The Revolt of the Masses: Confusing Taste and Fact

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Yesterday I quoted a reader about the book The Revolt of the Masses, by Jose Ortega y Gasset, which was published in 1929 but is uncomfortably relevant in the age of climate-change denialism and of Donald Trump.

A reader named Paul, in Texas, objects to the reasoning in a post I cited as a guide to Revolt. This was Ted Gioia’s 2014 essay “The Smartest Book About Our Digital Age Was Published in 1929.”  Paul makes a point I should have seen and stressed:

I object somewhat to Gioia's conflation of feedback concerning taste and feedback concerning facts.

As you note, the digital age seems to have trouble accepting "elite" consensus regarding complex topics such as climate change (and I would add gun control, evolution and tax policy, among many other subjects where the vast majority of scientists, economists, etc., accept certain basic facts that are rejected by large swaths of the public). This is clearly problematic.

Less so, however, are the trends Gioia cites: The reliance on Yelp or Amazon over a professional critic's advice on where to eat or what to buy. These are matters of taste, and in that case, it makes perfect sense for someone to rely on the opinions of those they consider will lead them to an enjoyable experience – which may be the New York Times food critic recommending an excellent place for fine dining, or it may be Yelp reviews leading you to a great greasy dive. If I like trashy horror movies, relying on the LA Times' movie critic is probably not going to help me find my next favorite flick, but perusing the IMDb reviews – or checking my Facebook feed, or asking my brother-in-law – might.

I bring this up because it seems to me Gioia's conflation here is actually part of the broader problem he's lamenting. While on the one hand, many people seem to make the mistake that because their friends and Internet communities can be trusted to give them good advice regarding their shared tastes, those places can be trusted to give them good knowledge regarding facts, Gioia makes the mistake in the opposite direction: Because the populist strains of the Internet so often lead people astray regarding factuality, it cannot be trusted to provide good information regarding personal preferences. In both cases, the problem is a lack of discernment between when my friends or message board buddies can be trusted, and when I need to consult the consensus of experts.


Another note to similar effect:

There is a mismatch in your piece on The Revolt of the Masses that deserves a second look.  

You mention climate change and Trump's (and, to be honest, many national Repubicans') difficulty in coping with facts, but the part of Gioia's piece that you quote is all about opinions - restaurant reviews and comments on Amazon.  

If I'm looking to understand the context of a chef's innovations and how that fits into historical and current culinary movements, then a restaurant reviewer might be the appropriate source.  But I doubt anyone goes to Yelp for that perspective, and I'd much rather get a sampling of opinions of people with unrefined palates like mine as a proxy for how I might like the dinner.  It might be interesting to know why the reviewer liked or did not like a particular restaurant, but that might actually have very little value in predicting how _I_ will like the restaurant.  Similarly, an Atlantic(!) book review is good for some purposes, but for many purposes Amazon reviews (when taken in aggregate) are perfectly adequate.

Facts in general and facts about climate change in particular aren't like this.  If we disagree on whether we liked a restaurant - we will just disagree.  We can disagree on whether climate change is happening, but the climate doesn't care about our opinions and will keep on changing regardless.

The questions that your post raised for me are (1) why don't Ortega y Gasset's masses today make a distinction between the relevance of expert opinion to facts versus opinions (versus considered opinions - i.e. opinions where you really have to understand a situation in order for your opinion to be anything more than bloviating) and (2) did they ever or is the real change he was talking about a move from accepting expert pronouncements on 'everything' (fact/opinion/considered opinion) to accepting expert pronouncements on nothing?

To try to explore these questions, I think I'll pick up a copy of the book and see what an expert has to say!


And just before press time a third note has just come in, directly related to the argument of these previous two:

Your post about masses vs. experts brought two contradictory thoughts to mind.

1) One the one hand, if given a choice between Yelp vs. professional restaurant critic, the masses have a good point.  When given a choice between "big data" and so-called expert opinion, the data is obviously superior. (This assumes the data is good  - there is the problem of fake reviews etc.)

2) One the other hand, when crowd wisdom is NOT based on evidence, but group-think, social norms, traditions, etc., experts who have data, research, and professional consensus behind them are always the winners.  Crowds may ignore the experts or the data, for all sorts of reasons, which leads to persistent wide-spread belief in pseudo-science, religion, climate change denial, and so forth.

So the crucial difference is whether opinions are based on evidence or not.  Evidence trumps crowds, but other things being equal, multiple opinions are better than one.

Why do we trust our own opinions and our local crowd more than is warranted?   I think the answer is that evolution has shaped us for a life lived in small communities where the experience coming from our local environment, cohesion of the tribe, and our standing within that tribe, are paramount for survival.  We have not evolved to think globally and strictly scientifically and rationally.  The following well-known findings from psychology and cognitive science all reflect different aspects of the "masses vs. experts" phenomenon described in your post:

- Overconfidence effect: we think we're better/smarter/competent than we  really are
- Dunning-Kruger effect:  the less competent we actually are, the more overconfident we are
- In-group bias:   we favor people who are more like ourselves (either physically or socially)
- Attribution bias:  we attribute negatives in others to inherent characteristics, but to circumstance when it comes to ourselves or people in our in-group
- Confirmation bias: we tend to not register or discount evidence that contradicts beliefs already held (this is very helpful in disregarding experts making good points that don't agree with our views, or for believing in conspiracy theories)
- Conformity bias:  we change our own judgments (even when based directly on perception) to agree with our group (the famous Asch experiment).

How can we overcome these built-in biases?   An optimist would say that culture (education, positive change in social norms, etc.) can overcome them. A pessimist would say that it will take a long, long time for evolutionary change to catch up with our changing world and nudge these biases in a different direction.