UNITED STATES—Why, in the 21st century, do we have so many ideologues and so few experts? At a time when our nation and our world have so many problems, why are so many people abandoning rationality?
OK, so what is an expert? There are two main types of expert. One type is someone who has spent a long time learning about or doing something and has in that time accumulated a vast amount of knowledge or expertise about something in particular. Examples of this kind of expert would be a master plumber or David Attenborough.
The other kind of expert is someone who has undergone rigorous academic training in a field of study and conducted work, or performed original research, in that subject in a peer-reviewed environment. Now, I am the last to say that the experts are always right, but I am the first to say that most expert opinions are a rational conclusion that is based upon something demonstrable. Say, for example, an engineer’s opinion about the structural integrity of a building or a bridge. Engineering has standards and practices that dictate what kind of an investigation the engineer should perform to collect factual information about the structure. There are agreed upon analytical tools that are used, usually involving pretty exact mathematics and, on the basis of this investigation and analysis, a conclusion is given, citing exactly what was done, how it was analyzed and what supports the conclusions. If contrary evidence is also found, it is typically included and a statement of why it did not change the engineer’s conclusion is provided.
Different fields work differently and many fields of expertise lack any kind of agreed upon standard of exact methodology: economics is a good example of a very inexact science. But, since economics is all about money and so many people are interested in money, it is also a science that has been severely polluted by ideology.
So, what is an ideologue? An Ideologue is an easier job than expert. An ideologue just has to say that they believe something to be true. It can be anything. If your ideology is that pigs can fly, you say that pigs fly or that everyone knows pigs can fly. You are stating what you believe to be correct, or at least what you want others to believe about pigs. There are many ideologues who say whatever is expedient. They say what people want to hear, and sometimes people pay them large sums of money to say these things, usually people with religious or political axes to grind.
There is some artistry in being an ideologue. If you just say something, people may not believe you. Expert ideologues usually start by saying several things that are completely uncontroversial. They say that the sky is blue and that the sea is salty. Then they throw in something else that they want everyone to think is just as obvious, and hope people don’t notice that the new thing doesn’t follow, and doesn’t belong, and isn’t actually something that is obviously true. The sky is blue, the sea is salty and Belgians make the best chocolate is an example of this kind of intellectual shell game. Saying that Belgian chocolate is good won’t make people stand up and object, but notice how the speaker has taken it a step further and proposed that it isn’t just pretty good, but the best. If the speaker then says that therefore European civilization is the best at everything, and is therefore the pinnacle of human achievement and that all the other world cultures are crap in comparison, then we’re really in ideologue territory.
Good examples of ideologues in the popular media include Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Anne Coulter and Glenn Beck. They are all card carrying ideologues. When I listen closely to their material, I hear how they start with generally agreed upon things, and gradually build upon them with misconnected ideas, and add unsubstantiated and entirely unrelated conclusions as if they were based upon the original facts.
Some people might call Bill Maher and Rachel Maddow ideologues, but they don’t qualify — not because of their politics, but because of their methodology. Mr. Maher is a self-identified comedian, like Jon Stewart. He is an entertainer and his job is making fun of stuff. Ms. Maddow is a journalist who reports what others say, citing sources and apologizing when what she has reported is incorrect. Both Maher and Maddow have significant liberal bias, but having bias does not in itself make someone an ideologue. Some people would call Stephen Colbert an ideologue. He does play the part of an ideologue. He plays it very well, but he is a satirist whose comedy is based upon the shoddy tricks and intellectual falsehoods implicit in extremist ideologies.
People like Vandana Shiva or Noam Chomksy are not ideologues, they are experts. They state strictly rational arguments based on widely agreed upon facts from well respected (and accurately cited) sources. If you read a Chomsky book or article, you will find hundreds of citations for almost every fact referred to in the text. If you look at these citations and read the source documents, you will find that they do say what Chomsky said that they said. When I perform the same exercise with a Glenn Beck or Anne Coulter work, I find practically no citations, except to other things that were written by the same author. And, when I read the reference, it often says something quite different from what it was supposed to have said.
So, what’s wrong with ideologues anyway? They often support irrational and unreasonable ideas. We now have the majority of a major political party that, for the first time in history, actively supports anti-science positions. This has happened largely because of broadcasters who make big profits from airing ideology masquerading as information, whose stock in trade is indoctrination, not journalism. They provide to a segment of the population what those people want to hear, and champion fear mongering and alarmist fantasies under the guise of entertainment and journalism.
When national opinion polls report that 54% of registered Republicans reject any part of Evolution as true, we have a big problem, much bigger than people believing in the “Yellow Peril” sold by William Randolph Hearst or the “Red Menace” of McCarthyism. This is willful fostering of ignorance and the deliberate denial of rational thought, in favor of a nicer, easier to swallow story. Sometimes people want to avoid admitting things that seem to contradict their religion. Sometimes they want to disbelieve in problems because solving those problems is hard, and requires them to make difficult choices. Quite often people do not want to believe that wrong decisions have been made in the past, and that people were harmed for ugly and unnecessary reasons.
Things are not real just because we want them to be real. Nothing is true because it would be better if it were true. Sometimes we have to face the plain facts, the reality of what is actually so, straight on, and not try to make facts conform to somebody’s holy books or some politician’s beautiful fairy tales.
Ideological journalism is the journalism of Josef Goebbels. It is not the exercise of free speech; it is extremist absolutism attempting to dethrone rational enlightenment. When laws and governance are based on ideas that are unrelated to reality, justice becomes irrational and dangerous. It imperils every democratic ideal on which this nation was founded. It is the doorway, through which tyranny enters, is lauded, and enshrined. It spells certain death for liberty and justice for all.