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Distrust of Experts

Entry 1288, on 2011-04-17 at 23:03:37 (Rating 3, Comments)

Why do people distrust experts so much? That's a question I have been asking myself for a while. But first, is it true? I couldn't find any real stats on the subject but there seem to be many examples of this phenomenon out there.

For example there are numerous conspiracy theories, including: JFK was assassinated by US government agents, the 9/11 attacks on the US could have been stopped or were even planned by the US government, scientists know global warming isn't real but they continue to say it is to ensure they are funded, the military have proof that UFOs exist but they hide it from everyone else... Well, you get the idea. There are so many that they are impossible to list.

Then there are theories which aren't necessarily conspiracies but still require the mainstream view to be wrong and an alternative view, which has officially been rejected, to be true. Creationism is probably the most well known example of this but global warming denial also fits well. There are also theories based on "ancient wisdom" which fit here: the prophecies of Nostradamus for example, or the cycles in the Mayan calendar which lead to the end of the world.

These theories are all nonsense of course, and it's fairly clear that they are if a reasonable examination of the total evidence is done. So why do people still believe the alternatives? I guess it's because many of them have an intense distrust of authority, and in many ways that is quite reasonable.

I partly agree with this distrust but it doesn't extend to a distrust of science and it only partly extends to a distrust of other experts. The reason I have greater (but not total) trust in science is that the scientific process is more open and more subject to criticism than others.

If a politician decides on following a certain policy he probably won't have reached that decision based on an open and peer reviewed process. More likely he will have based his decision on personal biases, ideological concepts, or on political expediency. For example he might want to decrease taxes on the rich because he is funded by big business.

And business people clearly act the same way and are possibly even worse. How many times do I hear the excuse of "commercial sensitivity" being offered as a reason not to disclose some inconvenient information? It has become so common that most people seeking information don't even pursue the question once that excuse is offered. And I'm sure that in most cases it is pure nonsense. The business person just doesn't want to tell you their dirty secrets. It's as simple as that.

So those two categories of "expert": politicians and business people do deserve great distrust and disrespect. I know there are exceptions but in general distrust is a valid reaction, I think.

But what about the expert biologists who tell is that evolution is a fact and literal creationism has been disproved beyond reasonable doubt? What about the astronomers who assure us that the Earth won't be destroyed in 2012 just because it is on the galactic plane? What about the historians who tell us the prophecies of Nostradamus are just vague ramblings and have no predictive power?

These I trust, for two reasons. First, I do some fact checking (I don't have complete trust) and the credible sources of evidence all (or almost all) agree. And second, they have a good track record. Sure, I know experts have got things wrong in the past but errors have been corrected when they are discovered. Error correction is perhaps the most critical part of real science and other academic pursuits.

For example, when Hubble discovered the expansion of the universe the theory then favored by astronomers (the Steady State) was replaced with a new one (the Big Bang). Sure there were a few who refused to change (Fred Hoyle for example) but the consensus theory changed anyway, especially as new supporting evidence was discovered.

But when was the last time an oil company executive changed his mind about using fossil fuels and started a wind energy company instead? There might be a few exceptional cases where people have changed, but the usual reaction is to try to discredit information which is inconvenient for their existing model. Large conventional energy companies are a significant factor behind the global warming denial movement, for example.

And how many neoliberal politicians say something like "well that hasn't worked, I think we should pursue a more moderate policy and control the excesses of business instead"? None that I know of have changed their mind, because their opinions are based on dogma, not fact.

Of course, I don't even need to discuss religion here. That is the ultimate example of dogma overcoming truth!

The ultimate conclusion is that we should have a degree of distrust of everyone, especially authority figures, but that should be moderated greatly for certain types of expert. Any scientist who follows a dogma instead of following the facts will soon be discredited. Fred Hoyle made some great contributions to astronomy but he should not have let his irrational preference for the Steady State blind him to the advantages of the Big Bang (ironically he invented that name, and originally it was intended as a derogatory description but it just stuck!)

So I am distrustful of anyone peddling extreme neoliberal or extreme socialist economics. I am distrustful of any politician no matter what they say. I am intensely distrustful of people who work in the business world. And I simply experience pleasant surprise when a person from the world of religion says something which is even worth listening to. I don't totally ignore these groups because occasionally they get it right. But that's the exception, not the rule!


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