On Experts

A friend shared an article with me on how contemporary culture is leading to a devaluation of experts (http://thefederalist.com/2014/01/17/the-death-of-expertise/). It’s a good article, and I think it makes some good points, but I had a few thoughts to share on it.

It’s true that experts should know more about their subject than the average person. Depending on the subject, though, that knowledge might be highly subjective or controversial. Even experts are still human, and bring their own biases into a discussion. While more technical subjects tend to be more cut-and-dry, there are still opposing camps when it comes to philosophy and approach. This leads to a pretty basic issue with relying on experts.

The problem is that experts can disagree on things. In such a case, they can’t both be correct, so appealing to the knowledge and wisdom of experts doesn’t necessarily get you closer to a solution. Thomas Sowell and Paul Krugman, for example, disagree on economics. They are both experts. They are both more likely to be right than I am on such matters, but they can’t both be right when they disagree. In fact, they might both be wrong, but other viewpoints might be excluded from the debate for any number of reasons.

If A and B are opposing points supported by experts, and someone comes along with C, they might be excluded for not being an expert even if they’re right. Even if they are an expert, they might lose some status for suggesting C if both A and B are the widely accepted viewpoints, regardless of which of the three is correct. C might not be a very big camp of opinion, or it might be based on new information that hasn’t been involved in previous discussions. By the time C emerges as a position, people involved in the A vs B debate may already be committed through spending of finances and effort. As humans, their egos may be committed to remaining in camp A or B, entire careers may depend on their stance on this issue. And this is all aside from what is actually true, assuming of course that C is the correct position. There might not be enough information to say whether A or B or C is correct, and it could even be that there isn’t a correct answer. Maybe A, B, and C are all just perspectives or opinions, and there’s no factual “correct” answer to the situation.

I guess what I’m saying is that science is not a democracy. Facts are facts regardless of layman or expert opinion. Experts are likely to have a better understanding of the situation and may be quite a bit more likely to come to the correct position based on fact, but as humans we’re all fallible and we might all be wrong until something proves to us that what we thought was true isn’t true. Science is a great system, and it can lead us to some amazing discoveries and move humanity forward. At times, though it seems things would go much more smoothly without humans involved.

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