The Age of Arrogance

I think the alternate term is the “Information Age,” and I’m beginning to think that, like Adam and Eve, we weren’t ready for the information we’ve accumulated, and also like our garden couple, it’s made us think we can be like God, which we obviously can’t.

I’m a teacher, so you’d think I’d be in favor of knowledge, and I am. I used to have an inscription over my classroom door that said, “Know lots of stuff.” It was a quote from a drama teacher that I once overheard in New York -- an inelegant statement, but a true one. It was my answer to the usual teenage whine of, “Why do we have to know this?”

So why am I complaining? Information is everywhere now; we live in a world filled with experts who know everything and can make all my decisions for me -- I can relax. Really? This common assumption begs some questions:

Q1. What does it take to be an expert? College, one would assume, but a lot of people have even advanced degrees and we don’t call them all experts. Experience? You’d assume that, but how much is enough? Was the experience successful or just something the “expert” in question muddled through? Is success in one’s field necessary and if so, how do we measure that?

Q2. This is a corollary to Q1: Can expertise be purchased? Is it possible that one can attain “expert” status by saying the right things, kissing up to the right people, by singing the right song? Can one lose “expert” status be refusing to do so? I think here of Guillermo Gonzalez, the astrophysicist who lost tenure at Iowa State because his heavenly observations brought him to some heavenly conclusions. He was denied expert status because he wasn’t singing along with the Darwinist/atheist chorus.

Q3. Can experts be wrong? Obviously. Look at the changes that have rippled through the area of nutrition. 1. Butter, bad -- margarine, better 2. Trans-fats (margarine) bad, butter better. 3. No to all fats -– yes to good fats -– yes all fats and no to carbs. You all know how hard it is to actually apply all the contradictory dietary information thrown at us.

Look at the global-warming nonsense. There has been no warming in 18 years. So the experts tried saving face by altering the term to “climate change” and calling the cooling we’re experiencing a mere “hiatus”, a “pause” in the warming, which brings up another question:

Q4. Does being an expert make you an honest, trustworthy person? Does it make you foolproof? Why would a person with expert status lie? That answer is too easy for comfort -– to keep, or get, funding; to keep, or get tenure; to belong, to publish and make a name for himself; to further a political goal. Reasons to be dishonest are crawling out of every dark corner. And here’s another troubling question: if you are the expert, who’s going to say you’re wrong?

That puts us in a quandary.

There’s so much information out there that we feel overwhelmed and, therefore, depend on the experts to sort it out for us.

However, we don’t know what the experts actually know and what they just want to believe, or think they have to say.

We don’t even know what makes these people “experts.” Note that the new Ebola czar is not even a doctor.

This predicament is intensified a thousandfold by the fact that people no longer share the same values. Questions that were once answered on the basis of principle can no longer be addressed that way. We expect a decision on legalization of marijuana to be determined by “studies” performed by “experts.” We no longer understand that numbing our mental acuity is disrespectful to the body God gave us. No. We have to rely on the experts, none of whom agree, and few of whom seem to be open and honest.

Time was when we didn’t have to decide if it would be legal for a doctor to end the life of someone who was tired of being sick, or just tired of being tired. Time was when abortion wasn’t a reasonable way out of having to bear and raise a child. Time was when we didn’t presume to know what the climate was doing or how human beings might be affecting it.

I am reminded of Edith Wharton’s charming novel The Age of Innocence. She couldn’t have known how really innocent the early 20th century was, and we’re no longer there. We’ve wandered into a place where the only knowledge that really matters is being denied a chair at the table of public discourse. The one piece of information that can answer the dilemmas of modern life, the Bible, is pointedly not invited, is in fact, barred. That leaves us with nothing to go on but contradictory, anonymous, and doubtful “studies.”

What’s even more concerning is the fact that expertise seems to have a deleterious effect on humility. In a time when information -– raw data -– rules, one of the finest traits a person can claim is intelligence, as if one can’t be smart and wrong. If you are blessed enough to be born with an efficient brain, that’s all well and good, but it doesn’t give you a leg up in the virtue department, and if you get told too often how bright you are, and nothing happens to contradict that, you could well end up way too taken with your own good fortune. So often in discussions I hear people give as a person’s credentials his “brilliance.” We heard that about our president, and with no corroboration whatsoever, people voted him into the highest office in the land.

It’s fitting, I suppose, that in this age of incredible arrogance we’d end up with a president who is the very definition of hubris. He, along with many of our younger generation, is unteachable; they already know it all.

Now, because of the arrogance of information and the glut on “experts,” we can no longer read with charity, with curiosity, only with suspicion. I rarely peruse anything without raising that shield of doubt –- “Oh balderdash!” or “How do they know that?” Not that it’s a bad thing to exercise some caution and keep our credulity under tight control, but when those “experts” have so abused the public trust that we’re drowning in misinformation and downright disinformation we’re in serious intellectual trouble.

We have knowledge, or are arrogant enough to think we do, but we have no wisdom; we have no understanding of the importance of absolute truth, the glory of real righteousness, let alone the principles of justice. To have a balance of both must be our goal.

Deana Chadwell  is an adjunct professor and department head at Pacific Bible College in southern Oregon. She teaches writing, logic, and literature.

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