Thursday, 13 October 2016

Our dumb intelligentsia

Adam Perkins has an article in Quillette - Elite Opinion vs the Wisdom of Crowds: The Intelligentsia’s Tendency to Get Things Wrong. Nothing we don’t know but a good summary of how the intelligentsia screws things up as a result of being too detached and insulated from the culture they purport to understand and diagnose. I'm not so sure about the wisdom of crowds, but the piece is worth reading.

The intelligentsia have a reputation for being out of touch and it’s easy to see why, given their stereotypical tendency to live in sheltered, affluent neighbourhoods. Therefore it should be no surprise if we turn on the TV news and see prominent, well-paid economists displaying a more relaxed attitude to uncontrolled, mass migration than those of us who live in disadvantaged neighbourhoods where the most dysfunctional migrants usually end up being accommodated. Likewise, it is only natural to expect heavily-guarded high court judges to have a more lenient attitude towards criminals than those of us who live in rougher, less protected localities.

But the detachment of the urban elite is more than just a matter of living somewhere posh — it is also a matter of culture, as noted by George Orwell in 1941: ‘This is the really important fact about the English intelligentsia — their severance from the common culture of the country’.

It all seems painfully obvious, a natural consequence of social detachment. Stimulus and response. Without the stimulus a competent response becomes difficult or impossible. Crowds may experience the stimulus where the intelligentsia do not. 

We have plenty of expressive language to nail the problem but language isn’t much of a stimulus either, not if it doesn't conform to expectations and comfort zones. Reason is rarely a reason to change one’s mind so we are perpetually saddled with influential people who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk as one pithy cliché puts it. No point telling them though.


Demetrius said...

As my ancestors might have said, "'eave 'alf a brick at 'im".

Sam Vega said...

Crowds may experience the stimulus where the intelligentsia do not.

Spot on, and the Quillette article is indeed worth reading.

It explains a lot, doesn't it? Why "generic" managers with no actual experience of the tasks they are supervising are so useless. Why career politicians are so utterly hopeless. Why The Guardian spouts nonsense.

I also share your unease regarding "the crowd". I think he may be using the wrong word there. The public at large or in general, perhaps. But the problem with crowds is not their initial perception; it is the odd things that happen to create hysteria and group-think. And "the crowd" can often consist of precisely those insulated uninformed intelligentsia types who create the difficulties. Twitter, anyone?

Anonymous said...

There is a lot in this and a lot of it pretty unpleasant and rarely dragged out for a good looking at before shoving back in the bottle as 'too difficult'.

If you choose not to upgrade a nation's education systems, housing and infrastructure for many years you will find the world leaving you behind. The establishment found that finance paid better than steel and that rather than develop at home it was quicker and cheaper to develop overseas. That left HMG with a surplus of folk and it chose to park them as quietly and cheaply as possible. Inferior people - no, let down - yes. The notion that benefits somehow rots the brain, from a close-ish look I can say this has more to do with being left to rot than an intrinsic feature.

There is the problem that the UK is smaller than say France or Germany. Migrants are cheap so you either close the door or you shove them off to the un-invested cities and dump-towns you created earlier or you build industry and houses in leafy Surrey and Hampshire. The latter would be what the Asian economies would do but our establishment lives in Surrey and Hampshire with expensive houses there - so no thanks. To re-educate and re-incentivise the locals would take 20 years we don't have. Closing the door has a high price, so dump-towns it is.

There are strong hints of racism and eugenics buried in Galton and his followers. They pop to the the surface in troubled times. But racism and eugenics are tools for subtle or not so subtle use by establishments to justify policies that inevitably unravel - slavery, nazism, pre frontal lobotomy, the locking up of gay folk etc etc etc. No accident either that the leading journalists on our Red Top rags are establishment educated. Orwell was a good(ish) egg and led the way in pointing out the hypocrisy embedded in our establishment and in our society. He courageously pointed out that snobbery is a two way street and snobbery applies to elite groups (both ways). Probably better to stir the mix a bit harder than to look too closely at racial difference and eugenics - too many ways to go wrong.

Then there is 'democracy' - a flexible term that will have to bend a bit more as populations rise. More order and control is one thing, Soylent Green another. So, are elites thick and the masses clever? Neither, it is all a matter of incentives and statistics, but Eton definitely shifts the odds.

A K Haart said...

Demetrius - now that's wisdom!

Sam - Guardian comments are interesting, I read quite a few these days. Good example of a crowd without the wisdom.

Roger - it's a subject which is worth a post or two, leaving people to rot in a benefits system because there are too many discarded skills to take up the slack. The public sector is part of the same benefits system where some are paid to control and some to be controlled.