Academics don’t hold a monopoly on wisdom, insight

Recently Ben Shapiro, a conservative political commentator, columnist and author, was giving a talk at Ferris State University in Michigan, when a questioner stood up in an attempt to undercut Shapiro’s authority to speak on the issues he was there to talk about.

To the young man’s credit, he engaged in a respectful conversation with Shapiro; he didn’t mindlessly screech in protest.

Still, his general line of questioning was intended to cast doubt on Shapiro’s opinions because he is not a Ph.D.-level “expert.”

“What is your formal education background? A lot of people don’t know what your undergraduate degree was in,” the questioner began.

Ferris State University in Michigan. Michael Barera | Available via Creative Commons license

Ferris State University in Michigan. Michael Barera | Available via Creative Commons license

Shapiro answered that he had gone to UCLA and earned a degree in political science and then attended Harvard Law School.

The questioner continued, “So you don’t have, you wouldn’t consider yourself an expert in sociology?”

Shapiro mockingly noted that he didn’t consider sociology much of an expert field, and that he knows how to read a sociological study.

“What I’m getting at is that you’re not considered an expert in sociology, psychology, gender studies, lesbian dance theory, any of those things that you brought up tonight.”

“I don’t need a seven-year degree in sociology to know [expletive] when I hear it,” Shapiro shot back.

He then went on to disassemble the questioner’s point, which was that expertise and authority to speak on a topic flow from credentials. Such arguments are logical fallacies known as argumentum ad verecundiam or “appeal to authority,” and are centered around the false belief that if an “expert” believes something, it must be true, and “non-experts” have no standing to challenge.

The successful logistical completion of a field of study is, to far too many people, synonymous with expertise, and a magic trump card that automatically makes their opinion final and beyond debate.

There are caveats to this, of course. A credential in the hard sciences confers a level of actual expertise far more than one in the soft sciences. I can’t be taken seriously arguing string theory with Stephen Hawking, for instance.

But it has always seemed to me that the self-regard and pompous belief in the superiority of an academic increases with the level of subjectivity and abstraction in the field that they study in question.

It is at plague epidemic levels in the social sciences.

This is at the heart of conservative antipathy toward academia. The academic community too often believes their credential in and of itself makes one an expert with higher standing and authority to speak.

The “average” person knows, from experience, that some of the most well-credentialed people on the planet are the most hopelessly clueless, yet also the most convinced of their own superiority.

Now, I’ve never been among the typical grouping of American conservatives that denigrate an academic education. Indeed, I respect education a great deal, and value it, and I myself have often thought about pursuing an advanced degree of some kind in the next several years.

But while I am not reflexively hostile to academia, I do see the same arrogance that most other conservatives do, and I agree in totality with Shapiro’s rejection of appeal to authority as a valid debate tactic.

Study is valuable, and important. It is also incomplete, and offers those in an academic bubble a perverted view of the subject they study, and a false sense of awareness regarding that subject.

In political academia, the courses you study relate to everything from the structure of government to political philosophy.

Do you know how much of that crosses over with what you experience in the worlds of public policy, lobbying and political campaigns? As a practitioner of roughly 15 years in that industry, I can tell you, not very much.

Yet any time a newspaper needs to quote an “expert” to analyze what something means in politics, it is the academic who is quoted, even if their level of understanding is very limited.

The supposed authority of advanced study doesn’t really translate to actual expertise, is my point.

What it all comes down to is this: We should value education, and yes, we should also listen carefully to those who have devoted their lives to study in a particular field.

But wisdom and insight are not the express domain of those with advanced degrees, and in many cases those human characteristics are inversely proportional to one’s education level.

So some advice to those who hold those higher benchmarks with such regard: Stop deifying academia, and most of us would stop denigrating it.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.