Alexander Riley is a professor of sociology at Bucknell University. Find Professor Riley on Twitter @Que_Sais_Je_99.
There is still much to learn about COVID-19. In the past two months we have been greatly informed already about one thing: the stunning unreliability of pronouncements made with utter conviction by our intellectual class, much of which has frequently spoken of the crisis as captives to ideology, driven by self-serving duplicity and an utter disdain for the ideal of selfless commitment to truth with which they cynically clothe themselves before the public.
The promise of the modern, scientifically and technically proficient intellectual class when it emerged in the context of heated cultural and political debates in the late 19th century in Western Europe was great. By the mid-20th century, the intellectual classes had grown substantially larger and more diverse, and they had emerged as something more than mere advisers to political decision-makers. Through mass media and the educational institutions, they now had the ability to directly alter the contours of the culture. The American sociologist Alvin Gouldner, in his influential book, The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class, argued that literary intellectuals, technical intelligentsia, and their popularizers and cultural allies in the mass media—his ‘New Class’—offered a possible advance in the organization of society and political decision-making. He suggested that this class might be uniquely capable of objectively and rationally taking on social problems and guiding societies toward more effective functioning. This was due to their scientific expertise and their commitment to a cultural practice Gouldner called ‘CCD,’ or careful and critical discourse.
Alas, the performance of the New Class during the COVID-19 crisis has not provided much support for Gouldner’s thesis. They have repeatedly intoned that expertise is the defining characteristic of those to whom we should listen. Yet it has been too patently obvious that their claims about expertise are misleading, and occasionally straightforwardly deceitful. They have selectively presented the opinions of some experts as undisputed and deliberately ignored or miscategorized conflicting expert opinions. They have also taken a consistently alarmist position on the present reality and the future trajectory of the virus. When pediatric surgery fellow Cornelia Griggs wrote a New York Times op-ed provocatively titled “The Sky Is Falling,” she was expressing a widespread view in the New Class. The day after her op-ed, another Times writer, Nicholas Kristoff purported to explore, as his title put it, “The Best-Case Outcome for the Coronavirus, and the Worst.” His emphasis was heavily on the latter. Kristof relied heavily on a British epidemiologist he tagged as “one of the best disease modelers in the world.” This expert’s prediction was that even if this was not “The Big One,” that catastrophe was “approaching.” The lowest estimate he gave for U.S. mortalities was over a million. “When that’s a best-case scenario,” Kristoff mused, “it’s difficult to feel optimistic.”
This view was widely championed in all corners of the New Class, from the humanists and journalists who could not be expected to know much of the epidemiological science to those in technical fields who could. A telling example here is the celebrated geneticist and public intellectual Spencer Wells, who initially spoke about COVID-19 on his podcast in measured terms only to convert in quick fashion to the alarmist narrative. His Twitter account now predicts a catastrophe so extreme in the U.S. that it might lead him to abandon his own country in the way one eventually turns away from an irredeemable drug addict because “you eventually have to stop investing the emotional energy.” As is typically the case, Wells’ alarmism on COVID-19 is heavily spiced with vicious hatred of the president, whom he refers to as “monkey man.”
The alarmism is scarcely justified by the facts. The epidemiological data suggest nothing so much as the wisdom of a skeptical uncertainty and intellectual humility regarding the future trajectory of the virus and its effects on the country and the world. Why then is the New Class so nearly monolithically convinced that alarmist catastrophism is the only reading of the situation? Gouldner’s description of the CCD and of the social condition of the New Class offers an answer to those knowledgeable about human nature. The CCD is premised on the idea that reasoned debate and consideration of evidence alone decide truth, but the real activity of the New Class is mired in their own self-interested effort to increase their own social and political power. In too many cases, when New Class members make calls to the public to listen to the experts, what they are really doing is telling you which group or individual among those competing for dominance aligns most fully with their own pre-existing cultural and political beliefs.
Those pre-existing beliefs are remarkably monolithic. The kind of people who spend long years in institutions of education tend to be financially well-off and culturally secular and liberal. In any conflict among experts over some important issue, say, the likely long-term consequences of a prolonged lockdown during a pandemic, it will not be a difficult matter to find experts who are more skewed toward progressive values than others. And indeed, the overall cultural tilt of the New Class to the left means expert positions that are not overtly consonant with such values will be much rarer than those that are.
The more one learns about the impact of COVID-19 here and abroad, the more one becomes aware of just how little we know with certainty at this point, and how much we need to know that we do not. But this is not the New Class’ cultural attitude. It knows, and it knows that it knows, and it knows, especially, that benighted others do not know, and so they must be commanded by those who do.
The New Class expresses constant dismay that we are in a world in which their claims to expertise are increasingly viewed with skepticism. But this is precisely the world they have made, through their deep partisanship, their contempt for those outside their ranks, and their failure to accept the limitations of their own claims to truth.