Sources and Methods #37: Jim Wilcox

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Jim Wilcox 101:

Jim Wilcox's website

'Philosophical Inclinations'

'Jim Wilcox retires after 43 years'

Show notes:

1:08 – It’s an important part of the existential view of the world. We can either join early on, the ideas that our parents and the culture we’re raised in, all just join into them, and go along with that particular flow, or we can try to find a way to step out of it. Traditional ways have been just going to another culture, to another part of the world, and looking at how other people live.

2:50 – (The existential discovery) For me it was a book that a baseball manager gave me on a baseball trip…. It was Colin Wilson (, who began to layout the existential argument. I hadn’t heard of it. I hadn’t heard of existentialism. And he began laying out the existential argument. And the existential argument has: you have to learn to step outside. If you want to know who you are, if you want to find out what is going to make you go, what’s going to give you the zest that we need in order to go forward, you step outside and examine the world from a different perspective. That will lead you to look inside because you’re no longer being captured by the environment around you. It’d be like Plato’s allegory of the cave, where you’re strapped to a chair, and you have to look at the images on the cave wall, and that’s it, that’s your whole life. And somebody else is producing those images. So you don’t know what other reality there may be. So when you do that, you may have a moment of insight where you can look inside and say ‘what would you like to do.’ And that changed my life from being a full-time Air Force guy to becoming a student.

10:32 – (On cuts to humanities budgets) This is something that undermines your faith in a culture and a society. When it can’t recognize the role of the humanities in a young person’s life. They get a lot of the moral values from their family, yes. But sometimes the family is a little limited on getting the wider range of experiences with other cultures. The humanities always opens up the door. And what it teaches us through its stories, those beautiful works of art, it teaches us empathy. Isn’t this what it’s all about? Sympathy? Connectedness? This is the goal of the humanities.

These works produce order.

12:54 – If we lose the humanities, where are we going to get the empathy? Where is that going to be produced? Religion seems to have been eroded. If we don’t get empathy fully developed at home, then our chances of ever getting it are diminished a great deal. The humanities humanize. If we don’t get it, we go around de-humanizing other people. We see people in terms of monsters. And once we have de-humanized them, you know what human beings are capable of doing to other human beings.

It’s a very difficult era that we’re going through.

15:00 – When you retire, you’ve got to have projects. Something you’re working on.

18:53 – Albert Camus is my favorite philosopher. He stood up with his philosophy as well as his novels. Remember, he won the Noble Prize in Literature. Isn’t this the perfect wedding? Philosophy and Literature?

20:30 – There are no absolutes. I’m just inclined.

21:00 – There are no absolute truths. There are truths that we create ourselves out of our experiences and what we’ve learned. And we live by that truth. But that truth is never permanent. It’s always on the very verge of changing, because more evidence may come in. Something else may show up on your doorstep.

21:45 – (if you cling to absolutes) I think that leads to an intellectual and existential death. Because you’re not going anywhere. You’re not paying attention to the world you’re living in. Because that’s what existentialism requires of you. Because the world is always changing, so something may show up that will produce change.

23:51 – Many people resist change. They resist changing their thinking because they think they have the truth. But existentialism argues that truth is a fluid thing. It’s like a scientist. Some new data may show up and we may have to change our assumptions.

27:11 – I think we need to separate pleasure and happiness. It isn’t that we should diminish pleasure. It’s that we should put it in a different context. Epicurus was right about the pleasure principle. The question is how to get to the pleasure side instead of the pain side. If we’re trapped in a materialistic world, we might see money as the pleasure principle, or buying something. My argument is that you want to take your pleasure in the humanities. If people haven’t been trained in the humanities, this is hard for them to do. Our culture has become very materialistic. This is the difficulty. My solution isn’t a great one.

34:27 – The existential way of approaching death is simple: you just keep living. Just the way you have.

Book Recommendation:

The Plague, by Albert Camus. That is the book that defines the world that we live in. It’s a perfect book.

Sources and Methods #36: Thomas Nichols

Thomas Nichols 101:

Nichols' website

Nichols on Twitter

Nichols on Facebook


Show notes:

4:30 - It’s an ironic paradox - there’s more information in the world than there’s ever been, but people are less informed.

 4:46 - The hallmarks of expertise are not just the traditional markers that people often think of and they often reject by the way. When you say ‘expert’ people think ‘someone with credentials’ and then you get into all kinds of arguments about whether credentials really matter, whether smart people don’t need them, whether there are dumb people who have degrees on the wall, that’s just part of it.

I argue in the book that expertise is a complex of things: credentials, experience, longevity in the field, peer-review or affirmation by other people (and I don’t just mean academically). If you’re a master electrician, that’s determined by other electricians who decide to bestow that on you after examining you and watching you. As well as talent. It’s those things taken together that makes an expert, which is really more of an art rather a science. It’s the weighted outcome of all of those things together.

7:04 - We’ve had Know Nothing parties in the past. But what’s different about this time is how much it’s driven by narcissism. In previous eras I think you’d find some of this rift was between town and gown, educated and less educated, knowers and lay people - this was driven by class differences, regional differences. What’s striking to me now is it seems to be spread across classes, regions, genders, races, and at the root of it all is this notion that “I’m smart.” I’m smart enough to know that I’m smarter than my doctor.

And this is different than previous eras in American history.

 10:32 - [Students] think of libraries as book warehouses. They don’t think of them as institutions full of professionals there to help them. And what they really don’t understand is that the books that are in a library are there because people who understand books and publishing have made a decision about what books should and should not be there. Whereas younger folks would argue that gatekeepers are just there to get in your way, they represent the establishment, they are part of the ‘publishing-knowledge-complex’ or something and that going on the Internet is a more liberating and freeing thing. That’s like saying that instead of getting your medications from a pharmacy, with a professional pharmacist, you should just walk down the street and talk to any unlicensed herbalist who happens to be sitting around.

 Reference librarians in particular are my heroes.

 17:09 - We’re going to get a very steep pyramid of knowledge. I think we’re seeing it already. We’ll get a small number of people at the top of the information heap who know how things work and how to make things work. And they will be disproportionately rewarded for it because those skills are rare. Beneath that are people are people who haven’t taken the time to figure out how things work, whether it’s technology or diplomacy or public policy or how a road gets paved… the more people who opt out of that, the more and more rewarded a small elite will be for knowing that stuff. And I think that’s already happening, and it leads to a great deal of resentment between laypeople and experts who then become well rewarded elites.

 I tell people that this is not happening because elitists are keeping you down. It’s happening by default. When people say ‘it’s too complicated’ well the people who are involved, who take the time to learn these things, are well rewarded and compensated socially and materially for knowing things.

 19:29 - When I teach classes on the Cold War, I always make my students watch a movie from about 40 years ago called Three Days of the Condor. And an intelligence spook says, “why do we have so much power” and the answer is “because when things go wrong, people are not going to want us to ask their permission. There’s just going to want us to get it for them.” I always found that a really chilling kind of expression of that kind of technocracy. And in the end, for all the complaining about elites and experts, people will expect, that when they turn on their tap, clean water comes out. That when they want to fill up their cars, gasoline comes out. That the Internet works. That the mail gets delivered. That packages can be sent.

 This notion that ‘we’re just going to tear it all down and who needs elites’ - people rely on all this stuff every day. And I worry about experts simply turning to each other and saying ‘probably better not to ask anymore, probably better not to engage the public anymore, let’s just do the things we know need to be done.’ I think that’s far more of a danger, because I think we’re already in that situation, than rule by the mob because populism isn’t sustainable. It tends to be a temper tantrum that comes and goes as we’ve seen in American history. There are no really successful, sustained populist movements. While populism is good for venting anger, it’s really bad for the mail. I worry about both of those outcomes, because both are the separation of experts from lay people, where they simply stop talking to each other about how to create good public policy.

 22:26 - This is why I argue at the end of the book for the need for experts to re-engage the public. Because it’s not fun. It’s not fun to engage with the public because you can’t tell them what they want to hear.

 Dr. Nichols article: “The Death of Expertise” in the Federalist.

 26:58 (On how to work on expertise daily) - Read a newspaper. A reputable national newspaper. And just read it. Start there. I think if people would go back to doing that, it would make us a different country. Find a source you disagree with and read that. Regularly read one newspaper or journal that you don’t agree with.

 31:29 - People no longer have the patience to read a newspaper or to read a book. They want it digested, into searchable chunks. I think that’s killing people’s ability to think.

 32:25 - Experts need to shout back at the mob. Experts need to stake that ground out again. Instead of constantly kowtowing to this populist notion that ‘we all have an opinion’ and ‘we should all be taken seriously’ I think experts need to reassert their expertise. And again, this is not going to be pleasant. This is not going to be fun.

 Experts and academics also need to be better at policing each other about the kind of work we’re doing.

 Everybody’s opinion is not equal.

 41:07 (On Getting Onto Jeopardy): You can’t really study for it. The people that went to the jeopardy test with atlases and encyclopedias, almost all of them failed. The trick to jeopardy is understanding that 90% of the time the answer to the question is buried right there in the clue. And the other is that no matter how good you are, if you can’t master that little buzzer…

 The idea that you need to be smart and study and pore over maps, those people rarely do well on Jeopardy. If people want to know what the experience is like, watch it at home while you’re standing up. A friend of mine give me that advice to prepare.

 Remember, one of the great players, was Frank Spangenberg, a NYC Transit Cop. Being an expert on jeopardy is no help.

 Book Recommendation:

I re-read The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis every year.