Apocalypse Now, Part 4--Gay Frogs and Other Adventures in the Discourse

What do you think tap water is? It's a gay bomb, baby. And I'm not saying people didn't naturally have homosexual feelings. I'm not even getting into it, quite frankly. I mean, give me a break. Do you think I'm like, oh, shocked by it, so I'm up here bashing it because I don't like gay people? I don't like 'em putting chemicals in the water that turn the freakin' frogs gay! Do you understand that? I'm sick of being social engineered, it's not funny!
          — Alex Jones, October 2015


There are a group of people On Here who are very, very concerned about "the Discourse."  This tends to be people of a liberal (as distinguished from "the left") bent, but every once in a while moderate conservatives talk in hushed tones about how "the Discourse" has been poisoned by . . . well, the blame tends to fall on everyone and no one at the same time.  Which, of course, provides essentially unlimited opportunities to demagogue and use it as a vehicle for whatever other debating agenda one happens to have.  So Trump is ruining the Discourse, but so are those who complain about Trump's behavior; overt white supremacists are damaging the Discourse, but so is Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeting out early 00s internet memes.

But, if you strip away these pretextual uses of "the Discourse" and the corresponding hand-wringing, I think that there actually is a structural, systemic problem with the way we talk to each other collectively.  The problem is that we live in a world that is necessarily dominated by experts, while large numbers of people don't trust those experts, for a mix of good and bad reasons.  So, we have a situation where many people both rely on and loathe the "expert class," leading the Discourse between the expert class and the non-expert class, as well as the Discourse among members of the expert class visa ve the non-expert class, being hopelessly confused.  In addition, you have the creation of a counter-Discourse between and among those who reject the expert class Discourse, leading you to the Wonderland of "Fake News" and weird conspiracy theories.

Let's take a non-political example (non-political in the sense that folks on all sides of the political spectrum have been known to indulge in this particular idea)--vaccinations and the "anti-vaxx" movement.  The claim, as I think most people know, is that giving children vaccines causes a suite of developmental problems in children, most commonly autism.  This is because, per the anti-vaxx rhetoric, the vaccines are made with one or more "heavy metal" preservatives, usually derived from mercury.  Thus the solution, says the anti-vaxxers, is to not vaccinate your children.

I remember very clearly the moment when first encountered anti-vaxxers "in the wild."  I was living in ultra-liberal San Francisco at the time, and I went to some party where I was speaking to a woman with kids.  The topic, somehow, turned to vaccinations.  My conversation partner revealed herself to be an anti-vaxxer, and when I was dismissive of the idea, she challenged whether I had read the relevant studies related to the vaccines and autism.  The answer, of course, was no--I'm a lawyer, not a doctor or a medical researcher.  She claimed that she had, and when I asked her what her credentials were to interpret those studies, she responded that she took high school biology.  Which, of course, so had I.

If we break down this conversation, there are two relevant points.  First, neither of us were equipped to speak intelligently on this topic.  Both of us would have to undertake years of study, not of vaccines per se, but of basic biology, chemistry, and physiology, in order to be in a position to read the relevant studies and be able to make sense of them.  Having not done that work, the vaccine autism studies might as well be in Sanskrit.  So, in that sense, we are in the same boat.  Thus the real difference between us is that I trusted the people who do have that knowledge and background when they tell me that those studies mean that there is no connection between vaccines and autism, while she did not.  I deferred to the experts.     

But, why?  Why should I trust them?  Well, one reason is that I trust them is that I know people who are able to read and interpret the claims of those studies.  And by "know people," I don't mean that I hypothetically accept the possibility that such people exist, but actually know them on a direct, personal level.  I can't interpret those studies, but my sister the surgeon can, the same person whose house I stayed at for Christmas and whose mac-and-cheese I ate.  She is not an abstract "expert," but a real person who has credibility that is wholly independent from her "expert" qualification.  And, so, when I think about the sort of people who digest this sort of medical information, the image I see in my mind's eye is people like my sister--not faceless mandarins, but normal people.

Likewise, while I don't have the competency with regard to vaccines, I have competency in another complex expert field, the law.  As a result, I understand the process by which people obtain expert knowledge of the sort needed to figure out the vaccine issue.  I am inclined to view doctors and other scientific professionals as peers, people who have gone through similar sorts of training.  Finally, while I am well aware that I don't have the necessarily knowledge, I look at that knowledge as conceptually possible for me to obtain.  If I had decided to go to medical school or get a biological science Ph.D. when I was younger, I probably could have done so.  Or, notwithstanding the financial and logistical challenges to changing tack radically in my early 40s, I could even start work on getting that information now--I could quit my job, go back to school, and try to get into medical school or something.

As a result of all of this, the experts that tell me that vaccines don't cause autism are people that I view as similar to me, working and living in the same academic and cultural spaces.  They are colleagues, at least in a general sense, and so I have a tendency to give them the benefit of the doubt, even though I know that I can't meaningfully "check their work."

I know nothing about the background of the women I spoke to at that party, so it is possible that she comes from a similar background to mine and just happens to distrust medical people.  But there is a vast universe of people out there who do not, and cannot, look at the folks telling them not to worry about vaccines in the same way.  For one thing, given the increasing trend of assortive mating by education level, increasingly class segmentation in housing, as well as structural barriers to educational access, there is a large swath of people who do not have any personal connections to any members of the expert class.  As I mentioned, when I think of doctors, I think of my younger sister, who I have known all her life; when most people think of doctors, they can only think of them in terms of having to use their services, and not in any sort of personal capacity.  Likewise, they may not be able to relate at all to the educational program that doctors or researchers undertook.  Finally, and this has to be said, many people simply don't have the intellectual abilities to take on board the knowledge base needed to be a doctor or a researcher.  No matter what kinds of educational access reforms you undertake, the fact is that these areas are highly complicated, and not everyone is or can be made to be smart enough to become experts in them.

So, unlike my situation, for many people the expert class are basically like ancient Chinese mandarins--a people set apart via a culture and closed program of study, surrounded by an impenetrable protective field of jargon, that they cannot possibly relate to or really understand.  All you can do, really, is to trust them blindly, as you will never be able to really penetrate the educational and cultural gulf between you and them.

People really, really don't like to be told "shut up and do what I tell you; you have no choice."  No one every really gets over the "you're not the boss of me" phase from when they are children.  If you are not part of the expert class, or at least expert class adjacent, it is basically inevitable that you will come to resent those experts.  And a certain measure of skepticism about the expert class is not unwarranted.  The expert class is certainly not infallible, or immune to self-interest or wickedness.  And the closed nature of the expert class, with its common educational sources and associated experiences and social circles, makes it profoundly susceptible to group-think and unexamined biases and prejudices.

But, what's the alternative?  I mean, I think Matt Christman is right in the tweet I quoted above that educational structures in the United States exacerbate the problem, but I don't believe there is any sort of education program that can completely fix the problem.  The world in 21st Century is exceedingly complex, such that no person is ever going to be able to have even a minimum competency in every field of knowledge.  And the complexity of our technological society means that some spheres of knowledge are simply going to be beyond the the capability of some group of folks to process.  We are going to have experts, and those experts are going to ask people to accept on faith that they know what they are talking about.

What is clearly not a good alternative is what has happened, which is that folks who are disaffected from expert culture have created a parallel counter-culture, complete with its own experts, propositions, and conclusions.  There is perhaps no better example of this than Alex Jones, who says all sorts of insane stuff.  His most famous rant, quoted above, is that "the government" is spraying chemicals in the air to make us gay, and as a side effect is making the frogs gay.  The attraction of Jones and other similar "conspiracy theorists" is that they present a narrative that anyone can process and understand.  "The New World Order is poisoning you in order to let them take over," is much more comprehensible than pages and pages of highly technical studies about vaccine safety.  People who want to debunk conspiracy theories tend push back on the "lack of supporting evidence," but that's the point.  If you don't, and can't, understand any of the "supporting evidence," anyway, then the lack of such evidence in the narrative is a feature not a bug.  Alex Jones's conspiracy theories are much more comprehensible to many people than what they get from 

The problem with the expert class is not primarily that they are sometimes wrong, so much as they don't understand how incomprehensible what they are doing and saying is to most of the people listening.  The factual predicates for what they are asserting, predicates which are at the heart of intra-expert Discourse of all sorts, are generally a complete black box to those outside the expert class.  Non-experts judge the experts on their general credibility, not on the strength of their arguments, because they don't and can't really understand the arguments, anyway.  This is why the political and social beliefs and views of the members of the expert class are often highlighted as a basis to discredit them.  If your standard for what makes a good expert is how well they play by the rules of the expert discipline at issue, then obviously their political affiliation, gender, sexuality, or religious identity/lack thereof, is irrelevant.  But if all of that intra-expert Discourse is impenetrable, then you are forced to rely on other indicia of reliability.  And if you have pre-existing "tribal" loyalties (which, to be clear, almost everyone does), then those are naturally going to be seen as far more reliable metrics for the reliability of experts than a bunch of inside baseball you don't understand.

This is why Jones is the ultimate example of this break-down in Discourse, as Jones is much more overt in structuring his pitch around tribal loyalties than many of the other people that play around in this space.  Phrases like "globalists" and "the New World Order" point to, and work on the audience's pre-existing sense that, experts are fundamentally alien to the experience of the audience.  If the expert class is wholly outside your experience, it becomes far easier to accept the premise that they are turning the frogs gay as part of some comprehensive nefarious scheme, as you have no frame of reference for any of these folks.

The expert class in 2019 America seems by-and-large wholly oblivious to this dynamic, which is why they are so frustrated with the enduring support of Trump and the associated universe of "Fake News" and conspiracy theories surrounding him.  Repeatedly spewing more and more facts, i.e. going more "technocratic," is not going to help and will actually make things worse, as they make the expert class's positions more complicated and unintelligible.  The only real solution is for the expert class as a whole to become more credible to the non-expert population, such that the non-expert population is more willing to take what they say on faith.  But how do you do that?  I have no idea, and it seems neither does anyone else.  Trust that is lost is extremely difficult to regain.  And, like all Sacred stories, the conspiracy theories of Jones and his disciples have within them a grain of truth--the expert class is capable of, and has done, lots of terrible things in the name of various agendas. After all, the medical and business experts in charge of selling Oxycontin appear to have known that it was hyper-addictive and covered it up.  Is it really that implausible that people like the Sacklers would put stuff in the water or the air that poisoned people and made the frogs gay if they thought they could make a buck on it or advance other interests?

The fissure here is between an expert class that lives in its own world and doesn't really understand (or even acknowledge) its own perspective and limitations, and a non-expert class that doesn't trust the experts but can't live without them.  Thus, the two sides circle each other and bounce off of each other, in what Girardian thought terms a "scandal"--the stumbling block you can't avoid tripping over.  And the manifestation of that scandal comes from a crazy man on the internet ranting about the frogs becoming gay.

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