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.