It is rational to selectively trust and distrust experts

One ideal of rationality, to which people used to appeal, is to refuse to accept anything on trust or authority, to evaluate any claim strictly on the supplied data and arguments. Only thusly can one practice the intellectual responsibility of science. Unfortunately, this is such an impractical ideal that even practicing scientists don’t live up to it. No one has the time, resources, and intelligence to verify all his beliefs; he must fall back on trust. More recently, a new ideal has emerged: the rational man practices perfect credulity and docility to credentialed experts. I have found two types of justifications for this.

Before discussing those two, I begin by adding a third: because one doesn’t have time to study everything, it makes sense to practice a division of intellectual labor and to defer to those who have devoted much time to a subject on those subjects to which one has not. The trouble with this is that both established “experts” and rival “conspiracy theorists” have spent a lot of time thinking about their issues, and this rationale gives me no reason to prefer the former. Indeed, there are some topics where the non-establishment side has probably given much more study to the matter. For example, I suspect Muslim scholars have given more thought to why the divine origin of the Koran should be credited than secular historians have given to dismissing this claim, but our expertise advocates would certainly not have me become a Muslim.

The first reason actually given for trusting credentialed experts is the argument from method: “Experts employ the scientific method, in which claims are only accepted after a rigorous process of attempted falsification. The experts have tested their beliefs in every possible way and done a more thorough job of looking for inconsistencies and disconfirming evidence than you could do, so it makes sense for you to accept their results.” The second reason given is the argument from consistency: “You trust experts all the time–when you dare to fly on an airplane or get surgery, when you accept without complaint the age of dinosaur fossils or the existence of extrasolar planets and neutron stars. It doesn’t make sense to suddenly distrust experts when they tell you that a new vaccine is safe, or that your civilization is systemically racist, or that mankind must stop eating meat.”

To do the desired work, both arguments–but most explicitly the second–assume that all expert claims have, or must be taken to have, equal epistemic value. We are asked to assume that aeronautical engineers, mathematicians, and critical race theorists are equally reliable. We are also asked to assume that all individual claims, whether by the same set of experts or different, carry equal weight. However, the arguments do not justify this. To the argument from method, one is entitled to ask for each claim in each field whether this marvelous vetting process was followed. If people are punished for dissenting from an official claim, if pressure is applied to retract papers merely for contradicting the claim, if faculty applicants are required to write statements affirming their zealous adherence to it, then it may fairly be concluded that the scientific method is not operative with regard to that claim. To be fair, every community requires authoritative truths which are not open to question, but these truths cannot then be justified by appeal to the scientific method; they must be justified by appeals to faith and loyalty.

To the claim that the history of science, of its many past successes, confers on scientists an accumulated credit of trust, that the more often scientists are right, the more readily they should be trusted in the future, I reply that this is absolutely inconsistent with the scientific method. If the scientific method means anything, it means each new claim must stand on its own merits–the arguments and data demonstrating that particular claim. Science has no unitary voice on which one could confer authority.

I conclude with two indelicate but crucial points. The first is that not all fields of study have established their reliability to the general public to the same extent. We trust aeronautical engineers because we see airplanes taking off and landing safely each day. Saint Augustine trusted the astronomers of his day because when they predicted an eclipse, lo it happened on schedule. (This is the same reason that claims of extrasolar planets are usually believed–they successfully predict eclipses.) Astronomy and physics have their speculative sides, but they are usually identified as such, and do not compromise the predictive power of their more secure results. The social sciences have not demonstrated the predictive power of physics and astronomy–or anything remotely like it–and they are not entitled to the same sort of trust from the general public.

My final indelicate point is that it is rational to distrust someone when you know that that person hates you and is hostile to your interests. This really should be obvious, and if one counters that experts don’t hate anybody, that this is just me being a conspiracy theorist, I will reply that the experts don’t even bother to deny it. Consider two groups known for incredulity toward expert consensus (vaccine hesitancy, considering themselves victims of vast conspiracies, and the like): white conservatives and African Americans. I assert that both groups are rational in regarding experts as systematically hostile sources.

Let us first take the conservatives. Have not all universities and expert professional bodies declared their hostility to “racism”, “nationalism”, “sexism”, and “homophobia”, and are these not in practice just derogatory terms for conservative beliefs in particularism and natural law? Do not all of these bodies openly discriminate against white men? Is it not becoming common to demand faculty job applications and funding proposals include “diversity statements” in which applicants must show that they contribute to the marginalization of the whites, men, and heterosexuality? Given these obvious expressions of hostility and discrimination, can one point to a single act to reassure conservatives and Christians specifically that they are welcome among the ranks of experts? Not even a credible guarantee, but even a token assurance? Clearly, conservatives and white men are right to think that expert bodies hate them, and it is foolish to trust someone who hates you.

What about American blacks? Well, has not every professional organization in the country admitted in the past year that it is systemically racist against blacks, that widespread hostility to blacks is both its history and its enduring reality? Now, you may say that these organizations confessed their racism against blacks as a sign of their deep solicitude for the welfare of blacks, but I think it is odd to expect the objects of such solicitude to see it that way. We ask African Americans to extend unlimited belief to bodies of experts, and this unconditional belief in experts is supposed to be based on a disbelief in their statement of systematic hostility. It is absurd to expect anyone to think this way.

In conclusion, selective acceptance of the testimony of experts is perfectly rational, which is in fact the policy that people by-and-large actually follow. This is to be expected. People are usually pretty rational in matters of self-interest; those who think otherwise are usually the ones who are missing something.

14 thoughts on “It is rational to selectively trust and distrust experts

  1. Rationality in advertising is a fun topic. On-camera taste tests (…it’s rich and creamy…), man-in-the-street interviews (what, sir, do you prefer to smoke?), consumer surveys (2 out of three philologists recommend…), demonstrations (Sudso on the left and the other leading brand on the right), all used to be used as the primary means to flog a product, presumably to appeal to rational decision-making of the consumer.

    But now, the little television advertising I deign (and which usually makes my jaw gape in perplexment) to watch seems to be designed (rationally?) to appeal to impulse, feeling, etc., of the lowest IQ individual who may in fact be barely sentient, anything to distract from the mentation one ought to devote to the separation of one’s money from one’s wallet. One can only speak rationally to people for whom rationality — and thus, the acknowledgment of a reality outside of oneself — makes up a large proportion of the waking day.

    Is perplexment a word? If not, it ought to be. There, I’ve waved my magic wand. PERPLEXMENT has been ordained. 😉

    • “Perplexity” is the word you are looking for. I think TV is increasingly targeted at old people, i.e. people in the throes of cognitive decline, a decline which often makes them impulsive and irrational. Here is an article discussing the changing demographics of TV viewership.

  2. I wonder if trust in experts goes down as more and more people become titular experts in something or other. If I assume that most professors know twice as much about their field as I know about mine, they still don’t know all that much. As you say, the real (i.e. natural) sciences are in another league. I’m old enough to remember when sociologists were taken seriously. Now I’d be hard pressed to name a working sociologist who is not a personal acquaintance. Reading old academic journals has reduced by respect for experts. They are stuffed with ideas that sounded big at the time, but have since been disproven or forgotten. Nothing is disproven in my field, but geographers get bored with ideas after about 20 years. Other than students who must pass exams, there is no reason anyone should listen to what they say.

    Your statement about derogatory terms for conservative opinions is neatly expressed and deserves regular repetition. Anyone who does not use those terms regularly needs to know that they are despised by the people who do use those terms regularly.

    If the postmodern public loses its faith in scientists, I expect it will be for the same reasons the early modern public lost its faith in priests. They misuse their authority to propagate beliefs they have no authority to propagate, and they have the old weakness for pious frauds. Environmental science seems to be the worst offender, which is unfortunate given the likely consequences.

    • Well geography has a body of useful established facts, and I generally do tend to trust maps. A craving for new big ideas on it is probably misplaced.

      I don’t think sociology has anything similar to boast, although I find it an interesting subject. (It could be and was once an interesting subject.) I can think of other subjects, like philosophy, which I find interesting and worthwhile, but whose experts I do not think worthy of deference.

      • I just had an experience of the Gell Mann amnesias effect with respect to the genuine geography that you refer to. I was looking very closely at a USGS 1:250,000 map of an area I know very well and I found two streams that are mislabeled. A 1:250,000 map labels only the larger streams, so this is non-trivial. But I will go on trusting the place names on USGS maps nonetheless.

        But you are right about the past glories of geography. Mapping the planet was quite a bit harder than mapping the genome. It certainly killed more people.

  3. Scientists, like the rest of us have their assumptions and preconceptions, which are not only untested, but untestable.

    Wittgenstein, who was not without a certain sardonic sense of humour, gives an example: ““Think of chemical investigations. Lavoisier makes experiments with substances in his laboratory and now he concludes that this and that takes place when there is burning. He does not say that it might happen otherwise another time. He has got hold of a definite world-picture – not of course one that he invented: he learned it as a child. I say world-picture and not hypothesis, because it is the matter-of-course foundation for his research and, as such, also goes unmentioned.” (On Certainty167 –Emphasis added)

    Obviously, the presupposition that a substance A always reacts to a substance B in the same way is neither logically necessary (We can imagine the converse happening; we know what it would be like for it to be true) nor empirically verifiable: a appeal to past experience proves nothing, unless we assume that the future will resemble the past and this is simply another form of the same proposition; a classical example of begging the question.

    We cannot even claim past experience makes it is probable for, as Hume taught us long ago, “probability is founded on the presumption of a resemblance betwixt those objects, of which we have had experience, and those, of which we have had none; and therefore it is impossible this presumption can arise from probability.” (Treatise on Human Nature 1. 3)

    Now, such presuppositions as Lavoisier’s determine what for the experts count as testing, proving, how they interpret evidence and their whole system of verification.

    As Wittgenstein says, “The difficulty is to realize the groundlessness of our believing.” (iibid 156).

  4. There is an equivocation in the common use of the terms “expert” and “scientist.” When it comes time to explain why I should defer to experts and scientists, I get to hear all about the scientific method and mastery of large, complex fields of knowledge. When it comes time to explain what experts and scientists think, I get to hear all about consensus among people with PhDs and faculty positions.

    To get these two meanings to hook up properly, one has to argue at a minimum that academia, institutionally, creates strong incentives for its denizens to employ the scientific method, master large, complex fields of knowledge, and then tell the truth about it all. But academia doesn’t really look like that. Rather, it looks like a machine for producing group-think.

    It does not affect your argument much, but this claim is too strong:

    To do the desired work, both arguments–but most explicitly the second–assume that all expert claims have, or must be taken to have, equal epistemic value. We are asked to assume that aeronautical engineers, mathematicians, and critical race theorists are equally reliable.

    It’s enough that the claims of critical race theorists, within their alleged area of expertise, have significantly more epistemic value than yours-within-his, not that they have equal value to an aeronautical engineer’s-within-his.

    As you note, observing that appeal to authority is not a fallacy goes naturally with noticing that ad hominem is not a fallacy (what will internet fallacy-sniffers do henceforth?). But, the excellence of ad hominem extends well beyond hostility: dishonesty, stupidity, carelessness, sloth, conformism, and others are fertile avenues for refuting bad men and their false claims.

    • Good points. Peer review is no better than the peers who do the reviewing. When I was sixteen I called it peer pressure. I’ve never heard your second point stated so clearly. A witch doctor from grievance studies could have Bonald cancelled for disrespecting race studies, but Bonald could not have the witch doctor cancelled for disrespecting of physics.

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