In classical Athens, public life became dominated by clever and smart-sounding sophists. These mellifluous “really wise guys” made money and gained influence by their rhetorical boasts of having “proved” the most amazing “thinkery” that belied common sense.
We are living in a new age of sophism — but without a modern Socrates to remind the public just how silly our highly credentialed and privileged new rhetoricians can be.
Take California, which is struggling with a near-record wet and snowy winter. Flooding spreads in the lowlands; snow piles up in the Sierras.
In February 2009, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize–winning physicist, pontificated without evidence that California farms would dry up and blow away, because 90 percent of the annual Sierra snowpack would disappear. Yet long-term studies of the central Sierra snowpack show average snow levels unchanged over the last 90 years. Many California farms are drying up — but from government’s, not nature’s, irrigation cutoffs.
England is freezing and snowy. But that’s odd, since global-warming experts assured us that the end of English snow was on the horizon. Australia is now flooding — despite predictions that impending new droughts meant it could not sustain its present population. The New York Times just published an op-ed assuring the public that the current record cold and snow is proof of global warming. In theory, they could be, but one wonders: What, then, would record winter heat and drought prove?
In response to these unexpected symptoms of blizzards and deluges, climate physicians offer changing diagnoses. “Climate change” has superseded “global warming.” After these radically cold winters, the next replacement appears to be “climate chaos.” Yet if next December is neither too hot nor too cold, expect to hear about the doldrum dangers of “climate calm.”
In 2009, brilliant economists in the Obama administration — Peter Orszag, Larry Summers, and Christina Romer — assured us that record trillion-plus budget defects were critical to prevent stalled growth and 10 percent unemployment. For nearly two years we have experienced both, but now with an additional $3 trillion in national debt. All three have quietly returned to either academia or Wall Street.
There is also a new generation of young sophistic bloggers who offer their wisdom from the New York–Washington corridor. They usually have degrees from one or more of America’s elite colleges and navigate an upscale urban landscape. One, the Washington Post’s 26-year-old Ezra Klein, recently scoffed on MSNBC that a bothersome U.S. Constitution was “written more than 100 years ago” and has “no binding power on anything.”
One constant here is equating wisdom with a certificate of graduation from a prestigious school. If, in the fashion of the sophist Protagoras, someone writes that record cold proves record heat, or that record borrowing and printing of money will create jobs and sustained economic growth, or that a 223-year-old Constitution is 100 years old and largely irrelevant, then credibility can be claimed only in the title or the credentials — but not the logic — of the writer.
America is huge and diverse, but the world of our credentialed experts is quite small, warped, and monotonous — circumscribed largely by the prestigious university and an office in the incestuous Washington–New York corridor. There are plenty of prizes, honors, and degrees among our policy-setters and experts, but very little experience in running a business in Oklahoma, raising a large family in Kansas, or working on an assembly line in Michigan, a military base in Texas, a boat in Alaska, or a ranch in Idaho.
In classical sophistic fashion, rhetoric is never far from personal profit. Multimillionaire Al Gore convinced the governments of the Western world that they were facing a global-warming Armageddon, and then hired out his services to address the hysteria that he had helped create.
How many climate doomsayers have well-funded research positions predicated on grants and subsidies that depend on convincing the public and government of impending disasters that the researchers then can be hired to monitor and address? Are there no green antitrust laws? In contrast, how many of our climate theorists run irrigated farms and energy-intensive businesses, which are at the mercy of new regulations that emanate from distant theorizing?
The public might have better believed the deficit nostrums of former budget director Peter Orszag had he not retired after less than two years on the job to position himself for a multimillion-dollar billet at Citigroup — itself a recent recipient of some $25 billion in government bailout funds.
Are we to wonder why an angry grassroots Tea Party spread — or why it was instantly derided by our experts and technocrats as ill-informed or worse?
—Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.© 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.