On Rational Distrust of “Experts”

So it’s Columbus Day, and the usual idiots are doing the usual bashing.

This is why you shouldn’t trust “experts.”

Co-blogger Phil and I were discussing this the other day, the Howard Zinn-ification of most everything.  Columbus was a man of his time.  Everything he did to the Arawaks, Mehmed II did to the Byzantines.  In spades.  The only difference being, Mehmed was a Muslim and Byzantium was in Turkey, so white American liberals don’t get to award themselves virtue bingo squares for squawking about it (and hence they whitewash the fall of Constantinople).

In order to make the argument that Columbus was somehow uniquely evil, you’d have to judge him according to his context.  Elucidating context is what historians are supposed to do.  But where’s the virtue fix in that?

Everything you need to know about the historical profession, you can learn from the Michael Bellesiles affair.  In short, Bellesiles told academia what it wanted to hear — that despite what everyone knows, there weren’t that many guns in colonial America, and the Founders weren’t all that keen on the Second Amendment.  Naturally they loved his book Arming America, and awarded it the Bancroft Prize (pretty much the highest award in the field).

Except, of course, what everybody knows to be true actually was true.  Bellesiles was guilty of gross academic misconduct, up to and including inventing sources for his claims.

What’s most striking about this story, for anyone who knows anything about professional academic work, is how willing other historians were to overlook the audacity of Bellesiles’s claims.  I have a buddy who wrote his dissertation on certain aspects of a state’s colonial history, and I’m not kidding when I say that pretty much every extant source passed through his hands at some point during that project.  There are lots of people in the history biz with similar archival experience, and yet somehow it fell to a software engineer, Clayton Cramer, to point out some of the obvious problems with Professor Bellesiles’s sources and methodology.

Not only did the “experts” not look at the data, they actually attacked Cramer for pointing it out.  Because he’s not a professional historian, you see.  He’s just a computer geek and a gun nut; we can’t have those people sullying the purity of the profession with their grubby, un-PhD’d paws.

Academia is a guild, plain and simple.  A good rule of thumb is:  The louder someone trumpets the word “expert,” the greater the likelihood he’s full of shit.

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7 thoughts on “On Rational Distrust of “Experts”

  1. philmon

    The Alwarmists do the same thing with AGW. When the argument becomes, “but everyone ELSE says this” … (meaning anyone who is anyone as defined by the people who say it) or the argument against it becomes where your funding allegedly comes from or that the mere act of actually presenting evidence to the contrary automatically turns you into something akin to a halocaust “denier” … they don’t have an argument. Their argument is … Shut Up.

  2. Severian

    Exactly. One of the reasons I have so little patience with the AGW crowd is that I’ve seen it all before. “Do you have a Phd in science? Have your read Gleeson 1992?”

    No, but I know how guilds work. I have extensive experience with professor types, and they’re pretty much all the same. The intellectually honest ones will explain where they’re coming from. The dishonest ones — which is, sadly, about 99.2% of all of them — will immediately start tossing around degrees and bibliographies. The worst of the worst will throw a wall of jargon at you (although to be somewhat fair — God knows why I should be — most of them can’t communicate in anything but jargon. The humanities rot your brain).

    Most importantly, I know how egos work. It takes a lot of time and effort to get a PhD in something. How could it be, then, that some untutored software engineer* is able to spot something all us history PhDs missed? That’s un-possible! He must be banished to the outer darkness.

    *Cramer actually had an advanced degree, btw — he was working on his history MA when he spotted Bellesiles’s extravagant claims.

  3. model_1066

    When I hear leftys disparaging Colombus, I ask them to consider that he was adding diversity to the New World! Diversity is supposed to be unequivocally good, right?

    1. Cylar

      I think my favorite part is where modern liberals try to compare the Spaniards coming into the New World, with modern illegal immigration. As if the native tribes had an immigration office where European settlers could apply to become citizens of the Iriquois nation or something.

  4. Cylar

    Every Columbus Day, I get on FB and loudly announce to the world that I still respect and revere the man. It’s something I do just to cheese-off all these historical revisionist types who want to make him sound like an exploiter or something.His voyage – especially his first – was a pretty monumental achievement…and he really did discover the Americas for the Europe. I must have missed the part where someone from the native tribes put together a fleet, sailed across the Atlantic, and greeted the Europeans.

    When someone says, “What about the Vikings coming to Canada 500 years earlier?” I reply, “What about them? It came to nothing, because the rest of Europe didn’t seem to know anything about it until Columbus’ time and the explorers who came after him. I’m not sure what the Northmen were worse at – building a permanent settlement, or telling the rest of the civilized world what they’d found.”

    1. Severian

      Exactly. The significance of Newfoundland is…. what, exactly? We know the Vikings had oceangoing ships, and we know it’s possible to pretty much sight-navigate your way from Scandinavia to Newfoundland. In fact, thanks to Thor Heyerdahl we know that all kinds of pre-Columbian “discovery” could have happened (and I think the theory about Polynesians is generally accepted these days, though I’m no anthropologist*).

      It’s the consequences that matter. Let’s take it as given that the Norse, the Chinese, the Egyptians, the Romans, and the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man all reached North America before Columbus. So what? The impact of these voyages, so far as history is concerned, is…. nothing. Columbus literally changed the course of history. Whether that’s good, bad, or indifferent is a matter of taste, I suppose, but it did happen, and it was important.

      Unlike those other guys.

      *I’m sure the Cuttlefish will be along shortly to inform me if I’m right or wrong about that. Their expertise in “science” being boundless. Like their expertise in everything else.

      1. Cylar

        Well put. I’m glad to finally stumble across someone who agrees with me. Columbus – Italian-born, Spanish-employed mercenary, sailor and explorer – is the guy I read about in seventh grade history class. I never even heard of those others reaching the Americas until recently.

        My high school history text included a graphic timeline of world history, with “Vikings reach North America” penciled in around 1000 AD.

        I remember thinking, “Vikings reach New World, 1000? AND? So why was North America colonized by Spain, Britain, and France (in that order)…instead of by Sweden or Norway?” It’s not like the Nordic countries had any shortage of timber to build ships out of.

        And for that matter, why didn’t the Russians stumble across it long before anyone else? Did nobody in Siberia think to explore more than few miles off its coast? The Bering Strait isn’t that wide. (The Russians’ impact on American history is a minor footnote up until after World War II, and this is after you factor in their sale of Alaska and forts along the California coast.)

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