from the world's big
No, Not All Opinions Are Equal—We Need Elites with Expert Knowledge
Elitism has come under fire since the recent wave of populist politics. But when we don't listen to experts, we end up listening to politicians' lies, says Richard Dawkins.
Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and the former Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. He is the author of several of modern science's essential texts, including The Selfish Gene (1976) and The God Delusion (2006). Born in Nairobi, Kenya, Dawkins eventually graduated with a degree in zoology from Balliol College, Oxford, and then earned a masters degree and the doctorate from Oxford University. He has recently left his teaching duties to write and manage his foundation, The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, full-time.
Richard Dawkins: Among the reasons that I heard for people wanting to vote for Brexit were, 'Well, it’s nice to have a change,' and, 'Well, I preferred the old blue passport to the European purple passport.' These are the kinds of reasons people were giving for voting for Brexit. The day after the referendum, the most Goggled question in Britain was: What is the European Union?
During the Brexit campaign one of the leading politicians favoring Brexit, Michael Gove, said to the British people, “You are the experts. Don’t trust experts, you are the expert now.” So ordinary people who have absolutely no knowledge of economics or politics or history decided on a 50 percent majority to vote to Britain out of the European market, out of the European community, which was a very, very complicated, detailed, ramified structure that has been built up over decades. And so in one stroke the British people, who had no knowledge, no expertise, were given the opportunity by a reckless David Cameron to vote us out and they did, by a very narrow margin. This cult of everybody being an expert, all opinions being equally valid is, I think, dangerous and most unfortunate. Of course I have been accused of being an elitist because of this. And yes, when you’re about to have an operation you want an elite surgeon to cut you open, you want an elite anesthetist to put you under. When you’re about to fly you want an elite pilot to fly you. When you’re about to leave a federation of states, which has been built up over decades, you want an elite economist or politician or historian to advise you on it. You don’t want to take the view of just any old man in the street or woman in the street.
I pronounce myself profoundly ill-equipped to vote on the referendum about Brexit. I was ill-equipped and so was the vast majority of the British people ill-equipped. In that sense I think that elitist should stop being a dirty word and we should start to respect elites in whatever field we’re talking about. We want elite musicians to play in our orchestras, et cetera.
I think it’s bad enough to ask non-experts like me to vote in direct referendums, but when we are also being fed false information, or it’s deliberately false information. The Trump administration is actually lying every day and more or less proud of it. In Britain the Brexit campaign had a bus—you may have read about this—they had a bus which had a great big slogan on the side, which said that every day or every week I think it was, some gigantic sum was being paid to the European Union, which if we left Europe would be available for the national health. Now that was an admitted lie, that’s quite simply false, and many people were probably swayed by that consideration to vote to leave the European Union.
So no, I do think we need to stick to democracy as it is, but I think it’s a representative democracy that we have. In Britain we have a parliamentary democracy, normally we don’t vote on actual issues we vote members of Parliament. Members of Parliament then go to the House of Commons and then they vote on our behalf. And we have cabinet government where the cabinet gets advice from civil servants who are expert. So no I’m not advocating that people with PhDs should get two votes or anything like that; I don’t want to be elitist to quite that extent. So let’s go for representative democracy but not referendum democracy. I think it’s worth adding that the precedent for not everybody having the same weighted vote is already well-established in the United States. When you think about voting for the United States Senate, where every state gets two senators. What that means is that a citizen of Wyoming has, I think, the equivalent of 60 votes compared to a citizen of California because if you look at the actual relative population sizes of Wyoming and California. So in a way that pass has already been sold, that we already see gross inequality. I mean sixtyfold inequalities, and the Senate, of course, is very important because the Senate does not only take hugely important decisions but also ratifies presidential nominees for the Supreme Court and that could be the most important single thing that a president ever does, is appoint members to the Supreme Court because they go on and on for decades, in some cases, after the president is gone.
You want expert pilots to fly your planes, top doctors to perform your surgeries, the finest musicians in your orchestra, and for the same reason, you should want experts leading the nation, says Richard Dawkins. There has been a backlash against expert knowledge amid the rising wave of populist politics, but Dawkins doesn't think elitism is the dirty word that people are implying. He contends that not all opinions are equal, and that the leaders of the UK were profoundly misguided in allowing a referendum on Brexit to occur. No average citizen—not even Dawkins himself—was fit to decide on whether to leave a federation of states with so much economic and political importance, and decades of complex history attached to it. And much like the 2016 US presidential election, it was a political movement fueled by misinformation. A representative democracy is one thing, where citizens entrust experts to make national and local decisions, but a referendum democracy seems to Dawkins extremely ill-advised, particularly given that the top Google search in the UK the day after the Brexit vote was 'What is the European Union?'. Dawkins isn't shy: he's an elitist, but a rational one. He affirms he would never want a world where your IQ determines how many votes you get, but he sees the clear benefit of making political decisions based on knowledge rather than emotion or misinformation, deliberate or otherwise. Richard Dawkins' newest book is Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist.
Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT today.
Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.
- Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
- A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
- With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.
Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.
Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.
But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.
A mixed response to technology
Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.
This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!
According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.
To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.
But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).
Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.
Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.
For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."
Screens, parents, and pandemics
Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.
But are these concerns overblown?
As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.
Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.
"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."
This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.
Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.
- There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what mindfulness is and what meditation can do for those who practice it. In this video, professors, neuroscientists, psychologists, composers, authors, and a former Buddhist monk share their experiences, explain the science behind meditation, and discuss the benefits of learning to be in the moment.
- "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
- "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.
- The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
- Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
- The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
The end of the world as we know it<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNTM5My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0MTg5NjY5MX0.tvGeUHIw5IB-El9o7ePqt-aLGTV3I_3SMk_B6neP680/img.jpg?width=980" id="7626c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="7813ba6f9544a3d25025e682c8b723ba" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="\u200bHeinrich Berann's panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park" />
Panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park
Image: Heinrich Berann for the National Park Service – public domain<p>Of the many freak ways to shuffle off this mortal coil – lightning strikes, shark bites, falling pianos – here's one you can safely scratch off your worry list: an outbreak of the Yellowstone supervolcano.</p><p>As the map below shows, previous eruptions at Yellowstone were so massive that the ash fall covered most of what is now the western United States. A similar event today would not only claim countless lives directly, but also create enough subsidiary disruption to kill off global civilisation as we know it. A relatively recent eruption of the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia may have come close to killing off the human species (<em>see further below</em>). </p><p>However, just because a scenario is grim does not mean that it is likely (insert topical political joke here). In this case, the doom mongers claiming an eruption is 'overdue' are wrong. Yellowstone is not a library book or an oil change. Just because the previous mega-eruption happened long ago doesn't mean the next one is imminent. <span></span></p>
Ash beds of North America<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNTM5MS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTAyNzczM30.klQwU7AQK8v2kcqlWQ_97CWDOYk72nDgT8kXO74aMWY/img.png?width=980" id="ce210" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f73d1cafa92b140b17915c89f097f45f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America." />
Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America.
Image: USGS – public domain<p>This map shows the location of the Yellowstone plateau and the ash beds deposited by its three most recent major outbreaks, plus two other eruptions – one similarly massive, the other the most recent one in North America.</p><p><strong>Huckleberry Ridge</strong></p><p>The Huckleberry Ridge eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago. It ejected 2,450 km3 (588 cubic miles) of material, making it the largest known eruption in Yellowstone's history and in fact the largest eruption in North America in the past few million years. </p><p>This is the oldest of the three most recent caldera-forming eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot. It created the Island Park Caldera, which lies partially in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and westward into Idaho. Ash from this eruption covered an area from southern California to North Dakota, and southern Idaho to northern Texas. </p><p><strong>Mesa Falls</strong></p><p>About 1.3 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption ejected 280 km3 (67 cubic miles) of material and created the Henry's Fork Caldera, located in Idaho, west of Yellowstone. </p><p>It was the smallest of the three major Yellowstone eruptions, both in terms of material ejected and area covered: 'only' most of present-day Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and about half of South Dakota. </p><p><strong>Lava Creek</strong></p><p>The Lava Creek eruption was the most recent major eruption of Yellowstone: about 640,000 years ago. It was the second-largest eruption in North America in the past few million years, creating the Yellowstone Caldera. </p><p>It ejected only about 1,000 km3 (240 cubic miles) of material, i.e. less than half of the Huckleberry Ridge eruption. However, its debris is spread out over a significantly wider area: basically, Huckleberry Ridge plus larger slices of both Canada and Mexico, plus most of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.</p><p><strong>Long Valley</strong></p><p>This eruption occurred about 760,000 years ago. It was centered on southern California, where it created the Long Valley Caldera, and spewed out 580 km3 (139 cubic miles) of material. This makes it North America's third-largest eruption of the past few million years. </p><p>The material ejected by this eruption is known as the Bishop ash bed, and covers the central and western parts of the Lava Creek ash bed. </p><p><strong>Mount St Helens</strong></p><p><strong></strong>The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history: it created a mile-wide crater, killed 57 people and created economic damage in the neighborhood of $1 billion.</p><p>Yet by Yellowstone standards, it was tiny: Mount St Helens only ejected 0.25 km3 (0.06 cubic miles) of material, most of the ash settling in a relatively narrow band across Washington State and Idaho. By comparison, the Lava Creek eruption left a large swathe of North America in up to two metres of debris.<br></p>
The difference between quakes and faults<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNTM5MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyODkzMDgxOX0.SbOloPk6Ert6Gr3oO2MjDvFpNpL5UY1lVAqczFyQ6uQ/img.jpg?width=980" id="d410d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="77d3ca41241b28a2dd1d9acf708015ae" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Comparison chart of eruption volumes" />
The volume of dense rock equivalent (DRE) ejected by the Huckleberry Ridge event dwarfs all other North American eruptions. It is itself overshadowed by the DRE ejected at the most recent eruption at Toba (present-day Indonesia). This was one of the largest known eruptions ever and a relatively recent one: only 75,000 years ago. It is thought to have caused a global volcanic winter which lasted up to a decade and may be responsible for the bottleneck in human evolution: around that time, the total human population suddenly and drastically plummeted to between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs.
Image: USGS – public domain<p>So, what are the chances of something that massive happening anytime soon? The aforementioned mongers of doom often claim that major eruptions occur at intervals of 600,000 years and point out that the last one was 640,000 years ago. Except that (a) the first interval was about 200,000 years longer, (b) two intervals is not a lot to base a prediction on, and (c) those intervals don't really mean anything anyway. Not in the case of volcanic eruptions, at least. </p><p><span></span>Earthquakes can be 'overdue' because the stress on fault lines is built up consistently over long periods, which means quakes can be predicted with a relative degree of accuracy. But this is not how volcanoes behave. They do not accumulate magma at constant rates. And the subterranean pressure that causes the magma to erupt does not follow a schedule.</p><p><span></span>What's more, previous super-eruptions do not necessarily imply future ones. Scientists are not convinced that there ever will be another big eruption at Yellowstone. Smaller eruptions, however, are much likelier. Since the Lava Creek eruption, there have been about 30 smaller outbreaks at Yellowstone, the last lava flow being about 70,000 years ago. </p><p>As for the immediate future (give or take a century): the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is <a href="https://www.usgs.gov/faqs/yellowstone-overdue-eruption-when-will-yellowstone-erupt?qt-news_science_products=0#qt-news_science_products" target="_blank">only 5 percent to 15 percent molten</a>. Most scientists agree that is as un-alarming as it sounds. And that its statistically more relevant to worry about death by lightning, shark, or piano.</p>
Just what every arachnophobe needed to hear.
- A new study suggests some spiders might lace their webs with neruotoxins similar to the ones in their venom.
- The toxins were shown to be effective at paralyzing insects injected with them.
- Previous studies showed that other spiders lace their webs with chemicals that repel large insects.