Rely on experts?

None of us knows everything. Apparently, it used to be the case that one person could master all the knowledge in their day, but since then, we’ve got so much specialised knowledge that to become an expert in even one field takes a great effort. It follows from this that we’re dependent on experts — even they might not be right, but what they think about their own subject is probably the best information we’ve got. Individuals not knowledgeable about a field may think they can just figure it out by “common sense” or something, but very often people trust what experts and especially scientists say much more. In most contexts, I agree that this is a good idea. Things have a way of turning out to be differently than they seem when you take a better look, and experts are the ones who have looked at them closely.

So, it’s reasonable to look to find out what the experts say when trying to find out the truth about a matter. Science and academia are here to give us answers, and we should take advantage of that. Right?

Yes. I do think so. However, things are not so simple. The sad truth is that you practically have to be an expert to even know what the experts are really saying. There are fake expert statements everywhere — sensational headlines totally distorting the original content of a study; random myths that are assumed to be from reliable sources but really are not; statements by people who are being called experts with no justification; the views of single genuine experts that just happen to disagree with practically everyone else in the field but that are being represented as the most weighty expert opinion; statements by experts in a different field who don’t actually know the field they’re commenting on but falsely think they can just reduce it to their own; studies distorted by ulterior motives; all kinds of lies and distortions by people who are motivated to defend a particular point of view regardless of the real evidence.

Basically, if your intent is to find out what experts are saying about a topic (and this is even assuming experts are exactly right about what they’re really saying), then who knows what the heck you’re really going to end up believing. Probably something confirming your existing views if you already have some, regardless of what the experts would really say about them.

This is, of course, just one aspect of information cancer, which I’ve written about at length before. It’s just a particular facet that I think needs highlighting in its own right: that getting the wrong impression of what the experts are saying is also very easy.

The kind of “expertise” needed to figure out what’s really being said by experts presumably requires active and critical thinking, media literacy, basic understanding of the principles of science and academic inquiry, and basic knowledge of different fields. It’s far-fetched to think that everyone could be trained in such things, but if there’s any kind of expertise that ideally everyone should have, it’s this. If they did, we might finally be able to leave the rest to the experts.

Having said all that, I want to backtrack a little: It’s not always that hard. At least if you’ve already got basic scientific literacy, sometimes spotting false claims can be as simple as seeing the claim, finding it unlikely based on what you know, then checking it in some place like and seeing that it was false. Sometimes the falsehoods are more insidious than that, but not always. Perhaps the most important and simple lesson of the observation I make here is that you should acquire that basic scientific literacy in the first place.

Other than that, I can only give the advice I’ve given before: Be careful and don’t be too sure, even if it seemed your view was backed by the experts.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s