If you’re an academic, why bother to write a blog post? Here’s why I need to do it. I have to retain a sense of possibility in an era of nihilism. To not “put honest words out there” is to abandon the idea of a public sphere (something many democratic theorists abandoned long ago) or at least to give it over to a politics where ideas don’t matter, only brutal power and interest.
What do I mean by “honest words”? I don’t mean unassailable truth. We don’t have that and cannot presume to have it. But what we do have is a good faith effort. At our core, we are supposed to reject invalid truth claims. I’ll be the first to admit that we often fall short of that goal, but we are guardians of an epistemological way of knowing that needs to be protected.
Since antiquity, we’ve known that episteme isn’t the only way to know things. I’ve been intrigued recently with the work of Nicholas Nassim Taleb, in particular his view in a recent article that some academics and “elites” are what he derisively calls “intellectuals yet idiots” because they fall victim to an evangelical devotion to “scientism” or a naive belief in the inviolability of epistemological truth at the expense of other ways of knowing like experience or tradition.
I think this view gives us in the academy good fodder for reflection. Many of us in the academy and in the journalistic elite do use “science” as a cudgel in arguments. We use this type of knowing without always being entirely certain of the underlying science. We presume to know the unintended consequences of thing we couldn’t possible know. I can admit as a member of the “coastal elite” that we can come off a little entitled and superior when talking about “red America.”
Accepting all these things as true, where does the leave someone who tried to create, synthesize and disseminate knowledge for a living? I think it means to go forward and speak, with humility, about what we know (and what we don’t). But above all, it means that we demand that other make explicit their claims to truth and that we call out insincere discourse laden with hidden agendas. In other words, we need to be vigilant in looking out for bulls**t (HT to Harry Frankfort’s great book).