The intersection of expertise and critical thinking

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, May 19, 2020, 9:00 AM | comments: 0

I've consumed two things recently that have challenged me a great deal. The first was Neil deGrasse Tyson's Masterclass, which is somewhat shorter than other classes but incredibly concise. (Masterclass, by the way, is expensive but completely worth it for a great many subjects you might be interested in.) The second is the book The Death of Expertise, by Tom Nichols. What I have learned from these two things is pretty simple: My ability to Google something does not make me an expert, and my opinions are not necessarily any more valuable than those of experts. I can do my best to arrive at a conclusion about a particular topic, but I have to consider the possibility that I am likely wrong if I'm opposing the conclusions of experts. Conversely, the experts that I rely on, are probably right.

I'm sure in the midst of a global pandemic, you can understand why these are important things. Everyone you encounter on the social media is pretty sure that thing that they like and share is correct, experts are suspect and they've Googled enough one-off anecdotes from people with blogs that they're most certainly experts and qualified to have an opinion about things both simple and complex.

Of course, we know that this isn't how knowledge works. We don't ignore our doctors and self-diagnose from WebMD, because we'd all have cancer and be nearly dead. We don't file lawsuits on our own just because we watch Law & Order. Most of us don't even do work in the trades, because frankly the experience of a qualified electrician or plumber matters. This doesn't make us inadequate people, it just means that we know our limits and trust others to help us out with things we're not trained for. In Nichols' book, he distills it down to this:

"To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong about anything. It is a new Declaration of Independence: No longer do we hold these truths to be self-evident, we hold all truths to be self-evident, even the ones that aren’t true. All things are knowable and every opinion on any subject is as good as any other."


We've been seeing this with climate change for a long time, but seeing it in the Covid-19 pandemic is far scarier because people are dying and there are no good outcomes. A significant portion of the population believes we need to open up everything and take our chances, even though epidemiologists say that's a bad idea, and oddly enough, economists agree because they believe the financial carnage may be worse. We've seen it in the White House, as non-experts are appointed to cabinet positions and career civil servant experts are systematically pushed out of government. We've seen it in celebrity brands like Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop, where women are putting things in their vaginas for completely non-scientific reasons.

A lot of this comes down to the fact that people rely heavily on their beliefs, something Tyson talks about quite a bit. Belief systems are largely based on faith. You can't prove that there's a god, but you can't really disprove it either, so you take it on faith that there is a god. That's certainly OK, but for most everything else, there are observable facts that you can make about the world. With critical thinking, and even without a lot of formal training, you can take the conclusions and evidence provided by experts and reasonably arrive at the same conclusions as experts. There will always be some things that you have to take on trust of experts, but remember that experts are fundamentally incentivized to get things right. It doesn't mean that they always do, but getting it wrong is not good for their reputations or employability, especially if they act intentionally fraudulently. Unlike politicians, who have to be popular to retain their jobs, experts have to be more right than wrong.

There are a lot of things at play in our culture that make this distrust of experts a problem. Some of it is the strange phenomenon where people are not only willingly ignorant, but they pride themselves on it as if it's a mark of independent thinking and autonomy. That's bizarre. I imagine that the technology that makes it so easy to assimilate what we want to believe and share it, as opposed to what we need to believe, plays a large role in this.

But at the end of the day, the suggestion that "I've done my research!" makes you right demonstrates all kinds of ugly character attributes, not the least of which is entitlement, narcissism and a lack of humility. In the context of this pandemic, your "research" and lack of training do not compare to the billions of dollars spent by career scientists and researchers who have spent decades learning about their field. In fact, that's one of the biggest things that make them more qualified than you: They have committed to a lifetime of learning, while you believe Internet access is a shortcut that makes you as qualified as them to have an opinion. You're not qualified. Your opinion does not have equal value.

These are difficult times. Many of us struggle to keep our shit together at home with our families and our jobs. You aren't going to achieve greater control over this chaos by insisting that you know better than experts. There is no great conspiracy intended to keep you down, it's just nature's way of reminding you of who is in charge. Listen to the experts... they're our way out.


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