I heard a compelling segment on This American Life over the weekend. It was a profile of a self-taught electrician and engineer named Bob Berenz who had become convinced that Einstein was wrong, specifically in his formulation of “E = mc squared”, and had taken a personal sabbatical to develop his own comprehensive theory of physics based on his findings. The punchline was skillfully deferred until most of the way through the segment, when listeners found out that what the man believed instead was that the equation should be E = mc, no squared, because squaring mc was needlessly complicated. This view turned out to drive his entire antagonistic vision of modern physics, that it was taking what should be simple and elegant and making it mathematically and theoretically complex and baroque, largely as a corrupt way to extend the stranglehold of professional academic scientists and experts over a wider public.
I found myself moved and disturbed by this man’s perspective, because I sometimes express sympathy towards similar criticisms of academics and experts. In a way, what the segment reminded me is that overindulgence of that perspective carries its own dangers.
I start from the premise that at least some of the hostility between academia and some of its publics is driven by social cleavages or experiences that aren’t directly captured in the substance of any particular instance of hostile or critical expression. Beyond that, I think sometimes anger at academics is a product of a particular issue or topic where academics have extended an unwarranted degree of magisterial control or authority over policy formation, or have intolerantly defended expert opinion that turns to be at the least debatable, at worst simply wrong.
A lot of the worst examples of malpractice by experts have lodged deeply in global popular consciousness, whether we’re talking the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, corrosively faddish applications of academic views by development organizations in impoverished societies, or crackpottery like the “posture photos”. Stories of scientific and scholarly progress sometimes feed into the same consciousness. When we recount how plate tectonics, the Big Bang, genetics or quantum mechanics were once regarded as eccentric, impossible or wrong by mainstream consensus, we invite people like Bob Berenz to imagine themselves in the same way, martyred by an arrogant establishment.
The key moment for me was that Berenz’ friend, who produced the segment, brings him into contact with a physics professor, who explains that among other things, Berenz has confused momentum with kinetic energy. Berenz simply doesn’t accept that, and comes pretty close to sticking fingers in his ears and humming real loud. (There’s a really interesting moment where Berenz complains afterwards to his friend that the professor didn’t speak in a sufficiently educated manner: the language of class distinction and elitism gets turned on its head. That, too, seems to me to often happen to a professor who engages a critical public from a less-Olympian perspective: the critics then say, ‘This guy can’t be for real, because he talks like a regular guy’.)
This is the point where sympathy has to end. There isn’t anything past that moment that the professor can do to convince Berenz that he’s wrong, because Berenz reveals that he’s operating from beyond the frame of persuasion. There are epistemological arguments in contemporary academia which hold that we’re all beyond that frame, that persuasion and reason are just cloaks for power, but I don’t buy that. Nevertheless, when the participants in a dialogue are this far apart in their purposes and outlook, there’s not much good that can come of it.
In this case, Berenz just doesn’t want to hear the truth: the physical, material world is complicated, or at the least, the methods we need to understand what it really is are complicated. (I think it’s both.) I don’t think that the humanities and most of the social sciences are complicated in the same way: our descriptive language and tools don’t have to be fundamentally difficult to use and understand. But the reality we’re interested in may be even more complicated and hard to comprehend than the physical world: understanding the human experience, whether one individual’s heart and soul or the collective reality of an entire human society, is never going to be simple.
There are academics who would like it to be relatively simple. Virginia Postrel has a column in a recent Atlantic issue about “inconspicuous consumption” that profiles the work of some economists who would like to reduce consumer behavior to “rational” forms of emulation. Postrel has a paragraph in which she concedes that maybe particular consumer behavior is just the complex result of cultural and social history, but “economists hate unfalsifiable tautologies about differing tastes”. Not unfalsifiable, guys, just takes a lot of detailed work on a particular case to evaluate any given argument. Sorry, but that’s the way that the lived human world really is a lot of the time. Not to say that the economists’ general suggestion is without merit, it’s just that it’s a low-bandwidth description of a high-bandwidth reality.
At various points, non-academics would also like the human world to be simple. Either because they’re grinding an ideological axe or because they’re coming from some settled worldview that wants to see it that way. In a conversation with someone driven by that belief, virtually any intellectually serious historian or literary scholar or philosopher or anthropologist is going to end up just as frustrated as the physicist who tried to talk with Berenz.
Everybody comes away unhappy from that confrontation, so it really raises the question of whether it’s worth it to even try. I don’t think scholars have to try and talk with each and every person who seems to fit that description, but I think that all scholars have the responsibility to try to do so every once in a while. Sometimes the Berenz’s of the world have a completely valid point even within narrowly defined scholarly parameters. Sometimes they’re telling us something important about our limitations, weaknesses and failures. And sometimes they confirm that the world really is complicated and that pursuing the how and why of the world really does take training, discipline, and commitment to a cumulative effort that grows and deepens across time and space.