There are some topics about which one can have some vague impressions that feel correct, but you just can’t organize your thoughts in such a way so that you can communicate those impressions with any coherence. These are just gut instincts that are broadly correct, but lack the details or insider knowledge to pin it all down in a tidy, easy to communicate package.
One of those topics for me is the rise of the fake nerd. Everywhere you look these days, someone is whipping out statistics or studies to make a point. In fact, you cannot make a point without presenting something to back it up. No matter how obvious, no one takes anyone’s word for anything in public discourse. Even if you are the leading expert, you better be armed with a pile of studies and statistics.
Go on a site like Marginal Revolution and state that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West and someone will demand a link to a study backing up the claim. That’s not too much of an exaggeration. When I used to post there, someone once challenged my statement that drug use rates are higher in cities than in the suburbs. They asked for a link, as if this was a new bit of information for them.
My impression, my sense of it, is that otherwise smart people have become incredibly narrow in their understanding of the world. If they cannot find numbers to suggest there is a probability of the sun rising in the East, then they don’t consider it as an item in the realm of the possible. Data driven debate is a blinkered debate, so much so that even the obvious can fall outside their field of vision.
Then there is the inability to speculate. I wonder if this is not tied to the politically correct culture in the academy. Since straying too far from approved dogma can get you exiled, reliance on statistics and the work of others creates a safe space. If you’re not saying anything new, then you you are not saying anything dangerous. Since data is sacred, people can lard up their work with useless statistics and inoculate themselves against heresy charges.
A good example that comes to mind is Nate Silver and his inability to see Trump coming. Audascious Epigone did some posts on this last month. Silver has created a nice racket for himself analyzing and weighting polls. Since there’s nothing but risk in looking outside what conventional wisdom says is possible, he studiously avoids it. Trump was considered an impossibility, so Silver’s model said he could not exist. That was the safe place.
That’s not an indictment of math or the use of statistics. The practical application of mathematics is an essential part of modern life. You cannot appreciate baseball, for example, without understanding the numbers of the game. Even dumb ball players know the math. It’s just that the unknown lives outside the known and can only be discovered by imagining what can lie outside. It is speculation that leads to discovery.
This narrowness does not just lead to a lack of imagination. It leads people into thinking like sociopaths. Immigration is a perfect example. Anytime the topic comes up, there is an attempt to debate whether it is good for the economy, as if that’s all that matters. Since the impact of immigration on the economy can be measured, at least we can pretend to measure it, that’s what the modern “expert” wants to discuss.
The reason for the great divide between the Dirt People and the Cloud People over immigration is that the Dirt People really don’t care if it benefits business. They just don’t want their kids living in a third world country. The Cloud People can’t think beyond the data. You see that in this David Frum piece on immigration data. The only people debating the data are all in favor of open borders.
This is, of course, the old line about a man good with a hammer seeing the world as a nail. All of our smart kids are now in professions that are data driven so they think the only thing that matters is data. Heck, even dumb kids are in professions that claim to be data driven.This sounds like a good thing as higher levels of numeracy should result in a more informed populace. The trouble is the tyranny of nerds is driven by people that had statistics for liberal arts majors. They think they know more than they do.
Entirely useless fields like psychology are now kept alive by mediocre students with an entry level understanding of mathematics. Every other day we have a study turning up in the news claiming a correlation between one thing and another. Since these are never replicated, the effect is an endless stream of stupidity fed into the public bloodstream.
ours is an Oriental meritocracy. The best and the brightest focus on memorizing what is known and finding data to support it. The way up is to flatter the master by quoting his work, which is just the work of another, repackaged by the current master. Having an army of expert economists is not a lot different than an army of great calligraphers. It’s only useful to the experts within the narrow scope of the system.
This leads me to think this is perhaps at the heart of the unforced errors by the people in charge we keep seeing. History is the story of error, but the errors we are seeing today are so ham-handed, they feel deliberate. Merkel inviting a million Muslims into Germany only makes sense if she is surrounded by nerd boys claiming it is good for the economy. No one bothered to speculate about the reaction of the citizenry.
The Trump/Sanders phenomenon is based entirely on the fact both parties looked at their respective data and concluded a Bush-Clinton race was the most probable so they threw in behind that idea. They never considered that maybe the public was simply sick of the bullshit from both parties. There’s no model for that so they remain in a state of disbelief. Big Foot and the Tooth Fairy may as well be leading theses races now, as far as the political class is concerned.
In Back to Methuselah, Shaw has the serpent say, “You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?” Perhaps that’s it. In a world where you are defined by your relationship with your fellows, not by your relationship with a transcendent truth, exile is the new Hell. Asking “why not?” is for heretics and trouble makers. Best to stick with the data and prior studies.