michael_shermer's picture
Publisher, Skeptic magazine; Monthly Columnist, Scientific American; Presidential Fellow, Chapman University; Author, Heavens on Earth

In the 1980s I was a competitive bicycle racer, competing five times in the 3,000-mile nonstop transcontinental Race Across America, an event thatOutside magazine called "the world's toughest sporting event." I felt that the playing field was level because in a pure sport such as cycling (this was before the days of sophisticated doping programs) it doesn't matter what your last name is, what schools you attended, how much money your parents have, which country clubs you belong to, your politics, religion, or socio-economic status, or any other social conventions. It only matters how fast you can pedal your bike. Full stop. Cycling is as close to a pure meritocracy as there is.

In my intellectual pursuits, however, I never felt that the playing field was level. In academia especially, but in other careers as well (most notably politics and corporate business), your name, money, connections, social standing, religion, and especially which institutions you are affiliated with do seem to matter…a lot. Pure skill and talent, while important, often seem to play second fiddle in the orchestral arrangement of society. The Internet is changing this.

Thanks to the Internet, for the first time in my life I feel that I have a chance to compete on a level playing field. My academic background is embarrassing compared to that of most successful intellectuals. My public high school education was so abysmal that I had to attend to a community college in California for two years before matriculating at the (then) reputationless Pepperdine University. I scraped together a master's degree through the second-tier California State University system, and finally gave up hope for an intellectual life and raced bikes for a decade. By the time I earned a Ph.D. from the distinctly non-elitist Claremont Graduate University, I discovered there were next to no jobs, especially for someone with an intellectual pedigree such as mine. Since teaching as an adjunct professor is no way to make a living (literally), I founded the Skeptics Society andSkeptic magazine just as the Internet was getting legs in the early-1990s.

Starting with no money, no backers, and no affiliation with elite institutions, the Internet made it possible for us to succeed by making knowledge accessible and searchable to me and my editors and writers on a scale never previously available. The intellectual playing field was being leveled and the Internet changed the way I think about the very real possibility of fairness and opportunity in a world that has for too long been rigged to favor the elite.

Who needs brick and mortar libraries when knowledge is available at fingertips' notice? Who needs acceptance into elite universities when the same knowledge is searchable by anyone from anywhere? Who needs access to exclusive clubs when knowledge is no longer the province of just the privileged? We're not all the way there yet, but the Internet is leveling the knowledge playing field by democratizing access to information.

This is real power, and I feel that power as never before.