“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!