beyond that - to a perceived outside threat that you and your ilk like to gin up so much, unity to an agenda is not rocket science. I know. I aced poli-sci and have friends that do rocket science. And you’re no rocket scientist.

You know Brin? There’s no question where you fit in the science vs humanity issue. As repugnant as I find that, it’s a thrill to see someone so obvious in their disdain that it actually hurts their cause…

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