Information Distribution In The Age Of Algorithms – (Part 5 – Into The Murky Waters Of The Thought Leaders)

Into The Murky Waters Of Expert Testimonials Thought Leaders

In hindsight, I don’t think my usage of the word expert is appropriate in this piece. I ran with it for the gist of my writing despite this feeling, having no suitable alternative occur to me at the time. However, I now tend to favour Thought Leader over Expert.

Online discourse is driven by many different minds that are regarded as being legitimate schoolers be their many followers (the Intellectual Dark Web is a brilliant example of this), but one is often hard-pressed to make a term like Expert fit. 

Which is why I made the change (with slight alterations for purposes of flow) to the rest of this piece.

On a strictly personal note, I can’t help but notice a big reason why Thought Leader may be out of favour to other options (Expert, Intellectual, Scholar, Philosopher etc). Indeed, this piece is not debunking the legitimacy of many of those labels in these contexts. However, one can see why they are preferable to thought leader, because of what the label entails.  

One brilliant mind. Many adoring and inherently inquisitive fans, to the brilliant ideas of my mind. If this leader were a priest or a cult leader, no one would pay any heed, as that is just how she goes. But if the context is so-called rational discourse on real-world subject matter, one should be inspired to pause and truly consider their position.

Is it REALLY a strawman? Or has the popular thought leader indeed become your new high priest?

Another issue of concern in the realm of educational online content is what I call thought leaders. Generally, these people are academics, with credentials relating to their background. The thought leader is generally seen as an invaluable source of information for inquiries within their chosen field of work or study. However, as you get further out from that sweet spot, it is good to evaluate where one stands. If one has a background in (and credentials relating to) neuroscience, then should they be considered a reliable source for gauging the interconnected and multidimensional layers of a subject like the politics of the middle east?

That is the area in which I want to focus on. Thought Leaders that dabble in areas outside of their studied subject matter, or thought leaders that should know full well that their propagating long debunked nonsense.

At times, these 2 categories merge when the out of their league thought leader invites the junk peddler onto their podcast. After which the aforementioned thought leader is horrified by accusations of racism. These accusations based on many things, one of which includes inviting a racially biased junk peddler onto their podcast. Multiple times.

I kept it ambiguous in the last section I wrote. However, I did tip my hand here (and in the intro) as to EXACTLY who I am speaking of. Those that make the connection may feel the sudden urge to rush to my comments section and remind me that I am clearly viewing the whole thing out of context.

Feel Free. You know my views on free speech. I won’t stop you. Now, whether or not I actually care enough to respond . . . that’s on you.

But enough fun.

Online discourse (well, discourse in general) is an interesting thing. Since it is a free for all, everyone has a say. When you have notable status in society, your say has more impact (be it warranted or not). And when you have become known as a thought leader and have the credentials to back it up, your words carry A LOT of weight. In fact, such speech takes on the status of being almost infallible.

Not because the argument is necessarily strong. And not even because the person has any special insight that can’t be found elsewhere. Its all in the speaker.

Of course, most won’t openly admit this, particularly anyone with any ties to the rational community. None the less, the behaviour says it all.

When it comes to many of the more well-established Thinkers of this space (how I hate that concept and label . . . ), their status seems almost equivalent to that of demigods. Figureheads of a collective case of committing the argument from authority fallacy on a mass scale.

This is indeed a controversial view, not to be taken lightly. Worry not. I show my work.

First off, the obvious. Some arguments just can NOT be won.
You can lead with logic and reason. You can even utilize academics when their scope of focus has bearing on the argument at hand. However, sometimes there will simply be no budging the opposing viewpoint. Whether the cause is stubbornness, fear or the very human tendency to refuse the possibility of being incorrect, the end result is the same. They did their heels in even more, and the only thing accomplished is further strengthening their ideology.

In such cases, it is entirely probable that even relevant expert opinions may be discarded. When critiques of an argument (be it from an authority or not!) can not be agreed upon by way of any validated means of doing so (eg. The scientific method), it can generally be regarded as illegitimate.
This can get tricky when the argument is based around an informational vacuum (a common trait of both conspiracy theory and religious dogma). Having said that, however, one can sometimes change the insight of such situations by simply changing their area of focus. Rather than the
What, consider asking Why (at least in the context of conspiracy theory).

We know that there is simply no changing some people. Even if you brought your die-hard creationist friend to see an evolutionary biologist, it likely still won’t do any good. However, aside from making sure we don’t fall into the same bias traps ourselves, we must ensure that our chosen authorities are indeed the best choice. For example, is an evolutionary biologist the best source for information when it comes to the nature of a given religion (ANY of them)?

Many of us tend to idolize personalities with credentials. I can’t be too judgmental here, because I did a short few years ago as well. Given the celebrity culture that this new digital culture has sprung up from, it’s unsurprising that this is where we are today. But that does not make it any less problematic. Particularly when our standards (in terms of analyzing information) are lowered just on account to the source.
This used to primarily entail celebrities endorsing the idiotic and the asinine (thanks for the new wave of measles, guys!). However, the age of digital video and has given birth to a whole new beast. The phenomenon of the credentialed expert openly willing to speak out of his ass on topics they have little insight into.
This makes the discourse even more difficult. Because after all, I don’t have a Ph.D. or any other credentials (aside from a high school diploma). But THEY do. If a layman can’t trust the decorated academic, then who CAN they trust?

Excellent question, and really, the bane of my existence. One has no idea how much faith (or trust, if you are a so-called Apistevist) one has in anything until they are forced to give it up. Which is what makes most of the following fairly easy for me to grasp, yet a challenge to most others.

It all starts with remembering the primary component in all of this. We are complex creatures, and we have built up complex cultures with complex hierarchies. We have learned to give priority to status and other fundamentally flawed markers of credibility (unless demonstrated otherwise). However, the primary component is, and always will be, the human instinct. For better or for worse, in bias or in accuracy.

In the realm of debate, every single participant is equal until demonstrated otherwise. All humans are prone to the same traits (greed, arrogance, fame etc). While education should theoretically serve to temper these oh so primal phenomenons, it doesn’t. Particularly not when money is increasingly entering the mix.

As should be apparent by now, I generally don’t acknowledge so-called experts thought leaders any differently than I do any other person. Or more, I treat their arguments as no different than that of any other person unless proven otherwise. No one should ever be taken at face value. Certainly not when the ability to check is literally at our fingertips.

Not unlike the YouTube personalities of the last chapter, it is not unreasonable to question motives. Why is this person lending credence to this idea?

There is indeed a bit of a pattern here at work here. A pattern that can be summed up by my life lesson of the past 2 years or so. That being simply that we are all human, for better or worse. Education is a good way to help soften the rough edges of the mind, but none the less, the human mind is still the human mind.

Whether the argument is coming from a layman or a decorated intellectual, it must receive the same critical analysis as any other. Particularly so when the expert of authority making the argument (or being cited) is talking beyond their typical scope of research.
However, this is not the only thing to watch for.
Some people are experts in fields that others have long since debunked. Topics that were once previously displaced and left behind, have now made a comeback in the 
Free and open marketplace of ideas.

The free and open marketplace of ideas is a handy and useful thing, at least in theory. Everyone speaks, no one is stifled, and the bad ideas are destroyed by the sunlight that is the opposing arguments.
While it works well in
theory, there is an unacknowledged assumption that all participants are equally equipped to account for all aspects of the debate stage.
Though all voices indeed get heard, there will always be a bias towards the crowd pleaser. Your argument is only as strong as it’s best representative.

Like the big personalities of YouTube, many of the most referenced academic voices of such people also live in that space. They have YouTube Channels and are active on social media. Many have monetized their materials VIA YouTube partnerships, Patreon and other ways. Not unlike much of the rest of the most popular white noise of the space.

It’s hard to point a finger because short of being able to read minds, proving motives can be next to impossible. Having said that, however, fame and fortune are still an excellent corrupter of the mind. Though the modern definitions are slightly modified (you no longer need to break into the societal mainstream to achieve fame), the same phenomenon applies. Add in a healthy dose of personal arrogance in combination with being surrounded by primarily yes men for an entire career, and you end up with a formidable challenge of an academic.
This is not to say they don’t ever 
debate or converse with opposing views. They just tend to pick the lowest of hanging fruit of every criticism available, and then gain merit for debunking that.

Frankly, much of the Nu-atheist movement in a nutshell.

It may make for entertaining pablum for devoted followers of these academics, or for the participants in their various communities. But if my cats could have achieved similar results, I am not impressed.

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