The end of expertise: two routes with similar roots

.The idea for my metaverse project, peduncle, was born during the extreme drought in Cape Town around 2016, when a city of more than 4 million people were about to run out of water. It was a combination of climate change and mismanagement, but how we as scientists and engineers responded to it was, to me, equally inadequate than the people in power.

This threw me into an identity crisis about myself as a scientist and engineer – an “expert”. Someone shared Lesley Green’s article and I realised what I am dealing with inside myself is part of a bigger crisis: “the end of expertise”.

Then, with the covid pandemic, the anti-vax movement and similar seemingly outrageous movements really took off, and the end of expertise were talked about in more disparaging terms.

Being an intellectual who is convinced about the scientific method, it is uncomfortable for me to consider having similarities with anti-vaxers, flat earthers, the MAGA crowd, and the like. Reading an article by Naomi Klein, a professor of climate justice and a Guardian journalist, about how her namesake, Naomi Wolf, went from a science writer to prominent conspiracy theorist, I, surprisingly, didn’t particularly want to be in Klein’s camp either.

Like Klein I wondered, “If someone like Wolf could be shifting alliances so radically, it seemed worth trying to figure out what was driving that transformation – especially because, by then, it was also clear that quite a few prominent liberals and leftists were making a similar lurch to the hard right.”

We also agree that “Clearly, conspiracy culture is fuelled by deep and unmet needs – for community, for innocence, for inside knowledge, for answers that appear, however deceptively, to explain a world gone wild.” and that the “stress and the speed and the screens and the anxieties that are all byproducts of capitalism in its necro-techno phase. But if one side (presumably Klein’s peers?) is calling [the pandemic lockdown] fine and normal and the other is calling it “inhuman”, it should not be surprising that the latter holds some powerful allure.”

But, the versions of reality presented by Klein, on the one hand, and Wolf on the other, are, in my view, both merely versions of reality that are presented to us, by powerful influencers, and both cause me unease. It is at odds with a third option, as discussed in this interview with Vandana Shiva and Dougald Hine.

19:13 The kind of panic relates more to that sense of emergency of climate change than it does a real understanding of the transition that is obviously happening around us.

Both sides, the mainstream intellectuals and the conspiracy theorist camp, have a strong interest in having us panic. It gives them power, and agency, to do “something” which inevitably works in their favour, not ours.

17:06 The more they say listen to the science with a capital S they’re basically saying listen to corporate propaganda, which has no content in scientific terms. So in a way there’s a scientific vacuum on the top and there’s an emergence of the multiple sciences, the plurality of science.

22:38 The problem with this way of thinking it’s not that the science is wrong, it’s how much gets left out and how suited particular versions of science are as you say to the interests of those who currently exercise political and economic power.

10:37 We have to be willing to try sounding foolish, starting from other languages saying these things that look too small to be taken seriously according to the logic of the world we grew up being taught by; these things are where we have to build from instead.

I love the idea of doing many seemingly foolish small things, of grassroots activity. The thing that sets my nerves on edge, is how do we keep this accountable? How do we make sure that plurality of science, of an ethic of care, still involves critical thinking, and doesn’t degrade into populist mobs destroying everything?

Perhaps the issue is deeper than that. If we need humanity in an increasingly isolated, terrifying, changing world, if we need connection, it’s not really about the science. Breaking the stranglehold of populist demagogues to me means building connection between small groups of people, to ease our panic, to stop us from needing to find outlandish answers in the first place.

40:30 But it’s one thing to experience that and have a sense of kind of rage often half articulate a sense of things not being right. But to give people a story, a sense that might be another chapter, there might be a turn away from this road that was meant to lead to the future as modernity imagined it I, that seems to me to be the hard thing.

YES, we need change, the root concerns of conspiracy theorists are valid. The suspicion and mistrust of powerful players are valid. We do need to take action. We just also need to make sure that action is appropriate, informed, responsive and responsible.

43:12  The peculiar helplessness of the kinds of human beings bred by modernity.

This is the TL;DR of my manifesto:
25:35 If governments and corporations are not going to make the actual shift then we need to make that shift. Everyday people must make that shift.

This, THIS is why I want to build peduncle. To allow people to imagine something different. In small ways, slowly, gently, with the people around them, while having fun.

Peduncle would not stand for “truth” but for the means to get there. It stands for the scientific method, for critical thinking. Any claim can be made, and then through curiosity and playfulness that claim is explored, examined, connected to the bigger picture. Together.

The influencers pushing these conspiracy theories have a strong emphasis on action. They have an excellent grasp of marketing, and using the new forms of media. To provide a feasible alternative, we also need a strong, action based, engaging strategy, and connect people. This is what I’m trying to do through the metaverse, starting with understanding how people engage with data.

More notes about the conversation with Vandana Shiva and Dougald Hine in two other posts:

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