Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Wrong-headed belief in claimed expertise

with 9 comments

During my journeys in the blogosphere, I am often confronted with a wrong-headed belief in alleged experts on this and that. Gender-studies (and other variations of PC studies) is a particularly strong source of examples; others include homeopathy, parapsychology, and various charlatans. Typical examples include e.g. “X has spent 20 years doing Y and must know what he is talking about—who cares that scientists claim that he is wrong!”, “It is presumptuous of people from without the field to make judgments about the field or its practitioners.” (see an excellent Swedish examplee; I have a longer piece on this in mind, but never seem to get around to writing it), “Those who have not studied gender-science lack the tools to think about issues around gender/sex [men and women, the male role, whatnot].”.

There are at least three major issues involved:

  1. The claimed knowledge is often not what it should be: Too many “experts” do not actually know much about the field. Too many others draw their knowledge from faulty sources, e.g. by learning about the stars from books on astrology rather than astronomy.

  2. Raw knowledge is rarely enough for true expertise: Understanding is also needed—and all too many ostensible experts lack the intelligence too develop a true understanding. Indeed, it is not uncommon that a new-comer with a better mind can spot errors, misunderstandings, whatnot, after having been exposed to the matter for a small fraction of the time. (Also note that an outsider’s perspective can often be valuable even to true experts.)

  3. Similarly, even understanding is not always enough, but can have its value severely limited if the expert lacks the intelligence to actually apply the expertise in a correct manner, draw correct conclusions when confronted with new situations, understand basic reasoning about various results, and so on.

With some over-simplification, it could be said that expertise consists of two components—intelligence and knowledge. The problem then is that the naive correctly conclude that intelligence alone is not enough, but fail to realize that neither is knowledge alone. Further, as said above, the intelligent new-comer can often outdo the unintelligent veteran in at least some areas. This, obviously, is a reason for why those lacking in intelligence tend to go with arguments by authority, while those with more intelligence tend to wish for actual proofs, explanations, and (ad rem) arguments—a true expert would not need to refer to his expertise, but would actually be willing and able to explain why he thinks he is right.

To take two specific example:

  1. The claim that women earn 77 cents on the dollar when compared to men:

    The point is not whether this claim is true or not—but whether it gives the right picture. (As discussed in the linked-to page, it does not.) It does not matter whether there are even one hundred scientific (let alone ideologically motivated “scientific”) investigations showing the uninterpreted numbers to be correct. It does not matter how many people with a degree in gender-studies who claim that this claim gives the right picture. What matters is that simple thinking, combined with some additional facts, shows the claim to be misleading. If the “true believers” fail to do this simple thinking, or reject the result for ideological reasons, then they only discredit themselves—not the thinking.

  2. The claim that homeopathy works:

    Even a layman can soon gather enough knowledge to make some basic observations that are highly troublesome for homeopaths—including that there is no known mechanism by which homeopathy could have a medical effect; that the higher the quality of the study, the lower the measured value of homeopathy; and that there are a number of mechanisms (placebo effect, better “human” treatment of patients, co-incidence, …) by which homeopathy can seem to work, while having no medical value, which make anecdotal evidence and trials with weak methodology near useless.

    The above is not enough to rule out that homeopathy works, but it is enough even for a layman to reject at least some pro-homeopathy arguments, to remain highly skeptical, and to lay the burden of proof solidly on the homeopaths.

    (Of course, those who dig even deeper see even more reason to remain skeptical—to the point that homeopathy almost certainly can be considered nonsense.)

Finally, it pays to bear in mind that even the true experts, the best of the best, with the knowledge, the understanding, and the intelligence, are still only human. They are not infallible gods, they are often wrong when it comes to details or new areas of investigation, and they are, themselves, well aware of this.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 19, 2010 at 2:23 pm

9 Responses

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  1. You cite an article of mine as evidence of that having worked a long time in a field does not mean that you are competent. I claim that it does, provided the activity involves working with and publishing scientific work in the discussed area while those who argue against you have nothing to rest on but common sense. The former are clearly more competent to than the latter because common sense can indeed fool us badly.

    You bring up the field of homeopathy here, which I have also discussed in my blog. The key interest to a sick person is if the treatment works, not if a lay person believes the treatment must be erroneous because it does not make sense. If it works, it works. In case of homepathy there are more than 100 high-quality double-blind randomized studies evaluating this therapy, and most of these favour an effect. Those evaluations and how they should be interpreted are what should guide us, not what your common sense says, and not what your theoretical objections might me.

    Robert Hahn

    December 19, 2010 at 3:17 pm

    • Could you give me some citations to some of these studies, please?
      Apart from this, you should also tell me how many such experiments did NOT show any therapeutical effect, since statistical tests are designed to show up a significant effect with a probability of 5% even if there is in fact none.


      December 21, 2010 at 9:38 pm

      • There appears to be about 200 double-blind randomized studies of the effects of homeopathy of which about 100-120 are of high scientific quality. A meta-analysis was published in the Lancet 1997; 350: 834-43 showing that the majority of these studies favoured a benefit of homeopathy. Taken together, the benefit of homeopathy over placebo was highly statistically significant. However, this result has been discarded by the medical establishment simply because of difficulty to understand how the therapy works. The question to us is – should we believe in science (i.e. the studies, time-independent result) or in logic (the lack of a good explanation, a “time-dependent” and quite context-dependent factor). There is one more meta-analysis, in Lancet 2005, where the authors removed all but 8 studies (dicarded, for unknown reasons, 95% of alla material, although more than 100 was considered to be of good quality) and then arrived at only a 14% benefit of homeopathy over placebo, which was not significant. The first analysis comprised the best 89 studies and showed that homeopathy was more than twice as good as placebo. Seen as a medical effect. this as quite strong.

        Robert Hahn

        December 25, 2010 at 11:48 am

      • For a discussion of various meta-analyses (which paints a different picture), see. e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homeopathy#Meta-analyses

        Note also that the talk pages contain endless discussions about the pros and cons for those that are truly interested.

        More generally, I note that your claim about the quality of various (non-meta) analyses is your viewpoint, which is not necessarily shared by others—including, presumably, the authors of the 2005 meta-analysis. What (non-homeopath) medical experts claim is that the higher the quality, the lower the support for homeopathy.


        December 25, 2010 at 6:39 pm

  2. (First, too avoid misunderstandings concerning your first sentence, I cite your article as an example of the position that automatically considers the specialist superior to the outsider.)

    All other factors equal, scientific work usually leads to a higher competence. However, here there are a number of hitches, including whether the faktors are all equal and the degree of “scientificness” of the work. Further, reason (not just common sense) is a ever-present in science—and other scientists, medical researchers, whatnot, are able to give reasons. (As I have discussed in earlier comment on your blog.) You will also note that the critics are not limited to those who go by reason (let alone common sense). There are plenty of evidence and highly qualified judges from the medical area that are similarly negative—indeed, unlike what you imply, the scientific and medical consensus is decidedly against homeopathy. Cf. e.g.
    (Yes, I know that you do not trust Wikipedia on Homeopathy, but any non-insider source on the scientific consensus will say more-or-less the same thing). Notably, Edzard Ernst, one of your own main targets, is a former homeopath.

    As an aside, if you feel that the typical Homeopathic researchers are on the same level as the typical other medicinal researcher, then an alternate conclusion would a call to greater stringency and more critical thinking in ordinary medicine…


    December 19, 2010 at 3:45 pm

  3. AfaIk, the claim that women are paid less than men originates from Mao Zedong or Bulgarian stalinist leader Georgi Dimitrov. Links tho the sources can be found in this blog entry, in particular a whole chapter in The Little Red Book is devoted to the alleged capitalist discrimination of women.
    I don’t know why western politicians stick to this outdated claim. To Mao and his comrades, it may have been plausible since they did not understand that free competition automatically punishes every discrimination that has no economic reason. These guys were experts on democide, at least that’s what they did for many years, and not microeconomic theory or statistical evaluation of sociological claims.

    [Moderator’s note: The author of the comment appears to be a representative of or link to “bluthilde”, a known satire blog pretending to present extremist leftist opinions. Correspondingly, the reader is encouraged to interpret with caution.]


    December 21, 2010 at 10:00 pm

  4. What the meta-anaysis of 2005 claims is that larger studies are better than small ones, which is very dubious. I would say it is a speculation. However, the authors found a reason to remove all studies of what they thought was smaller size, in fact they removed almost all studies of good quality that was available. The authors had identified 110 homeopathy studies of good quality according to their pre-defined criteriae, but they only report the results of 8 of them (presumably the largest). These 8 showed that homeptahy was 14% better than placebo. We are not told the result of the remaining 102 studies of good quality, only that they did favour homeopathy even to a higher degree. The authors conclusion? As expected, that homeopathy does not work. Nobody who wants to remain within the medical establishment dares to draw a different conclusion. However, I believe that not reporting the result of 102 out 110 studies of good quality is dubious conduct.

    Wikipedia is not a very good source of knowledge in controversial matters because Wikipedia is heavily influenced by activist organizations and special interests. To read the scientific studies and dig into the meta-analyses is recommended.

    Robert Hahn

    December 26, 2010 at 1:04 pm

    • Larger studies are better than smaller ones—all other factors equal. There may well be cases where a smaller study is better, but to use size as one criterion for quality is both plausible and well accepted.

      Even if we assume that the 2005 meta-study is flawed, there are a number of other meta-studies that give the same result. See again Wikipedia.

      Wikipedia has its flaws (as do all sources), but Wikipedia is not the only one to say this—more or less any other non-homeopathic source says similar things. Further, even where there is a partial influence upon Wikipedia, it is still a perfectly valid source of references for further study and examination of the claims made. Notably, the article on homeopathy has been intensely debated (look at the talk pages) with pros and cons given—and a number of compromises being made. Generally, the homeopathy article is in many ways of extremely high quality just because it has been contested on so many occasions.

      Finally, it is misleading to claim “[…]Wikipedia is heavily influenced by activist organizations and special interests”: It is not. Individual articles, however, are often edited by those with strong interests in the issue—from both sides of any dispute. The beauty is that if you do not like a particular article, you are not restricted to griping about it—you can yourself start a discussion about weaknesses, correct errors, provide new information, etc.If you adhere to basic policies about neutrality, references, keeping with scientific consensus, etc., your improvements are welcome.


      December 26, 2010 at 1:47 pm

  5. […] be much better used as proof of something completely different, namely that people who should be experts are not always right, be it absolutely or when compared to outsiders with a better head—the opposite of what Hahn […]

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