The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, June 19, 2009

On Experts

One of the most frustrating things that I encounter on a regular basis is the tendency amongst many people to assume that experts in a field are somehow more inclined to be wrong than to be right. We see this routinely in the media and in daily life - people assume that biologists must be wrong about evolution, people are unwilling to accept the assurances of the most qualified doctors and epidemiologists in the world (and the fact that the only "scientific evidence" that the anti-vaxxers have comes from a paper that has been demonstrated to have been written by someone hoping to make money off of it), homosexuals "mus choose" to be homosexual despite the fact that all evidence from psychology, medicine, and anthropology contradicts that position, and so on.

Typical in these beliefs is the idea that "the experts have it wrong" - a trend of belief common throughout American history. And sometimes it's justified, experts do get things wrong, and occasionally the non-experts get it right. However, if one actually gets down to it, the experts, though sometimes getting it wrong, get it right more often than the non-experts do (we tend to hear about the rare exceptions because they are, well, exceptional).

Of course, if you point this out, you tend to get labeled as "elitist" or, less commonly, "someone who just wants to support the status-quo". There is, however, nothing elitist about this. If my car is not functioning, I will take the advice of an auto mechanic long before I'll take the advice of a heart surgeon, because, well, the auto mechanic is likely to know more about cars than the heart surgeon will. Likewise, I am more qualified to speak about archaeology than my friend Liberty is, because I am and archaeologist, while she is finishing a PhD in literature. However, if I start talking literature...well, you might be better off listening to Liberty. It's a matter of what our training and experience is, not how much of that training and experience one has. In the end, if someone actually goes through the effort to make themselves a legitimate expert on a subject, then their opinion is likely to be more trustworthy than that of someone who didn't go through the same degree of work. Also, when one goes through the process of becoming an expert, one has to deal with having their pre-conceived notions about a subject dashed, meaning that they are more likely to be speaking from a position of knowledge than simply trying to justify a prejudice.

And nobody is an expert on everything. As Jairus Durnett puts it at the Almost Entirely Forgotten Blog:

...I learned a little something about experts. Always consider the opinion of someone who is expert in their field and give it weight above the opinions of people who aren't experts in that field. The corollary is that you should not value the opinion of an expert outside of his field anymore than you value anyone else's. I go to the fencing coach to learn fencing. If we talk about Supreme Court nominees, I am interested in his opinion, but not as interested as I am in the opinion of a law professor. If the law professor wants to talk about agriculture, I'm happy to join in the discussion, but I am would rather hear what a farmer has to say. If Jenny McCarthy wants to talk about taking her clothes off for movies and magazines, I would be interested in her insights. If she wants to talk about vaccinating children, I'll listen to Mark Crislip.

1 comment:

The Armchair Skeptic said...

There does seem to have been a surge in trusting non-experts over experts in recent decades. Some has been there for a long time, at least in the US. But it has grown, I think, since the development of nuclear weapons (and the accompanying propaganda) where science got scary and powerful in a very visceral way. The rise of postmodernism hasn't helped, either, with different "truths" being treated as equivalent, and every statement considered culturally derived.

Of course, it doesn't help that experts often come across as elitist and arrogant. And besides, what do I know? I'm no expert.