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Trust the Experts?

Entry 1212, on 2010-08-06 at 21:17:19 (Rating 2, Comments)

Should we trust experts? In our complex, modern world the average person can't be expected to understand the complexities of life enough to make decisions on subjects they are not experts about. Yet they still have to make those decisions. Here's some examples: should they have their kids immunised, should they support a political party which takes global warming seriously, should they use a school which teaches creationism instead of evolution?

I've obviously chosen some very contentious issues above and, of course, there are a lot of far less controversial decisions as well, but the ones I've chosen are the fun ones! So is it OK to trust experts, and if it is how do you know who the experts are and what they are saying, and under what circumstances should you get a second opinion or distrust the experts completely?

Good question!

There are no simple answers to these questions and we have to resort to a sort of heuristic approach. My suggestion is to trust the experts unless there is a really good reason not to, to identify experts through their qualifications in the exact area involved and their acceptance by their colleagues, to know what the experts are saying by trusting a range of sources, and to look for second opinions but only amongst other experts.

Opponents of this approach will point out that some times the experts are wrong. There are many occasions where the accepted scientific opinion has turned out to be wrong so why trust experts at all? I agree, there have been cases where this has happened but it is rare compared with the number of times when they have got things right. Plus the opinion of experts has changed as new evidence against conventional wisdom has arisen.

So if you trusted expert opinion and got bad advice you would have to be very unlucky to first be involved with a situation where the consensus is wrong; and second, to get that advice during a period before the error was discovered. It's a bit like gambling on the odds of getting the best outcome: you aren't guaranteed to get 100% good advice, but it's certainly the best way to maximise your chances.

There is another issue which opponents of the scientific consensus cite. That is that experts are biased, or might even be involved in a conspiracy. There is a small element of truth in this. Studies have shown that medical research funded by drug companies is more positive towards that company's products than independent research. And scientists do have a bias towards using certain techniques to establish the truth.

The bias in favor of funding sources is hard to guard against except to ensure that there are plenty of university and other non-commercial sources of research. The fact that independent research does exist means these biases will eventually be discovered so I don't think this issue is as significant as some people think.

The conspiracy theories are often a warning of a denialist mindset. The problem with conspiracies is that they are almost impossible to disprove because any evidence showing no conspiracy is immediately seen as part of the conspiracy itself! Any belief system which reinforces itself as evidence is shown against it should be immediately suspected of being false.

In some ways science can be seen as having a bias: if the requirement of establishing facts through repeatable, empirical, objective evidence can be seen as a bias. That doesn't seem to be a bias to me though, it's more a limitation or a requirement and one which can be easily justified through logic. Compare this with other systems of "knowledge" based on faith or received wisdom and it becomes clear what a bias really is.

So let's apply my heuristic rules to the three questions I listed above and see what result we get...

Should people have their kids immunised? Of course they should, because the vast majority of medical experts say they should and the people who oppose vaccination are generally ignorant celebrities. The hazards associated with vaccination (they do exist) are minor compared with those of not being treated.

Should people support a political party which takes global warming seriously? Every serious source I have consulted on this subject shows a strong consensus amongst experts. Conspiracy theories against advocates of global warming just make no sense. The evidence is getting stronger and it's unlikely that it will be overturned in the future. So yes, people should trust experts and vote for politicians who take GW seriously.

Should they use a school which teaches creationism instead of evolution? This has got to be one of the clearest and most undeniable facts in science. Evolution is a fact by any reasonable definition of the word and religious creation myths, while they are often interesting stories, have little to do with the real world. So anyone who uses a creationist school is just encouraging ignorance.

So it's not that hard really. In most cases there is no real question about what the best decision is, it's just totally clear. It's unfortunate that significant numbers of people would reach the opposite compulsions to what I would on these questions. Maybe they should be using taking my advice instead of using whatever bizarre decision making process they have now!

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Comment 1 (2819) by Jim on 2010-08-18 at 10:31:51:

You so often tell us how important it is to question the establishment but now that it suits your preferred politics you suggest we should not question the experts. I'm confused. What are you really suggesting?

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Comment 2 (2820) by OJB on 2010-08-18 at 19:42:59:

I'm suggesting that as long as we are careful about who we accept as experts, there's no good reason to doubt them. Sure, be skeptical of what you hear but only doubt the experts if you have a really good reason to. Notice that the sorts of people I doubt: creationists, global warming deniers, believers in the paranormal, etc, are not experts in the fields they are commenting on (or at least the vast majority f them aren't).

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