The Anointed, The Experts, And Knowledge … Part One

Here’s a bit from the speech I recently gave on Diet, Health and the Wisdom of Crowds (2018 version):

Yes, The Anointed are hearing back from the rest of of us. Turns out they don’t like it very much. Because we’re not respecting the experts anymore.

As often happens when I write something longer than a post, I had additional thoughts that didn’t fit into the speech itself. Well, that’s why the blog exists. I can expand on topics I only touched upon briefly, such as how The Anointed are dealing with all this backtalk from those of us they consider unqualified to question their advice.

I’ve seen a couple of The Anointed insist the unwashed masses need to read an essay titled The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols.

You dare to disagree with me?! Are you an M.D.? Do you have a PhD? No? Then go read ‘The Death of Expertise’ to learn why you have no business questioning me. Then shut the hell up, plebeian!

Dr. David Katz (who has become my poster-boy for The Anointed) linked to The Death of Expertise in the essay he wrote complaining about all those darned bloggers and podcasters who are shouting into the “echo-chamber” of cyberspace and drowning out the voices of experts like himself.  (I wrote about Katz and his essay in this post.)

So I read The Death of Expertise. It’s well written and makes some excellent points. But it doesn’t make the point Katz believes it does. Katz read the essay and (surprise!) interpreted the takeaway message as Laymen need to shut up and listen to those of us with credentials. All hail The Anointed.

I read the essay and interpreted the takeaway message as People who don’t know what they’re talking about should listen to people who do. Uh, yeah, good idea.  Let’s look at quotes from the essay itself:

Today, any assertion of expertise produces an explosion of anger from certain quarters of the American public, who immediately complain that such claims are nothing more than fallacious “appeals to authority,” sure signs of dreadful “elitism,” and an obvious effort to use credentials to stifle the dialogue required by a “real” democracy.

Having equal rights does not mean having equal talents, equal abilities, or equal knowledge. It assuredly does not mean that “everyone’s opinion about anything is as good as anyone else’s.” And yet, this is now enshrined as the credo of a fair number of people despite being obvious nonsense.

Making the argument I’m right because I have a degree and you don’t is indeed a weak appeal to authority. A degree means you studied a subject in college, which of course counts for something. But so does knowledge gained outside college.  I’ve been hired to fix crappy software systems designed by people with degrees in computer science – and my degree is in journalism. I’ve never taken a formal class in programming.

But I agree with Nichols that everyone’s opinion about anything is as good as anyone else’s is obvious nonsense. I was hired to fix those systems because I had the knowledge. I didn’t acquire that knowledge in a classroom, but I certainly spent a lot of time and effort acquiring it. I’d feel just a wee bit insulted if my current boss decided anyone with an opinion about programming is qualified to replace me.

Back to the essay:

To reject the notion of expertise, and to replace it with a sanctimonious insistence that every person has a right to his or her own opinion, is silly.

I agree 100 percent. In fact, here’s one of my favorite quotes, which comes from economist Murray Rothbard:

It is no crime to be ignorant of economics, which is after all a specialized discipline and one that most people consider a dismal science. But it is totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on economic subjects while remaining in this state of ignorance.

I developed an interest in economics after getting my butt kicked in a debate about economic issues with The Older Brother.  About three-quarters through the debate, a realization sunk in: Hmm, I seem to be arguing about a subject he’s studied and I haven’t.  Apparently I have a lot to learn. After picking myself up off the debate floor, I asked him for some book recommendations. I read all the ones he suggested and dozens more (including quite a few by Thomas Sowell, author of The Vision of the Anointed).

Since then, I’ve come across countless people who have a loud and vociferous opinion on economic matters while remaining in a state of ignorance. When I lived in L.A., I could throw a rock at random and hit someone with a loud and completely uninformed opinion on economic matters.

Here’s a more recent example: some months ago, I replied to a tweet expressing the opinion that healthcare would be inexpensive if only we’d get those damned insurance companies and their billions in profits out of the way. I stated the fact that the average profit on health insurance policies is about $12 per subscriber per month – which is a fact, as you’ll see.

My reply drew a loud and vociferous response from someone we’ll call Elle. According to her Twitter handle, Elle is a member of something called The Resistance … so of course I assumed when she wasn’t tweeting, she was risking her life strapping bombs to Nazi supply trains. Nope, turns out Elle is just resistant to facts, even when she supplies them.

Elle replied that my “fact” about those profits is BULL@#$%! because her insurance company made $15 billion in profits the previous quarter. She linked to an article to prove her point.

So I read the article … which stated, in clear and unambiguous English, that her insurance company had revenues of $15 billion the previous quarter. The article also stated, in clear and unambiguous English, that her insurance company made a profit of $1.6 billion the previous quarter and insured 46 million people.  It was all right there in black and white.

So I did the math for her: $1.6 billion / 46 million = $34.78 for the quarter. A quarter is three months, so that’s $11.59 per subscriber per month. A little under my figure of $12 per month.

Elle replied that 1) she’s right and I’m wrong, 2) I’m unbelievably @#$%ing stupid, 3) she’s right and I’m wrong, 4) I’m clearly a low-information voter, and 5) she’s right and I’m wrong.

Since Elle didn’t know the difference between revenues and profits and refused to believe simple math using figures from an article she herself provided, I assume low-information voter is a code term for the enemy taught in resistance school. She has since deleted her replies, probably because of operational security issues.

Anyway, encounters like that one underscore Nichols’ point: there are people who believe their opinions are just as relevant as everyone else’s, no matter what the facts say. I’m pretty sure we can thank modern college education for that.  You wouldn’t want to create an environment where students don’t feel safe by pointing out when they’re talking nonsense, doncha know.

Back to the essay:

The death of expertise is a rejection not only of knowledge, but of the ways in which we gain knowledge and learn about things. Fundamentally, it’s a rejection of science and rationality, which are the foundations of Western civilization itself.

Tackle a complex policy issue with a layman today, and you will get snippy and sophistic demands to show ever increasing amounts of “proof” or “evidence” for your case, even though the ordinary interlocutor in such debates isn’t really equipped to decide what constitutes “evidence” or to know it when it’s presented. The use of evidence is a specialized form of knowledge that takes a long time to learn.

I agree. Lots of goofballs online toss out “evidence” they clearly don’t understand. Elle certainly did exactly that.

I’ve lost count of how many vegetrollians have shown up at my door (so to speak) and yammered on and on about this-or-that observational study, cherry-picked by some High Priest of the Church of the Holy Plant-Based Diet.

Back when I bothered to debate them (before writing this post to avoid wasting my time), it became clear they didn’t know diddly about science. They didn’t understand the inherent problems with food-recall surveys, or the weaknesses of observational studies in general, or the problems with studies of self-selected groups. If I linked to a different study showing exactly the opposite result, the concept of refutation bounced off their heads like little rubber bullets.

In other words, they weren’t equipped to decide what constitutes evidence, exactly as Nichols wrote in the essay.

When I first began researching Fat Head, I was rusty on the subject myself. Not a good position to be in, considering all the contradictory studies out there. That’s why I read books on statistics and science and the scientific method. It’s why I made sure I understood the difference between observational vs. clinical studies, correlation vs. causation, absolute vs. relative risk, etc. (Later I took that knowledge and turned it into my Science For Smart People speech.)

So I agree with Nichols. It’s great to debate ideas. But you should make sure you know what you’re talking about first.

Back to the essay:

I like the democratization of knowledge and the wider circle of public participation. That greater participation, however, is endangered by the utterly illogical insistence that every opinion should have equal weight, because people like me, sooner or later, are forced to tune out people who insist that we’re all starting from intellectual scratch. (Spoiler: We’re not.)

Again, I agree. Not every opinion should have equal weight. Opinions backed up by logic,  evidence and experience should have more weight.

Personally, I don’t think technocrats and intellectuals should rule the world: we had quite enough of that in the late 20th century, thank you, and it should be clear now that intellectualism makes for lousy policy without some sort of political common sense. Indeed, in an ideal world, experts are the servants, not the masters, of a democracy.

Bingo. That’s my biggest beef with The Anointed: their belief that they have such superior ideas (often NOT backed up with evidence), they should be telling the rest of us what to do and how to live.

Towards the end of the essay, Nichols makes the case that the expert is more likely to be right than you are. But he adds this:

Experts come in many flavors. Education enables it, but practitioners in a field acquire expertise through experience; usually the combination of the two is the mark of a true expert in a field. But if you have neither education nor experience, you might want to consider exactly what it is you’re bringing to the argument.

Bingo again. I’m not opposed to experts. The people whose books and articles I read are experts. But experts come in many flavors. Experience matters, and it matters more than The Anointed think it does. (More on that in the next post). Education matters too … but education doesn’t have to come wrapped in sheepskin. You can become educated sitting in a classroom, but you can also become educated by reading books and articles, by listening to podcasts featuring experts in their fields, etc.

I can see why Katz was anxious to link to the essay. But he likes it because of how he’s interpreting it. He reads The Death of Expertise and believes it’s telling us there are only two options when it comes to seeking advice:

  • Experts with official credentials (like Katz himself, of course)
  • Lay people who don’t know what they’re talking about but are loud and opinionated

Well then, we must cease listening to anyone other than The Anointed, lest we be led astray by loud idiots. But that’s a false dichotomy. There are at least three options when seeking advice:

  • Experts with official credentials
  • Lay people who don’t know what they’re talking about but are loud and opinionated
  • Millions of people in the crowd who have acquired useful knowledge through independent study and/or experience.

As far as I’m concerned, The Death of Expertise doesn’t conflict at all with the Wisdom of Crowds concept. Here’s how I introduced the Wisdom of Crowds in my speech:

I’ve had people who never read the book say things like, “The wisdom of crowds, are you insane? Every moron in the world has an opinion and they’re all on Twitter.” But the Wisdom of Crowds does not mean taking advice from people who don’t know what they’re talking about. The Wisdom of Crowds simply means that knowledge is diffuse.

It means you can name almost any subject, and thousands if not millions of people out there in the crowd know something about it. And if they have a way of sharing and comparing what they know, they often come up with better answers than the supposed experts. Because little groups of experts, no matter how educated they are, almost never have as much combined knowledge as we find out there in the crowd.

We’re talking about actual knowledge here, not the loud opinions of uninformed people. The difference between The Anointed and the rest of us isn’t their superior expertise; it’s their belief that expertise comes wrapped in sheepskin.

Yes, it’s good to listen to experts. I do it all the time. But I define experts as people who can make convincing arguments based on facts and logic, and, more importantly, can demonstrate that their ideas actually work. More on that next time.

 

 

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29 thoughts on “The Anointed, The Experts, And Knowledge … Part One

  1. JillOz

    Experts with both experience and training are still capable of injuring people, often do injure people and can be and are, still, stupid.

    Being an expert – or simply having a qualification – doesn’t mean you’re right and competent all the time and it certainly should not mean that you mustn’t be questioned or prosecuted when you injure someone.

    That said, there are some good points in that article. The worst thing is arguing with people who know nothing about a subject and are too ignorant about it to know they’re ignorant but get passionate about it anyway and become abusive.

    Reply
    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Yup, he mentions the Dunning-Kruger Effect as well. The dumber the person is, the less likely he is to realize he’s dumb. Debating one of those people can be, uh, entertaining. I once had an exchage like this:

      Your stupid!

      I believe you mean “you’re stupid.”

      I am not! Your stupid!

      Reply
  2. Firebird7478

    Sadly, The Anointed have found their way into the LCHF/KETO/PALEO/CARNIVORE community. I have butted heads with a number of doctors who specialize in this. Sometimes they cannot answer a question because they just don’t know the answer (no answering prevents them from looking like an idiot), or they give you the “I’m a doctor, I know better” response. Lastly, at least on Twitter, they will block you when you tee off on them for making an outrageous claim that they, too, have no business making.

    Reply
    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      I’ve never understood why some people refuse to simply say, “Sorry, I don’t know.”

      The owner of a startup company once asked me if their system could be coded to accomplish a particular task. I said, “Honestly, I don’t know. I’ll have to do some research.” She immediately thanked me for saying “I don’t know.” Turns out their previous programmer would simply reply that something couldn’t be done if he didn’t already know how to do it.

      Reply
  3. Lori Miller

    I see three causes of blowhardism. 1) The experts really HAVE been wrong about a lot–everything from low-carb diets to lobotomies. See Intellectual Yet Idiot as defined by Nassim Taleb. 2) Feelings trumping thinking. Even back in the 90s, Judge Judy wrote about a woman who sued a man who’d made a few unwanted but harmless advances because it “felt” to her like sexual harassment: “There you have it–if you feel it, it must be so.” From what I can gather, this movement of feelings over reason seems to have come from…wait for it…university professors in the 60s. 3) Expression vs. restraint. This might not completely lie at the feet of the experts, but they did tell us not to keep things bottled up–let it all out or those repressed emotions will fester!

    The death of expertise was brought to us by experts–or at least intellectuals. The sad result is protesters who, when asked for details of what they’re protesting (like “what did they say that was bad?” and “what is it you don’t like about the policy”?), can’t give a clear answer.

    I can only hope that we’re seeing this partly because of more access to the internet. On-street interviews of random people who can’t answer grade-school questions go back decades. Editors surely got crank letters they didn’t publish. Look at Amazon book reviews before about 2008–before everyone had internet access. The reviews are orders of magnitude better than the frequent “Great book it arrived on time!” reviews written now. Still, I think blowhardism is getting worse. Ten years ago, Trigglypuff would have been taken in for a mental health evaluation.

    Reply
    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Totally agree the death of expertise was brought on largely by the experts themselves. They were wrong too many times, and worse, refused to admit being wrong. Katz is a perfect example. He wants us to shut up and respect his expertise, yet he created a health-ranking system for grocery stores that gave a frankenfood like sugar-sweetened soy milk a high rating and a turkey breast a low rating. Same goes for the AHA with their seal of approval on Cocoa Puffs and other sugar-frosted gobs of processed grains. They earned our contempt the old fashioned way — by being consistently and arrogantly wrong.

      Reply
      1. Walter

        But the money for endorsing Chocolate Covered Sugar Bombs was so good. “It’s OK because I’m a good person and good people don’t recommend poisonous non foods. Therefor, everyone against me is evil.”

        Dr. Lustig explains in excruciating detail why sugar is a dose dependent liver poison, and Americans are *way* into the toxic zone. He’s also not too fond of industrial seed oils.

        Reply
    2. JillOz

      I don’t know what book reviews you’re looking at but I encounter a lot of well written, extremely thoughtful, often very painstaking and long reviews.
      Often the number of reviews increases the longer a book is out.

      Reply
      1. Lori Miller

        “Among the Heroes: Flight 93 and the Passengers and Crew who Fought Back” came out in 2002. Here are some excerpts from reviews of the day:

        “Lesser men hijack planes. Great men thwart them. Such were the men and women on Flight 93. In “Among the Heroes: United Flight 93 and the Passengers and Crew Who Fought Back” we read the details and facts of people who rose from being mere travellers to heroes to be reckoned with.”

        “I valued the author’s effort to provide a glimpse into their lives through the lens of familiy members and friends. Although, it didn’t feel like voyeurism at all. Instead, it felt like attending a memorial service – a celebration of life and of the American spirit.”

        Excerpts from reviews in 2017:

        “Great book just as described and fast delivery, thanks.” (That’s the entire review.)

        “I found much of the book boring talking about the lives of all the passengers.”

        “I’m set to begin chapter 18 on page 192, but I hesitate. I dread reading past page 200. Perhaps I don’t dread passing page 200.” The reviewer goes on for three paragraphs about his or her ambivalence.

        “The Art of the Lathe” was published in 1998. Here are excerpts from reviews from 1998 through 2001:

        “[The poems] treat the lives and deepest feelings of ordinary people with sympathy, honesty and a total lack of sentimentality. Sentimental poetry–in which the poet is sentimental about his own sensitivity, the troubles of his time, the evils of the pwerful or even his own evils–is very common and can lead to eloquent lines or, I might say, eloquent lies. ”

        “The longer poems do nothing to justify their length, merely making the same moves again and again.”

        “This book is for those readers who need to find beauty even in the dread of repetition and obscured futures. This book celebrates the men and women who no one celebrates, a treatise in “soul’making” written in unsentimental, yet passionate, words.”

        Reviews–in their entirety–from 2016 and 2017:

        “Had this for a class but wasn’t a huge fan of this poetry. Came in good condition though!”

        “Beautiful poetry. I just found this poet and I am so glad I did. I’ve now given this book of poetry as gift several times as well.”

        “Bowling Alone” was published in 2000. Excerpts of reviews from that year:

        “The crux of the matter is that our social connectedness is diminishing. Social capital, or the value that exists in the level of trust and reciprocity between individuals, institutions and communities needs to be strengthen. This isn’t just about being better people or having a stronger economy. This is about the network of relationships that determine whether a society, both local and national, can meet the challenges of its problems, and thereby sustain a high quality of life.”

        “I adamantly respond that the benefits are enormous if we are truly becoming better people for forming stronger and more enriching relationships. One should not ignore that cold fact that many people in the past lived lives of quiet desperation. You were often stuck in destructive and eviscerating relationships because it was very difficult to travel regularly more than a few miles away from your front door. Human beings usually lived out their complete existence within a 50 miles radius from whence they were born.”

        Excerpts of reviews from 2018:

        “This would be an excellent book for an undergraduate sociology class. The data is extensive, appears irrefutable, and the conclusions from the data seem very clear and straightforward.”

        “Seems like a good book but the paper back version is just about eligible. Size 11 font not in bold makes for the kind of book a broke college freshman would be forced to read because it was the cheapest version he could get.” (That’s the whole review.)

        “Found it a more difficult read than I expected. I wanted the questions it posed answered. Can’t say I received enlightenment.” (That’s also the whole review.)

        That’s the pattern IME: reviews c. 2000 are steak and salad; reviews c. 2018 are juice boxes.

        Reply
        1. Tom Naughton Post author

          Probably more junk reviews now — it’s certainly annoying when someone leaves a supposed product review and complains about the delivery time. That being said, people have left some excellent reviews of Fat Head Kids.

          Reply
  4. Kathy in OK

    I know you follow Dr. Malcolm Kendrick. My favorite quote recently is from his “What causes heart disease – part 59”. “Thank God these people don’t make aeroplanes, is all I can say.”

    Reply
  5. Mike

    My dad always told me “when you’re off at school, don’t let college get in the way of your learning.” His message was that learning can happen anywhere, including college, but it’s not exclusive to college. I didn’t entirely get it at 18. I quickly realized what he meant while at college and when I started working.

    My dad had a 2-year degree and had a tremendously successful career in design at General Motors, at a time when degree’d engineers were the push. Having gone through engineering, my dad knew more about engineering than any recent college graduate, prior to them obtaining significant experience. I also witnessed peers of mine, early in my career, try the “I have a degree in engineering and you should listen to me” approach with guys who had 30+ years experience in maintenance. Now, those guys were definitely not always correct. They were more often than not, but they weren’t perfect. The REAL problem was my peer let his degree block his ears and muted his ability to listen.

    Great post!

    Reply
    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Taleb pounds home that exact point in “Antifragile.” Most of what we know, we know from experience. I’m all for classroom learning too, but I learned more about journalism by actually working at the college newspaper (overseen by an advisor who had a long career working in the news business) than I learned in my classes.

      And of course, everything I’ve learned about software programming was outside the classroom environment. Nothing teaches programming quite as effectively as trying to code something, seeing that it doesn’t work, then trying again and again to find what does work.

      Reply
    2. chris c

      I have an excellent quote which I can’t attribute

      “Education teaches you what questions NOT to ask. The failures become scientists”

      I worked in engineering in a place where the old guard managers has worked their way up from the floor. They mostly knew what was what. Their replacements came via Management Training. I wouldn’t expect some of them to manage a bowel movement without written Procedures. They spent most of their time and energy on changing things that were easy to change while ignoring the things that NEEDED to be changed, and departmental politics, blame rather than solutions. Now engineering has been mostly destroyed the same types work in health.

      Great talk! Took a while to get around to watching it, usually I prefer reading, but I’ll be adding it to my recommended list.

      Reply
  6. Cameron Hidalgo

    I read 12 dollars per year and thought “That’s off by atleast a factor of 10”.
    Then I saw the numbers, “See, way off.”
    Then I saw 12 dollars per year, “Whoops, I made a mistake reading it the first time.”

    Reply
    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Goodness, it’s a long list. Here are a few:

      Basic Economics, by Thomas Sowell
      Economic Facts and Fallacies, by Thomas Sowell
      Economics in One Lesson, by Henry Hazlitt (short, but very good)
      Free to Choose, by Milton Friedman
      Meltdown, by Thomas Woods (explains how monkeying with the money supply by the Federal Reserve created the housing boom and bust, along with other disasters)

      The Older Brother may want to add his favorites as well.

      Reply

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