7/28/2011 11:29

Disinterested experts

Vince Lowery mentioned a distrust of historians during his talk at the Neville Public Museum last night about our public memory of the Civil War. I think, however, that this is a far broader phenomenon than a social disregard for people who work very hard to understand history. There is a general distrust of all disinterested experts. More specifically, I think, there is a suspicion that anyone who presents as disinterested actually has a hidden bias.

This way of thinking reminds me of a time when I was an editor of my college newspaper. A representative of some Communist propaganda sheet was promoting his paper through the dorm. He asked me, "Are your reports entirely unbiased?" Of course, they can never be completely free of bias, and I admitted this. "Then it would be better to stop pretending," he suggested, "and be openly biased like we are."

I disagreed, and still do. I believe that holding onto the goal of fairness and working constantly to get closer to that goal is a far better way to play the actual reality game.

In the talk, Dr. Lowery commented that "Few tourists travel in search of oppression." There are two points in that observation. First, people prefer to give their attention to pleasantness; in terms of history tourism, that means viewing the past in a way that is not threatening to the present situation. Second, we tend to give precedence to business considerations when deciding the scope and content of public memory.

My hypothesis is that people postulate that every opinion, or at least everyone else's opinion, is inevitably biased in favor of what the person wishes to be true. The effect of this postulate is exacerbated by a carelessness about differentiating offhand remarks from studied conclusions. All of them are "just opinions" we hear, suggesting that the first thought that comes into my head is just as valid as the conclusion of a three year scientific study by a group of people who are each expert in the topic.

This hypothesis could explain a wide range of oddities in public attitudes: