"Hubris and Missionary Zeal"

Something has always bothered me about the psychology behind the OA movement, and a recent article on a related subject finally let me put my finger on one aspect of the psychology I’ve been sensing.

In describing how social media titans have used the euphemism “connecting” in order to portray their surveillance and behavior modification businesses as something redeeming, Jacob Weisberg writes in a recent New York Review of Books that their approach represents:

. . . a species of techno-narcissism, a Silicon Valley affliction born of hubris and missionary zeal. Its unquestioned assumption is that if people around the world use our tools and toys, their lives will be instantly improved by becoming more like ours.

This idea that people would be happier if they were more like those in authority has a long history in human interactions — “let them eat cake” is perhaps the most tone deaf example of it, with a whole host of -isms (racism, classism, and elitism among them) streaming from such arrogance.

In the OA movement, when public access is discussed as the point of it all, there are some who seem to think that users would be better off if they were more like academics — that is, if only everyone could read what we can read, and know what we know, they would be happier and the world would get better. If everyone were more like us (and used the subjunctive appropriately), that would improve the world. Everyone would benefit from experiencing things like we experience them.

The problems with this are many, with smugness and self-congratulation being first and foremost.

Many people don’t want to be academics or researchers or scholars or eggheads. Many people are just fine being who they are, and most of these same people know things academics don’t, such as how to fix a rotten sill in a house or what it takes to manage an opera’s box office or how to clean a pizza oven quickly so the restaurant doesn’t have to shut down. They don’t want to read articles on arcane scientific and scholarly topics employing bewildering jargon and polysyllabic vocabularies. They’re busy doing other things, and happy about it mostly, by the way.

People should be respected for what they can do and who they are. There is a condescension and projection in the attitude of “you should read what we read” that is somewhat disrespectful, as if people who can’t or won’t read the scientific literature are missing out on something that would certainly elevate them. There is no certainty about that. They may be having an even better time coaching a softball team or walking the dog or tending a garden or crushing it running their small company in a really great way. They may make more money doing what they’re doing. They may be having even more fulfilling or nuanced experiences than you.

We benefit from having a lot of people pursuing a lot of different professional and personal passions. It makes the world go ‘round. We even need some people who just work for the paycheck and nothing more. There is nothing wrong with that. To argue that an entire industry has to change so the poor non-academic people can be more like academics smacks at some level of self-satisfaction.

You can even have a society largely supportive of science that itself doesn’t read much basic research. Access to research actually seems to have led to an erosion of trust in researchers, as the forms of research — once visible to the few rather than the many — have been co-opted by charlatans and political opportunists to fog and smudge the truth. The move to financially viable OA has unleashed predatory publishers that have damaged the reputation of the entire endeavor. Instead of sharing science, we’ve educated nefarious people about the form of scientific communication, and they’ve used to their own ends, many of which are anti-science or unethical.

Hubris is defined as “excessive pride or self-confidence.” Missionaries evangelize with the goal of converting their audience to behave just as they do. This element of the OA movement has bothered me for a long time, so having someone like Weisberg put their finger on it, and to see it coming from Silicon Valley, where much of the OA ethos seems to have originated, felt cathartic and right.

Maybe not everyone can or should or wants to spend time reading scientific articles, scholarly treatises, and so forth. What if our audience is truly the 0.1% of the world who cares about this stuff?

Maybe instead of modeling the discredited Silicon Valley culture of condescension, we should pull back and realize that the scientific and scholarly literature is full of jargon, nuance, and not for everyone. If we accept that, then policies become a little more pragmatic and realistic.

We’d just have to drop the hubris and missionary zeal.