Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘expertise

Wrong-headed belief in claimed expertise

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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