the problem with experts

Alastair Roberts writes,

Trump’s argument against vaccines works because people no longer trust the authorities — the governments, the scientists, the medical professionals, etc. — who tell them that they are safe. The biased mainstream media, the liberal elite, lying politicians, activist judges, crony capitalists, politically correct academics, the conspiring government, scientists bought off by big business, hypocritical religious leaders: all are radically corrupt, motivated by self-interest, and radically untrustworthy. In such a situation, people’s realm of trust can become more tribal in character, focusing upon people of their own class, background, friendship groups, family, locality, ethnicity, nationality, religion, etc. and deeply suspicious of and antagonistic towards people who do not belong to those groups. This collapse of trust hasn’t occurred because the general public has suddenly become expert in the science behind vaccinations and discovered the authorities’ claims concerning vaccines to be scientifically inaccurate. The trust that has been lost was never directed primarily at such scientific claims. Rather, it was a trust in the persons and agencies that presented us with them.

I think this is all quite right, but I think there’s another important element to the story: the creation, largely through radio and television, of a distinctive class. When a complex or otherwise disputed issue arises, the media look for informants, and those informants they call “experts.” The problem is that the term conflates several varieties of expertise and non-expertise. An “expert in infectious diseases” from the Centers for Disease Control is followed by an “expert in the paleo diet,” who is then succeeded by an “expert in political polling,” and then the hour is wrapped up by a visit from a “relationships expert.”

Some of these people don’t know anything about anything. Others have deep learning in rigorously maintained fields of knowledge. But they have all been folded into the class of “expert.” And so when some of them are proved to be empty heads in empty suits, the reputation of the whole class is compromised. And that’s how you get a situation in which all experts are distrusted — in which their very designation as possessing expertise is just a big red flag.

readerly triage

In the first five pages of The Marvelous Clouds, John Durham Peters says that media are

  • “devices of information”
  • “agencies of order”
  • “constitutive parts of … our ecological and economic systems”
  • “vessels and environments”
  • “containers of possibility that anchor our existence”
  • “vehicles that carry and communicate meaning”
  • “the means by which meaning is communicated”
  • “infrastructures of data and control”
  • “enabling environments that provide habitats for diverse forms of life”
  • “civilizational ordering devices”

It’s obvious that these definitions, while sometimes complementary, are also sometimes fundamentally incompatible: a device that is also a vessel that is also an anchor….

So I set the book down and thought for a while. Then I picked it up again, and thumbed through it. I saw some pages about clocks and sundials, and some others about clouds (the clouds of the book’s title, I presume), and some others about Google. The pages on timekeeping looked good, but I’ve read a number of books about timekeeping already. I couldn’t tell, at a brief glance, about the others.

I looked at those opening pages again. Three possibilities presented themselves to me. The first is that Peters is a demanding, allusive writer who works not by some ploddingly systematic outline but rather by a Shandean association of ideas. The second is that he actually has a logical outline but prefers, either for aesthetic reasons or because he values esoteric writing, to obscure it and to allow his readers to figure out the structure for themselves. The third is that his thinking is simply disorganized and incoherent.

Some of the best books I have ever read — fiction and nonfiction alike — have been governed (or “governed”) by Shandean procedure: Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy; but that style demands a great deal of readers, and when it fails it fails catastrophically. I have been exhilarated by a few Shandean books; I have been infuriated by a great many that attempt that style without success. The same is true for works (Joyce’s Ulysses is the paradigmatic example) that are highly ordered but hide their organizational principles.

When you’re trying to decide what to read you do a (formal or informal) risk/reward analysis. You think about how much time and attention you’re being asked to invest in this text; you estimate the rewards you’re likely to get in a best-case and in a worst-case scenario. I did all that and put Peters’s book aside.

features and featurelessness

I like the general theme of this post very much — we do pay a price, often too high a price, for adding features to our software (and other things) — but this paragraph is wrong:

A perfectly blank sheet of white paper is a tool of infinite possibility. For input you could use a pencil, a pen, a crayon, a marker, a stamp, a brush or more. You could use all of those at once. You can write or draw or paint in any direction. Even multiple directions on the same sheet. You can use any color you want. How you enter data onto it and how that information is structured seems almost limitless. That flexibility and power is available to you because of [its] lack of features. In fact, it is featureless — devoid of them.

No, a sheet of paper has many features — traits — and they are worth noting. Compared to most things in our world, it is remarkably expansive in the two dimensions of height and width, considering its lack of depth. It’s also flexible and foldable. These features are sometimes wonderful (e.g., when you want to write a detailed letter and you only have one sheet of paper, which you can fold into a small square and stick in your back pocket) and sometimes regrettable (e.g., when the letter gets all crimped from staying in your pocket, or when you can't find anything flat and solid to write on). Most of the paper we see every day is also designed so as to receive quite easily all sorts of marks and impressions: the same sheet of paper can go through many different kinds of printers, can be typed on with a typewriter, and, as the post notes, can be marked on by pencils, pens, markers, paint brushes, and who knows what else. This is a feature, not featurelessness. Curiously enough, a piece of paper is rarely square, and as a rectangle offers us the choice of portrait or landscape mode; however, once one of those modes has been chosen it’s not possible to change completely to the other. Unless you turn the page over. We find the spatial proportions of an ordinary piece of paper — or a stack of such pieces, in the form of a codex or notebook — so appealing that we design electronic readers to resemble it. We like its receptiveness to marking so much that we keep hoping for someone to design a really excellent tablet-and-stylus computer. A plain sheet of paper, then, has a great many features, and all of them are worth thinking about. Similarly, when I write in a text editor rather than a word processor, that’s not because my text editor has fewer features than Microsoft Word, but rather because the features it does have are better suited to the task of writing.

Then, Voyager

Voyager (which I mentioned in a previous post) was one of the coolest companies around in the Nineties; I was a devoted customer. I bought Voyager Expanded Books: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World (though it may not have had that title then). Books on floppy disk! Annotatable! Variable text sizing! — really, they were amazingly similar to Kindle books, except on my Mac. If I remember rightly, If Monks Had Macs was on floppy too, though at some point Voyager’s products shifted to CD-ROM. I believe the first CD-ROM I ever bought was Voyager’s edition of Art Spiegelman’s Maus: looking through its collection of period documents, commentary by Spiegelman, and taped interviews with his father, I felt that I had entered some brave new world. But trying to read the book on screen was annoying as hell (screens weren’t very large in those days). I bought a “tour of the Louvre,” some kind of “animals of the world” disc featuring a tiny movie with narration by James Earl Jones, and a collection of simply animated folk songs of the world. Only the last captured the attention of my son, then a toddler: he would sit on my lap for an hour watching and listening to the Kookaburra song and “Shalom Aleichem” and some haunting Swedish song that I can’t quite recall now. Good times, good times. Voyager was state of the art then — plus, most of their stuff was written in my beloved HyperCard — and I probably thought that they had identified the future of multimedia communications. What I didn't know, and probably what Voyager didn't know either, was that this nascent entity called the World Wide Web was about to change everything. It’s interesting, in light of subsequent history, to note that the one Voyager product line that has survived and thrived is the one that might have seemed least innovative at the time: the Criterion Collection of classic films.

"I will hate you till the day I die"

We interrupt this hiatus for this message from your host. The other day I had an email exchange that went something like this: Anon. Why did you say those terrible things about me a few years ago? Me. I didn't. I explained to you at the time that I didn't. [expressions of extreme irritation redacted here and elsewhere] Anon. That doesn't change the fact that you said terrible things about me. Me. Wait . . . Yes, it does. I wasn’t talking about you, I was talking about someone else. Anon. You ought to be ashamed of yourself. You need to take responsibility for your words. Me. [pastes in quotations proving that I was talking about someone else] Anon. [silence] Sigh. Well, at least I’m not Caleb Crain, whose review of Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work got this response, on Caleb’s blog, from de Botton himself:

Caleb, you make it sound on your blog that your review is somehow a sane and fair assessment. In my eyes, and all those who have read it with anything like impartiality, it is a review driven by an almost manic desire to bad-mouth and perversely depreciate anything of value. The accusations you level at me are simply extraordinary. I genuinely hope that you will find yourself on the receiving end of such a daft review some time very soon – so that you can grow up and start to take some responsibility for your work as a reviewer. You have now killed my book in the United States, nothing short of that. So that's two years of work down the drain in one miserable 900 word review. You present yourself as 'nice' in this blog (so much talk about your boyfriend, the dog etc). It's only fair for your readers . . . to get a whiff that the truth may be more complex. I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.

Well now. That’s something. And then this follow-up:

The reason I was led to respond to this review – and I have never done something like this before – is the sheer vindictive lunacy of the accusations levelled against me. My response may seem deranged, but only if you hold in mind two things: the book I've written and what the reviewer said about it. The gap is so large that this goes way beyond a casual and quite understandable case of a reviewer not liking a book. Everyone is allowed their own taste and I'd be the last person to force a consensus. However, there's a point at which a review becomes so angry, cruel and mean-spirited that perspective just disappears and one is into new and uncharted terrain. I'm responding to this review as a way of proposing that forgiveness is perhaps not always the only option when the provocation has been enormous.

Goodness. I didn't even think it was that harsh a review. De Botton also made his displeasure known through Twitter — though apparently he removed those tweets — and he isn't the only one:

Novelist Alice Hoffman was so enraged last weekend by a lacklustre review in the Boston Globe – her new novel, The Story Sisters, apparently "lacks the spark of [her] earlier work" – that she tweeted furiously: "Roberta Silman in the Boston Globe is a moron. How do some people get to review books? Now any idiot can be a critic." She completed a comprehensive act of revenge by tweeting Silman's phone number and email address so her followers could "tell her what u think of snarky critics".

Instant communication means, among other things, the ability to instantly say things that you may well regret for the rest of your life. I don't think Hoffman and de Botton exactly shine in these exchanges. My own view, as someone who has written negative reviews and been on the receiving end of them, is that if you want to put your thoughts before the public and be paid for it, you simply have to accept, as part of the deal, that some people won't like your writing. When your response to a negative review is to shout for all the world to hear that the reviewer is an “idiot,” or, worse yet, you tell the reviewer directly that “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make” — well, you simply give the impression that you are full to overflowing with preening self-regard. Of course it hurts to have a book you’ve slaved over slammed or dismissed. And in those cases there’s nothing wrong with letting off steam with your family or friends. I think “dismissed” is probably worse than “slammed”: among the responses to my books, the one that most bothered me was Adam Gopnik’s cursory kiss-off in The New Yorker of my biography of C. S. Lewis, and I may have made the odd unkind comment about Gopnik over pints with my buddies. However, I can honestly say that I do not hate Adam Gopnik and do not want to see his career destroyed. And more important, I didn't share my every uncharitable thought with the whole world. Some websites may be disappearing, but this much is for sure: if you’ve said anything online that really, really embarrasses you, it’ll be available forever.

don't forget magazines

Following up on Farhad Manjoo’s love letter to newspapers: Here is Michael Hirschorn’s mash note to The Economist:

For a magazine that effectively blogged avant la lettre, The Economist has never had much digital savvy. It offered a complex mix of free and paid content (rarely a winning strategy) until two years ago and was so unprepared for the Internet that it couldn’t even secure as its Web domain. (It later tried, unsuccessfully, to claim the URL.) Today, access to the site is free of charge, excepting deep archival material, but while editors have made some desultory efforts at adding social-networking features, most of the magazine’s readers seem to have no idea the site exists. While other publications whore themselves to Google, The Huffington Post, and the Drudge Report, almost no one links to The Economist. It sits primly apart from the orgy of link love elsewhere on the Web. This turns out to have been a lucky accident. Unlike practically all other media “brands,” The Economist remains primarily a print product, and it is valued accordingly. In other words, readers continue to believe its stories have some value. As a result, The Economist has become a living test case of the path not taken by Time and Newsweek, whose Web strategies have succeeded in grabbing eyeballs (Time has 4.7 million unique users a month, and Newsweek has 2 million, compared with The Economist’s 700,000, according to one measure) while dooming their print products to near irrelevance.

I wonder if the return-to-print crowd is getting bigger? I can't tell, not yet anyway.

just a moment in time

Bill James, so-called "guru of baseball statistics" — he hates that moniker — and general Really Smart Guy, on the past and future of newspapers :

You and I entered the scene at a certain point, where each city had one or two big newspapers which had hundreds and hundreds of features, and they had these things when we were 10 years old and learning to read and they had them when we were 25 years old and 35 years old, so we tended to think of that as the natural and permanent order of the universe — but it wasn't; it was just a moment in time; the newspapers were very different in 1935 and very different in 1935 from 1910 and hugely different in 1910 from 1885.

Eventually the newspapers — as a natural outcome of processes that began in 1836 — became SO big and so expensive that they were dinosaurs, unable to compete with smaller and lighter information providers.

We're back to 1836 now, in a sense; everybody who wants to has his own "newspaper", and it's tough to know who is good and who is reliable and who isn't, but the same processes are still running. The blogs will get bigger; the good ones are hiring a second helper and a third and fourth, and we'll spend a century or more sorting things out and re-creating the market. It's hard, but it's not a bad thing. It's a good thing.

Hat tip to Nathan Bierma , who got it from someone else, but that's how the internet goes.


I really love Scott McCloud's seminal guide Understanding Comics, but in general I'm not a big fan of McCloud's work. And that work hasn't gotten better as, for the last decade or so, he has explored web-based and other post-print media in what seem to be uncertain and half-hearted ways. A case in point is his long-unfinished web comic The Right Number, whose format develops from a single strategy: each panel — or "panel" — contains at its center a tiny rectangle that, when clicked on, comes forward as the next panel. It's okay, I guess, but it gives the comic the feel of being a PowerPoint or Keynote presentation. For me that's not a great vibe (even though I think Keynote may be the best app Apple makes). I was then reminded me of a rather intriguing new web-based presentation app, Prezi , which allows you (really kinda forces you) to create presentations that zoom in and out and around, making not images but text highly animated. And this in turn reminded me of some of the experiments at Usetext  that have paragraphs emerging from other paragraphs which they displace and then return to. All this is sort of cool, I guess, but it is always working against, or at least stretching, the nature of text — as concrete poetry does quite consciously — and that gets tiresome after a while. Sometimes after a short while. Most of the people I know who have tried Prezi say it makes them seasick. I wonder if this is a temporary or a permanent phenomenon? That is, I wonder if people will eventually get used to animated texts and find animation normal, or whether these strategies will always be resisted by text itself?