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January 17, 2014

At the Federalist, a Defense of "Experts" and "Expertise"

I don't imagine this column will be well-received, generally, although his basic point is sound enough.

Before excerpting his piece, I think it's important to know what his claimed area of expertise is. From the quick bio at the end of the article:

Tom Nichols is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and an adjunct at the Harvard Extension School. He claims expertise in a lot of things, but his most recent book is No Use: Nuclear Weapons and U.S. National Security (Penn, 2014).

So his area of expertise is war doctrines and geostrategy, I guess.

Now here is his basic point. But it's a long article, so this excerpt isn't nearly the sum of his argument (or of his cri du coeur, more like):

I am (or at least think I am) an expert. Not on everything, but in a particular area of human knowledge, specifically social science and public policy. When I say something on those subjects, I expect that my opinion holds more weight than that of most other people.

I never thought those were particularly controversial statements. As it turns out, they’re plenty controversial. Today, any assertion of expertise produces an explosion of anger from certain quarters of the American public, who immediately complain that such claims are nothing more than fallacious “appeals to authority,” sure signs of dreadful “elitism,” and an obvious effort to use credentials to stifle the dialogue required by a “real” democracy.

But democracy, as I wrote in an essay about C.S. Lewis and the Snowden affair, denotes a system of government, not an actual state of equality. It means that we enjoy equal rights versus the government, and in relation to each other. Having equal rights does not mean having equal talents, equal abilities, or equal knowledge. It assuredly does not mean that “everyone’s opinion about anything is as good as anyone else’s.” And yet, this is now enshrined as the credo of a fair number of people despite being obvious nonsense.

What’s going on here?

I fear we are witnessing the “death of expertise”: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all. By this, I do not mean the death of actual expertise, the knowledge of specific things that sets some people apart from others in various areas. There will always be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other specialists in various fields. Rather, what I fear has died is any acknowledgement of expertise as anything that should alter our thoughts or change the way we live.

What has died is any acknowledgement of expertise as anything that should alter our thoughts or change the way we live.

This is a very bad thing. Yes, it’s true that experts can make mistakes... [But to] reject the notion of expertise, and to replace it with a sanctimonious insistence that every person has a right to his or her own opinion, is silly.

Worse, it’s dangerous. The death of expertise is a rejection not only of knowledge, but of the ways in which we gain knowledge and learn about things. Fundamentally, it’s a rejection of science and rationality, which are the foundations of Western civilization itself.

Okay. Everything he just said there is true. And I agree that the False Equality of the Know-Nothings -- those who claim that there is literally nothing outside of their own knowledge base worth knowing, and yes, some flirt with this idea or announce it explicitly -- is basically a half-assed defense of ignorance.

However. Here is why people are so quick to dismiss the expertise of an expert:

Because experts themselves do not recognize the limitations of expertise, and need to be reminded of them.

Every field of true academic study has some parts which are more provable -- and proven -- and some parts which are very gray areas, in which "knowledge" largely consists of speculations, theories (which fall in and out of vogue), rules of thumb, and wild-ass guesses.

And here's the thing: Depending on the field of study, we reach that gray area more rapidly than we do in others. The writer uses the example of medical doctors. He would like to analogize his own field to that one. Let me say I reject that analogy. I can't put an exact figure on it, but my rough guess would be that around 70% of medicine can be said, at this point, to be a mature science. The processes are understood, the diagnoses sound, the recommended treatments well-tested and shown to be useful.

But around 30% of medicine is still guesswork, and that 30% includes some Very Very Big Questions that no one has the answers to, including the possibility of extending the human lifespan by arresting the built-in limitation on cells' ability to make good new copies of themselves, or regenerating lost limbs, or curing cancer -- really curing it, not just treating it -- and so on and so forth.

I do not believe that geostrategic war doctrine can be said to be at such a state of maturity. I would imagine the ratio of the Well-Understood to the Not Well Understood is nearly the opposite of what I'd guess it is in medicine -- 30% well understood, 70% guesswork and trial-and-error.

And yet you will rarely hear an expert in a field which is more art than science (or, even more trial-and-error guesswork than actual settled science) confess to such.

No, the defense of expertise is almost always made by recourse to analogy with a practitioner of a field in which most questions are well-settled, be it medical science, or automotive repair, or plumbing, or rocket science.

You rarely hear an expert say, "You wouldn't doubt the word of a psychologist about your neuroses and mental blocks, would you?" Because of course we would do just that.

That's not say the opinion of an expert in a less-mature field like psychology should be dismissed. Even in a field that is more guesswork than proven rule, an expert certainly has thought more about the subject, read more about the subject, and engaged in more trial-and-error practice in the field than a layman. Much, much more.

Nevertheless, while he may have a much stronger foundation for his speculations and guesses than the layman, ultimately the psychologist telling you that you have to confront your Maternal Separation Issues is only making a well-informed guess.

And to suggest otherwise is to deny his own ignorance.

This is what this writer objects to -- that people he talks to, non-experts in the field, will not readily confess to their own ignorance. They will make bold assertions based on little more than gut reaction and swagger.

Fair enough. People ought to be much more cognizant of when they are speaking out of their depth, and much more willing to confess that.

But that goes for experts as well. There are things they know well, nearly as facts. And then there are things they know... well, in their own guts, but they could never prove it, within the field itself or outside of it, because some things (like predicting human behavior or a country's response to a nuclear strike) remain almost entirely within the realm of speculation.

And here's the problem: Most experts have an agenda. They have a point of view. They have particular beliefs not just about the technical areas of expertise -- how to do something -- but about the broader, and much less technical, questions of What should we do?

And how could they not? They entered the field because it greatly interested them. Of course they have particular ideas of What We Ought To Do About All This. For a lot of them, that's probably why they entered the field in the first place.

Because here is something about humans: They don't find their greatest pleasure in telling you how to do something that you've decided should be done. That role -- of the consultant explaining the technical processes by which you can achieve your goal -- is an important one, but it's not the highest aspiration of almost any human.

No, the greatest pleasure a human being can feel in this realm is not telling someone how to do something that other person has decided to do. The greatest achievement is telling that person What he ought to do.

People love being Chiefs. They will tolerate being Indians, but they all long to be Chiefs.

And this is why people too quickly reject "expertise" -- because they frequently sense, correctly, that the expert has moved out of the realm of explaining how to achieve a goal that the citizens of the country have decided upon to the much more fun and egotistically satisfying realm of telling us what we ought to do.

And experts will frequently exploit layman ignorance to Fudge the Data and Hide the Facts in order to advance their personal political goals.

Look at Obamacare. A month ago I was rounding up all the lefty "experts" saying that they all knew that Obamacare would, of course, throw millions off cheaper, better insurance they already had and compel them to purchase pricier, worse insurance. Duh, they said collectively. How else could the numbers work?

Well, we said "Duh" two or three years ago too and we were called liars and ignoramuses for doing so. If they always knew this -- and I think most of them did -- then they deliberately lied to the public about the actual facts in order to compel an outcome they favored.

In order to sell their particular idea of what should be done, they lied about the adverse consequences many (most?) would actually suffer under their preferred regime.

From the IPCC's political/media "summary" of the science of global warming -- they take out all the caveats and skepticism and confessions of known unknowns that appears in the actual scientific report -- to Obamacare to, yes, how much of a "cakewalk" the War in Iraq would turn out to be, "experts" have a rather pronounced tendency to make all assumptions in favor of their preferred speculations and desired outcomes, and a very real track-record of hiding those assumptions from the public they wish to convince to take a gamble on their pet theories.

Laymen know this. Laymen know that "all professions are a conspiracy of the laity."

And laymen also know something else: In a democracy, the common citizen must decided upon the course of the nation, whether the citizenry is right or wrong about it.

The layman resents the never-ending agitation for a "democracy" in which all important decisions are made by a Council of Experts (generally government bureaucrats and academic gadflies with their own very serious bias issues) and then simply announced to the public.

In all these ways, the layman suspects he is being bullied into taking a position he does not favor by the invocation of the word "expert," and not just bullied-- often, he feels like he is being straight-up conned.

I actually do respect knowledge and expertise. And I do think it is a lamentable thing that this nation now hold such things in lesser respect than they once did.

But the self-declared experts must also take some of the blame for this state of affairs.

You only get to lie to someone so many times before he stops listening to you entirely.

And you don't need to be an expert to know that.

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posted by Ace at 03:26 PM

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