Is the Internet Making Us More Stupider?

Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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115 Responses

  1. Chris says:

    Speaking of congestion, and relatedly, affordability, in Austin the city council has been considering 3 ways of reviews and revising the city’s zoning ordinances. As the Austin Monitor put it:

    Council must choose from three options that staff and consultants have proposed. In order from least to most comprehensive, those choices are a “brisk sweep,” “deep clean and reset” and “complete makeover.”

    The council hired a bunch of experts to review the various options and decide which would provide the best route to affordability and helping with traffic congestion while at the same time preserving at least some of the “character” of Austin’s various negihborhoods. Meanwhile, independent experts reviewed the options themselves.

    Now, pretty much everyone expert, independent or working for the council, that the “brisk sweep” approach, usually referred to as Option 1, won’t help at all, leaving the “deep clean and reset” and “complete makeover,” Options 2 and 3 respectively.

    The independent experts pretty much unanimously endorsed Option 3, which would basically mean starting the zoning process from scratch, and would undoubtedly result in a lot of neighborhoods full of single-family homes being neighborhoods with single-family homes, apartments, mixed-used buildings, and perhaps even tall office and/or residential structures.

    Naturally, all of the mostly or exclusively single-family home neighborhoods, particularly those in the city’s core, don’t like this idea, so they hate Option 3. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the city’s experts, who have had to deal with Austin’s neighborhood associations (which are all pure, unadulterated evil — my favorite is Hyde Park, which has a council comprised almost entirely of home owners in a neighborhood that is something like 80% rental), have decided that Option 3 is too much, and have endorsed Option 2. This became a big deal during the recent election campaign, and the incoming council is likely to be Option 3-friendly (it’s not entirely clear yet, as there will be several runoffs, including for mayor). Recognizing this, Austin’s neighborhood associations pushed the current, lame duck council (the council didn’t just have an election, it is being completely restructured) to vote, and they’ve naturally voted for Option 2.

    The lesson of this, I think, is that “dismissal of expert authority” is itself a problematic notion. I dismiss the city council’s experts, because their incentives were not entirely aligned with the goals of the zoning review project. As one Austin political observer put it, the council’s experts would rather write papers than bang heads with neighborhoods. To me, this makes their “expertise” in this instance tainted.

    While I am a firm believer in anthropogenic climate change, many deniers likely feel the same way about most climate experts that I feel about the council’s experts: it’s not that they don’t know what they’re talking about, it’s that they are unconsciously (or perhaps they might believe consciously, given the way some deniers misinterpret the “hiding the decline” emails) guided by incentives that are not completely aligned with a search for the “truth.”

    I agree with you that the result of widespread expert-questioning on the internet, as well as the recognition that expertise is subject to bias, has led to a broadening, perhaps to the point of meaningless, of the concept of “expert” and “expertise.” It has come to mean, in essence, “authority,” in the broad sense of the word, and when there are competing authorities, those most closely aligned with one’s own biases and incentives are going to be favored.

    On the one hand, I think this is a result of us being smarter, or at least better informed. On the other, it makes it really hard to sort the wheat from the chaff, which maybe does mean we’re dumber.

    Ugh, I’m sorry, I’m wordy today.Report

  2. Kimmi says:

    Either you sit down, and read the meta-analysis, or you don’t. Scientists have nice handy journals they publish these in. Economists? Well, you can at least look at differing views… Experts are way closer at hand than they used to be — just drop someone an e-mail, and they’re reasonably likely to reply back. “What else can I read about this subject?”

    I’m glad to know folks who are experts on tons of fields (even if they don’t always have the broad picture…)Report

  3. Saul Degraw says:

    I think there has always been a disdain for experts in American life. Hoftstadter wrote about this long before the Internet was common:

    Part of this comes from the Protestant Reformation and the idea that people did not need intermediaries like priests to read and interpret the Bible. There is a long strain of populist thought against experts and intellectuals and for “common sense” solutions. Eisenhower made great hay of calling Adlai Stevenson an “egghead”. On the other hand, FDR touted his brain trust.

    I think the big issue is that a lot of experts and policy wonks seem absolutely perplexed about what it means to live and work in a representative democracy where people vote for politicians based on promised end goals. A common policy wonk refrain is that good policy should always trump the desires of the people but in a democracy people are going to vote their desires. A lot of policy wonks just don’t know how to communicate beyond “Arrgh! Why aren’t you listening to me? Can’t you see my very carefully worked out white paper?”

    Policy depends on end-goals and people with different desires have different end goals. Wonky types tend to be able to use their wonkiness to self-prove why their end goals are the best. There does seem to be a kind of wonk on the centre-left that wants people to live closer together for environmental and other reasons and encourages mixed-used development, walkability, condos and microapartments over single-family homes, more public transportation, etc. This wonk might be right about the policies for his or her specific end goal but comes up completely blank if people don’t want urbanity. Then he or she is just reduced to a fiat and subverting the democratic process by creating policies that “nudge” people to urbanity.

    The new wonk technique seems to be a kind of hidden paternalism which sneakily gets people to make “better” choices in terms of health, living, and consumption. I find this trend worrisome and people are not stupid, they know what is going on and people are going to resent being “nudged” into making “better” choices. Cass Sunstein and Matt Y are big proponents of semi-hidden or hidden regulations that nudge people into better choices. Cass Sunstein openly calls it “paternalistic libertarianism.”

    There is also the issue that experts can and do often fail with disastorous consequences to the many and they tend not to be humble enough to admit their own failures. The recent economic crisis is a good example and so is Enron.Report

    • James K in reply to Saul Degraw says:


      This is definitely a common failure mode with wonkery. It is incumbent upon an expert adviser to use their expert knowledge to do what they sincerely believe the public would do if they had the expert’s knowledge but their own values.

      The ability to decompose a policy into “is” questions (those related to facts) and “ought” questions (those related to terminal values) is a vital skill for an expert advisor, a point that gets too little attention.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to James K says:


        I think too much of what we consider wonkery is devoted to ought outcomes. And I say this as a liberal who has no problems saying what ought to be.Report

      • James K in reply to James K says:


        I think you’re right, especially since a lot of wonkery that hits the general public is either from pundits (who are likely to advocate for their own values) or from think tanks (which often have advocating certain ideas as part of their mission).Report

  4. Rufus F. says:

    C’est possible that people on the Internet are not making the best use of its resources. Okay, more than that.

    But this question sounds to me a bit like “Are Hostess Snack Cakes making us fatter?”Report

  5. zic says:

    Most of us, I would guess, wish to be able to query, reference, and give weight to what experts have to say while still allowing for the reality that even experts can err. Further, even if we acknowledge someone’s expertise we probably want them to be willing to show their work. Given a topic sufficiently arcane we will go out of our way to consult the correct academic; have that same academic refuse to explain him or herself because it’s “beneath them” to do so and we’ll likely dismiss whatever they have to say without any consideration at all.

    We also want conflicts of interest divulged.

    Also, I’m not necessarily what you’re describing is a phenomena of the internet so much as of entertainment, Cable TV, talk radio, which are, in part, delivered via the internet. We treat politics like sports; it’s rarely about policy, how it would work. Nobody knew what was in ACA; but everyone should have had some notion of it’s bare-bones functioning. It was reported on not as policy that did these sets of things and changed these things, it was a contest with people up and people down, a score kept on a battle, with an ultimate three-point shot at the buzzer to put team blue in the winner’s seat of that game.

    I’ve been watching The Guardian and Al Jazeera. They see an unfilled market in American News. Thank God.Report

  6. North says:

    This is generational my Todd. Once the generation that has never known a world without the internet comes of age and takes over the reins I expect that the issues you see will have settled. The body politic develops antibodies and cynicisms to adapt to new technology, memes and the like. Suffice to say I’m optimistic for the long run.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to North says:


      I’m not sure. I think the average of a gamergater is pretty young and it is depressing to see people younger than me be outright neo-reactionaries. There is also that 18-year old politician from West Virginia who is described as being really far-right.

      • LeeEsq in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        This is very good evidence that courting should be part of sex education. A lot of the sexism behind gamer gate is being caused by romantic and sexual frustration. We really can’t grant everybody the romance life they want but we can’t equip everybody with the mental equipment necessary to endure a bad love life, its something most humans aren’t capable of. Vigorously teaching people how to court is the best alternative.Report

      • North in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        I’m of the opinion that time, familiarity (and contempt) will fix a lot of the problems that Tod’s talking about vis a vis the internet. I do not, however, think that those things will cause people to stop being people or guys to stop being guys (or idiots to stop being idiots). The only thing that’d prevent the latter would be a Texas sized asteroid strike.Report

      • Brandon Berg in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        I think the average of a gamergater is pretty young and it is depressing to see people younger than me be outright neo-reactionaries.

        Wait, aren’t you a “neoreactionary” in this context? I mean, a lot of the “gamergate” crowd are just jerks, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen you express distaste for the extremes of the “social justice” movement, which is basically what it’s a reaction against.Report

      • James K in reply to Saul Degraw says:


        In particular,I think a lot of the misogyny is a product of two factors combined:
        1) A cultural expectation that a man’s worth is dependant on his ability to obtain sex.
        2) As you say, giving young men no training in how to form relationships with women.

        Unfortunately I don’t think it likely that much will happen here, since relationship education would interfere with parents’ ability to deny their teenage children aren’t little kids any more.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        @james-k, that seems about right. Western societies place a premium on a heterosexual man’s ability to attract women. Men who have problems with this are the butt of jokes. Heterosexual women who have difficulty attracting mates also have problems but tend to be saved a little by the still lingering views that women should be chaster than men. Lonely women tend to be a focus of sympathy while lonely men are a target of scorn.

        Giving teenagers practical advise on how to court, we can call it relationship education, isn’t going to be easy. The idea itself is going to attract a lot of hatred from all quarters. Parents aren’t going to like it for the reason you listed. People on the left are going to like it either. Many might see it as sexist and maintain all you need to do is teach boys to respect women and look for enthusiastic consent. Relationship education is going to make them confront the fact that free love suffers from the same problems they see in the free market and they aren’t going to like this one bit. Rightists aren’t going to like relationship education for the same reason they hate sex education.Report

      • @leeesq

        I agree that it would be a good idea to have that. I also agree that it would be hard to do, though, and am not sure how it would work.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        giving young men no training in how to form relationships with women.

        That’s one of the most bizarre sentences I’ve ever read on the webs. “Training”? What does that even mean? Is there a set of technical rules and procedures sufficient for forming relationships with women such that if you master them, you can get laid? Or kissed? Or married? If anything it seems the problem, isnofar as it is one, requires a form of untraining, no? Like, deprogramming or somesuch?Report

      • @stillwater

        I read Lee’s suggestion more as a call for mentorship for those who don’t have it and who need it. Again, I’m not sure how that would look in a school setting. I’d suspect that it’s something that cannot be easily “taught” as a class. But it would be nice for people to have help who need it. I just don’t know how it would work. People aren’t born knowing these things, and some have a harder time than others learning.Report

      • To elaborate, I think an ideal form of mentorship would involve helping one to achieve something I’ll call emotional and social health, acquiring the tools to navigate adulthood and mature matters.

        Again, I’m not sure how this can be done in a school or other institutional setting. And I also agree that in some cases, people have to “unlearn” some of what they’d thought was true.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Saul Degraw says:


        “Advice on how to court.”

        See, I think the whole idea of layering up this stuff is based on people viewing their own neuroses and insecurities and unreasonable expectations as being the baseline that other people need to respond to. There is no learning how to court other than engaging with people and letting your interests and desires be known.

        Whenever I hear this “advice on courting” stuff I always think of someone who desperately wants the superhot girl who’s really smart, and funny too, socially graceful of course, career oriented but willing to stay home and raise the kids!, or cook dinner!, is super hot!, will do the laundry or maybe just fly to Paris for a fun weekend at the drop of a hat, is a real head turner!, etc etc etc.

        Do rednecks have any of these whiny worries, or is it an uppermiddleclasswhitepeople’sproblem? “Why won’t the girl of my dreams fall in love with me!!!???? I just need to learn all those mysterious chick-getting tricks, that’s it….”Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        “Just shower regularly, be yourself, and lower your standards.”Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Maybe we should expand that attitude when it comes to fighting poverty. “Hey, you’ve got four walls, running water, and enough calories. Anything above and beyond that is a problem with your freaking expectations and not a problem with all of the people refusing to provide it to you.”Report

      • @stillwater

        tl; dr: Whether there is some sort of institutionalized form such “training” can take, and I have my doubts, it’s not wrong to desire some help in that arena.

        Long version:

        Perhaps I’m more sympathetic to this particular issue than you are because my own history evinces the type of “neuroses” of which you speak. And granted, as I’ve granted already in my comments, I have a hard time seeing how “we” can help on any systematic, institutional level, such as schooling.

        All that said, and with due recognition that society doesn’t really owe anyone much of anything, what you describe is not limited to “upper middle class” people. I probably no longer count as working class, but I’m from a very different class background from @leeesq ‘s and I’ve had similar issues, and though I overcame them, I didn’t exactly do so in the most healthy manner (in some ways, that’s probably true of most people….I don’t claim to be particularly exceptionally good or bad). And even though I admit it’s possible the “‘[w]hy won’t the girl of my dreams fall in love with me!!!???? I just need to learn all those mysterious chick-getting tricks, that’s it….'” is sometimes part of the problem, it’s not the whole of it.

        To this:

        There is no learning how to court other than engaging with people and letting your interests and desires be known.

        I agree mostly, but sometimes people can help others get to that stage. Being able to let one’s interests and desires be known is a tool that needs to be acquired, and sometimes it can help to get advice on that.Report

      • veronica d in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        [late to the party]

        +100 for classes on courtship techniques. Like, OMG WHY ARE WE NOT DOING THIS?

        Look, this is a feminist issue exactly as much as the rules of courtship have changed, but no one really quite knows what they are. Which, fine. Some things are illegible. On the other hand, many people just never quite figure this out on their own. They do not know what is expected. They fumble around badly. Some structure would be most welcome.

        Loneliness sucks. Feeling “low status” sucks. Seeing people around you achieve partnerships, and all the fulfillment that comes from that, while you are excluded, is soul crushing. You cannot solve this for every lonely person, but you can give them tools.

        Myself, I think it is sad that PUA culture is so toxic, cuz some folks just need a hand. Who is offering one?

        Oh, by the way, this is not easier for women. It is maybe easier for pretty women who have good social skills. But when you are a somewhat frumpy woman who is mildly neuro-atypical, it can be downright hellish.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        rednecks tend to know that unless they leave, they’ve got the ten girls from thereabouts, and that’s about it. (Plus, there’s always 4H…).
        Folks in cities tend to be more led around by lusty emotions — a product of our society being rather illtailored to our biology…Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        but there are Plenty of classes on courtship. Just nobody bothers billing them as that.
        Magic classes
        “How to be spontaneous and funny” classes (improv comedy, in other words).

        Now, maybe we really do need some “how to be awwdorable” classes…

        (seriously, I do like the idea — establish some ground rules, start teaching people how to connect with others)Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        veronica d,

        Courtship classes sound nice in theory, I know I came up with the idea, but the practice could end up considerably more difficult. Lots of people are going to hate the idea of courtship classes across the political spectrum. Conservatives might see them as seduction classes. A certain faction of feminists could easily have a similar opinion. Creating an agreed upon curriculum for courtship classes is going to be even more difficult. The more conservative members of society are going to want something out of the1890s or 1950s at latest. For the more broad minded, there is going to be a lot of disagreement on whether the rules are the same or different in heterosexual or homosexual situations and should we assume monogamy or not, etc. We might also have problems where practical advise could go against certain other precepts of egalitarianism.Report

      • veronica d in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        @leeesq — Yeah, it would be totes difficult. We should do it anyway, at least in state’s with decent politics.

        And feminists definitely belong at the table. We have a lot to say.Report

  7. Michael Cain says:

    It’s bigger than just the internet…

    The internet provides us with the equivalent of the New York Times, The LA Times, the Wall Street Journal, an issue of Time and Newsweek and all sorts of other stuff every single day. The 500-channel cable or satellite system delivers the equivalent of an entire season of television from a few decades ago every single day. We watch video of battlefields and natural disasters on the other side of the world in real time. There’s a Future Shock thing going on here in terms of information overload, and none of us are really good at sorting through that much information. Well, maybe some of you are, but I’m not.

    The problems we’re coping with today are larger and much more complex. Medicaid, provide basic health care for some of the poorest people; PPACA, re-jigger a half-dozen or more major components of the health care financing system, from health care for poor people to employer-provided group plans to penalties for hospitals who don’t solve certain problems all at the same time. Everyone understands the Cuyahoga River caught fire again; not so clear when the issue is the predictions of enormously large models of the carbon cycle run on supercomputers that didn’t exist a decade ago and that have known gaps [1].

    A more subtle point… I’ve spent most of my adult life analyzing complex systems of various sorts using lots of different models and techniques. 40 years ago, when I was starting out, the computational power needed to do — for example — a linear regression on a thousand observations with a dozen variables was a scarce resource. Today, anyone reading this is doing so on a device for which that problem is a trivial exercise. As I have often observed, when it comes to statistics I know enough to know that I’m dangerous, so I’m very careful. There are a lot of people out there doing regressions who have no idea just how dangerous they are.

    The problem is, I think, less that we’re getting stupider and more that we’re not getting smarter fast enough to deal with increased complexity.

    [1] Ocean acidification is pretty clear. OTOH, the computer models all say Colorado will be drier in the summers in the future. None of them, however, have a representation of the North American Monsoon, which provides most of the summer precipitation in Colorado. If increased evaporation in the Gulfs of California and Mexico make the monsoon stronger, Colorado will be wetter in future summers. No one knows, although researchers are finally starting to look.Report

    • trizzlor in reply to Michael Cain says:

      Indeed, it is simultaneously extremely useful and extremely harmful that a software like R implements pretty much any statistical test and will immediately spit out a P-value. It used to be that a P-value meant someone had thought rigorously about the null assumptions of their data and looked carefully for deviations. Now a P-value means someone googled around for a test and shoved the data into some function hard enough that it spit out a number less than 0.05.Report

      • James K in reply to trizzlor says:


        The world is full of people who know just enough to be dangerous, although I’d finger Excel rather than R as the real culprit – R has a sufficiently intimidating reputation that I’d expect most R users to more-or-less know what they are doing.Report

  8. nevermoor says:

    I think there are two issues.

    1. Confirmation Bias trumps everything. When all viewpoints are equally accessible, people pick the ones they find comforting and screen out others. It’s hard to fight (I try, for example, by lurking here) and easy to give in to.

    2. People will say anything for money. This has always been true (and is why “experts” in litigation are often wholly discounted).

    As there is no political action that does not create some winners and some losers, it is essentially free for both sides to put at least some argument out there. And there will always be someone with some credentials willing to endorse it, people simply gravitate towards “their team’s” argument (e.g. the extreme left and right’s aversion to vaccines, which is based on thoroughly discredited lies) or, worse, react to all issues with a BSDI faux-gravitas (e.g.).

    I hope someday we will be able to move beyond this as a species, and there are places like Snopes that have some credibility on non-political zombie-lie-killing that suggest a path forward, but we have a long way to go. In the end, I don’t think the internet makes us uniquely stupid so much as it just makes us MORE of everything (more productive, more subject to our own cognitive biases, etc.).Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to nevermoor says:


      I was thinking that the political use of experts is very close to litigation where each side can seemingly find an expert that confirms their side of the story and meets the Daubert test for being an expert.Report

  9. Jaybird says:

    Dude. We don’t even know what the internet MEANS yet… though, granted, we are closer to knowing than we were about 10 years ago (when I started saying that).

    My pilot light went out a few years back. I sat down at the computer and googled “how to light pilot light on (my make/model)”. Now, I’m someone who is not mechanically inclined (well, I mean, apart from hardware, which is different) and who does not work with his hands. I watched a youtube on how to relight it, sat down, and relit my pilot light all by myself.

    I just googled “how to rewire a light switch”, “how to hang wallpaper”, and “how to install a ceiling fan”.

    Yep, there are youtubes for all of this. Someone with patience and the willingness to sit through a video can learn how to do some light amateurish handyman work for around the house.

    This is like in The Matrix when Trinity says “I need to learn how to fly a helicopter” and closes her eyes while it gets uploaded to her. We have all of the accumulated knowledge from human history at our fingertips and, you know what? We can also probably watch a short video explaining it to us in detail.

    Now, if you want to complain about how the internet is shortening our attention spans and making it harder for us to sit through a six-minute video explaining how to install a ceiling fan…Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

      Whoops, forgot my point. My point is that since so many people can reach a “good enough” level of amateur expertise for so many things that used to be totally out of reach (plumbing! electricity! carpentry!) that the beauty of masterwork is somewhat forgotten (why do you need to have all of those little details carved into the wood anyway?) and since so many people can get “good enough” on so many things… why would it be different for anything else?

      Hell, I know how to read the Constitution. Anyone who explains to me that the First Amendment allows the government to ban books based on content is obviously full of crap, right?Report

  10. LeeEsq says:

    Resistance to experts is as American as apple pie. The fight over fluoridating water during the mid-twentieth century is a good example as any. The Internet just lets you notice more of it.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to LeeEsq says:


      Note that this phenomenon co-exists, strangely comfortably, with a longing for government by subject matter experts. But when those experts don’t affirm our predispositions or make non-obvious claims, they’re going to get resistance. Dr. Lister was hooted out of hospitals and medical schools for suggesting doctors ought to wash their hands before performing surgery — well before the internets made us more stupider.Report

    • Brandon Berg in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Experts also have a long history of being full of it. At any given time they’re more likely to be right than the man on the street, but this hardly makes them beyond questioning.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        You only say that because you don’t understand economics.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        Well, and if you don’t truly understand something until you have to explain it, the Internet should be *making* better experts, as they now have to explain themselves to yayhoos like me.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        Well, one of the problems when it comes to democracy is that the thought that “we should do what the majority of us says we should do” can easily transform into “the solution to the problem is what the majority of us says it is”.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        Anybody can write software that works well. It’s not like you have to put any effort into learning how.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        @jaybird – I was actually thinking about that last night, and the whole idea that we have a republican form of government, in part, to moderate purely democratic decisions stemming from the madness of crowds.

        If there is a tension here, it may be between the speed of Internet-enabled information-transfer/decision-making/crowd-maddening, and a form of government that is explicitly designed to put the brakes on a bit.

        A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes because truths are messy and hard to explain, while lies just fill in the gaps to reach a conclusion the teller and listener already both desire to be reached (by which I mean when I tell you the check is in the mail, you want to believe it is, and I also want you to believe it is; but we each have very different reasons for wishing that you believe that).

        As long as our form of government slows down decision-making long enough for the truth to often catch up with the lie, we should be OK.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        Structured programming/CASE/OOP/SOA/REST/TDD/TLA will revolutionize programming. Just ask the experts.Report

      • zic in reply to Brandon Berg says:


        Object Oriented programming did not only revolutionize programming but the internet.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        Experts also have a long history of being full of it.

        This. I had a long response to Tod’s post ignorantly eaten by the internet yesterday, but no real loss there since you said it better in a short sentence. It’s important to remember that think tanks are specifically designed to accord various policy orientations, and the accompanying advocacy for them in practice, with a veneer of having been determined by experts. So the problem isn’t with valuing or devaluing experts so much as it is a recognition that “being an expert” usually (or often enough) carries with it all sorts of ideological and value baggage which ironically (or not, depending on how cynical you are) the very political tensions the appeal to “expertness” is intended to resolve.

        In other words: the politicization, in a context of course, of the term “experts.”Report

      • Large numbers of people believe the software thing. Ask any of the millions of business people who build moderately complicated spreadsheets. You can get kicked out of meetings for suggesting that programming-by-spreadsheet might require something simple, like test cases or version control — I know, I’ve been the kickee.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Brandon Berg says:


        Of course experts that are full of it are always the experts whose conclusions someone disagrees with though….Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        In the same way that Karl Rove can say, apparently in all seriousness, “you have your facts and I have mine”, Kissinger can say “you have your experts and I have mine”. Power, at that point, is the ability to choose which “experts” you appeal to. So it’s political all the way down, no?

        I mean, that’s just trivially true if we start from the premise that experts ought to be valued in resolving certain political disputes or whatever?Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        How do you figure that? The internet was implemented mostly in plain old procedural C, and the web largely in plain old spaghetti Javascript.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        Good enough is good enough for so much of life, and (let’s face it), so much of life involves some combination of us being really, really robust and what we’re arguing about being well-beneath the threshold of what causes quickly recognizable harm that we have a lot of wiggle room within which to flail about and make mistakes that won’t look like mistakes for years to come.Report

      • zic in reply to Brandon Berg says:


        learn max.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        As long as our form of government slows down decision-making long enough for the truth to often catch up with the lie, we should be OK.

        Which is why the growing tendency of the population to demand quick solutions to issues is concerning. Congress not moving fast enough? Lambast that do-nothing congress! Still not fast enough? Executive Action!Report

    • Gabriel Conroy in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Resistance to experts is as American as apple pie.

      I’m not a big believer in American exeptionalism. I think you’ll find something like “resistance to experts” in most societies and polities. Maybe in each one, the “flavor” and contours of that resistance varies, but it ‘ai going to be there.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:


        I think @glyph was on to something when he said it came from the Protestant Reformation 😉Report

      • I really don’t think it comes from the reformation. I think there is usually going to be a reaction, regardless of the culture or the society or the polity, against presumed “experts” whose words or whose powers run up against what people want. That reaction may be right or wrong, but I think it’s common.

        I will buy the notion that the reformation gives a certain flavor of how this resistance took and still takes place in western society.

        I realize, by the way, that I’m skirting very close to something historians are not supposed to do. I’m positing something as “universal” that can perhaps be better explained by contingencies (such as the reformation).Report

  11. Steve says:

    It seems highly unlikely that the problem is a new phenomenon that individual people are less deferential to expertise in some field than they were 50 or 60 years ago, say. Or especially that TV/media punditry has devolved to become less expert. I would guess a careful study of expert projections decades ago would be just as bad as our current con artists paraded out as though they possess expert knowledge.

    What’s more likely as an explanation is that people and experts can interact more often and in more venues because of the availability of the internet. And since most people are not experts, their opinions can swamp out with noise those of experts and becomes an illusion in wisdom of crowds because they begin to affirm each other’s biases. I expect the problem of selection biases in experts is also heavily involved. We can more easily go find “experts” of our choosing. Those who are affirming our comfortable assumptions without challenging us very much (if at all) rather than accepting for granted what “important man with title X” has said on TV or in the newspaper as a definitive explanation.

    A further problem, related above in other comments, is that what passes as expert opinion distributed to the masses often seems difficult for the individual to connect to their lived experiences in a way that provides value to that expertise. There is less low-hanging fruit of “easy” or straightforward types of problems like dumping waste into rivers and lakes versus dealing with carbon emissions and the myriad of proposed solutions to such, or the effects of such. It is fairly easy to relate “if we can pass this, public waterways will be cleaner so you can drink it, your children can go swim it in, or go fishing in it” and for the public to evaluate that yes, this water is indeed cleaner and safer. Or at least it no longer catches fire. And therefore the policy changes and the experts who pushed for them must be sort of right at worst.Report

    • Cardiff Kook in reply to Steve says:

      Related to or building on Steve’s comment, I would suggest that the Internet and competing politically biased mass media outlets has created a bigger market for contrary experts. In economics terms, the demand for and thus rewards for contrary views has risen and new entrants have entered the market to fill the demand.

      How can there not be biologists rejecting Darwinism? The demand for such an “expert” is overwhelming with half of all Americans convinced neoDarwinism is some kind of horse pucky. Where there is demand there will be supply.

      The other thing making us dumb and dumber is of course politics and tribal affiliations. This further feeds into the demand issue above.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Cardiff Kook says:


        Re: Tribal Affiliations

        Humans have been tribal for as long as we have been humans. Tribalism helped us survive and we tend to only get cross-tribal to survive.

        I also think that tribal affiliations exist because people have radically different views on what constitutes for a good life and a nice life and we tend to butt heads and get very angry when we meet people who disagree or challenge or aesthetic/life preferences.

        A few months ago, the Atlantic (I think), ran an article about how China was learning all the wrong lessons from the U.S. when it comes to transport and housing. It turns out that the Chinese are developing a taste for single-family homes and traveling by car. The Atlantic staff felt this was all wrong from an environmental standpoint and from an environmental standpoint they are right. They are not thinking that such things might just be attractive to people who have always known close-quarters and multi-generational living and no privacy.

        Being an ascetic is only attractive when it is a choice and I feel like a lot of people forget this part. We laugh at the suburbs today for being bland, dull, and look a-like but if you grew up in a Lower East Side slum or a shanty town during the Great Depression, a suburban house is going to be really attractive.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Cardiff Kook says:

        We laugh at the suburbs today for being bland, dull, and look a-like

        “We” who, white man?Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Cardiff Kook says:

        We who can’t reach them and declare them sour.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Cardiff Kook says:


        We, interestingly, does not necessarily include me but many people from my background (suburban-raised and college-educated) are allegedly turning their backs on the suburbs and choosing to raise their families in the cities. I have a lot of journalistic stories about this and also anecdotal evidence from friends and friends of friends. Lots of people who talk about how suburbs are limiting(*).

        I personally suspect that the trend is not as pronounced as the media makes it out to be but I do seem to know and know of a lot of people with kids who are holding onto living in NYC or SF or another city with dear life instead of moving to the burbs.

        *I actually think suburbs are only limiting if you let them be. When I was a kid, my family went into the city a lot for museums and events like Young People’s Concerts at Lincoln Center. My theory is that there are a lot of arts-mad kids who grew up in households with parents who did not do the museum or go into the city thing often.Report

      • Cardiff Kook in reply to Cardiff Kook says:

        Re: Tribal Affiliations

        “Humans have been tribal for as long as we have been humans. Tribalism helped us survive and we tend to only get cross-tribal to survive.”

        I could of course replace tribal with “rapist” and it would still be true. I certainly agree that tribalism evolved for a purpose, most likely as a way to solve the ever present “problem of cooperation” in sociology, biology and game theory.

        Joshua Greene has written a great book on the topic called Moral Tribes. Interestingly, it basically morphs into a defense of utilitarian consequentialism.

        “I also think that tribal affiliations exist because people have radically different views on what constitutes for a good life and a nice life and we tend to butt heads and get very angry when we meet people who disagree or challenge or aesthetic/life preferences.”

        The adverse issue related to tribalism which I was referencing was the problem of people using their tribal affiliation as their brain and conscience. People stop thinking for themselves and instead play back the party line as a signalling device of tribal solidarity. This reveals itself most clearly when an idea previously championed by one side gets co-opted by the other and the original party does a 180 with collective amnesia. I won’t provide examples for fear of redirecting the conversation, but I am sure we can all think of several.

        The problem with politics isn’t people disagreeing on aesthetic preferences. It is that politics usually ends in coercing one group to adopt the policy preferences of the other, creating winners and losers. Politics has its place, but is widely overused by “political fundamentalists.”

        Anyways… My point was that the tribes are seeking out confirming opinions and the Internet and politically oriented media are rising up to meet the demand.Report

  12. Michael Drew says:

    I would just say that if deference to expert authority is to survive in a world where experts often coexist with non-experts in direct proximity to each other, then experts and those who claim authority will need to be sure to have self-awareness in how they make use of their position of authority. Because in the past, it seems to me, experts spent most of their time (they probably still do) in congress with other experts (via journals, conferences, correspondence, eventually list serves) and less engaged in discourse with a vast lay population. Now forums that can and do bring them into direct, sustained intellectual contact abound. The mediating role of the “public intellectual,” who communicated the authority of the experts to the lay population, is being squeezed out as the medium of discourse has become more pervasive and immediate. And experts are not yet practiced in how to negotiate their authority when in direct contact with those over whom they have authority.

    At the same time, the civic discourse in our country among the broad demos is a vital thing. And the demos will always be primarily non-expert, given to having opinions on things about which they are not academically schooled. But we need them to have those opinions, IMHO. I’d rather the plumber and the coffeeshop worker have opinions on how economics work and affect their lives than not. And economists (just for example), if they are going to choose to engage with the demos, I would think would understand they need to show patience and not expect just deference or even just humility about what people know (i.e. just asking questions rather than expressing affirmative views). I suppose mileage may vary on that.

    The problem is more pronounced on topics the more central they are to civic and political discourse. Experts on politics, then, are in the most fraught position of all when it comes to this, and I don;t envy the challenge they face in engaging with the demos. But clearly economists, ecologists, historians, and others are implicated. Some of them might think that the answer is for lay people to try to be as humble as they can in the presence of experts in these fields, but I would say that the responsibility is on experts to apply a light touch, as a polity needs to allow discourse on these matters to flow relatively freely. Meanwhile, on other topics – building bridges, sending people into space, predicting the weather – we might expect that the civic imperative to be less, and the imperative for reliable authoritative accuracy relatively greater, and accordingly expect a greater deference to authority. But that’s a very personal view; I would expect others to have different ones.Report

    • Cardiff Kook in reply to Michael Drew says:

      Well said, Michael.Report

    • Murali in reply to Michael Drew says:


      No, its really better for non-experts to suspend judgment. If discourse failure is widespread, systematic and predictable on a rational actor model, we should be striving to sever public discourse from policy or reduce the amount of public discourse. Since the latter is not a viable option (freedom of speech and the internet is here to stay), we are left with the former: carving out greater and greater aspects of policy to be decided by experts.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Murali says:

        I’m somewhat okay with movements toward severing policy from non-expert discourse if that’s necessary. But I want non-experts to form opinions. And discuss them. If experts want to come down and impart knowledge into those discussions, they should do so with a light touch.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Murali says:

        Iow, I guess I’m basically a Straussian, and a democratic republican. I’d like people to vote for the politicians they think will make best use of expert advice, not listen directly to what they want done. Meanwhile, I want the demos to be having freewheeling intellectual discourse at every conceivable level of learning, information, and misinformation (hopefully resulting in those in states of misinformation gradually moving to states of higher information. 😉Report

      • Murali in reply to Murali says:


        why? why should non-experts form opinions about those things that they are non-expert in. We know that they (and if we are honest, we) are going to do so anyway, but why is it a good thing?Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Murali says:

        Because an intellectually and civically engaged population is a prerequisite for democracy. I’m not saying people shouldn’t pay attention and learn from experts. But I’d rather people be intellectually active and creative than simply believe they should not form opinions that depart from experts. if we don;t promote a sense of legitimate intellectual independence, eventually disengagement will take over as people just think, ‘Well why do I even care? The experts know what they know, I’d be doing a bad thing I developed any other opinions, and the experts are (presumably in a society in which this attitude dominates) firmly in control of policy.’ You’d get mass disengagement which would lead to mass ignorance, even if fewer divergent opinions.

        If people believe they can legitimately form their own views, that will promote engagement. Greater engagement will, I believe, lead to at least greater awareness of expert opinion, even if, as you say, it will also lead to more divergent, mistaken inferences. On the whole, though, legitimizing intellectual independence will lead to broader awareness of bodies of expert opinion, i.e. less ignorance.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Murali says:

        why should non-experts form opinions about those things that they are non-expert in.

        They shouldn’t. For example, I have no opinion about the truth of string theory, nor do I have any opinions about what the theory entails.

        We know that they (and if we are honest, we) are going to do so anyway, but why is it a good thing?

        At a minimum, it’s a good thing if and when the adoption of expert opinion impinges on them and things they care about. That’s just politics, no? It’s also just human nature.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Murali says:

        What’s the alternative, Murali, Trust the Experts?Report

      • Murali in reply to Murali says:

        What’s the alternative, Murali, Trust the Experts?


      • Stillwater in reply to Murali says:

        Well, you’ve got your experts, and I’ve got mine. Now what do we do?Report

      • Murali in reply to Murali says:


        Well, you’ve got your experts, and I’ve got mine. Now what do we do?

        Well, depends on what you mean by this. Can I consistently suppose that my experts are experts while denying that status to yours? Do I have a coherent account for why the pronouncements of my experts are more likely to be true (than lay persons or your experts) regardless of the particular content of their pronouncements.Report

      • Road Scholar in reply to Murali says:

        Well, you’ve got your experts, and I’ve got mine. Now what do we do?

        It depends somewhat on the subject. As you noted, there is little reason to doubt the experts in some fields like theoretical physics. It’s way over my head and only very rarely has anything like public policy implications anyway.

        Then you have something like climate science. Now the basic mechanism of AGW has been understood for well over a century. It’s not string theory complicated but it is probably beyond the level of most folks’ general science understanding. Really grokking it likely requires the kind of physics background you get in engineering school or at least some patient explanation. It doesn’t help that there’s a strongly counter-intuitive element to the results of increasing concentration of trace gasses or that the explanation of the greenhouse effect as related in popular treatments isn’t quite correct. In any case, normally no reasonable person would seriously dispute a claim agreed to by 97% of the world’s subject matter experts. Climate science is different politically because Al Gore was exactly right in at least one regard: the truth is incredibly inconvenient. By far the easiest and most convenient source of energy is burning stuff. It’s sorta like being told those black folk are actually people like you and me and maybe keeping them as slaves isn’t cool and all that implies for the antebellum economy and way of life.

        Economics is the worst. You have all sorts of moral/ethical issues which pop up without the kind of epistemic consensus to at least serve as a baseline for argument. Fortunately, econ doesn’t rely on esoterica like quantum mechanics. It’s complicated because there’s so many moving parts and those parts are messy, inconsistent, and often irrational people, but really, the basic principles are generally accessible to a normal intellect. The big problem is that there’s so much motivated reasoning and just enough free play in what is known and unknown that a clever person can construct a plausible argument to support almost any policy preference. Given all that I feel perfectly justified in holding to my own opinions over against whatever authorities you want to hold up as long as I can present my own plausible argument that isn’t completely nutty. To be honest, the discipline simply hasn’t demonstrated the kind of epistemic consistency for practitioners to really claim authority.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Murali says:

        I think you’re missing an important point, Rod. Can the person of normal intellect looking at economics explain the counterview? Have they even tried to understand it? Or have they avoided investigating it because they’ve heard only “those” people believe that? If a person knows only the perspective that suits them, they don’t really know anything.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Murali says:


        Because the things that people are not expert in can still have a direct influence on a person’s life and well-being. There are plenty of times when experts do disagree and fight.

        Now something like string theory does not effect the daily lives of people but economics does and I generally find that the market anarchist answer for trust the experts on economics boils down to “Your job loss and now significantly lower pay and lifestyle expectation is a product of a perfectly rational market. If you can’t accept that, you are a moron.” Road Scholar is right to point out that a lot of times economics divorces itself from discussions of morality and ethics in situations when almost everyone else would not do so.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Murali says:

        Any knucklehead can say “this is why X happened.” An expert is somebody who can say “Y is *GOING* to happen” and be right.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Murali says:

        a lot of times economics divorces itself from discussions of morality and ethics in situations when almost everyone else would not do so.

        And, shockingly, philosophy often divorces itself from discussions of efficiency and rational responses to incentives.

        “That discipline isn’t what I want it to be about” is every bit as meaningful a critique as “that blog post isn’t what I want it to be about.”Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Murali says:

        I should also point out that there is more consensus among economists than probably most people realize.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Murali says:

        Economists admit quite freely that they’re not good at prediction. Though the same used to be true of short-term weather forecasts, and they’ve gotten much more accurate in the last decade.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Murali says:


        I think you’re missing an important point, Rod. Can the person of normal intellect looking at economics explain the counterview?

        I’d ask: in what sense do you mean this? Certainly lots of people are capable of learning the basic concepts, but at some level economic theory becomes just as opaque to the non-expert as theoretical physics. I’d say the relevant distinction is between the academic and applied sides of the two disciplines, which was the point I was getting at above and the one Rod was expanding on. A theory in physics will garner opposition from non-experts insofar as it is viewed as impinging on their values and expectations and whatnot. This is clearly the case with climate change science, but also the case with biological concepts like evolution. Applying economic principles or theories, by their very nature, I’d say, will garner a higher level of resistance since the application of those principles will be perceived to have an even more direct effect on their lives (and values, etc), but also because those theories are inherently laden with normative concepts (coercion, utility, preferences, etc). So on a purely academic level, I agree with you: opposition to an economic theory’s conclusions requires arguing against the rationale upon which that conclusion is derived. On the applied side of it, tho, I tend to feel that people are under no such obligation. They can simply reject the conclusion on standard political grounds: they don’t like it (or whatever).

        Your argument seems to be that people can justifiably reject the application of economics principles *only if* they understand the concepts in play at the level of an expert, but if so, I think we’re entering paradoxic land, since you seem to be saying an expert would not reject those claims. That is, a person could only reject those claims by agreeing with them or something.

        Of course, I don’t think that’s what you really mean, but it’s how your argument strikes me. I mean, it seems entirely rational (to me!) for a person to reject the theory of evolution based on a prior commitment to creationism. It likewise seems entirely rational for a person to reject offshoring plastics manufacturing based on a prior commitment to keeping those jobs in the US. So here’s the sticky point for me in all this: What would constitute a sufficient condition for that person to agree with “the experts” regarding offshoring plastics plants *other than* a total acceptance of the economic theory which the experts believe justifies that practice?Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Murali says:

        Well, is “expert” qualitative or quantitative?

        It seems to me that, casually, expert means “qualitative” and so you can trust the blacksmith when he tells you that the coming thunderstorm is going to be a doozy based on the smell coming off the lake.

        But it also seems to me that there is a difference in kind between that expertise and the expertise of a meteorologist who is reading satellite charts. The latter is a hell of a lot closer to quantitatively an expert.

        If economists say that they’re not good at prediction, then they’re pretty much telling you that they’re closer to the blacksmith sniffing the air than the lady with credentials reading the cloud formations on a computer monitor.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Murali says:


        What you say might be true, but even if it is I”m not sure who that argument is supposed to persuade. Certainly not me, at least regarding the topic I’ve been discussing. People object policy proposals insofar as they believe their implementation will adversely effect their lives. I’m pretty well convinced (at this point) that “trusting the experts” means nothing in resolving this issue. (In fact, I’m inclined to think that appeal to expertness exacerbates the underlying tensions more than it resolves it, as I mentioned upthread.) Expertness just drops outa the equation entirely wrt *this* issue, seems to me.

        Now, on an academic level, I think understanding the basic concepts is requisite for rejecting theoretical or theoretically argued conclusions. But that’s just built into academics, no?Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Murali says:


        I mean if a person only know about “their” side’s argument from things said by “our” side, they don’t actually know much at all. If your entire view of freshwater economics comes from the saltwater school, or vice versa (or all you know about neoclassical economics comes from Austrians), then you don’t really know anything at all.

        And, referencing a part of the prior discussion, if you can’t correctly use concepts whose definitions are universally agreed upon in the field (although their applications ma not be), then you don’t know squat.

        To use the creationism/evolution example, creationists who get their only information about evolutionary theory from other creationists don’t know much at all. And if they don’t have a correct grasp of concepts like selection, the time scales involved, and why we never see a monkey evolving into a human, then they don’t know squat.

        Think of it as a general application of opposite day here a the OT. If you can’t make an honest and fair–even if imprecise and not-highly technical–explanation of the other side’s argument, then you don’t know as much as you think you do (the general “you,” not the Stillwater “you”).Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Murali says:


        So I guess there are no expert volcanologists or seismologists? I guess my theory that it’s all caused by gods having angry sex is just as good as any of the theories of the so-called experts.Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to Murali says:

        I should also point out that there is more consensus among economists than probably most people realize.

        Following some of the links and looking at the lists, I was struck by how many of them were tax proposals that would be DOA for one reason or another. Eliminate the mortgage interest deduction. Eliminate the employer health insurance deduction. Eliminate all corporate taxes. Scrap all of the existing tax systems at all levels and replace them with a single progressive consumption tax. Impose a carbon tax. Replace all of the existing public assistance programs with a negative income tax.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Murali says:

        I should also point out that there is more consensus among economists than probably most people realize.

        E.g, they all believe that economics is of value and people who do it for a living should get paid.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Murali says:

        Eliminate the mortgage interest deduction. Eliminate the employer health insurance deduction. Eliminate all corporate taxes. Scrap all of the existing tax systems at all levels and replace them with a single progressive consumption tax. Impose a carbon tax. Replace all of the existing public assistance programs with a negative income tax.

        That is, they believe they can predict the results of a massive change to an extremely complex system. I am so reassured.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Murali says:

        There’s a consensus among all of those who’ve studied it closely, crossing ideological perspectives, but despite never having studied the issue myself, I’ll reject it based on one generalization.

        I’d comment on the insightfulness of that, but apparently it’s bad form to point out such things here.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Murali says:


        I get your frustration, but it seems to me the difference here is between highly idealized theoretical concepts or principles which follow from a bunch of other highly assumptions vs. advocacy for the application of those idealized principles to the real world. The first type of claim is a purely academic one, the second (necessarily!) a political one. So the two types of claims are justified by different types of arguments and prolly two different types of value schemes/world views. Seems to me, anyway.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Murali says:

        Scrap all of the existing tax systems at all levels and replace them with a single progressive consumption tax.

        I’m not an economist, but it seems to me that Japan’s recent increase of the sales tax ought to cause serious advocates of consumption taxes to rethink their views. Or at least temper their enthusiasm somewhat.

        The sudden dip in Japan’s gross domestic product followed the first sales-tax increment in April. The increase in the tax to 8% from 5% hit consumption and whiplashed the economy after front-loaded demand powered growth to 6% in the January-March period. Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Murali says:


        The point is that these ideas, if implemented, would have real-world effects, yes? So, assuming some general agreement on the real outcomes we want to see (else all bets are off), should we listen to a bunch of people with no significant knowledge on the topic who warn us that X will be harmful, or should we listen to people who’ve studied the issue a lot more carefully who tell us X will do a better job of helping us achieve the commonly desired outcome?

        Re: Japan. I’ve only looked at the issue briefly, but two points seem relevant to me. First, there was a surge in buying before the tax went into effect–people being, gasp!, rational consumers–so it’s not a surprise that there was a slump in consumer demand immediately following it, but that in itself should be temporary. Second, unless I’ve missed something (in which case somebody should correct me), the sales tax increase did _not_ replace any other taxes, but was an increase in the total tax rate.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Murali says:


        Combining both your points into a single response, I’d say that one rather obvious issue wrt replacing all income taxes with a consumption tax is that tacking on a 15-25% bump onto the backend of a price will result in an appreciable disincentive to spend. One of the rather nice things about an income tax (well, most income tax anyway) is that gummint gets its share before folks get that cash in hand, so spending is based on a calculus that only includes state sales taxes. (And maybe not even those if you shop online.) WHich is exactly the issue I mentioned above: increasing the backend price of purchases will – as a matter of logic, seems to me – result in otherwise fewer purchases. At least, that’s the view of all the economists I’ve read and heard talk about it.

        So, to get back to your point: it seems we have a real world example where increasing taxes on consumption have deleterious effects on not only the economy but on the ostensible purpose of imposing those taxes, which is gummint collection of revenues.

        And I don’t mean this snarkily, but I’m quite sure that economist will be inclined to explain the Japan example away because the background conditions weren’t right or somesuch. Which is fine, of course. But insofar as *that’s* the response it only reinforces the point I made above about the distinction between idealized models and real world implementation.Report

      • Don Zeko in reply to Murali says:

        @stillwater But still, the flipside is that you have an income effect from everyone getting bigger paychecks. In theory, it offsets, and you get an economic advantage of some size or another from tax code that, on net, discourages consumption rather than a tax code that tends to disincentivize work.

        That said, I have some issues with the idea. first, I’m skeptical that any real world plan to do this, if it could be passed at all, would actually maintain or increase the progressivity of the current tax code. And second, I would like to keep the other Pigovian taxes out there: cigarettes, gas taxes, etc., which procludes switching over entirely to a consumption tax.Report

      • Roger in reply to Murali says:

        “I generally find that the market anarchist answer for trust the experts on economics boils down to “Your job loss and now significantly lower pay and lifestyle expectation is a product of a perfectly rational market. If you can’t accept that, you are a moron.”

        Saul, you cant actually believe this. The answer given here a dozen dozen times is related to the value of creative destruction.

        The full answer is that economic freedom is significantly responsible for lifting average levels of income thirty or more times the historic average (of two to three dollars a day just about everywhere since the advent of agriculture). The dynamics of markets is driven by creative destruction as less efficient producers are continuously replaced by more efficient and productive producers. The costs of this process are uncertainty and job loss (and job gains or lower prices elsewhere). We need to consider the benefits and the costs and make policy decisions wisely based upon the entire picture.

        The bottom line is that a subsegment of conservatives are way too attracted to dismissing evolutionary experts because it threatens their magic views of life, and a subsegment of progressives are way too attracted to dismissing economics because it threatens their magic views of sociology.*

        Your comment is a perfect example.

        *in all fairness, a subsegment of anarchists seem too attracted to dismissing history.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Murali says:


        I’ll defend Saul on this point. Vociferously (!!!) too. If the argument is that a person ought to allow their job or wages or security to be undermined under the rationale that doing this results in the betterment of others, then I think *that* person deserves an answer, since it’s obviously not resulting in their own betterment, no?Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Murali says:

        So I guess there are no expert volcanologists or seismologists? I guess my theory that it’s all caused by gods having angry sex is just as good as any of the theories of the so-called experts.

        James, I think that there’s a middle you’re excluding. Sure, some people are better at things than others, but the expert surgeons who refused to change out of their coats after visiting the morgue were a different kind of expert than the experts we have today (the ones who insist on washing their hands and such), don’t you agree?

        Or is it your argument that there is no difference of kind, merely degree, between the two?Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Murali says:

        What you say might be true, but even if it is I”m not sure who that argument is supposed to persuade.

        Eh, I suppose I’m not attempting to persuade but merely thinking aloud.

        We do a good job of convincing ourselves that since we have an abundance of the casual version of experts (“the guys who are seriously really better at it than anybody else”) then, therefore, we have folks who are quantitatively experts.

        The casual is bleeding over into the… I don’t know what word to use here.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Murali says:

        When economists say they’re crap at predicting, they’re merely explaining why they aren’t independently wealthy yet. It’s easy to predict problems, they’re half the time staring you in the face. It’s even easier to predict boondoggles to address the problems. The question, as always, is timing — how long can we afford to patch the unfixable?Report

      • Roger in reply to Murali says:


        If the argument is that a person ought to allow their job or wages or security to be undermined under the rationale that doing this results in the betterment of others, then I think *that* person deserves an answer, since it’s obviously not resulting in their own betterment, no?”

        Yes, of course. You’ve brought this argument up before if memory serves. People are not utilitarian altruists. It is perfectly reasonable that people do everything in their power to preserve their job even if it throws sand in the engine of economic progress. Of course, if everyone throws sand in the engine, then there is no economic output and we all go down together.

        This is just an example of the omnipresent “problem of cooperation” often illustrated by the prisoners dilemma. We all gain via economic growth but we each gain more by creating a privileged position immune to market forces. But if we all get privileged positions there is no market and catastrophe reigns.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Michael Drew says:


      If we’re talking about eliminating a, b, c…y and replacing them with z, it’s not explaining away anything to point out that they didn’t do the “eliminating a, b, c…y” part. I’ll forgo the innumerable analogies that come to mind, but that concept is readily generalizable.

      As to the other issue, I’m no tax expert, so I can’t talk intelligently about the macro effects of different taxes. But if you effectively raise my income, I’ll be more willing to spend more. Somewhere in their the taxes equalize so my real purchasing power doesn’t change.

      Yes, there’s a political advantage in taking cash from people before they ever touch it. That’s a particularly good pragmatic argument for doing income tax by payroll deductions rather than asking them to pay out of pocket at stated intervals. In the firm of a consumption tax I think that pragmatic argument remains but in weakened form. Many people, after all, readily fritter away small amounts that are cumulatively large who would hesitate to spend such an amount at one time. Some business models are based on that, so it shouldn’t be impossible for government to take advantage of it, too.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to James Hanley says:

        But if you effectively raise my income, I’ll be more willing to spend more. Somewhere in their the taxes equalize so my real purchasing power doesn’t change.

        More than the amount it otherwise would have been if those taxes were still in place?

        One of the things I’m getting at is the effects on consumer psychology. The decision to buy an item with a 100 dollar price tag plus 8% is a governed by a different set of emotional inputs than buying an item with a 100 price tag plus 25%.

        Both you and Don Zeko bring up sorta the same objection: policy X that results in equal spending power will result in equal spending. Psychologically, I just don’t think that’s the case.Report

      • Don Zeko in reply to James Hanley says:

        @stillwater Wouldn’t that imply that inflation reduces people’s propensity to spend? After all, If prices have gone up 15% over the past however many years and wages have gone up by the same amount, your theory would suggest that consumer spending would be on a steady downward trajectory. I don’t see any evidence that that’s the case.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to James Hanley says:

        After all, If prices have gone up 15% over the past however many years and wages have gone up by the same amount, your theory would suggest that consumer spending would be on a steady downward trajectory.

        My theory (and it’s not my theory) is that if people have equal spending power with the same tax rate all other things equal, then they’ll spend the same. I mean, that’s just basic economic theory, right? Not *my* theory.

        My point upthread is that increasing the effective price on the backend will on balance disincentivize people to spend, especially when that increase is measured against *not* having to spend that extra amount.

        My other point is that a first-in taxing policy by gummint has certain advantages, one of which is that people who experience economic uncertainty (or a desire to save!) will have already contributed their share to funding gummint, rather than taxes being dependent on the psychology of consumers.Report

  13. Glyph says:

    Short answer: No.

    Longer answers.

    To what degree does having credentials and/or expertise in a given topic give one authority to dismiss the argument of someone who lacks those same things?

    One may have authority and not wisdom. Or the reverse.

    For that matter, to what degree does not having credential and/or expertise give one the obligation to defer to someone who does?

    See #1. It may be *wise* to defer to credentials and expertise, but there is no *obligation*; one is only *obligated* to defer to authority, usually defined as “the man with the gun”.

    After all, if you can look something up on the Internet, why do we need to listen to experts at all?

    When I look something up on the internet, I AM listening to experts. All the time, every day. Ones I never would have been able to hear, before.

    Of course, I am also listening to some quacks and nuts too.

    See, here’s the thing – in a lot of ways, Martin Luther was a bit of a nut.

    But nailing that 95 Theses on that door had far-reaching implications, way beyond the Theses themselves; the very *act* of nailing them up (and the Church being forced into responding) helped, iteratively, bring about a world in which dogmatic religious authority could be questioned. It opened up the space and laid the groundwork to ask further questions.

    A lot of the people posting their own “Theses” to the ‘net, every day, are nutbars.

    And yes, we have to sift through them; and that’s harder than just trusting that the men with the fancy hats and robes always know what they are talking about all the time.

    But society is far better off doing that, than allowing any dogma to become sclerotic.Report

  14. trizzlor says:

    This seems like a general problem with barriers to entry. On the one hand, the people who get in will have a baseline knowledge of the process, on the other hand there’s gonna be a ton of smart people left out in the cold (or worse, kept out be the people who get in). Of course, without a certificate in place that labels someone a professional, the customers have to do a lot more work figuring out whose the amateur.

    I’m with Glyph that democratization of knowledge is for the best in the long-term. But the negatives *are* being felt. I mean, there was a time that when someone talked about genetics, speciation, and natural selection, that person had probably done some basic scholarly research in the field. Now, it’s just as likely they simply read “10 Creationist Facts That Disprove Evolution” and have a good memory. Some people even make a career out of it.Report

  15. Damon says:

    All this being said, let’s go back to the main topic. Yes, people are getting stupider.

    There’s little critical independent thought-it’s not really taught.
    No one is willing to listen, only to talk.
    Anyone who disagrees is a fool.
    “Experts” are paid by the other side.Report

  16. Jaybird says:

    Surprised that I’m the first to quote Socrates: I heard, then, that at Naucratis, in Egypt, was one of the ancient gods of that country, the one whose sacred bird is called the ibis, and the name of the god himself was Theuth. He it was who invented numbers and arithmetic and geometry and astronomy, also draughts and dice, and, most important of all, letters. Now the king of all Egypt at that time was the god Thamus, who lived in the great city of the upper region, which the Greeks call the Egyptian Thebes, and they call the god himself Ammon. To him came Theuth to show his inventions, saying that they ought to be imparted to the other Egyptians. But Thamus asked what use there was in each, and as Theuth enumerated their uses, expressed praise or blame, according as he approved or disapproved. The story goes that Thamus said many things to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts, which it would take too long to repeat; but when they came to the letters, “This invention, O king,” said Theuth, “will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.” But Thamus replied, “Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; and now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess. For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.Report

  17. Murali says:


    The internet does make us stupider in the context of democratic politics. The benefit for making a good inference (and avoiding bad ones) is negligible when it comes to democratic politics. If you make a good inference and everyone else is making a bad inference, you do not get closer to a just system. The costs of making good inferences are often high as making good inferences are often harder than making bad inferences especially if the chain of reasoning involved is more complicated. The cost of making a bad inference is negligible. If you make a bad inference and everyone else is making good ones, you do not get further from a just system. likewise making bad inferences is easier when the bad inferences are intuitive and the good ones are counterintuitive. The internet foster political deliberation and thus creates more instances where people are required to make an inference. We can expect that on average, this will increase the stock of poorly formed beliefs among people.Report