Dark Knowledge: A User’s Guide

02 May 2018

Last month on this blog I discussed the so-called Intellectual Dark Web (IDW), a loosely connected cadre of talking heads who address big ideas about science, politics, and philosophy in their podcasts. Over the past few years, IDW has developed into an academic counterculture, with an enormous and rapidly growing fan base.

One of the convictions that unites the movers and shakers of the IDW (who, by the way, are almost always men, so I’ll make no bones about using gendered language when referring to them), as well as their enthusiastic followers, is the conviction that large swathes of the academy have come under the thumb of fanatical leftists who suppress free thought and censor free speech in favor of the pernicious doctrine of “political correctness.” In particular, they often single out university departments in the humanities and social sciences as breeding grounds for toxic ideologies: places where students are “coddled” (a favorite term) rather than challenged, where radical professors pump students full of propaganda rather than educating them, and where robust intellectual engagement is, if not entirely dead, at the least terminally ill. In contrast, those who identify with the IDW typically promote it as an island of reason in a sea of folly: a safe space for tough-minded thinkers where intellectual responsibility reigns and untrammelled freedom of expression is the order of the day.

I think that it’s great to have alternative arenas for discussing questions about topics that matter for our individual and collective lives. And I think it’s wonderful that there are sites where unorthodox voices can be heard and where taken-for-granted orthodoxies can be challenged in ways that are accessible to a broad, non-specialist audience. But I have grave concerns about the way that this movement is unfolding.

Here’s why.

For all its faults and foolishness (and believe me, there’s no shortage of them) the academic world is constructed on a foundation of well-established systems for quality control that have been built up and refined for literally thousands of years. To be a credible academic, you’ve got to be prepared to engage with and be challenged by genuine experts—smart people who have studied their topic for years or decades, and who know the relevant literature inside out—and you’ve also got to rise to the challenge of satisfying time-honored standards for rational argumentation. These norms and structures promote an attitude of intellectual humility and caution (in fact, sometimes too much intellectual humility and caution) and they discourage academics from sounding off about topics that they don’t really understand. And when we foolishly blunder too far into territory that’s beyond our scholarly turf, we’re likely to be set right by others who are more knowledgeable or insightful.

Contrast this with the situation that obtains on the IDW, where YouTube views, Facebook likes, and Patreon donations substitute for peer review. In this alternative academic universe, pundits can freely lay claim to expertise and knowledge that they don’t possess, can make seemingly authoritative pronouncements about matters that are well outside their professional training, and can present arguments that don’t satisfy the minimal standards for rational discourse. And they can do all of these things with such breezy self-confidence, and with such dazzling displays of apparent erudition, that it’s easy to be carried away by the riptide of their rhetoric (especially when the rhetoric seems to validate one’s own biases).

Given all this, it’s important to figure out how to help people who don’t have specialized knowledge about the topics that are under discussion to take a constructively critical stance. I’ve given it a shot by putting together a list of twelve questions that are worth asking about the material that you might encounter online. I’ll share four of these with you right now and then cover the remaining eight in next month’s installment. The more of them that a person falls foul of, the more wary you should be about taking their message on board.

Imagine that you’re listening to a podcast by someone who I’ll call “Mr. Expert.”  You enjoy listening to Mr. Expert because he’s thought provoking, entertaining, articulate, and because he seems to have a handle on the truth.

Now, stand back and consider the following questions about what you’ve heard.

Does Mr. Expert denigrate those with whom he disagrees? This is important because if Mr. Expert’s aim is to get at the truth about some topic, and he disagrees with someone else’s view of the matter, then his focus should be on the soundness of his opponent’s arguments. One of the first things that every student learns in Logic 101 learns that an argument is sound only if its premises are true and its conclusion follows from those premises. That’s why it’s academically legit to cast doubt on the truth of someone’s premises or to show that even if their premises are true, they don’t lead to the conclusion that the other person thinks they do, but it’s not OK to ridicule or belittle those with whom you disagree, or to caricature their views in order to make them easy targets. So it’s a bad sign if Mr. Expert indulges in mockery, slurs, or other kinds of derogatory language rather than sticking with the content and structure of the arguments with which he disagrees. If he can’t make a case without doing this, then he doesn’t have a case to make.

Does Mr. Expert seem certain that he’s right?  If you’re interested in the pursuit of truth, then you’ve got to be open to the possibility that you’ve got things wrong. In fact, the rationale of philosophical dialogue from Socrates to the present has been to recruit smart people to help us root out our blind spots, confusions, biases, and errors in reasoning. Being certain that you are completely right and that those poor benighted people who disagree with you are completely wrong can be extraordinary seductive, but it’s also antagonistic to the spirit of responsible inquiry. When listening to Mr. Expert, ask yourself how entrenched he is in his beliefs. Does he seem certain that his views are correct and that those of his opponents are certainly wrong?  Are there any genuine indications of self-doubt? Does he acknowledge any weaknesses of his own position or point out that there are criticisms of it that deserve to be taken seriously? Does he ever admit to error or retract something that he’s previously said? Critical self-reflection is at the heart of intellectual responsibility, so if it’s lacking this is a red flag.

Does Mr. Expert act like he’s omniscient?  Acquiring a fund of expert knowledge is hard. Most scholars spend a lifetime trying to master one or two subdomains of their discipline, and nobody since the 18th century can reasonably claim to have encompassed the whole range of human knowledge. That’s why reputable scholars tend to tread carefully when opining on topics that lie outside their area of specialization. So, when listening to Mr. Expert, does he confidently pontificate on almost any topic? Does he offer answers to nearly every question that he’s asked or propose solutions for almost any problem presented to him? If so, it’s advisable to beef up your skepticism.

Does Mr. Expert acknowledge that there’s disagreement among the (real) experts?  It’s no exaggeration to say that there are controversies swirling around almost every important theoretical claim in the humanities and social sciences, and very often in the natural sciences as well. In all of these fields, it is common for experts to disagree about how facts should be interpreted or even about what the facts are. Such clashes of opinion are normal in the academy, and they drive the pursuit of knowledge forward. When specialists disagree, it’s reasonable for non-specialists to be neutral about which position is the correct one. After all, if the most well informed people in the world can’t agree, it would be loopy for someone who’s vastly less knowledgeable to make a call. But lay-people are often unaware that such controversies exist, and are likely to accept as settled claims that are in fact contentious. When listening to Mr. Expert, ask yourself if he gives listeners any inkling that there are experts who do not agree with what he has to say, and ask yourself whether he appeals only to those authorities who support his point of view, while remaining silent about those who cast aspersions on it.  

At this point you might be thinking something like “This isn’t fair! Why focus just on the IDW when others, from all sectors of the ideological spectrum, are just as culpable?” Quite right. I’ve focused on the Intellectual Dark Web because it has attracted so many ardent followers, and because it is associated with political currents that are of concern to me, but I trust that it’s obvious that the points that I’ve raised have much wider significance. In a world where vast amounts of misinformation is available at the stroke of a keypad, and where the algorithms that curate our social media are programmed to pander to our prejudices, it behooves all of us to be judicious consumers of information.