Catching up with the FITS (2)
August 25, 2021 edition
John McWhorter is self-canceling.
Many of you may know that I have been hired by The New York Times to write essays for them twice a week, as a subscriber newsletter. Yes, I’m surprised too — but I’m going to do it, and in fact have started.
However, understandably they will not allow me to continue doing this newsletter for Substack at the same time.
This might turn out to be lose-lose. Those of us who aren’t into donscribing* to the NYT lose out on reading McWhorter, and my guess is that the NYT brand will do little or nothing to expand McWhorter’s readership. He’s probably better off with Substack, unless the NYT pays better and that’s what he cares about.
*donscription (donation-subscription) is Andrey Mir’s term for subscribing to a publication because it champions a cause you like.
Matt Yglesias wants to be the head of Amtrak.
Stubbornly insisting on operating low-ridership lines that can’t cover operating costs does not own the highwaymen or the airline executives. What would own them would be the construction of high-quality lines on high-quality routes that attract large numbers of riders. The amount of money that’s in the mix for Amtrak in this infrastructure bill should be sufficient to deliver that to the Northeast Corridor. If you get that done, you’ll have more riders, more fare revenue, more political support, and a logistical foundation for further expansion. But you need to actually go do it and not waste time and money on trains nobody rides.
There’s a simple way to get the result he wants: privatize Amtrak. Having to answer to Congress gives Amtrak a lot of extra baggage, so to speak. How do you convince a Senator from Illinois to invest money in trains that service Boston-to-DC?
Privatizing Amtrak would naturally get the system to focus on the Northeast Corridor. Of course, in the off chance that Matt’s business acumen is not so keen and Amtrak goes bankrupt even with just the Northeast Corridor, then, well, that’s the market telling us about the costs and benefits of that rail line.
Noah Smith and Richard Hanania discuss “trust the experts.” Smith swats down an article arguing in favor of deferring to credential specialists.
I’m highly suspicious of the practice of epistemic enclosure — of using social consensus to delineate the boundaries of fields of inquiry, and to assign each bounded region to a single club of human beings. This practice, to me, raises the specter of a gang of epistemic squatters claiming a piece of epistemic territory for themselves and using social censure to defend it against anyone who might point out the gang’s errors or force them to raise their game.
I would say that it is better to trust people who are more driven by a desire to learn than by a desire to be respected. Credentials are supposed to be an indicator of the former but may end up only being an indicator of the latter.
I think I could make the case that expertise isn’t just fake, it actually makes you worse off because it gives you a higher level of certainty in your own wishful thinking. The Taliban probably did better by focusing their intellectual energies on interpreting the Holy Quran and taking a pragmatic approach to how they fought the war rather than proceeding with a prepackaged theory of how to engage in nation building, which for the West conveniently involved importing its own institutions.
A discussion of the practical implications of all this, or how we move from a world of specialization to one with better elites, is also for another day. For now, I’ll just emphasize that for those thinking of choosing an academic career to make universities or the peer review system function better, my advice is don’t. The conversation is much more interesting, meaningful, and oriented towards finding truth here on the outside.
Although I am the last person to defend the academy, I think that we should be careful about characterizing academics as inherently unwise. I think that the problem, especially when it comes to public policy, is that policy makers do not select for wisdom. Instead, they select experts (academic or otherwise) who tell the policy makers what they want to hear and sound sure of themselves. So an academic who says “We can build an Afghan state and here’s how” gets access to the corridors of power, while an academic who hesitates to make such a claim gets ignored.
I like to think in terms of two games. One game is to try to understand reality. The other game is to try to get ahead. Participating in what Smith calls “epistemic enclosure” is useful in the get-ahead game, but not in the understand-reality game. Similarly, voicing opinions that please policy makers while sounding confident is useful in the get-ahead game, but not in the understand-reality game.
The challenge for us as a society is to better align “get-ahead” with “understand reality.” In a sense, the Fantasy Intellectual Teams project is an attempt to do that, by using a scoring system that prioritizes the type of discourse that is associated with “understand reality.”
Lots of people seemed to like that Hanania article, but it's actually convinced me that he's a deluded ideologue, which was not my opinion of him until now.
Let me correct the first line of your last paragraph. I'd say "The challenge for each of us individually is to better align "get-ahead" with "understand reality". Indeed, our success as advisers to policy-makers will depend on how good we are in dealing with it."