A Seed of Doubt | Experts and Incompetence

Disillusionment is powerful. I learned this as a kid. First it was Santa Claus. For my entire life, I was told facts about Santa Claus as if he existed. All of my peers believed the same thing; we shared mutual assumptions. Until one day, when my family was playing cards around the table, somebody hinted that Santa Claus was fake. I scoffed at the idea.

“What, as if everything I’ve been told and everything my social circle believes about Santa is wrong?”

I wouldn’t have entertained such an idea, but my parents, for the first time, didn’t speak up. They didn’t correct the skeptical comment. They didn’t perpetuate the myth. They let my childish mind piece the truth together.

Naturally, I acted like I knew the truth all along, but inside I was devastated. How could my parents lie to me for so long? How could all of my peers be so wrong? We shared some gigantic group delusion, which I was so confident in just minutes prior.

From Christmas Stories to Christmas

Fast forward a decade or so. I’m in my mid-teens and starting to question some of the religious ideas I was raised to believe. The Genesis story – that actually happened verbatim? A serpent spoke (meaning, it physically made vocalizations) to a pair of humans? God created everything, which means he created all the evil things in the world too, and yet he’s all-loving? The Muslim, who believes in the perfection of the Koran, makes the exact same methodological arguments that I do (quoting scripture to justify scripture), and yet his conclusions are wrong – why doesn’t that argument apply to me?

Surely, my parents, peers, and pastors couldn’t all be wrong. The entire community in which I was raised shared the same assumptions – that must mean the assumptions are persuasive, right? Could it be possible that everyone was deluded, even those brilliant guys who went to seminary or got their PhD in Philosophy?

I searched for the truth myself. And sure enough, much to my dismay, I discovered that the foundational assumptions of Christian evangelicalism are unpersuasive. They are flawed, which means everybody in that community was confused, from my parents to the expert theologians.

You might say I graduated. Just like I entered “the real world” where nobody believes in Santa, I now entered the real world of critical thinking and skepticism, where people require rational justification for their beliefs. That doesn’t mean they don’t have religious or spiritual conclusions; lots of people – myself included – are persuaded by such ideas. But the justification for belief is entirely different, and therefore, when contrasted to any kind of religious fundamentalism, the conclusions are radically different (and would certainly be considered “heresy” to most religions).

From Religion to Politics

Fast forward to 2007, when I accidentally stumbled across a video of Ron Paul on youtube. Who was this silly old man? And why does he make so much sense? At the time, I would have considered myself a conservative. By sheer coincidence, so were both my parents and virtually all of my peers.

But this Ron Paul guy… he made so much sense. Even more sense than the conservativism I was familiar with. Could it be – just maybe – that my peers and parents were wrong again?

I dove into the ideas. Ron called himself a “libertarian”. I’d heard of the term, but never in a positive way. Libertarians were libertines, and they were naive from economics to foreign policy. Or so I thought.

In a matter of months, I became a Ron Paul libertarian. Libertarianism, when evaluated with an open mind, is extraordinarily persuasive and consistent.

But Ron didn’t just convert me to libertarianism. He put an even more sinister seed in my head: Austrian economics. He kept mentioning the term, which I was totally unfamiliar with, and I eventually gave into my curiosity and started researching on my own. What I discovered changed my life and shattered even more illusions. But more on that later.

Into College

Around this time, I entered college. Alfred University. It’s a small liberal arts school in Upstate New York. They had a program for high school students to take a couple classes a semester for college credit. Since I was homeschooled and had already finished my high school curriculum, I signed up.

Growing up, my mother was big on education. She was a great teacher, and, like most teachers, she was prepping me for college. All the time I heard, “You can’t cut corners like that in college,” or, “Do it like you must once you get to college.”

I had every expectation that college was the real deal. I was excited about it. I recognized the importance of ideas, and I wanted some serious intellectual camaraderie. I envisioned professors as being super-knowledgeable, strict teachers who were shepherding their students into “the real world” of ideas – shaking off everybody’s youthful rust and enlightening us with the truth as experts understand it.

My fellow students, I thought, were friendly competition. We’d share a mutual student-mindset, groan about difficult classes, and all struggle together along the same path. I assumed – as every young intellectual must – that my peers and professors would be primarily interested in the truth and would evaluate ideas on their own merit. If you had good ideas, you’d naturally persuade people. If you had bad ideas, you’d naturally get persuaded by better ones.

This romantic illusion took about a semester to shatter.

Instead, I found uninterested students and unpersuasive professors. My peers didn’t care about ideas; they didn’t care about the truth; and they weren’t particularly strong in their reasoning ability. They were mainly interested in a) partying, b) graduating for the certificate, or c) agreeing with the professors to get a good grade and appear intelligent.

It’s here where libertarianism and Austrian economics really corrupted me. I was sure none of my peers had heard these arguments before – if they had, they’d be libertarians too – so naturally I thought exchanging ideas would be exciting. And if not with my fellow students, certainly the professors, who were most interested of all in ideas, would want to hear the careful arguments I was persuaded by.

I was wrong. Not only did 99% of my peers reject the ideas, they didn’t care to listen. The conclusions were too radical when compared to the curriculum they were learning. Who were they going to believe, some undergrad named Steve, or the Chair of the Political Science Department? Naturally, they dismissed my arguments out of hand, laughed, and all patted each other on the back, certain of their own intelligence (as, after all, every professor agreed with them).

But this story felt familiar – almost identical to my experience in the Christian evangelical world. My peers all agreed with each other; they agreed with the pastors; they shared the same assumptions, and they never actually investigated the ideas for themselves. They thought, as I once did, “Surely, everybody can’t be wrong.”

To the Professionals

“Well,” I thought to myself, “Perhaps this is because college students are, in the big picture, young and naive. They don’t really understand what they are talking about, but like children losing faith in Santa, they’ll grasp the importance of truth in the future.”

Professors, on the other hand, were older and wiser. Surely they would want to hear about these ideas? Looking back, it’s laughable. No professor cares about the ideas of an undergrad student. Not even close. The perspective is all wonky. The professor has been through years of school, and now he’s employed to teach students. What ideas could a lowly undergrad possibly contribute to the discussion?

I had numerous meetings with professors outside of class, talking about ideas. They were almost never productive. I only remember one professor, of Philosophy, who seemed like he had a genuinely open mind (even though we disagreed about everything). In fact, it was shocking to see the lack of understanding about libertarianism and economics. Basic, basic economics that somebody could learn in a week online if they cared. Yet without even a rudimentary understanding of economics, which they clearly demonstrated, they kept cruising on, drawing radically inaccurate conclusions about the world.

Not only that, but these people were teaching students! And the students were repeating back what they’d been taught!

The same was true with basic questions in political theory; their objections were petty.

No, to be honest, they were embarrassingly bad. Staggeringly poorly thought out – as if they’d never encountered classical liberalism in their entire lifetime. I had one professor tell me outside of class, “But Steve, you’re just being logical. Humans don’t act logically.”

That was his objection to common-sense, basic economic thinking. I was just being too logical.

That same seed of doubt implanted into my mind: could all the professors be wrong too? What if they were educated like my fellow peers? Perhaps they’ve only ever been presented with one side of an argument, and they never investigated the ideas for themselves.

What an idea: the students I’m looking at right now – who haven’t the faintest idea what they’re talking about – they will be future professors. Meaning, in reverse, the professors I’m learning from were “good” students themselves. They were, as I wrote in a previous piece, “master regurgitants”.

Before I graduated, I wrote an honors thesis analyzing the 2008 financial collapses from an Austrian economic perspective. On my board/panel of professors, I had the one economist on campus, whom I spoke with outside of class. He told me with a distinctive accent, “Oh, Austrian economics! I wouldn’t have a job if I were an Austrian economist.”

I remember it clearly. My soul died a little bit. He didn’t ultimately care about the truth. He was only vaguely familiar with Austrian economics. How in the world could somebody be a professional economist and not know anything about this incredible school of thought? It was downright scandalous.

Austrian economic arguments make clear criticisms of “mainstream” economic thinking. I understood the mainstream arguments and the objections, and was wholly persuaded by the Austrians. Here was a professor – a professor, teaching students about economics – who wasn’t even familiar with the arguments, much less any counter-arguments.

There’s no other conclusion: the man didn’t know what he was talking about. He kept demonstrating it, and he had no reason to investigate otherwise. Once in a while, he might deal with some crankish undergrad calling him a know-nothing, but other than that, he has no reason to educate himself. He has a comfortable job, with all his peers and students giving him respect – not even realizing their own ignorance.

Virtually identical, again, to my experiences with other confused communities.

Outside of School

Maybe Alfred was just a bad school.

Shortly after graduating, I worked at a couple of non-profits. One of which allowed me to travel, speaking with students and professors who were interested in Austrian economics. In a couple of years, I closely interacted with several hundred students – many of them grad students – from across the country, including several dozen professional academicians.

Naturally, I wanted to talk about their college experience. The verdict: my experience was not unique. The vast majority of students reported similar dissatisfaction with college – the student population consisted of uninterested dummies, and the professors were know-nothing leftists.

The organization I was working for put on seminars, and they’d recruit a handful of sensible professors to give lectures to students. After the lectures, the faculty would often go out for dinner or drinks with the professors. So, I’d ask questions like, “Why do so few Austrian/libertarian professors exist? Do these ideas never get taught?”

Several times, I heard candid answers. I remember one professor told me, “Listen Steve, nobody over 35 is open to being convinced otherwise. There’s too much reputation at stake.”

I asked him, “Then why do you bother publishing in journals? What’s the point if not persuasion?”

He answered, “Because it’s a great job. It pays well, and it requires that I publish articles to stay employed.”

The pieces of the puzzle started coming together. How could it be that so many professors are wrong about basic economics and basic political ideas? Are they all stupid? I doubt it. It’s something like a systemic flaw in the entire academic system – something similar to what I experienced as a teenager.

Think about it: why do so many theologians believe in God? Well, they share foundational premises. How many “expert theologians” convert to atheism? How many articles are written in “expert theological journals” arguing that God doesn’t exist?

The entire field shares flawed premises.

I don’t care how credentialed the Mormon apologist is – and I don’t care how many accolades Mormons shower him with – his ideas are fatally flawed, and I’m not sure he has ever examined them clearly in the first place.

Imagine the ridicule a Buddhist or Muslim would experience attending a Mormon college. All the professors, all the students, all the books, all the credentials, all the assumptions – they presuppose the expertise, wisdom, and competence of their Mormon staff. The Buddhist would be laughed out of the room, and his professors wouldn’t have the time or the incentive to bother thinking otherwise.

And then, only the best students would graduate and become professors themselves. The next generation would have the same ignorant assumptions as the first, and they would shepherd their students in the same way. It’s the blind leading the blind. Nobody has the incentive or care to challenge any of their fundamental, inaccurate assumptions.

Don’t take my word for it, but I have a hunch the same thing is happening in academia.

Not Even Doctors

If my hunch is correct, then we’d expect to see something like this: an idea gets accepted as fact by the experts, and it’s taught for years as standard theory, allthewhile being fatally flawed.

Indeed, the more you learn about the world, the more you realize this happens all the time, in virtually every field of thought. Take, for example, the standard, decades-established “fat hypothesis” in nutrition:

Eating saturated fat contributes to heart disease. Fat in your diet leads to fat in your arteries. How many times have you heard that? It’s dogma.

Well, for reasons I will not go into here, that foundational assumption is incorrect. Turns out, the fat hypothesis has some elementary errors. If anything, their recommendations – to eat healthy grains and avoid saturated fat – have likely caused heart disease, much less reduce it.

How could it be that for decades, these people – supposedly the top experts – were not only wrong, but catastrophically wrong, with backwards conclusions, and it’s undoubtedly affected the health of hundreds of millions of people?

The answer is obvious: the foundational assumptions weren’t challenged. The flaw in academia showed itself. People assumed that the information you learn in textbooks must be true – that only cranks challenge the well-established theories of experts. Thousands of students, thousands of doctors, repeating the same, false, harmful information.

It’s a grandiose parade of delusion. Who knows how many accolades and professional awards academicians have won because of their contributions to a foundationally-flawed theory of nutrition? How many answers on tests have been circled “incorrect” because it didn’t fit the professional narrative – and yet was actually true?

The undergrad cranks who thought to themselves, “All of these schmucks are deluded, and they don’t know the basics of what they are talking about” were correct. The 19-year old skeptic, who sees a flaw in the theory, was closer to truth than the 45-year old Chair of the Biology Department. All of his special badges and awards demonstrate how meaningless they are.

It should be an outrage to the academic world. These charlatans who’ve been peddling nonsense for decades should be excommunicated and ostracized. But what’s the professional response? “Well, that’s how science works! We were wrong then, but now the experts know!”

If my suspicions are correct, “the experts” should be trusted as much now as a decade ago. Meaning of course, they shouldn’t be trusted at all, because chances are they’ve never investigated the foundations of what they believe.

It’s Everywhere; Libertarianism Explains

It’s not just nutrition. It’s not just economics and political theory. This phenomena is true in literally every field of thought I’ve studied. The “mainstream consensus” is fatally flawed, and some small, heterodox school gets things right. It’s true in philosophy. It’s true in mathematics. It’s true in physics. It’s true in the martial arts. I can’t say, “this is universally true”, because I’ve not studied every field of thought, but I have a hunch.

Here, we can draw lessons from economics and libertarianism to explain why.

When you understand economics, you understand the hubris of central planning. The economy is not something to be centrally designed; it emerges from the interactions of the many individuals in society. It cannot be any other way – too much information is too dispersed over too many people for any one group to understand what the heck is going on.

F.A. Hayek put it perfectly:

“The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they understand about what they imagine they can design.”

The more you learn, the more you think, “Gosh, how embarrassing it is to think some group of planners can divine a better health care system than what emerges in a market. How arrogant to think we can bully the laws of economics by passing ‘minimum wage laws’. How confused you have to be to think you know ‘the correct prices for shoes’”.

The same is true for social issues. You have to be deluded to think you’re competent enough to legislate morality – “gambling and prostitution should be illegal because it’s wrong!” Or, “you can’t burn and inhale that plant, it’s bad for you. If you do, you should be thrown in jail!”

It’s the same arrogance – the same self-delusion.

Honestly, this is what I think happens in the world of academia. People are so wrong, from the students to the professors to the administrators, because they desperately want to see themselves as intelligent. And, terrifyingly, they actually believe they are. They agree with the credentialing system – if a piece of paper says I graduated, I must be smart, which means my ideas must be accurate!

And the system perpetuates itself. The best students – the best regurgitators – will go on to be professors, who will teach the next batch of students, and the cycle continues. The underlying assumptions – in philosophy, in economics, in political theory, in theology, in biology, in physics, in mathematics, in sociology – never get challenged, and the self-delusion keeps turning over.

A Seed of Doubt

What if – just what if – the system is flawed this way. What would we expect to see? And what would the response be of the academics on the inside, when criticized from the “cranks” on the outside?

What if “education” is not about “repeating what you’ve read in a textbook” or “being aware of expert opinion”? Certainly, repeating expert opinion sounds educated, but what if you’re repeating elementary errors, like exist in the fat hypothesis?

I suggest keeping an open mind, and letting a little seed of doubt root in your mind. If students and professors are incompetent and never challenge their foundational assumptions, what would the world look like?

Note to the reader: this is just one post on a very big topic. I have a lot more to say – and a lot more facts to share – in the future.