The Death of Philosophy

by w3woody

The Death of Expertise

The culture and our educational system have created a generation that has little experience being told they are objectively wrong. Everyone feels they are entitled to be right. Combine this with the illusion of knowledge provided by Google, and everyone thinks they are their own expert in anything.

Actually, I think it’s bigger than this.

And I think there are three separate problems that are being conflated in the argument at the link above–three separate problems that are often conflated by people who discuss people’s distrust in expertise, including one that is sometimes mentioned in passing but then ignored.

The reason why people such as the blogger above misses the three separate problems is because they forget that how people treat experts depends on the scope on which those experts operate: personal, professional and political. And in each of these spheres, how experts are presented, how they are treated, and why we react to them as we do is framed by the sphere in which the apparent expertise is operating.

By seeing this as a problem with distrust in expertise but without thinking deeply about why, sadly bloggers like this one can only conclude:

At least recognize the Dunning-Kruger effect (which applies to everyone), the effects of bias and the echochamber effect.

I.e.: People are stupid.

The first problem is how we see and treat expertise in the personal sphere. Often this is someone like a doctor from whom we seek professional advise–or more often, someone who we are forced to interact with, because (for example) we are sick.

In this sphere, our interactions with that professional can be colored in part by wishful thinking (no, Doctor; I want the treatment even though I’m stage 4 cancer rather than being given palliative care, because I will beat this cancer!), and in part by a wide variety of information (and mis-information) that is out there.

It doesn’t help that many medical professionals themselves succumb to sloppy thinking and the “Dunning-Kruger effect”, amplified by the belief that because they are a trained doctor they must be right about areas in which they’ve never studied. For example, I’ve had one doctor tell me I should start taking regular doses of aspirin, not for any condition, but simply because I’ve reached that age where aches and pains are a part of life. (Look, I’ll happily take a regular regime of medicine if I have a disease or a condition that indicates it. But proscribe me a regular course of medication for absolutely no other reason than because I turned 45? No, I don’t think so.)

I had another doctor, an ENT doctor, tell me as part of a series of allergy tests (to figure out the source of an acute case of sinusitis) that I should avoid eating microwaved foods because the microwaves chemically alter the food. (Um, isn’t that called “cooking?”)

Sadly there is little “cure” for this, as all interactions wind up being personal–and there is little we can do for the patient who is convinced the medicine they receive for their dialysis treatments are being forced on them by doctors who want to keep them sick and connected to those infernal dialysis machines.

The second problem is how we see and treat expertise in the professional sphere. What I’m referring to here is the workplace: the manager who has domain-specific knowledge, or the software developer who needs to take additional courses. I’m also referring to professional training courses and to so-called “thought leaders” who seek to improve quality or performance in the workplace.

Sadly in this sphere we’ve seen a lot of touchy-feely non-sense take the place of professionalism in the professional sphere. I’ve seen this in software development, where 20-something underlines accidentally sabotage projects because they think they know better than their more experienced 40-something counterparts. I’ve also seen this in the processes that corporations have been talked into in fields such as logistics, implemented by people who have no scientific training or rigor to their theories–simply because we seem to be more enchanted with the “new”, the “next big thing” rather than relying on the tried and true.

There is a wonderful essay about this in the field of software development by Uncle Bob: “The Churn”.

This is entirely separate from how we deal with (or fail to deal with) expertise on the personal level–and treating this under the same rubric is a mistake.

The third problem is how we see and treat expertise in the political sphere. This is what we are talking about when we complain about protesters protesting against GMOs and people complaining about Global Warming.

Let’s be entirely clear here. This is not the same as the problem with seeing your doctor and deciding on your own to be non-compliant when the doctor tries to prescribe statins for your high cholesterol. In the political realm we see organized groups pushing back against so-called “experts”, but it is worth a moment to ask what they are specifically pushing back against, and why (beyond “stupid people pushing back against the smart”).

Take Global Warming, for example. There are two aspects to the science of climate change as we see it in the political realm. The first, of course, are the climate researchers who are going out and gathering core samples, satellite measurements, and other data in order to attempt to construct a model and gain better understanding as to how the Earth’s climate works. In that realm, a very small subset of the scientists we have seen in the public sphere discussing global warming are attempting to gather measurements and draw conclusions, and in that sphere there is dissent by other scientists as to the validity of the measurements, the amount of influence variations in solar insolation and urban heat islands have on global measurements, and the source of the effects.

Such debate in science is, of course, proper. Science is the creation of hypothesis, the testing of those hypothesis through carefully constructed experiments, and the repeatability of those hypothesis by other scientists. Science advances through lively debate; in areas that have not become as politicized as global warming (such as the search for a Grand Unified Field Theory), there are a number of ideas about how gravity fits into the other fundamental forces–ranging from offshoots of string theory to the idea that gravity is not a force (like electromagnitism) but is an artifact of the bending of space-time.

We even regularly verify and test various hypothesis that have been established as long-proven, in order to determine if those theories are in fact correct. There is an entire cottage industry amongst academics who regularly test Einstein’s most famous theories, and proposing that some of his theories may not hold up under certain circumstances. And in those tests, sometimes we recognize a new phenomenon which was predicted by the theories but which few had thought about until the experiments were done.

The second aspect to the Global Warming debate is the political aspect; that includes how global warming is communicated to the populous, and the political actions that are being advocated by those same communicators to resolve the apparent problems raised. And it is here you see the actual push-back take place by most public advocacy groups.

But let’s be clear what is being pushed back against.

With Global Warming, if you search the Internet for how we are supposed to solve it, we see grand schemes on how to reduce our carbon footprint, ranging from a global carbon tax to mandates on agriculture to massively shift farming techniques, to reducing or eliminating car usage and massively altering population centers to increase “walkability,” to mass transit. We see calls for a massive shift to renewable energy, to alter the lightbulbs we use in our homes, and to alter our diet away from meat and towards a plant-based diet.

And if these things don’t happen fast enough, they will be legislated into existence.

As one blogger quipped a long time ago (I can’t find the quote now), it doesn’t matter what the question is, the answer is always socialism.

Or at the very least, a massive increase in the size of the regulatory state as it intrudes into every aspect of our lives, from where we live to what we drive to what we wear, to what we eat and drink.

In other words, it’s not the science that is being pushed back against. It’s the increasing intrusion into our lives that is being pushed back against, intrusions which as often as not are being advocated by groups who don’t actually care about solving global warming, but only wish to push their agenda. To take a simple example, take the question of mass transit: Does Bus Transit Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions. The charge here: advocates attempting to support increased funding of mass transit and who seek to reshape cities away from cars seriously distorted the numbers in order to reach their conclusions:

However, researchers based at Duke University have reached a very different conclusion – but they have done so by assuming a bus passenger load over seven-and-one-half times the U.S. average and an auto passenger load 63% of the average, and prominently displayed the results produced by this extremely unrealistic mixture of assumptions in the first paragraph of their paper to produce maximum impact for their badly flawed hypothesis.

This is why Bjorn Lomborg is often referred to as “anti-science” despite his own admission that he believes the global warming climate experts got the science correct. This is why opposition to the Kyoto Protocol was called “anti-science,” despite the drafters to that protocol’s admission that it would only have a–at best–a negligable effect on CO2 emissions.

That science is being used as a tool by politicians to advocate their own agenda becomes pretty apparent. But it’s not just Global Warming where we see science used as a debating tactic by advocates rather than being used to understand the scope or scale of the problem. From the debates about the scope of damage in North Carolina over the coal-ash spill, to debates over the effects of pornography on children and the health effects of smoking and second-hand smoking, “science” is often either constructed to fit an advocacy narrative, or mis-represented in the public sphere in order to use as a talking point to attack critics.

There is nothing new here, by the way.

We’ve seen it going back to the late 1600’s when natural philosophers opined (based on their observations of the natural world and applying it to mankind) that blacks were inferior and were happiest kept as slaves. We see this idea of the natural inferiority of blacks through the development of Anthropology as a science, and with the application of Darwin’s theory of evolution to mankind in general. (That these ideas would later be grasped by the NAZIs to prove their “racial superiority” to the “mud races” was simply an extension of existing “scientific” thought going back centuries.)

The trick is always the same. If a politician tells you that we must provide regulations for our own good, we may ignore the politician as an ignorant misogynous racist jerk. But if he brings along experts who are published and well respected, then opposing him is anti-scientific.

Each of these forms of opposition to experts of course share a few common traits. There are experts, and they are being ignored. And they are being ignored because their position represents opposition to other interests. Fundamentally, as Americans, we also hate being told what to do: the doctor who asks us to lose a few pounds. The co-worker who has oversight telling us how to spend our efforts. The politicians who want us to give up our dreams of a suburban home for tighter quarters in apartment buildings.

It also urks us because sometimes we see these so-called “experts” failing to live up to the ideals they demand of us: the doctor who smokes. The politically connected scientist living in the suburban home we aspire to.

But at its heart, it’s not opposition to intelligence, wisdom or understanding that is taking place here.

It is opposition to control, pure and simple.

So what do we do?

Well, simply calling everyone stupid (even politely, by quoting the Dunning-Kruger effect) is not helpful.

Second, recognize that the push-back is against so-called “experts” who, often as not, aren’t actually experts in the field they are discussing, such as Bill Nye “The Science Guy”–who by some reports did an absolutely crappy job debating the finer points of Global Warming. And recognize the push-back is ultimately against the lifestyle changes we are being asked to make–and which, at some level, may be rammed down our throats if we don’t comply. (Note, by the way, the aforementioned sugar tax in places like Philadelphia or New York often make exceptions for far more expensive coffee-flavored drinks which are typically enjoyed by the wealthy who support the politicians passing those taxes. So some push-back is inevitable given the level of hypocrisy taking place. And it is hard to take people like Al Gore seriously when he demands we downsize and reduce our travel to reduce our carbon footprint, when he lives like minor royalty in a 10,000 square foot palatial estate, a few years bought another 6,000 estate in Southern California, and jets around the world in a private jet.)

Meaning the push back is not against experts, per se; it’s push back against the hypocrites who would tell us what to do.

And if you think of it in this manner, it makes sense. We don’t ignore experts because we’re collectively as a society a bunch of stupid fucks. We push back because of the large number of experts who would otherwise tell us how we should be living our lives.

And that implies directly there is an incentive to push back at experts.

Because who wants some stranger telling you what to eat, what to drink, where to live and how to think?