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The wisdom of the mob

November 4th, 2009 · 2 Comments · Kudos

James Rainey of the LA Times examines the abuse hurled at Amy Wallace for her excellent coverage of vaccine rejectionism, and laments the rise of the Google scholar. “Readers who brush up against expertise believe they have become experts,” he writes. “The common man rebels against the notion that anyone — not professionals, not the government and certainly not the media — speaks with special authority.”

Without the internet, America’s anti-vaccine movement would be kept in check, with periodic flare ups related to political climate and disease outbreaks. The rise of computer literacy, high-speed Internet connections, blogging and social networks, says Rainey:

“has emboldened the common man to tell his own story and, sometimes, to disdain trappings like a university degree, professional training or corporate affiliation. The citizen activists often frame themselves as truth tellers fighting against an establishment that is hopelessly venal. No matter that the corruption, routinely claimed, is seldom supported by more than innuendo.”

In our brave new an age of instant information, when virtual communities of like-minded individuals can coalesce and plot in real time, the expert is seen more and more as the middle man who stands in the way of wish fulfillment and easy answers. Why listen to the experts, ask vaccine rejectionists, when you can buy direct from the factory? And thus we have D-list comediennes dispensing medical advice, and talk show hosts inviting crackpot religious figures and celebrity wives to talk about the H1N1 vaccine. We have become, as Thomas Friedman says, as dumb as we want to be.

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2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 isles // Nov 6, 2009 at 6:01 pm

    Indeed, the mere fact of having the education and experience to qualify one as an expert is now often taken as a sign that one is hopelessly enmeshed with the conspiracy to maintain the status quo. Similarly, when authorities produce voluminous evidence in support of the mainstream position, this is viewed as a sign that the mainstream is desperately manufacturing fake evidence because it is so threatened by challenging views. Sad.

  • 2 David N. Andrews M. Ed., C. P. S. E. // Nov 15, 2009 at 2:53 am

    Isles: “Indeed, the mere fact of having the education and experience to qualify one as an expert is now often taken as a sign that one is hopelessly enmeshed with the conspiracy to maintain the status quo. ”

    I’ve found this to be very much what happens. Purely because I have a master’s degree that specialised in the autism thing particularly, it actually stands against me with the Google scholar types. Notwithstanding that they haven’t had – on the whole – the same amount of time to lear:n how science is done, the pros and cons of different types of research methods, the relative merits of various statistical tests, and so on; nor have they taken the time to review and get to grips with even the most basic theoretical background to much of what they read on the net; and they certainly haven’t had their ‘learning’ assessed by people who have the necessary training to know how to assess learning! At one time, I could quite happily accept that someone without the necessary piece of paper from a university could still actually have a good grasp of knowledge in a particular area. Nowadays, the validity of that concept has been shot to shit, with the rise of the Google scholar.

    Isles: “Similarly, when authorities produce voluminous evidence in support of the mainstream position, this is viewed as a sign that the mainstream is desperately manufacturing fake evidence because it is so threatened by challenging views.”

    Indeed. This stance of theirs comes from the fact that they have no actual training in research methods and so have no clue how to discern the good research from the really piss-poor. And then – when you point out the reasons why the research THEY choose to go with is actually very much of the piss-poor type – they have a go at you for the reason you outllined above.

    Isles: “Sad.”

    Not just sad. It’s frigging dangerous.

    A little learning is a dangerous thing. To understand a field well enough to evaluate the research done in that field needs a LOT of learning. And the typical Google University ‘graduate’ has not done that much learning at all.

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