“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’ ” ~Isaac Asimov

I’ve written that binary thinking – an “either-or” orientation that presents everything as a choice between two opposites – is likely the worst threat to embracing diversity, creating equity and communicating effectively across differences. Lately I’m starting to think there’s a greater threat that trumps (pun intended) binary thinking, with profound implications not only for workplace diversity efforts but our collective future : anti-intellectualism.

Anti-intellectualism is disbelief, even hostility, directed towards knowledge and those who hold it. This has been driven in large part by two new developments in the history of human communication: quantity and access. Vast amounts of information are now available to anyone with an Internet connection, which is almost everyone on Earth. Meanwhile, whether by design or accident, our ability to think critically and assess the quality of information we access has declined. This is likely due in part to techniques used by powerful interests who know brain science and human behavior well enough to trick us into buying what they’re selling, whether it’s a product or an idea. Not all the information we receive is credible, accurate or even factual; most of it is incomplete and superficial. Fewer and fewer Americans are able to discern between fact and opinion, understand statistics and research studies, or even ask curious questions.

Not all information is equal, but neither is our anti-intellectualism. There are areas where we readily defer to experts without question. We wouldn’t undergo surgery performed by someone who’d never studied to be a surgeon. We wouldn’t get on a plane flown by a person who hadn’t trained as a pilot. We wouldn’t ask a non-lawyer to represent us in court. Also, most of us wouldn’t feel the need to supervise, or even understand, what’s involved in executing any of those tasks. We have a similar attitude about many “blue collar” skills as well – auto mechanics, electricians and carpenters are deferred to for their knowledge and expertise.

There are two areas that seem most susceptible to our anti-intellectualism:science, and “soft” skills. Millions of people think they know as much as those who have spent decades studying and researching subjects like sociology, psychology, child development, leadership and education. This is perhaps understandable because most people have some personal experience with these topics. However, this is a reason, not an excuse. Not only is it dangerous to dismiss the superior knowledge of experts (such as the mounds of scientific evidence about the human origin of climate change), rejecting the knowledge of experts forces us to keep reinventing the wheel and making the same mistakes. Anti-intellectualism keeps us from evolving as a species.

Perhaps anti-intellectualism is rooted in lack of trust. Not only do we not understand what the “experts” do, science and knowledge keep evolving, and some scientists have conducted shady, unethical or sloppy research. We fear being lied to and misled by people with more power than us in ways that harm our lives in meaningful ways. We don’t want to be inconvenienced or told what to do. However, the functioning of a complex civilization like ours is dependent on an effective division of labor and deference to those with expertise we don’t possess. Not everyone can know or do everything, so when we each develop our unique areas of knowledge and skill, everyone benefits from that collective pool of knowledge. But this requires trust.

It also requires the wisdom to recognize expertise and the humility to defer to the experts. As a person whose job is comprised almost entirely of “soft skills,” I commonly encounter people who think they can (and should) facilitate discussions about race, conduct a workplace “diversity” training or coach leaders – with little-to-no study, training, or demonstrated competence. This is not only horribly irresponsible and a waste of time and money, it’s dangerous. Keep reading!

2 Comments

  • Avatar Rob Jones says:

    While I appreciate the sentiments protecting the turf of our intellectuals, Susana, over the decades I’ve all too often seen these kinds of arguments made by long-time D&I consultants only right after they’ve gotten their own certifications or degrees. “The Diversity Paradigm” has been around for about a half century now, so it’s probably a little late to begin policing race discussions to ensure that only the highly educated are leading or facilitating them. Such discussions have been going on in this country for over 500 years at every level of society, and quite constructively.

    We should all sit in awe of the mountainous information available to us today stuffed into libraries chock full of valuable expertise. Yet, on the whole, “the superior knowledge of experts” seems to have brought the world to a very dangerous place. We literally are at a rare point in history when our children will likely not do as well as or better than their parents, the planet itself is imperiled, and “the superior knowledge of experts” in the sciences is being used to scour the universe for someplace else to go before Earth refuses to put up with us anymore.

    Top that off with the worldwide sociopolitical unrest, conflicts, wars and complex networks of hatreds and discrimination seen daily thanks to the technology we have today, it is no wonder that some believe that the intellectual elites leading most fields of endeavor just might be part of the problem, rather than facilitators of the solution in most fields.

    If “the superior knowledge of experts” has as its primary source merely the freshly minted PhDs who have been leading The Diversity Paradigm discussions for the past 50 years, or those who are relying on same old texts, tests and methods that have failed us all for so long, we are doomed.

    We need to understand the difference between “the superior knowledge of experts” and the superior wisdom of true leaders and facilitators, and the true source of wisdom. Anyone can buy a degree or a certification. The condition of the world in which we live tells us that we have far too many with the superior knowledge of experts, and far too few with the wisdom it will take to dig us out of what the experts have wrought.

    • Susana Rinderle Susana Rinderle says:

      Hi Rob! I understand where you’re coming from. However, I think you misunderstood (or I wasn’t clear). I’m not defining experts as folks with PhDs necessarily, but folks who actually know something about a particular topic or demonstrate actual competence and skill. As you point out, expertise lies in many places and is not exclusive to any particular social class or formal education level. This is why I included “blue collar” examples in my piece — in fact, I believe the disrespect of expertise held by the “working class” and “non-elites” is one of the factors driving the disenfranchisement and righteous indignation of those groups. The point is that too many orgs hire folks to do vital “people development” work who aren’t highly skilled, or try to do this work themselves when they aren’t adequately equipped to do so — with dire results. Similarly, we as a nation are moving away from knowing our own limits and respecting the knowledge of experts — whether these are PhDs, farmers, factory workers, or people of color describing their own experience. This is largely due to the quantity of information and broad access, coupled with a growing lack of critical discernment. This does not bode well for excellence, brilliance, democracy or evolution.

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