Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


Against the cult of the amateur

posted by Rod Dreher

David Rieff says that yes, we have grown too trusting in the opinions of experts, who have proven themselves to be unreliable, but that we now face the opposite threat from the Cult of the Amateur. Excerpt:

On both the right and the left, this intellectual and moral populism is so commonplace as to have become an article of faith. Put it down to the failure of experts to deliver. Whether it was, at least for liberals of a certain generation, a Robert McNamara or a McGeorge Bundy during Vietnam–’The Best and the Brightest,’ and all that–or, on the right, a justified contempt for the social engineers of the welfare state, who on balance seem to have done more harm than good, it is hard to escape the conclusion that, in half a century, we have moved from the cult of the expert to the cult of the amateur.
But to call this a disbelief in expertise is only partly right. What many people today believe–the young especially, having never known a world without the Internet–is that anyone can become an expert.

More:

What the Internet, by providing virtually limitless access to information, has done, is made us all feel that we are in some sense experts, at least on any subject that is not so technical that even the most self-congratulatory cannot seriously pretend to real knowledge. Thus young policy wonks in Washington, who have never heard a shot fired in anger, except, perhaps as distant background noise during a fleeting ‘Condel’ to a theater of war, discourse with seemingly perfect self-assurance on U.S. military counterinsurgency doctrine, and bloggers with absolutely no scientific training believe that they have the right to an opinion about global warming one way or the other. But what this belief that we are all experts illustrates is not the democratization of knowledge, but the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

A true and important point. But it seems to me that the Internet only put into hyperdrive cultural and intellectual currents already moving swiftly through our culture. I think, for example, about religion (as you knew I would). The Protestant Reformation, which predates the Internet by 500 years, began the democratization of religious thought in the West — a degeneration of authority and the idea of authority that has now resulted in the catastrophic (to me) hollowing-out of the Roman Catholic Church’s authority — by which I mean many, probably most, Catholics in the West no longer believe their consciences bound by the teaching of the Roman magisterium.
Why is this “catastrophic” to me, a man who rejected the authority of the Roman church? Because when I lost my faith in the Roman church’s magisterial authority, I did not lose my faith in the idea of meaningful authority existing outside of my individual judgment. It is catastrophic for the long-term survival of Christianity, in my view, to have the concept of binding authority collapse, as it has assuredly done. The rise of the Cult of the Amateur in popular Western religion has resulted in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, which is the final decadent stage of Christianity in Western civilization, although it should be pointed out that a) this is not really Christianity at all, and b) sociologist Christian Smith has shown that the MTD corrosion attacks all religions in this culture equally.
When the postman and the Pope are theologians whose opinions have more or less equal weight, we have not the democratization of religion, but, as Rieff indicates about knowledge and expertise in general, entropy — which is to say, decay and dissolution.
Let me encourage you again to read Rieff’s post. It’s not about religion at all, but about expertise and foreign policy, and why the Internet makes it more likely, in his view, that the US will intervene militarily in foreign lands. Don’t let my having riffed on a religious tangent keep you from reading the original.



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Abelard Lindsey

posted June 28, 2010 at 3:30 pm


Rieff has got it completely wrong. The financial bubble and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, indeed the last 10 years of my life have convinced me that the people at the top are as stupid and clueless as I am. They are simply more nasty and greedy than I am.
The other reason why the “cult of the amateur” will never be as much of a threat as centralized “experts” is because a society based on the amateur is inherently decentralized and we all know from history that centralized monopoly authority has always been the root of all evil. Centralized evil is always worse than decentralized evil because it is centralized and, thus, does damage to everyone. Decentralized evil does damage only to those immediately around it.
It is often said by conservatives on the net that we can’t have a free, decentralized society because most people are not rational actors. The people who say this have got it wrong. If most people are either bad or screw-ups, it makes no sense to place one human or group of humans in charge of all other humans. Whether humans are good or bad is irrelevant to the issue of Man and the State, not to mention who decides who is called an “expert”.



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Hometown Conservative

posted June 28, 2010 at 3:46 pm


I am close to being awarded my PhD. I have spent many, many years going through the academic hazing to become an “expert.”
I have spent countless hours listening to and reading “experts.” What I have seen and read and heard has made it clear that in most fields the experts know nothing.



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Broken Yogi

posted June 28, 2010 at 3:56 pm


As to the general argument, the reason people are so doubting of “experts” is that all to often expertise has become a cover for political exploitation and manipulation. Remember when the intelligence experts all assured us that Saddam had WMDs? It’s not that people have no trust in genuine experts, they just don’t know who is actually trustworthy, because the boy has cried wolf way to many times and we’ve been burned too many times.
The problem is that non-experts, because they are non-experts, have a hard time figuring out who the real experts are among all those claiming to be experts, many of whom are not even experts. Plus, there’s the problem that experts are often wrong anyway, that even the best of the best aren’t really very good a lot of the time. This desire for an infallible authority is simply never going to be fulfilled here, so we have to grow and learn to be adults, not children.



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Grumpy Old Person

posted June 28, 2010 at 4:08 pm


Speaking of “Put it down to the failure of experts to deliver”, the recent George Rekers scandal comes to mind. He was paid tens of thousands of dollars by the Governor of Florida to spout his mis-information which turned out to be nothing more than his opinions on gay Americans.



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kevin s.

posted June 28, 2010 at 4:13 pm


I see it as a sort of pyramid of knowledge. At the top, you have a few subject matter experts who know their area of expertise inside and out.
Toward the bottom, you have a higher number of those who have less expertise in a particular field. They cannot solve major problems single-handedly but, by the sheer volume of nominally acquired information, they act as a sort of check on the expertise of those at the top.



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celticdragonchick

posted June 28, 2010 at 4:38 pm


The other reason why the “cult of the amateur” will never be as much of a threat as centralized “experts” is because a society based on the amateur is inherently decentralized and we all know from history that centralized monopoly authority has always been the root of all evil.
Laughably, tragically wrong.
Let’s get another take on that subject from somebody who lived through the chaos and insanity of the English Civil War…
For the Lawes of Nature (as Justice, Equity, Modesty, Mercy, and(in summe) doing to others, as wee would be done to) of themselves without the terrour of some Power, to cause them to be observed, are contrary to our naturall Passions, that carry us to Partiality, Pride, Revenge, and the like. And Covenants, without the Sword, are but Words, and of no strength to secure a man at all.
Thomas Hobbes “Leviathan”, Chapter XVII
Chaos and the lack of an authority to restrain the predation of the strong upon the weak are far more fearsome then your knee jerk ‘big gubmint is evul’ shibboleth.
As an aside to the subject of Rod’s post, I must say I find it endlessly amusing to be told by people (in this very blog!) without a single hour of instruction in geology or engineering that ‘Peak Oil’ is a “librul myth” and cannot possibly be true. Cult of the Amateur indeed.



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Erin Manning

posted June 28, 2010 at 4:41 pm


I think one of the hazards of being an expert about anything is that experts tend to acquire both a sort of tunnel vision on the one hand, and a tendency to apply their expertise in areas that are only tangentially related to their fields on the other.
Take global warming, for instance (or are we calling it “climate change” now? I ask non-snarkily, just with a desire to use the appropriate term). Only those with the proper scientific training can really determine a) if the earth is really warming, and b) if this warming is primarily, substantially, or overwhelmingly caused by human activity.
Within the group of scientists who are indeed trained to study these matters, there is not a full consensus, though to the outside observer it appears that the majority answer this way: a–yes, b–undetermined, with answers ranging from “yes, definitely!” to “well, probably,” to “it’s too soon to tell for certain,” and everything in between these positions.
But even the subgroup of climate scientists who answer a)yes and b)yes, definitely do *not* thereby have the expertise to determine what exactly ought to be done about restricting or changing human behavior from a policy perspective.
What we end up with are politicians who imperfectly understand the issues handing down decisions to, say, outlaw incandescent light bulbs, without considering the environmental hazards of CFL bulbs, the more environmentally-taxing methods of disposal necessary for these mercury-containing bulbs, the fact that most if not all of these bulbs will be manufactured and imported from far-away countries (adding shipping fuel costs to their total energy footprint), and the like–but the scientists say “Something must be done!” and the politicians answer “We’re doing something!” without anybody (expert or otherwise) discussing if by “something” the two groups are even close to being on the same page.
Or, to use another example, a person I know who has a doctorate in a field of psychology insisted in a conversation that all introverted people are shy, even though a behavioral psychiatrist would probably disagree, since introversion has to do with a person’s inward focus and sense of self, and does not always (though it often does) exhibit as shyness. As the layperson outside of the argument, I can agree that in popular shorthand introversion = shyness, but many people, upon hearing this from a psychologist, would probably think the matter was settled (instead of recognizing that he was speaking of a matter very far removed from his own area of expertise). We do that all the time when we give someone “expert” status without considering whether his actual expertise is relevant to the matter at hand.



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Helen

posted June 28, 2010 at 4:47 pm


Rod, there is some tension between this post and your post on the Pope’s rebuke of the Cardinal. You probably already see that.
I agree with you that binding authority outside an individual’s conscience is important. The difficulty is in finding trustworthy authorities. Events like the Protestant Reformation did not come about because people are selfish and just want to do what they want. The Reformation was at least in part a rational reaction to abuses of authority. Rebellions against authority are sometimes — maybe even often — justifed. Those rebellions may have negative consequences, but more often than not the authority brings the rebellion on itself.
I think the Catholic Church has placed itself in an terrible bind. The heirarchy puts itself out there as an expert on morality, the authority to which we should turn when presented with moral dilemmas. But how can we trust their moral authority when they have handled the sex abuse scandal — an easy issue, really — so immorally? What else are they terribly wrong about?
The sex abuse scandal is so depressing for so many reasons — mostly for the damage it has done to the direct victims, but also for the self-inflicted damage it has done to the Church.



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Bryan Wandel

posted June 28, 2010 at 5:16 pm


Whatever historical connections may exist between religious levelling and social/political, the ontological connection does not exist. For those Christians who see knowledge of the truth as essential for salvation, the accessibility of that salvific truth must be enough to justify belief. But social/political knowledge is not of the same kind. Hence, the “authority” of social/political knowledge is not of the same kind as the authority of religious knowledge. So no matter how high a view one holds of tradition, councils, or pope, this does not necessarily entail authoritative culture, politics, or academics. The very problem with scholastic pedagogy was an unnatural authority being lodged in “canonical” texts such as Justinian’s Code, Boethius, Aristotle, etc.



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Bryan Wandel

posted June 28, 2010 at 5:27 pm


Secondly, the Reformation, even as a popular movement, did not occur in a historical vaccuum. The Protestant Reformation BEGAN 500 years of democratization?! Even if you are going to confine this to religious thought (though the whole point of this post is to connect it to culture in general), the merely social roots of popular protest would have to be recognized: the breakdown of feudal structure and the strengthening of the central monarchies in the 15-16C was already undermining the social/political bases of the Great Chain of Being; and humanist scholarship of the 14-16C had been discrediting the carte blanche authority that had been handed over to the canonical texts of scholasticism (see Valla’s exposure of the Donation of Constantine, and the demolition of the weight of Justinian’s Code).
The levelling you refer to has neither a clear beginning OR end (Moralistic Therapeutic Deism – as if there was a set, logical path that religious democratization had to follow, or that we are living in its logical conclusion!)



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Pat

posted June 28, 2010 at 6:07 pm


Two reasons the cult of the amateur can survive. First, it’s easier to see how to solve a problem when you know practically nothing about it. Second, the type of ‘experts’ who think they know how to solve problems in spite of knowing about their complexity are a lot dumber than they think they are.
In other words, the best lack all conviction… etc. The world is run by dumb people because smart people know they aren’t smart enough to run the world.



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Abelard Lindsey

posted June 28, 2010 at 6:56 pm


Laughably, tragically wrong.
Let’s get another take on that subject from somebody who lived through the chaos and insanity of the English Civil War…
No, you are completely and utterly wrong. It is pure imbecility to believe such a thing.
Centralized institutions have always caused all evil in this world. Soviet communism killed over 100 million people. The Nazis killed over 20 million people. The various religious cults over the past few thousand years have killed numerous people over this time period. All of these are examples of centralized institutions that were evil. Lone individuals have never killed or harmed as many people as any one of the aforementioned institutions.
The threat of chaos and anarchy is used as sophistry by centralized authority figures to justify their control over others. All religion, philosophy, and ideology is nothing more than “sales talk” spewed out by those who seek power over others. There is no underlying reality to this “sales talk”.



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Broken Yogi

posted June 28, 2010 at 7:14 pm


“Why is this “catastrophic” to me, a man who rejected the authority of the Roman church? Because when I lost my faith in the Roman church’s magisterial authority, I did not lose my faith in the idea of meaningful authority existing outside of my individual judgment. It is catastrophic for the long-term survival of Christianity, in my view, to have the concept of binding authority collapse, as it has assuredly done.”
Perhaps you should have lost your faith in magesterial authority after that, and for good reasons. Human beings are deeply fallible, and giving them that kind of absolute authority, whether spiritual or mundane, is just a bad idea, and one that needs to be brought down to earth. There’s a certain aspect to the traditional world that really does need to face the dustbin of history – the Divine Right of Kings, the rule of tyrants and despots, and the organization of human society around absolutist claims of all kinds, spiritual, religious, and political. I would think the Church’s sex scandals might have tipped some people off to the idea that creating human traditions of absolute authority are always going to end up corrupting us, and wrecking havoc among those who happen to be in the way of authority, even children.
And I disagree greatly that the loss of authority spells doom for the future of Christianity. I think it helps liberate Christianity from what has held it back and corrupted it all these centuries. Jesus did not come to create authority, he came to create a world in which people love one another as he loved us. The entire struggle to create a “sacred magesterium” has undermined this effort, rather than aided it, by corrupting the entire religious process. Christianity has not yet seen its best days, in my view. But it needs some radical reform to get itself out of the power and authority game it has been stuck in for so long. Scandals like the recent church has endured help to bring down the old order and make room for a new Christianity that might actually learn to live and love as Jesus did. That will never happen under the old authority schema of the traditional churches, unless the traditional churches stop concerning themselves about power and authority, and instead concern themselves with actually living by the genuine teachings of Christ.



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Indy

posted June 28, 2010 at 7:23 pm


Rod, I just posted a longish comment but it was held in the moderation queue. I’d appreciate your releasing it when you have a chance.



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celticdragonchick

posted June 28, 2010 at 7:50 pm


Abelard
The kind of absolutist ‘evil gubmint’ libertarian utopia ideology you espouse is simply the counterpart to Marxist utopian wishful thinking. Both points of view place faith in the perfectability of human nature, as your first post in this thread demonstrates.
“It is often said by conservatives on the net that we can’t have a free, decentralized society because most people are not rational actors. The people who say this have got it wrong. ”
I have found that this kind of viewpoint is utterly immune to historical rebuttel or empirical evidence of any kind, since the utopian merely responds that the ‘perfect’ society, whether Marxist or Randian, has never actually been reached…ergo evidence is defeated by ideological purity. I anticipate the same sort of thing from you. For people of your stripe, the ideology can never fail…it is us mere humans who fail to reach the promised reward.



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Franklin Evans

posted June 28, 2010 at 8:07 pm


My first reaction is three words: Baby. Bath water.
But, to be fair, and speaking as a former expert in one field* and a current expert in another but related field**, the baby goes slip-slidin’ away because people don’t know what to look for. Expertise has been diluted by the cult of entitlement.
Consider: the outgrowth of political correctness from valid concerns about oppression, discrimination and such into arbitrary egalitarianism — you’re a human being, therefore you are the equal of every other human being — makes it ever easier for greed to take priority over qualification. Couple that with a gradual (and still happening) decline in group and individual ethics. Stir, add a pinch of salt.
Anyone can claim expertise. They can make it look good with plagiarism and smoke and mirrors. In the end, though, what keeps them going is a societal laziness coupled with very poor impulse control*** (the bane of all teenagers at some point). We don’t hear about the (for example) AMA concerning bad doctors much. We don’t hear them say much about costs, overuse of tests, and we find much to complain about in ex cathedra answers to serious charges like those with the Roman Catholic Church (and, to be fair, while being the example in the public eye recently, they are far from the most egregious example. Police corruption, anyone? Sexual abuse is bad and evil, but holds a lesser candle to murder, torture, witness intimidation and a host of other “official” crimes in our history.)
I digress, no surprise. I have a question for the general audience, and I ask anyone inspired to answer to think about it thrice before posting: If an AM(edical)A- or AB(ar)A-like organization existed for every major expertise, an organization that worked hard to establish and prove objectivity and strict enforcement of standards, would you take the word of an “amateur” over that of a covered member of that organization?
* Look up ERISA. Check out the sections governing pension plans. That was my milieu for 14 years. You will also see half the reason why I got out of it.
** I had the rare and astonishingly good fortune to find an IT job that supported what I used to do in my first career. I’ve branched out and moved on to other applications in the meantime. But I still consider myself well-qualified to explain the basics of pension plans and Social Security to laypersons, and I hold myself to that ethical standard that requires me to say “I don’t know” when it comes to the legislation passed since I left that first career.
*** WE WANT OUR ANSWERS NOW, WE WANT THEM TO BE PERFECTLY CORRECT, AND IF YOU DON’T GIVE THEM TO US IN 30 SECONDS, WE’LL GO FIND SOME OTHER EXPERT WHO WILL!!!! Sound familiar to anyone? Drug industry complaints about regulations around testing? Raise your hands, who here would like to lose a major organ or just be killed by inadequately tested medicines because test delays would cost too much?



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Your Name

posted June 28, 2010 at 8:09 pm


Additionally…
The examples you provide of Nazism and Stalinism/Leninism are simply more fodder for Utopianism gone horribly awry. Both were populist movements fed by disaffection in the working classes. if you like, you might add the nightmare of the French revolution and Robespierre to the list.
All of the above illustrate forms of populism fueled with virulent authoritarianism that dereved power from the masses that you think are rational actors.
Contrast that with the American Constitution that specifically took pains to guard against the ‘passions’ of the enraged mob and the tyranny of the “man on a horse”…an Oliver Cromwell in other words. If Cromwell was not a signatory to the Constitution, his ghost was certainly present.
This is why Thomas Hobbes, whom you glibly and unthinkingly dismiss, was an inspiration for the division of powers and the checks that operate both on the government and the governed. There is utterly no historical precedant for your claim that most, if not all people, are rational actors. Moreover, even if that were the case, it might be rational for people to conclude that the interests of a society may not coincide with their own at some point and then act against their neighbors in a harmful fashion.
The word for that is anarchy.
I rather think that Reason magazine would be better fit for you. Good luck with that “ZOMG! The Gubmint is like da Nazis!!!!” thing.



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MikeW

posted June 28, 2010 at 8:11 pm


“The Protestant Reformation, which predates the Internet by 500 years, began the democratization of religious thought in the West…”
The Reformation was part of it, but I think new technology in the form of Gutenberg’s printing press and the increasing access of, er, common folks to the Word of God outside of the control of religious authorities also contributed to the democratization of religious thought. What it means even today is that I can read about the early church and how followers of the “Way” sold all their personal property and lived communally, and wonder why it is that this particular tradition is ignored by most churches and Christians today.
Sincerely,
Mike



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Indy

posted June 28, 2010 at 8:24 pm


The best approach is humility. We only catch glimpses of things on the Internet. I’m still waiting for Rod to release my comment but I’ve copied and will paste one paragraph here. As I’ve noted previously, I have friends who now work or once worked at the Departments of Justice, State, Defense, and Homeland Security, among others. Some are/were middle management, others very senior (one headed an agency). I also know people who work or have worked on Capitol Hill. When we do get together (I don’t live in Washington myself), the picture they paint of how things work in the policy world and political world is very, very different — much more complicated and nuanced — than the simplistic view often presented in blogs.



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Indy

posted June 28, 2010 at 8:25 pm


As I’ve noted previously, I have friends who now work or once worked at the Departments of Justice, State, Defense, and Homeland Security, among others. Some are/were middle management, others very senior (one headed an agency). I also know people who work or have worked on Capitol Hill. When we do get together (I don’t live in Washington myself), the picture they paint of how things work in the policy world and political world is very, very different — much more complicated and nuanced — than the simplistic view often presented in blogs.



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Indy

posted June 28, 2010 at 8:29 pm


Rod, I extracted one paragraph from my longer post from around 7:20 and tried posting it as a standalone, but it too was held, twice. Don’t know what in that paragraph keeps causing it to be caught in a filter of some kind. In the standalone paragraph, I pretty well just mention the departments where some of my friends work or have worked. I know you’ve said the moderation is wacky so it may not be filtering — there’s nothing to block in the paragraph obviously, but something else. In any event, check the mod queue.



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Turmarion

posted June 28, 2010 at 8:50 pm


celticdragonchick, if I remember Abelard correctly, we got into it on another thread awhile back in which he more or less argued that he had no obligations to anyone, any country, or any organization that got in the way of his pursuing his personal goals; that absolute freedom would raise the standard of living everywhere, and that for those for whom it didn’t, it was their fault; that it would be nice to be able to live forever and immigrate away in space from anyone who disagreed with him; and that all government is intrinsically evil, period. I found the relevant thread–it’s over here, so you can check it out yourself. Your trying to dialogue with him is admirable, but you’re dealing with some really cracked viewpoints immune, as you say, to rebuttal, refutation, or even simple logic and reason.
Erin, as you correctly (though it seems, grudgingly!) point out, most (in fact, the vast majority of) climate scientists agree that the Earth is warming. As you also correctly point out, the cause of this is a subject of greater disagreement, though I think I’m correct in asserting that a majority would acknowledge a significant if not predominant anthropogenic factor in this.
I also grant that proposed solutions are often ill-thought-out and may be worse than the existing situation. No one ever accused politicans of careful planning and scientific thought!
Having said all of this, I ask you, what would you suggest? As a science teacher I can tell you that the scientific literacy in this country is abysmal, to say nothing of the rampant anti-intellectualism (which I might point out exists on both sides of the political spectrum, depending on whose ox is getting gored). Scientists, as you point out, aren’t trained in policy, by and large; but politicians are not generally trained in science; the public at large gets demagogued all over the place, and are not themselves by and large scientifically or mathematically literate. For these reasons, the scientific community and the lay and political communities frustrate and annoy each other, with not nearly enough communication happening among them.
Your post is actually fairly measured and makes some good points, but it’s hard not to detect a faint undertone of suspicion of the global warming warnings and some (barely!) restrained snark. Yes, the science isn’t perfect (most science rarely is); yes, it may be better to do nothing in certain contexts than to go off half-cocked, hopping into frenzied action without enough understanding and planning; but does this mean we just sit around for a few more decades wrangling and playing politics over it until we’re all really *&##ed?
I am asking in sincerity–what would you have us do?



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Jeff

posted June 28, 2010 at 9:03 pm


Yeah, I would echo what Helen and others have said above. The Protestant Reformation didn’t destroy the authority of the Catholic Church; the people within the Catholic Church who corrupted it and put its moral authority up for sale did that. The Reformation was in essence a reaction to the collapse of that authority, not the cause of it.



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Jeff

posted June 28, 2010 at 9:44 pm


I also want to address Rod’s conclusion directly:
When the postman and the Pope are theologians whose opinions have more or less equal weight, we have not the democratization of religion, but, as Rieff indicates about knowledge and expertise in general, entropy — which is to say, decay and dissolution.
Would a better alternative be that the postman’s opinion counts for nothing and the Pope’s counts for everything? I think the answer is clearly “no.” Under that scenario, Rod could very well be burned at the stake for the heretical things he’s written in regard to the Catholic Church, or subject to any variety of less-extreme sanctions at the hands of Papal authority. Rod laments the neutering of this authority but he seems to ignore the problems this unchecked authority created in the first place. The grass is always greener, in other words.
Now, maybe there’s middle ground to be found somewhere between valuing the Pope’s opinion at infinity or the equal of your own, but I think, to again reiterate what Helen said, that the Catholic Church has made this difficult by claiming a more or less absolute moral authority. When the people running things screw up, as people inevitably do, then their claim to absolute authority appears illegitimate and self-serving, and it simply isn’t healthy for a church to have the words “illegitimate” and “self-serving” attached to it in people’s minds.



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Your Name

posted June 28, 2010 at 11:38 pm


Aw heck, the “Family” “Research” Council, the American “Family” Association and Focus on the “Family” are ALL called upon as “experts” in the field of “Christian” “love” of God’s gay and lesbian children.
With “experts” like that, who needs opinionators? (Well, other opinionators.)



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Bluebird

posted June 29, 2010 at 12:05 am


Being an amateur myself, I thank God that men were given the freedom to believe, and the freedom to interpret for themselves with Divine revelation instead of the “experts” of the church, royalty, or any other forced power over them. As our Founding Fathers noted, if, we do not question ourselves, then, what results are the consequences of the actions of fools. We may be amateurs, but those of us brought up poor, have always known about the educated idiots, that have papers that make them smarter than the rest of us, but, they need the rest of us to provide a living for them. When we stop paying them, they are lost and have no idea how to actually work for a living, produce anything, or grow food to eat.



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Rombald

posted June 29, 2010 at 4:50 am


Experts vs. amateurs: Outside narrowly defined subject areas, no-one’s opinions are worth more than anyone else’s. Also, broadly speaking, expertise in science and technology is more legitimate than in arts and humanities: I say leave bridge-building to civil engineers, but I don’t see why judgment about modern art, or about architecture (other than whether buildings will stand up), should be left to the critics.
The Pope knows massively more about theology than I do, but his opinions as to the truth of Christianity, or on how to select a type of Christianity, are no more valid than mine. Equally, Dawkins has considerable expertise in ethology, but his books about religion hardly rise above the pub-atheist level.
Centralised authority vs. anarchy: It is possible for both parties in this debate to be right. Hobbes was right that some sort of power is needed to prevent collapse into violent disorder. However, this does not have to be centralised or highly authoritarian; it could be through local institutions, for example. Was it Samuel Johnson who said that the opposite of anarchy is not tyranny but justice?



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Indy

posted June 29, 2010 at 5:47 am


Here’s the first part of that long comment I tried posting around 7:20 yesterday (Rod, thanks for releasing the shorter extract from the end, which I’ve now left out as I copied and pasted.)
I found Rieff’s piece muddled. There are differences between being reading widely (as one can on the Net), being well read, being deeply knowledgeable, and being expert. What one does with one’s knowledge varies, too. The more I read outside my field, the more I see how complicated and complex are most issues I haven’t studied academically or spent my career in. Others might read some of the same sites I do and jump in with an “here’s the answer” response. I think you have to take into account different personality types when you consider how people react to it. Rieff seems to be trying to shoehorn to much into one small fit.
Beyond that, it wasn’t clear what Rieff was describing or objecting to in some of what he said. He pointed to “young policy wonks in Washington, who have never heard a shot fired in anger, except, perhaps as distant background noise during a fleeting ‘Condel’ [sic] to a theater of war, discourse with seemingly perfect self-assurance on U.S. military counterinsurgency doctrine.” He means CODEL, I think, but beyond that, what policy wonks is he describing and what roles does he think they have? And what discourse is he discussing? Is he talking about staff sitting around talking in a bar or writing briefing papers?
Congressmen have staff with whom they work and some may indeed travel as part of the U.S. delegations that travel abroad. But their roles vary, from being press spokesmen to being legislative aides or specialists in constituent services. Members can have a wide reach as far as policy experts are concerned. That Adam Clymer book about Ted Kennedy I’m reading makes it clear the extent to which Kennedy turned not just to staff, but to very well known and knowledgeable outside experts (private and public sector) when he wanted to delve into some policy issues deeply.



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Richard

posted June 29, 2010 at 9:31 am


I have refrained posting on this thread because I could not do so without attacking Rod and his reasoning, and I just don’t want to get involved in that. But here’s a thought, and I’d like your reaction. Rod said: “probably most, Catholics in the West no longer believe their consciences bound by the teaching of the Roman magisterium.”
That may indeed be a tragedy for the Catholic Church. But thinking about the Christian community as a whole, I’m not so sure this is a bad thing. A Christian’s conscience should be held captive by the Word of God – both on paper and on the cross (it’s the same Christ). Placing The Church (of whatever kind) above Our Lord strikes me as a problem: that’s what the Reformation was about.
Our true universal authority comes not from Rome or Wittenberg or human institutions, but the one who said “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” It is deviance from this standard that I think has so damaged authority in the West.



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Anderson

posted June 29, 2010 at 11:16 am


Take global warming, for instance (or are we calling it “climate change” now? I ask non-snarkily, just with a desire to use the appropriate term).
From the EPA’s website:
The term climate change is often used interchangeably with the term global warming, but according to the National Academy of Sciences, “the phrase ‘climate change’ is growing in preferred use to ‘global warming’ because it helps convey that there are [other] changes in addition to rising temperatures.”
Climate change refers to any significant change in measures of climate (such as temperature, precipitation, or wind) lasting for an extended period (decades or longer). . . .
Global warming is an average increase in the temperature of the atmosphere near the Earth’s surface and in the troposphere, which can contribute to changes in global climate patterns.



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Alicia

posted June 29, 2010 at 2:09 pm


I think the amateur has a lot to offer, since often, a new perspective can bring in new information or insights that experts (who may have tunnel vision) have not considered. On the other hand, a person who has little information may be wrong, in the “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” sense.
To refer back to the previous post, as a cradle Lutheran with limited knowledge about the Catholic Church, and in particular, about Catholic doctrine and tradition, I still feel that I have every right to comment on things that don’t “pass the smell test.” In fact, non-experts may not always be able to pinpoint what is wrong but may still be able to tell when something stinks.
As with the cover-up of sexual abuse by Catholic bishops, and the Pope’s recent argument that the rule of law ought not to be applied to the Catholic Church – this statement by the Pope stinks to high heaven: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jun/27/pope-condemns-police-raids-belgium-catholic-church



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Franklin Evans

posted June 29, 2010 at 4:02 pm


Alicia’s description of amateur vs. expert “perspective” prompts me to ask: Are we using the same working definition of “expert” in this thread?
As I stated earlier, I am an expert in my field. To properly label that field — which label explicitly defines the limits of my expertise — would require extensive explanation (as well as being a full sentence). My general field is software engineering. I mention that for a final comparison below.
Calling it “narrow” is a null term. Experts in a field are expert in that field because it is narrow, allowing the expert to cover it thoroughly.
So, Alicia, speaking strictly from my own “narrow” field of expertise, no amateur can have more than trivial “insights” to offer, because the very nature of my field requires an in-depth understanding of every aspect of it to begin to have insights.
Perhaps a better comparison would be medicine. We have specialists for the simple reason that “medicine” covers so very much, no one (in his right mind) would want to be an expert in it. An endocrinologist and an oncologist can have a mutually-beneficial exchange on those areas in which their expertise overlaps. However, in the general field each inhabits, neither can provide “insights” to the other. At best, their sharing will give the other potential insights into his own field.
The analogy in IT would be: being a mainframe expert (which I am), I have no insights to offer a Unix expert, and vice versa. We can (and do) instruct each other to assist our designs and development, but I can no more have “insight” to a Unix server than the Unix guy could have “insight” to the mainframe architecture. Yes, they are that different. The full-circle part is that I do Unix development. I am quite competent at it. I would not at this point call myself an expert in it, and I wouldn’t expect to achieve that inside several more years. That’s why my Unix colleagues get poked by me on a regular basis. ;-)



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nnmns

posted June 29, 2010 at 9:38 pm


It would be easy to confuse authority and expertise in reading and writing here.
The Pope has authority over some people, though happily many of them can cast off that authority if they can get past the fear of Hell they were taught as children. And no doubt he has some degree of expertise; far more, for instance than I do on any number of Catholic-related subjects.
But arguably neither his authority nor his expertise have made him a moral person. Any one who does not respect his authority is lucky. Authority corrupts and absolute authority can corrupt absolutely. No one can be trusted with that kind of authority.
There are people with more expertise about Christianity than the Pope but they don’t have the history or the political skills to have gained authority there. Probably several have in fact learned so much about Christianity they have dropped out of it. E.g. Bart Ehrman.
And while the Pope knows far more about Christianity than I do, he does not question the very questionable foundations of Christian faith, those undocumented miracles. So many of us have more chance of being right about the fundamental questions of the universe than he does.
Expertise is to be respected because it can lead to answers to important questions that would not otherwise be found. But people with claims to expertise sometimes abuse those claims, either prostituting their claims to expertise for money or claiming unjustified conclusions that square better with their beliefs.
So in the end we should judge expertise as best we can, keep some healthy skepticism and, in desperation, follow our gut. We should always be suspicious of authority.



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CyberHarassed

posted July 25, 2010 at 12:15 pm


I hope there is regulation to hold cyber-harassers, trolls and stalkers online accountable. It’s needed badly. I’m all in favor of this. Author Andrew Keen is right on. Anyone against this idea has engaged in cyber trolling themself and fears exposure!



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