on taming the ignorant powerful …

In an earlier post, I asked a question, with a tongue in my cheek: “how could we tame Oprah?” I did not specifying who ‘we’ are, on what grounds ‘we” should try to tame her, and whether taming Oprah (and others like her) is something that could be done.  After all, they are wonderfully extra-Vagant (as Boon, 1999, might put it) and likely to escape most forms of social control.

I leave the questions open for the moment in order to expand the puzzle triggered by a critique of the advice Oprah dispenses on matters like vaccination.  There is every evidence that, from the ‘official’ public health point of view, her shows can be dangerous, particularly when she discusses vaccination.  She may endanger the health of individual children not getting vaccinated, as well as the health of the public as these children get sick and may sicken others.  At least this is what us, sober headed experts in public health as driven by medical research, might say (and have said).  As a highly schooled expert myself, and someone who generally accepts what other experts tell me, I am uncomfortable at any challenge to my expertise, particularly when it comes from someone as powerful as Oprah.  But I am not writing her to complain.  I continue here to puzzle.

In the earlier post, I marveled at Oprah’s pedagogy (the way she formats the discussions) and at her use of a classic American formula where highly schooled experts are pitted against the common sense of the non-expert.  As a cultural anthropologist, I cheer at a particularly striking improvisation on an old theme.

But I am also an anthropologist interested in education.  As such I am puzzled and need to figure out how the new skepticism about medical authority is actually performed, by whom and when.  So I was fascinated by an editorial by Joel Stein of Time Magazine about “The Vaccination War” and how it played out in a “liberal, wealthy [couple] of L.A.” and their immediate network.  He assumed his new-born would be vaccinated, his wife said ‘No’.  So:

To try to be open-minded and stop our fighting, I went to a seminar about inoculation at Cassandra’s yoga center.  Along with about 50 other people, we paid $30 each to listen to Dr. Lauren Feder.

This Dr. Feder explained why inoculation is not necessary, and how not immunizing might possibly be healthier for the child.  I am tempted to write about this as a case of deliberate mis-education and induced ignorance among the prosperous and powerful.  I could also write it as a case of resistance among some of the powerful (the people who might appear in Larry David’s Curb your enthusiasm) against some other powerful people (health experts).  Unless of course it is just a case of mass hysteria.

Again, I do not want to complain, but the problem remains: “how are we to tame the mis-guided powerful?” (if we decided to do so).

“Educational research” has produced much that has documented the apparent ignorance of the poor and powerless, particularly as compared to the apparent knowledge of the prosperous and powerful.  This literature assumes that the latter know (more) and that they pass this knowledge on to their children (“cultural capital”).  But what if the prosperous also mis-educate their children, if not on matters relating to schooling at school-relevant moments (e.g. high stake exams), at least on a lot of other matters, and at other times?  And what if the prosperous’ success in school tests is not quite a reflection of what they end up “knowing”?  What if the prosperous, often, just pass (pretend, lie) at passing (school tests)?  There is some evidence that the children of the poor sometimes fail at tests because they refuse to do what it takes to pass.  We need to see if, in some case and for certain purposes, the children of the powerful succeed at the same tests because all they have done is do what it takes to pass, without learning in the sense of understanding or accepting the answers they gave on the tests.  When test-taking is done, then what they actually learned over the course of their schooling, or what they continue to educate themselves about as they grow older, may reveal itself as something else altogether than school-people might have expected.

Joel Stein, in the same column, says something very interesting and challenging to us school people about the source of his adult knowledge:

Even in the age of Google and Wikipedia, we still receive almost all of our information through our peers.  I believe in evolution not because I’ve read Darwin but because everyone I know things it’s true.

Now, that is a challenge for all educators, and for all researchers on education.

One thought on “on taming the ignorant powerful …”

  1. I am reassured to see that you struggle with some of the same questions that I do about the role of expertise, particularly as we are researchers who routinely seek to demonstrate how expertise is undermined, ignored, or circumvented by everyday people. I am also reassured to see that we both have the same kind of difficulty with maintaining our research stance when confronted with phenomena which we find viscerally troublesome 😉

    As the graduate of a series of high-powered private schools, I can vouch that we do pass prosperous students who are only going through the motions; I eagerly await a research opportunity to demonstrate this in a more formal way 😉 I do think this development of what one researcher (Perkins?) calls “fragile knowledge” does lead to what will later be seen as “mis-education” by experts.

    Anecdotally: I’m reminded of the time I sat in the veterinarian’s office while a woman bounced a theory of animal health off the vet, who looked puzzled, suggested she was wrong, and asked where she’d learned that theory. She said she had read it in a popular magazine — I forget if it was New Scientist or Popular Science. In the course of clearing this up, it became clear that the woman believed that the magazine she was reading was where scientists generated and shared their knowledge. She appeared not to know about peer-reviewed journals. And why should she? How many high school students or even undergrads are exposed to peer review as a component of science? Most of them are presented with textbooks and told to memorize. At best, they do experiments and present their findings in the structure of a journal article, but the elements of peer review and relationships to other scientific articles are left out. Aside from interpersonal trust and unthinking reliance on experts, what models do most people have for assessing the quality of science “facts” presented to them in any medium?

    Small wonder, then, that a concerned but somewhat flighty guy in one of my dance classes recently approached me to ask whether I thought global warming was real, because he’d heard disputes about it on the radio. Whether he was seeing me as an expert or a peer was not clear; we’d talked politics before, and he knew I am a regular commentator on the radio station he listens to. Regardless, he was clearly coming to me to triangulate the opinions he was forming with the help of other sources. His own rubric for what constitutes good knowledge ultimately deferred to what seems to be the baseline for many listeners of WBAI: knee-jerk suspicion of anything produced in any kind of large institution, be it corporate, governmental, or even academic/scientific. When I tried to talk to him about evidence, peer review, and global warming, he tried to suggest experts were lying to us in other ways (9/11 was his first exhibit, and we moved on from there). There is a certain kind of skepticism which appears to shade into paranoia, demanding an understanding inverse from whatever an expert says regardless of proof.

    I am struggling a little with the setting in which ideas about prosperous students are presented in this blog post. The vaccination case, and our strong feelings about it as “experts,” threatens to undermine the idea that “ignorance” and “knowing” are relative and locally situated, and not empirical or universal.

    There are, I think, some Latourian explorations which have to be made of certain words and ideas here. Without belaboring them, because of course this is a blog and thus a more casual medium than a formal publication:

    It is dicey to call well-educated families’ succumbing to alternative vaccination ideas “mis-education” or “induced ignorance” even in the Ranciere sense, right? If we’re talking about our criteria for proof, your evidence and my evidence in favor of vaccination does not seem to me to be too different from those who are against vaccination. Same for my friend and his take on global warming or 9/11. Each side believes we are listening to experts, whether it is “mainstream” science or “subversive” science/evidence which is apparently being ignored by powerful interests. Each of us is taking someone else’s word for it (I am assuming, possibly incorrectly, that you have not read the original articles for and against vaccination, or been to a conference where the results have been presented?). To call one side “mis-education” or “induced ignorance” must necessarily assume the other side has proven a scientific fact. We are no longer talking about “how medical authority is performed;” each side is more or less performing the same way, just positioning those actions differently in relation to the specific groups involved.

    The vaccination issue forces our hand as educational anthropologists. So does the question of “what is to count as educational policy,” really. How may we continue as researchers to insist that we take no sides about who is objectively right, yet maintain that there is a side which has expertise about vaccinations or global warming?

    I tried to answer this question with the help of Castells and Latour, but gave up.

    Anyway. As far as taming Oprah goes, apparently I haven’t given you the details of my plans to become a public intellectual and get on her show…?

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