The Fallacy of Experts

diplomaI have long maintained that the defining characteristic of progressive ideology is a sort of dualistic vision of the human race. There are two kinds of people in the world, thinks the progressive, those who are smart and those who are dumb; it is the duty of the smart to look after the dumb, who after all cannot be trusted to look after themselves.

It is this mentality that leads to a slavish, at times fanatical devotion to authority and the opinions of so-called “experts.” We see it over and over again; in the climate change debate, we are told to shut up and do as the “97 percent” of scientists say we should, simply because they are scientists and must know better. We are robbed of choices in what to eat, what to drive, and how to school our children because if left to our own devices, we might make the wrong choice, and we couldn’t have that, now could we?

This mentality also underlies the progressive vision of socialism and central planning. They reason that if we can just find a group of people smart enough, they could run the economy and everything else in such a way as to create a perfect utopia. When these men fail, as they always do, the blame is always on the feeble intellects who held them back, or in the case of pure autocracy, it may occasionally be admitted that the guy in charge just wasn’t quite smart enough. But we’ll do better next time.

Rare is the commentator who is honest enough to just come out and say what the entire political left is thinking; the preferred discourse is usually carefully crafted to nudge the less intelligent in the right direction gently enough that they barely realize it. But one man, Harry Collins of Cardiff University, was recently brave enough to take to his keyboard and assert, with a sigh of frustration, that we should never question the opinions of experts, and should accept our mental inferiority with grace and dignity. In fact, he wrote a whole book on the subject.

It is easy enough to score points by pointing out the silly and uninformed positions of people like Jenny McCarthy and the anti-vaccine crowd. It is certainly true that a lot of people believe things that are simply not so. But the major error arguments like this one make is in assuming that there is some qualitative difference between a scientist and a non-scientist, an expert and a non-expert, like they are different species of animal.

What makes a scientist a scientist? A doctoral student has the same amount of knowledge on the day before graduation as on the day after. The diploma he receives, along with his title have no bearing on the validity of his observations. If someone had undertaken the same amount of reading and analysis outside of a university setting, say, in his own bedroom, he would have the same amount of knowledge as well. So it is neither formal training, nor certification that really has any influence on whether we should listen to anyone’s opinion or not. An expert is merely someone who has acquired a substantial body of knowledge about a particular subject, regardless of the context of such knowledge gathering. There is no hard and fast line separating an expert and a non-expert.

There are plenty of extremely learned and credentialed scientists who have been wrong. There are plenty of scientific consensuses that have been wrong. If people hadn’t questioned them, we would remain in a greater state of ignorance than we are now.

Doubtless, Collins would answer that it is for the scientific community to overturn these errors, not for amateurs to question them, but sometimes it takes public opinion to motivate further research in an area scientists may consider settled. In a society where the opinions of non-scientists are discounted as meaningless, this kind of useful public pressure becomes impossible.

Likewise, some great discoveries have been made by intelligent and dedicated amateurs, and we do not do ourselves any favors by dismissing opinions because of their source. They should be evaluated on their own merits. To do otherwise is to commit the ad hominem fallacy, so prevalent in the popular discourse.

All in all the culture of scientists-as-priests is dangerous, and , dare I say it, unscientific.

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One Response to “The Fallacy of Experts”

  1. Jason says:

    There's smart and dumb on both sides. The importance is the debate which can be very difficult under the current political environment.

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