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Sorting Fact From Fiction: Why Expertise Matters

The world is increasingly complex, so we need experts to make sense of it.

I know nothing about cars—but my dad does. That’s why I am asking for his advice ahead of buying a new car. He is the best expert at my disposal, and I trust his judgment. That’s why I am relying on his expertise to help me make an informed decision.

Why mention this? Because this article is about the importance of recognising expertise when you see it, and making the most of it.

Bev Webb, 2012
Source: Bev Webb, 2012

But We’re All Experts, Right?

Last summer, then UK Justice Secretary Michael Gove famously claimed that: “People in this country have had enough of experts.” Though this may be correct, the implication that expertise is no longer of value is questionable.

We have long relied upon experts to make decisions, from important ones such as whether or not to pursue a particular course of medication to more trivial ones such as which holiday resort to go to.

In short, we need to rely upon the expertise of others in order to successfully make our way in the world. We simply cannot know everything—it is not possible.

But how do you know an expert when you see one? How do you know you can trust them? A good first step is to remember that we are not all experts—we just think we are. This is dangerous.

Expertise Saves Lives

In U.S., the MMR myth was perpetuated by model turned access Jenny McCarthy on the Oprah Winfrey Show. On September 28, 2007, promoting her book ‘Louder than Words: A Mother’s Journey in Healing Autism’, McCarthy claimed that her son’s autism stemmed from having had vaccinations. Her claims were based on the solitary case study, her son, and, in her own words: “The University of Google.” Brotherton notes that it is a well-attended institution.

Source: By Michael Dorausch - originally posted to Flickr as Jenny McCarthy Addresses Audience, CC BY-SA 2.0

The problem is, Jenny McCarthy does not know what she is talking about.

Poor science literacy, coupled with a lack of trust in experts, results in people like Jenny McCarthy making the grave human error of relying on anecdotes to draw conclusions about the world. Anecdotes are anecdotes—nothing more. The plural of anecdote is not data.

Regrettably, people are more drawn to testimonials and first-person accounts of the world to form conclusions—it probably has to do with our love for stories.

Discussing myths surrounding the supposed relationship between vaccinations and Autism, Foster and Ortiz highlight how the Internet provides immediate access to both scientific and pseudoscientific information, empowering those on both sides of the debate to distribute information quickly and widely.

Information online can be very misleading, and it is progressively substituting expert advice. Why?

Fake experts are not experts

As Specter explains, part of the reason we no longer trust authorities as that we have previous put too much trust in them. Discussing denialism, Specter notes how denialist arguments are typically reinforced by accurate information which is selectively taken wildly out of context, and supported by fake experts who do not appear fake. YouTube, for instance, is littered with misinformation.

A fake expert is not an expert. Just the same as fake news is not news.

Trusting experts saves lives—experts, who have demonstrated expertise in a respective area, know more than the rest of us. That is what makes them experts. As a result, Daniel Levitin explains that the opinions of experts should be held in higher reward than those who lack specialist training. He elegantly explains that:

‘There exist in the world experts in many domains who know more than we do. They should not be trusted blindly, but their knowledge and opinions, if they pass certain tests of face validity and bias, should be held in higher regard than those who lack specialist training. The need for education and the development of expertise has never been greater’ (p. 336)

And speaking of opinions...

Opinions are just that—opinions

As the great thinker Edward De Bono explains, opinions are based on a perspective which reflects the set of circumstances in which someone is positioned; they arise from a combination of information, values, feelings, and experiences.

We all have opinions. I am of the opinion that the movie Fight Club is better than the book. I am of the opinion that Radiohead are the best band in the world. And so on. You can disagree with me on these opinions, because you are entitled to your own—I won't lose sleep over it. But you should not trust Jenny McCarthy's pseudoscientific opinions—nor anyones opinions when they lack authentic expertise.

Not all opinions are created equal.

Know your limits

People like to feel in control of their environment. Raghunathan notes how the desire for control can lead to overconfidence, and that most of us are more confident about the validity of our opinions, attitudes, and judgments that we really should be. We are not all experts—and we would be wise to remember this.

Helfland, writing in the most recent issue of the Skeptical Inquirer discusses the rise in misinformation and how it feeds conspiracy theories. He explains that there was once a time when most people writing on a particular topic did so as they had accumulated specialised knowledge on the topic—this is, as explained above, no longer the case.

The Internet now allows anyone to throw their respective hats in the ring on any given topic, sometimes blissfully unaware of the potential damage they cause in the process—and sometimes not so blissfully unaware of the potential damage they cause in the process.

And that is not to say that all experts must be trusted implicitly. Far from it. Rather, we must exercise humility and acknowledge our own limitations, seeking out expertise when we truly need it—from trusted experts.

As Levitin explains, it is better to know a moderate amount of things with certainty than a large number of things that might not in fact be so. This simply means we must rely upon experts.

To draw from a topic example, most people are not adept at estimating the true level of scientific consensus on climate change. It is at least 97, but perhaps as much as 99.99. Research finds that only 10 percent of Americans correctly identify this high level amongst experts.

We have not had enough of experts, and we never will. As the world becomes increasingly more complex, we will need to draw from their expertise more and more.

More from Steven Caldwell Brown Ph.D.
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