by John Ellis
Hamartia: a fatal flaw leading to the downfall of a tragic hero or heroine
One of the more dangerous and destructively consequential furies released from the Enlightenment’s Pandora’s Box is the democratization of knowledge. By democratization of knowledge, for the purpose of this article, I mean the hubris of believing that all opinions are equally valid and that everyone has the right to have their voice heard and considered. Add in the almost unfettered access to information combined with the multiple platforms from which we can shout our opinions, beliefs, and perspectives about that information, we live in a milieu characterized by clanging noise; clanging noise that’s increasingly resounding within echo chambers, mind you, and that is causing real harm. Many of us believe that we are experts in a variety of fields and disciplines, and that our opinions and belief rise to the level of epistemological playing partners with the actual experts. This hubris may very well be our society’s hamartia.
It’s not that warnings haven’t been sounded and that the consequences haven’t begun to reveal themselves. When it comes to epistemology, though, an epistemology controlled, I might add, by the prevailing spirit of self-authenticating individualism, those warnings toll for others and not for me, we so often believe; I have a right to be heard and considered, no matter the topic up for consideration. Except, you do not and neither do I.
Published posthumously and intended as a complimentary reading alongside Some Thoughts Concerning Education, not to mention underscoring some of his specific arguments in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke warns in Of the Conduct of Understanding that experts in one field tend to over evaluate their expertise in other fields. Setting aside Locke’s late 17th and very early 18th centuries context of an anti-egalitarian perspective on equality – equality of intellect and capabilities limited to certain demographics – his point still resonates four centuries later. His warning is terse and sounds a discordant note to our ears shaped by the therapeutic age of self-authenticating individualism. Locke cautions, “[T]he mistake is, that he that is found reasonable in one thing is concluded to be so in all, and to think or say otherwise is thought an unjust an affront, and so senseless a censure, that nobody ventures to do it. It looks like the degradation of a man below the dignity of his nature.”
Locke intended his short treatise to provide an antidote to his prescience understanding of the epistemological pitfalls accompanying his society’s increased bent towards the disruption of longstanding hierarchies. As information via the printed word became more accessible and education spread further from the nobility than previously experienced, introducing the Western world to the writings of men like Bacon, Descartes, and Locke, the realm of knowledge (epistemology) became the queen of the disciplines. A tyrannical queen that punishes epistemic humility. While Locke played an oversized role in the trajectory of modernity, a role he would be appalled by, to be fair, and a trajectory with which I take serious issue, his warning stands, even if it’s a warning made necessary by his own philosophy.
Not only does Locke’s warning stand, but this past year has also provided clear evidence of how destructive that hubris can be and, frankly, is. This has been amply demonstrated, unfortunately, in conversations regarding the specialized disciplines of infectious diseases – specifically highly contagious viruses that are airborne – and vaccinology.
For example, and I’ve had this conversation with multiple people, whenever I’m asked if I’m going to get the COVID vaccine, my conversation partner’s response to my, “Absolutely!” is often, “I’m not sure if I’m going to get it. It was developed too quickly, after all.” Of late, I’ve begun replying, “Oh. I didn’t know that you have experience in vaccinology. Please tell me the training and experience you’ve had in researching and developing vaccines.”
To date, my conversation partners’ answers have always been a sheepish negative. However, for many of them, their momentary sheepishness is quickly replaced by a staunch doubling-down, a reiteration that the vaccines have, in fact, been developed too quickly and are untrustworthy. To which I push back, “How could you possibly know that?”
Here’s the thing: as intelligent and educated as they are and no matter how accomplished and knowledgeable they are in their respective disciplines, they don’t know what they are talking about when it comes to vaccines. Neither do I. And, no doubt, unless any actual vaccinologists somehow stumble upon this article, neither does anyone reading this. We do not know what we are talking about when it comes to vaccines, full stop. As a justified truth claim, this means that it is epistemological hubris to disagree with the overwhelming consensus of vaccinologists (the experts, after all) and operate as if our opinions/beliefs carry authority that matches their epistemological authority.
Because here’s what I do know. Vaccinology is an incredibly complex and highly specialized field of science that requires much training and experience before one is elevated to the position of being able to rightfully claim that their opinions and beliefs contain authority. I also know that I am incredibly grateful to my Creator that in His providence I live during a time that possesses experts in fields like vaccinology, epidemiology, virology, immunology, etc. to such a degree that allows for a blunting of the traumatic effects that have accompanied global pandemics in the past. Talk about reflecting the Great Physician! So, not only would it be sinful hubris to attempt to elevate my opinions and beliefs concerning vaccines and infectious diseases to the value of the actual experts, but it would also be a glaring demonstration of ungratefulness towards my Creator’s gifts of those experts that He has given to our time and place. However, understanding that the example of the COVID vaccine is fraught with political tension, I want to offer another illustration.
This illustration is for those of us who aren’t engineers, particularly architectural engineers specializing in the planning and construction of skyscrapers. If you are an architectural engineer specializing in the planning and construction of skyscrapers, I trust that this simple and short illustration will resonate with you from your vantage point of expertise and knowledge.
Imagine that you are sitting in a coffee shop – post pandemic, of course. While enjoying your coffee, you overhear the men and women at the table next to you discussing the merits of a specific type of material when constructing skyscrapers on soft clay versus soil with lots of gravel in it. After listening for a bit, you decide to chime in. “Well, I disagree because …”
It doesn’t take a proverbial rocket scientist to realize that whatever propositional statement passes your lips after the “well, I disagree because” should be disregarded by the actual architectural engineers whose conversation you just interrupted. Your opinions and beliefs about the best materials to use when constructing skyscrapers on soft clay instead of soil with lots of gravel carries no authority, especially in conversation with the actual experts, and you do not have the right to have your opinions and/or beliefs heard, much less considered. I’m sure that everyone who works in a cubicle or office in a skyscraper will offer their hearty “amen.”
Thinking through the possible rejoinders, the most likely candidate will be to point out that experts can be wrong. Of course. Absolutely. And, for good measure, well, duh.
But think about it. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, right? If the experts can be wrong, and most people do not believe themselves to be infallible – no doubt, you don’t believe yourself to be infallible regarding the field you’re best at – then it stands to reason that there is an even greater likelihood that you’ll be wrong more often and with greater potential consequences, especially regarding highly specialized, complex fields like architectural engineering and, yes, vaccinology, than the experts.
Obviously, no one can stop you from having an opinion. In that sense, I guess, you have the right to have an opinion about whatever your heart desires. What you don’t have a right to, though, is to have your opinions heard and considered, especially when they contradict the consensus of the experts.
Our culture is plunging towards the cliff of chaos in our worship of self-authenticating individualism and the accompanying democratization of knowledge. Our collective hamartia needs to be collectively repented of before it’s too late.
 To be fair, Locke was far more progressive than most of his peers.
 John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education and Of the Conduct of Understanding ed. Ruth W. Grant and Nathan Tarcov (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996), 178.