Sep 22 2017

In Defense of Elitism

ID-OnlyBiologyClassOne thing I really like about sports is that it is the ultimate meritocracy. You are judged on your skills, talents, and ultimately your performance. Professional players are evaluated by the numbers, and traded accordingly. Their salaries are a direct reflection of their value to their team.

All this has even been reduced to a science, sabermetrics, which is praised for its cold calculating approach to exactly how much each player is worth to their team. I never hear complaints about this in professional sports. I only hear comments about how one’s favorite team is doing, and the performance of various players. You can even play “fantasy football” or other sports where you get to pick your own players based on their statistics.

This approach to professional sports is the ultimate in elitism. They even refer shamelessly to “elite players” without anyone batting an eye. There is no serious criticism of the NFL for unfairly discriminating against smaller players, or for the undemocratic way in which players are recruited. The hard work that leads to elite performance is also recognized and praised.

The same is true in other spheres of life as well, such as celebrity. I will not praise celebrity culture, but it is a simple fact that celebrities are generally judged on talent, skills, performance, and persona. Critics and fans are ruthless. This is true of actors, artists, and musicians. In Hollywood, elitism is institutionalized. There are arcane rules and negotiations about the order in which credits appear on the screen, based on the perceived elite status of the actor.

No one seriously thinks that amateur football players should be admitted to the NFL (they would be crushed), or that big budget movies should star acting hacks in order to be egalitarian (they would be eviscerated).

Why is it, then, that in intellectual spheres elitism is criticized and shunned? A comparable amount of talent and training may be necessary to a respected professor or scientist, and yet many people think their opinions are just as valuable with respect to their specific ares of expertise.

Interestingly, the more physical and immediate the outcome, the more elitism is tolerated. Compare surgery to medicine. The skill and talent of the surgeon is unquestionably recognized, and no one sane would allow a self-trained and uncredentialed “surgeon” to perform major surgery on them. But I have news for you – many areas of medicine are just as hard and take as many years of training. They may not require the technical skill, but clinical decision-making and the fund of knowledge needed to back it up take years to develop.

It makes no more sense to think that someone should be allowed to practice medicine without formal education or proper certification, than to think that someone should be allowed to operate without the same, or play major league basketball without any experience.

Similarly, many people feel entitled to have their own opinions about complex scientific topics based on a superficial understanding only. Criticizing such behavior is then decried as “elitism.”

The cry of “elitism” has become a major component of anti-intellectualism, denying the value and legitimacy of intellectual pursuits. Everyone might be entitled to their own opinion, but that does not make all opinions are of equal value. Some opinions are more factually based, thoughtful, and logically sound than others. Some opinions have been put through the meat-grinder of peer-review, open discussion, and close evaluation. These should not be put on the same level as the random musings of an uninformed mind.

You don’t have to look far in our culture to see where rampant anti-intellectualism has gotten us. Perhaps a first step to improving the situation is to stop selectively demonizing intellectual elitism. We praise elite athletes, give our money and adulation to elite performers and artists, and trust in those with elite technical skills. We should also recognize the value of elite intellectual talent and skills.

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