In January 1980 Isaac Asimov, writer of ‘hard science fiction’, professor of bio-chemistry and vice-president of Mensa International, penned a column for Newsweek magazine in which he addressed a prevailing ‘cult of ignorance’ in America. ‘The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life,’ he wrote, ‘nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge”.’ Thirty-six years later, what Asimov attacked as a false notion was accepted as a fact of life by Michael Gove when he declared during the referendum campaign, ‘I think people in this country have had enough of experts,’ a phrase which may yet come to define the British public’s historic decision to exit the EU.
The redundancy of expertise — or the democratisation of personal opinion, if you prefer — is one of the subjects discussed by the journalist Tom Vanderbilt in You May Also Like. Vanderbilt’s first book, Traffic, was a smart, fast-moving tour of the psychology of driving, praised by fellow travellers such as Malcolm Gladwell and Mary Roach. Here, he addresses questions of ‘why we like the things we like, why we hate the things we hate, and what our preferences reveal about us’. This is of pressing concern, he argues, because of the way, in an era of social media, ‘thumbs up’ and ‘likes’, our taste in everything from books to restaurants to medical treatments increasingly defines who we are, how we present ourselves to the world and what we can be sold by others. (The very funny ‘MeowMeowBeenz’ app episode of Dan Harmon’s cult TV series Community deals with this same topic, incidentally, scoring a maximum five MeowMeowBeenz from this user.)
Vanderbilt is a cultural omnivore.