Must We Have ‘Faith’ in ‘Experts’?

A Response to Tom Nichols from the ‘Blog-Sodden’ Laity

by Richard Peachey

Professor Tom Nichols wants us to show more respect for ‘experts.’ His article about this, “How America Lost Faith in Expertise, And Why That’s a Giant Problem,” appeared in the March/April 2017 issue of the journal Foreign Affairs (Volume 96, Number 2, pp. 60-73).

Nichols fears that we are moving into “a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople” (p. 61). He’s concerned over society’s “malign resentment of the intellectual in his capacity as expert” (Hofstadter quote, p. 63). He laments that the public is attracted to conspiracy theories which, he says, “are unfalsifiable” (pp. 66f.) “Welcome to the idiocracy,” he writes (p. 67). “Laypeople cannot do without experts,” he warns, “and they must accept this reality without rancor” (p. 73).

Unfortunately for Nichols’ case, he makes a great number of concessions regarding the reliability of ‘experts.’ “They don’t know everything, and they’re not always right. . . .” (p. 64) “Experts are often wrong, and the good ones among them are the first to admit it. . . .” (p. 64) “Political beliefs among both laypeople and experts are subject to the same confirmation bias that plagues thinking about other issues. . . .” (p. 67) “It is true that the aggregated judgments of large groups of ordinary people sometimes produce better results than the judgments of any individual, even a specialist.” (p. 69) “Experts fail often, in various ways.” (p. 69) “Sometimes they’re right, and sometimes they’re wrong, but most errors are eventually corrected.” (p. 70) “Other forms of expert failure are more worrisome. Experts can go wrong, for example, when they try to stretch their expertise from one area to another. . . . [such behaviour] is frequent and pernicious and  can undermine the credibility of an entire field.” (p. 70) “And finally, there is the rarest but most dangerous category: outright deception and malfeasance, in which experts intentionally falsify their results or rent out their professional authority to the highest bidder.” (p. 70) “. . . policy professionals should be more transparent, honest, and self-critical about their far-from-perfect track records.” (p. 70)

Nearby each of the foregoing quotes, Nichols attempts to soften the concession with additional wording. Nonetheless, significant damage has been sustained. He has admitted that experts are imperfect in knowledge, and in performance. They are biased; they overreach; and they sometimes even prostitute their expertise.

Nichols calls upon laypeople to give the experts a hearing, and not to shout them down. Fair enough. We ought to respect each other as human beings. But the masses are right not to have ‘faith’ in the ‘experts.’ In order to trust them, we would have to believe that they’re not making   an error this time, and they’re not straying beyond their specific area of expertise this time, and they’re not subject to confirmation bias this time, and they’re not in the sway of dangerous ulterior motivations this time. As well, we’d have to somehow know that all the relevant experts were genuinely in agreement with one another (see pp. 70f.). But how could we members of   the ‘idiocracy’ ever achieve sufficient knowledge to be sure about all of this in any given case?

Do experts themselves have ‘faith’ in other experts? I am reminded of a comment by the noted Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin:

. . . when scientists transgress the bounds of their own specialty they have no choice but to accept the claims of authority, even though they do not know how solid the grounds of those claims may be. Who am I to believe about quantum physics if not Steven Weinberg, or about the solar system if not Carl Sagan? What worries me is that they may believe what Dawkins and Wilson tell them about evolution. (The New York Review of Books Volume 44, Number 1 [Jan. 9, 1997], pp. 30f.)

Just before the above words, Lewontin had written (p. 30):

As to assertion without adequate evidence, the literature of science is filled with them. Carl Sagan’s list of the ‘best contemporary science-popularizers’ includes E. O. Wilson, Lewis Thomas, and Richard Dawkins, each of whom has put unsubstantiated assertions or counterfactual claims at the very center of the stories they have retailed in the market. [Lewontin then went on to provide specific examples.]

Nichols writes in reference to his own field of expertise (national security affairs):

When they do fail, experts must own their mistakes, air them publicly, and show the steps they are taking to correct them. This happens less than it should in the world    of public policy, because the standards for judging policy work tend to be more subjective and politicized than the academic norm. [p. 70, bold print indicates emphasis added]

But that strikes me as just a fancy way of saying something much like “unfalsifiable” — which was Nichols’ complaint against conspiracy theories (p. 67)!

Nichols’ examples of public distrust of experts include parents who opposed vaccination    of their children and “requested a personal belief exemption.” Nichols calls this a “craze (p. 63). But there are good scientific reasons for questioning at least some vaccines, as noted here.

Another area of expertise raised by Nichols is “climate change” (p. 72). But this is a topic on which experts definitely disagree, as shown here.

Nichols is disturbed by a study finding that “when exposed to scientific research that challenged their views, both liberals and conservatives reacted by doubting the science rather than themselves” (p. 67). But there are many good reasons to exercise skepticism about scientific research. See here for a listing of scholarly articles pointing out problems with laboratory procedure (including tainted cell lines), statistical analysis, peer review, irreproducibility, and fraud. (One of my favourites is the PLOS article by Stanford University’s John Ioannidis, “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.”)

Technical expertise, such as that of gadget-designers, plumbers, and doctors (within limits) is certainly welcomed by the public, as Nichols acknowledges (pp. 62-64). But he also wants us to accept fuzzier sorts of expertise, including that of public policy professionals, with equal enthusiasm. This will not happen.

Throughout his article, Nichols laments “the collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople, . . . knowers and wonderers—in other words, between those with achievement in an area and those with none” (p. 61); he distinguishes between “experts [and] the rest of us” (p. 64), and between “educated elites and the society around them” (p. 73). Such wording does not seem well-designed to win the sympathy of the masses.

Tom Nichols has not done a convincing nor an appealing job of showing the public why they should put their faith in ‘experts.’ Perhaps he should leave the work of PR to the ‘experts’ in that field!