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Trust Experts

Entry 1892, on 2018-01-08 at 22:48:24 (Rating 4, Comments)

I recently listened to a podcast which discussed the trust (or lack of trust) we have in experts, and how that might have become a more significant issue in recent years. Many people interpret the election of Trump as a rejection of the "elite experts" in society, for example. Trump represents the average person - he was not a politician - but Clinton represented an experienced politician who had spent most of her life as part of the "political machine", and she was rejected.

Experts which are usually trusted include doctors, scientists, and (dare I mention) computer professionals. In most cases people will trust what these people say. For example, the majority of people go to a doctor and trust the treatment they are recommended. But there are a significant number who don't have such a high level of trust and prefer to be diagnosed by "Doctor Google" or be treated by a local practitioner of some form of alternative medicine which often has limited credibility (homeopathy, naturopathy, acupuncture, etc).

In general it is best to trust the opinion of experts, and in most cases people do. But everyone has their weaknesses and there might be times when anyone would reject expert opinion or advice. So I started wondering which experts I might have trouble accepting and I think I have thought of a couple.

In fact, anyone who reads this blog should already know the areas of expertise I have the most problems with. The first is management, and the second is economics.

So am I just as bad as the person who ignores the facts presented by experts about global warming? Or am I just like the creationist who ignores the conclusions of experts in biology and evolution? Or am I just another conspiracy theorist who ignores the opinion of experts and thinks the WTC could not have been destroyed by an aircraft collision?

In some ways, yes, but there is one critical difference. Look at the example I gave in paragraph two where some people prefer to trust a homeopath instead of a conventional doctor. Is that person really rejecting expert opinion? Maybe not. Maybe they are accepting the opinion of one expert (the homeopath is presumably an expert in homeopathy) and rejecting that of a different expert (the doctor).

So this isn't so much a rejection of expertise per se, it is more choosing which expert to accept as better.

And this gets to my three main points regarding trust in experts: first, not all experts are equal; second, not all fields of expertise are equal; and third, even the greatest expert in the most credible field can make mistakes and everyone should be treated with a certain degree of skepticism.

So accepting the expert homeopath's opinion should be rejected based on point 2, above. That is, while it is true that homeopathy is a field of expertise, it is not one which can be taken seriously because homeopathy has been shown, beyond any reasonable doubt, to be ineffective.

The other points might also have occasions when they are important. For example, there is a geologist (who is presumably an expert) who thinks the Earth is only 6000 years old even though he knows all the evidence shows it isn't. His opinion is clearly warped by religious faith so, even though he is an expert, he does not have the same status as experts with no bias. And there have been many occasions where the greatest experts failed to assimilate new evidence and rejected new theories which later turned out to be true, so no expert is infallible.

But the main point of this post is to discuss point 2, the fact that some areas of expertise have less validity than others making rejecting opinions of experts in that area more reasonable.

The big problem is trying to establish which areas are trustworthy and which aren't How would we know? Should we ask an expert? That sort of just gets back to the same problem we had at the start!

I think there are various, fairly unbiased, ways we can evaluate different areas of expertise. These include their philosophical framework (are they based on empiricism, logic, faith, etc), has scientific research on the subject shown it to be viable, and a general evaluation of its practical contribution to society.

So with homeopathy I would say its background is highly questionable. There has been little positive empirical research, there is almost no logic in it, and the whole proposed mechanism for its action is nonsense. And research on homeopathy shows almost no positive results above placebo level which is exactly what we would expect if it was fake. Finally, using homeopathy has some significant negative consequences, including people wasting their money on remedies which don't work, and using homeopathic remedies instead of real ones which leads to worse health outcomes.

Because of this, I think it is clear that a homeopath, no matter how expert he or she is on the subject, should not be taken seriously because the subject itself lacks any credibility.

But how does this apply to my two areas of skepticism: management and economics?

Well, I would say neither of those are totally based on a firm philosophical basis. I do have to say that some forms of economics, especially behavioural economics which uses a lot of psychology, do have a quite high degree of credibility, but economics in general not so much. And I'm fairly sure there has been a certain amount of empirical research applied to management practices but in general they seem to be uniformly corrupt, both morally and intellectually.

So I think I have some rationale in being doubtful about the opinions of many economists and managers. Sure, they are experts in their respective fields but those fields have limited credibility. Of course, that doesn't mean they are always wrong and can safely be ignored, but it does mean that the default position should be neutral or even negative rather than being positive as it would be with other experts.

If a doctor recommends a certain treatment I would normally accept that unless I have good reason not to. I might have already tried it without success, or I might think it is bogus in some way for example (some doctors recommend alternative medicine which has poor scientific support).

But it a manager recommends a particular action I would be very doubtful from the beginning. In fact, I would begin with the assumption that it is a bad idea. Of course, I should also try to look at the idea fairly and accept it if it turns out to be the exception to the rule.

In an ideal world we would all have enough time and expertise to research all the knowledge we needed for ourselves, but that is totally impractical, so we do need to trust experts to some extent. And that trust should be moderated by some doubt. And that doubt should be apportioned according to the validity of the field of knowledge under consideration.

Everyone's estimation of this validity will vary but there should be certain areas which are always out in front and some lagging far behind. Here's an example of some fields of knowledge rated from highest to lowest: maths, physics, chemistry, biology, climate science, medicine, psychology, general social science, philosophy, economics, business, management, politics, marketing, alternative medicine, mysticism, religion.

Note that I'm not saying the stuff near the end of my list is less valuable or less interesting, just that it is less trustworthy.

In summary: you can trust experts, but trust some a lot more than others!


Comment 1 (4874) by Derek Ramsey on 2018-01-09 at 13:56:35:

Trustworthiness is poorly correlated with the field of study. It’s too macro. Ask micro questions instead, like these: (1) is a field is attempting to answer something it is qualified to speak on? (2) How (un)usual is the question to be answered? (3) How important is it (i.e. what incentive is there) for the field to get the answer right?

Let’s look at medicine (#6 on your list).

Are they qualified?

A 2017 Mayo Clinic study found that most patients get a new (~21%) or modified (~67%) diagnosis with a second opinion. Not surprising if you’ve visited many medical professionals. One person can’t possibly learn (and remember) all they need to know. It’s too much information and research is constantly changing.

How usual is it?

For common illnesses the specific doctor doesn’t matter, but this isn’t a high level of trust situation. You’re trusting the doctor with basic competence, but it’s not that important (see below) and doesn’t require specialized skills.

If you have a rare condition, the chance of a general practitioner being most effective is highly unlikely. So you go to a specialist, right? Medicine is fiendishly complex: even the specialists get it wrong. You have to go to the specialist of the specialist. (If you live in a country with a socialized medical system, you may also need to come to the U.S.) You do your own research, on forums with other people in similar situations, and visiting various doctors to get second-, third-, and fourth-opinions.

How important is it?

When the first 3 opinions are “amputation” and the fourth is “reconstruction”, the stakes are pretty high. Getting a common cold diagnosis wrong doesn’t usually have major consequences. But something like an amputation is permanent. You get that wrong and there is no going back. But doctors don’t have incentives to provide the best care. “Good enough” is good enough.

We could talk about trusting scientists to make social policy or for politicians to make scientific pronouncements. We could talk about how scientific consensus having an averaging effect: mixing the best research with the worst. We could talk about how the field of economics (or climate science) is wrong more times than it is right. We could mention how most religious experts are clueless. And on, and on, and on.

We trust experts when we don’t have any other viable choice.


Comment 2 (4875) by OJB on 2018-01-09 at 13:57:10:

Yeah, I don’t think we disagree too much. I must say though, that I’m not totally sure what your point is. But to be fair, I’m not sure what mine was either!

Also, what is this all about?: “If you live in a country with a socialized medical system, you may also need to come to the U.S.” Really?

Your last sentence probably sums it up well: “We trust experts when we don’t have any other viable choice.” I think my point was that you need to consider the field the expert works in. I would never trust a homeopath, for example, no matter how expert they are. So if I wanted treatment for a medical issue I would trust the conventional doctor (say) 70% but the homeopath only 5% even though they are both “experts”.


Comment 3 (4876) by Derek Ramsey on 2018-01-09 at 21:52:08:


Noticed that, did you? Just taking a cheap political pot-shot (although I could easily make that argument, it’s still a red-herring). Can’t help a little trolling once in a while.

“I’m not totally sure what your point is”

Yeah, I didn’t really arrive at a concrete conclusion, did I?

Unlike you, I don’t find knowledge of the expert’s field to be very useful.* Maybe it’s useful to point me in the general direction if I am looking for an answer, or a factor that I can use to ‘break a tie’. A lot of experts suffer greatly from group-think**, especially with regard to politicized issues, so their credibility is in question. My problem is that I believe that most experts are not actually experts, so knowing their field is nearly useless. Much time is spent identifying the real experts.

* Excluding homeopathy, which isn’t a real field of expertise on its own. It is really just a branch of medicine where almost none of the participants are qualified experts because it normally, but not always, ignores medical science.

** As a result, interdisciplinary expertise is often more reliable. Smart people can be smart and say smart things regardless of their areas of official training.


Comment 4 (4877) by OJB on 2018-01-09 at 21:52:28:

Maybe we have different definitions of the word “expert”. Let me give you a real-life example from today. My wife has a back problem and was prescribed a drug by a “real” doctor. She also saw an acupuncturist (against my recommendation) who had 9 years training, and lots of experience, in that field. I guess she was an expert. She said she didn’t think the drug would help. I didn’t take too much notice because she is an expert in a field I have little faith in (a bit more than homeopathy, but still not much). That’s an example of where the field dictates the credibility of the expert.


Comment 5 (4880) by OJB on 2018-01-09 at 22:02:13:

And regarding your trolling. Many really good health-care systems are primarily government funded ("socialised" medicine): Germany, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, etc. It's only the worst system in the world (considering the cost in comparison to the benefits) in the US which isn't. There, I fed the troll! :)


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