There is nothing new about the observation that nerds make terrible politicians. The term itself may be born of the information age — first as a term of abuse, then increasingly as a badge of pride — but thousands of years ago, the philosophers of the ancient world were grappling with a distinction that helps explain why nerdy politicians keep tripping themselves up in the public square. Politics is an art, not a science. It requires techne, not episteme.
Take the current row about self-confessed “data nerd” (see Twitter profile) and Democratic presidential hopeful Michael Bloomberg and his recently unearthed comments about farming. Bloomberg is a poster boy of the digital age. A Harvard Business school alumnus, he made his billions — more than 60 of them — from selling computer software to the financial services industry. That made him the 12th richest person in the world. But for all this lucrative data savvy — or perhaps because of it — Bloomberg has shown himself to be excessively clumsy in his reflections on the degree of difficulty required to grow crops. Speaking to a group of Oxford University students in 2016, soon after Trump became President, Bloomberg reflected on a contrast between the intellectual demand of farming and that of the information age:
“If you think about it, the agrarian society lasted 3,000 years, and we can teach processes. I could teach anybody — even people in this room, no offence intended — to be a farmer. It’s a [process]. You dig a hole, you put a seed in, you put dirt on top, add water, up comes the corn. You could learn that.”
“Now comes the information economy, and the information economy is fundamentally different because it’s built around replacing people with technology, and the skill sets that you have to learn are how to think and analyse. And that is a whole degree level different. You have to have a different skill set. You have to have a lot more gray matter.”
Supporters of Bloomberg have insisted that these remarks have been taken out of context. His opponents, from Trump to Sanders, have used them as evidence that Bloomberg is out of touch with middle America, and with the all-important rural constituency in particular. And there is little doubt these comments have damaged him. But what is going on here is more foundational than mere optics. For what data nerd Michael Bloomberg is revealing in these comments is the tendency of the nerd mentality to reduce certain forms of practice, and the practical intelligence required by them, to pieces of information. It is the subjection of techne by episteme.
To use the philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s 1949 representation of the issue, the distinction here is one between different forms of knowledge; as he put it, the difference between “knowing-that” (roughly speaking, episteme) and “knowing-how” (techne). Here is an illustration of the difference. Imagine I ask you if you know how to swim, and you say “yes, of course”. But when you get into the water, you sink to the bottom and need rescuing. “I thought you said you knew how to swim,” I challenge. “Oh, I do,” comes the reply. “I have read many books on the physics of buoyancy and about the mechanisms of human propulsion through water. I know all there is to know about how to swim.”
In other words, knowing-how is not necessarily reduceable to knowing-that. You can know all the science there is of swimming or bicycling or farming, but be absolutely rubbish at doing it. Conversely you can be Mark Spitz in the water and not know the first thing about the physics of buoyancy. In other words, farming may (and does) contain a wisdom that cannot be boiled down to “you dig a hole, you put a seed in, you put dirt on top, add water, up comes the corn”.
Among those things that Plato identifies as a techne — including weaving, music, cookery, riding a chariot, farming — is that of politics. Politics is a craft as much as it is a science. And those, like Bloomberg, who have been schooled in the information age may have a handle on all of the graphs and data points that are available, but without a sense that politics is an art, and without the knowing-how talent at practising it, the nerdish would-be politician is bound to fail. Take heed, Dominic Cummings.
And they will fail, not least because confusion between knowing-how and knowing-that is extremely funny. And being laughed at is political kryptonite. Why funny? Let me offer another example — and bear with me here.
The American author John Updike is — like both Bloomberg and Trump — golf obsessed. So am I. And like me, Updike must have spent hours poring over detailed instructional literature explaining how best to hold the club, and the detailed mechanics of how the human body might deliver the club face to the ball at exactly the right angle and speed. Irritatingly, I have friends with what we call “natural ability” who don’t have to go through all this nonsense. They just stand up and hit the ball. Mere mortals like me have to break the process down and carefully reconstruct it. And inevitably, something of the ‘natural ability’ bit gets lost in the process.
In 1959, Updike wrote a very weird short story about how to drink a cup of tea in the style of a golf instruction manual. “In seizure, first touch, with feathery lightness, the rim of the saucer with the pad of the index finger of the right hand… A split second — perhaps .07 — later, the first knuckle of the middle, ‘big’ finger, sliding toward of the centre of the saucer’s invisible underside, and the tip of the thumb must coordinate in a prehensile ‘pinching’ motion.” It goes on like this, on and on, for pages. The comedy here is the comedy of trying to reduce knowing-how to various assertions of knowing-that. And, of course, it’s totally ridiculous to try. Laughable.
This is the comedy that brings down the nerds from their political thrones. From Cummings’ science-obsessed reduction of politics to information and statistics, to Bloomberg’s inability to recognise the inherent wisdom in a form of practice such as farming, the nerdish desire to collapse knowing-how to knowing-that will tend to be exposed at moments of philosophical comedy where they reveal themselves to be ridiculous.
And this drives the nerds mad. For despite the fact that the information age has granted data nerds great fortunes and cultural power, when faced with the ballot box, it is knowing how, not knowing that that tends to triumph. From Clinton (Bill, not Hillary), to Trump and Johnson, the information age has given us very un-data-y politicians, those whose political intelligence is located in the gut and not on the spreadsheet. Sure, as Plato himself recognised, techne and episteme have a more complex and mutually supporting role than I have described for the purposes of illustration.
These days, top golfers require both. But in the political realm at least, the Cummings-style knowing-that always finds itself playing a supporting role to the Johnson-style knowing-how. In all those worlds where wisdom can be digitised — finance, computers — the nerds will win. But my prediction is that faced with the rat-like political cunning of Donald Trump — someone who knows how to exploit Bloomberg’s knowing-that ridiculousness — Bloomberg will lose. Just as he would on the golf course.
As it happens, Bloomberg and Trump are golf buddies. And, notwithstanding all the claims that he is a terrible cheater, Trump is nevertheless the better player. And Trump rubs it in. “Mini Mike is a short ball (very) hitter. Tiny club head speed”, he tweeted about Bloomberg’s golf game last week. This is the sort of nastiness that nerds have long been subjected to by the playground bully. Bloomberg may be far richer than Trump, but in the wide open space of a democratic contest, Trump knows how troll Bloomberg. And it will probably work. Because at the ballot box, just as out on the links, knowing-how usually beats knowing-that.