Category: Culture

Food Prices, Meat Consumption, and Paternalism

I took part it a Triangle Institute for Security Studies event at NC State last week on the theme of “Energy and Security,” where I briefly discussed my work on food prices and social unrest.

At the end of my talk, I mentioned a few policy options that global policy makers could pursue if they want to keep food prices down: Continue reading

Of Africa — and Writing

With the venerable Soyinka now 78, I wish I could report that his new volume of sweeping reflections is of the same stature as his best work, but sadly it is not. The book is vague, ponderous and awkward. Soyinka never says “house” when he can say “habitation,” “native” when he can say “autochthon,” “dominant” when he can say “hegemonic.” Phrases in quotation marks float free of any source. When he makes broad generalizations and criticisms he sometimes expects the reader to mentally provide specific examples. (Do you remember exactly what President Obama said in Cairo in 2009? I had to look it up.) The book abounds in passages full of 10-dollar words that have to be read two or three times to figure out what they mean. About contentions in Christian theology, for example, he says:

“These all-consuming debates and formal encyclicals are constructed on what we may term a proliferating autogeny within a hermetic realm — what is at the core of arguments need not be true; it is sufficient that the layers upon layers of dialectical constructs fit snugly on top of one another.”

That’s Adam Hochschild discussing Nigerian writer and 1986 Nobel laureate for literature Wole Soyinka‘s new book Of Africa in the New York Times Book Review. Continue reading

Everybody’s an Expert

Columbia University historian Mark Lilla does a short Q&A in this week’s New York Times book review.

[T]here’s another factor, I think, and that is the centrality of economic policy to our politics today, and its inherent complexity. Though wars are complicated things, it’s not hard to develop a defensible position about their legitimacy or illegitimacy. But you need to know a fair amount about finance to make any sense, for example, of the bank collapses and bailouts of 2008-9 and the stimulus that followed. Very few people have that, but in a democracy everyone is supposed to have an opinion about everything. Everyone’s opinion is supposed to matter; you shouldn’t need higher education to chime in. But on economic policy you do. This opens the field to charlatans who demonize educated elites and reassure people that “it’s really all very simple.”

The emphasis is mine.

Though I agree that there certainly are many charlatans who demonize educated elites and have simple (and almost surely mistaken) answers to complex questions, I find that, on matters of social science, many people think they know more than they actually do (because hey, they live in society!) and are prone to dismiss experts as ideological hacks. Continue reading