“On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” quipped a canine in Peter Steiner’s famous 1993 New Yorker cartoon. Twenty-seven years later, the crux of the web-savvy dog’s observation remains true. One could even argue that our modern technology of search engines, spreadsheets, and fancy production values has made it so that anyone can seem like an expert.
Perhaps no one exemplifies this better than Joe Rogan, the mixed martial arts commentator and comedian who somehow has the world’s most popular podcast. Rogan rarely researches ahead of his interviews, he often has no idea what guests are saying to him, and he’s a big fan of “alternative health” measures that are about as real as the “alternative facts” once pitched by former Trump official Kellyanne Conway.
While he will occasionally reference his own ignorance, Rogan’s admissions are usually nothing more than perfunctory acknowledgements which are then followed by praising the intellectual acumen of conspiracy radio host Alex Jones, making bigoted and unscientific remarks about trans people or spouting nonsensical conspiracies about 9/11.
As his audience has grown (he claimed to have over 190 million monthly downloads before signing an exclusive deal with Spotify), Rogan has shown little interest in restricting his commentary to subjects on which he actually has knowledge. He has been particularly odious in regards to the COVID-19 pandemic, repeatedly boosting dubious studies claiming various medical cures for the disease and casting doubt on mitigation measures. On Thursday, Rogan went further than ever, advising young listeners that he would not recommend getting a COVID vaccine. He seemed to have no awareness that the point of vaccinations is not just to protect the patient but also to protect the community from the patient.
Rogan’s ignorant remark provoked a social media firestorm but as of this writing, Spotify has yet to make a statement about the controversy or to take any measures to address it.
Unfortunately, Rogan is far from alone in being a successful at convincing millions of people he knows what he’s talking about.
Having the world’s knowledge at our fingertips has made it so that a web query or two can make anyone seem like they’re experts. Unfortunately, seeming is believing far too often. After watching a few minutes of YouTube or glancing at Wikipedia, not only can we delude ourselves into mistaking pseudo-knowledge for the real thing, we can broadcast our “expertise” to anyone who’ll listen.
Alexander Pope’s warning that “a little learning is a dangerous thing” has never been more true than right now, when humanity has discovered the ability to collect and present an almost unlimited amount of data long before we’ve figured out how to understand it. To be sure, there are benefits of outsiders sharing their perspective. No field of study is so completely understood that it cannot benefit from some interdisciplinary questioning. But when exploring unfamiliar territory, amateurs must observe not just basic epistemic hygiene, they must also avoid making confident assertions about topics to which they’ve just recently turned their attention, especially without running them by genuine experts.
But in our for-profit media system in which confident conclusions reached as rapidly as possible are the coin of the realm, the careful plodding of academia or the preliminary conclusions of science are mere inconveniences, especially for the blathering class—a new genre of media commentators whose primary ability seems to be a willingness to keep talking about just about anything.
It’s an unfortunate human tendency to take advice from someone with a confident tone of speaking, regardless of their actual knowledge. But that tendency is made worse by the rise of infotainment fandoms, the “news” equivalent of the legions of obsessives who spend hours a day thinking about “Star Wars,” super heroes, and other fictional characters.
That’s not the sort of thing I’m interested in doing but at the very least, this type of hobby can’t be all that destructive since its objects are fictional. It’s much worse to become a super-fan of someone who actually exists. We’re all finite beings, all of our knowledge is incomplete. Trying to get super-fans of internet pundits to realize this is an exercise in futility, however. Having somehow convinced themselves of a blatherer’s credibility, they are as implacable to evidence to the contrary as the most hardened QAnon believer. Devotees of Jordan Peterson, Alex Jones, Gwyneth Paltrow or Ben Shapiro all have one thing in common—they think their great hero knows everything, even when his/her predictions and statements prove to be false.
Iwould be lying if I claimed to know the one magic trick to solving all this. But there a few things that can be done. The first is that Spotify has to make Rogan retract his dangerous recommendation to impressionable young fans. Activist groups like Sleeping Giants and Media Matters have shown that sufficient pressure on companies can lead to results.
In the longer term, it’s vital that schools and universities introduce mandatory critical thinking classes into their curricula. In addition to teaching students the facts and skills they’ll need for future careers, they must also impart the ability to acquire knowledge outside the classroom. The most important thing to learn in life is that you don’t know what you’re talking about.
Take my word for it.