Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

Experts, pundits, and the search for trustworthy knowledge

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2014/03/16

Long ago on a family trip by car, after we had gone for some miles in a wrong direction, my 9-year-old daughter noted that “No one’s perfect, not even Daddy”.
That’s worth recalling whenever you hear the word “expert”.

“According to experts” is a favorite media phrase. The citing of un-named experts is an outright scam. Maybe the reporter had just asked a trusted friend? Or consulted Wikipedia or some other Googled source? “Experts” differ in what they know, in how competent they are, how honest, scrupulous, publicity-seeking . . . . — they differ in all the ways that humans can differ from one another, including trustworthiness.

The whole point of citing experts is to justify a claim. But to be able to judge whether an expert is trustworthy, one needs to know who that expert is.

The media’s choices of experts are anything but reassuring. When non-anonymous experts about subject X appear in the media, in print or in person, it can be observed that any assistant professor of subject X at any college evidently qualifies for the media designation “expert”; or any journalist or pundit who has devoted time to subject X. For my part, if I am to take someone’s opinion as worth attending to, I need a lot more information and assurance than that.

Even experts with ostensibly unimpeachable credentials for expertise may not necessarily inspire trust. On matters of public policy, experts (like others) may express views on technical matters that reflect their political inclinations more than they do an unbiased view of the technicalities. Thus on matters of atomic energy and nuclear warfare, indubitably qualified expert Edward Teller and indubitably qualified expert Robert Oppenheimer delivered directly opposite advice with comparable force and expertness.

Indeed, when it comes to informing the general public or giving advice to policy makers, the most technically expert experts are not typically the best sources. The most lauded experts are those who have gained prominence through achieving something highly significant and original. Almost always, such individuals are headstrong, fiercely driven, egotistical personalities whose unwillingness to listen to others was an important asset in their technical achievements, for the most significant and original advances almost always encounter initial resistance from the mainstream, and it requires great self-confidence and persistence and not listening to critics to bring novel science into being (Barber, 1961; though Barber’s analysis is half-a-century in the past, it remains pertinent. For instance, if Townes (1999) had listened to the pleas of his Department Head and other senior physicists at Columbia University, his invention of the maser and laser might well have had to wait for later work by others).

Pundits, journalists, science writers and others may well have focused virtually all their time and effort on subject X and yet get it significantly or even entirely wrong on central points (Bauer, 2012a). Most commonly, they do so because they misguidedly lend unquestioned trust to the most prominent technical experts. And like those experts and everyone else, pundits and journalists and science writers may be so at the mercy of their ideology that they cannot evaluate the evidence in reasonably unbiased fashion. Writings and statements on the subject of human-caused global warming or climate change illustrate that fact as pro and con “experts” wax furious at those with differing views; and the great majority of pundits, journalists and others only consult those experts whose views are congenial to them: Fox News and MSNBC manage to find experts on opposing sides of almost any issue.

Anyone who wants to form a trustworthy opinion on any issue over which “experts” differ must delve into the substantive issues for themselves. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, one does not need much technical expertise to be able to evaluate the trustworthiness of opposing experts. One can judge appropriately by how well or badly the experts try to explain and justify their opinions, whether they respond substantively to queries or whether they brush them aside haughtily or evade them sneakily. When Robert Gallo is queried about the HIV=AIDS hypothesis, for example, sometimes he hangs up the phone, or perhaps says that everyone agrees with him so he must be right; what he has never done in response to a direct request is to cite publications that supposedly prove that HIV causes AIDS (Bauer, 2007).

So the most prominent, publicly acclaimed “experts” on a given topic cannot be relied on to deliver the most judicious and unbiased advice. They can be useful about the most intricate technical details, the structure and properties of leaves or arteries or retroviruses, but they are not usually willing or able to see the forest among all the trees.

Nor of course can anyone else be relied on if you really want to reach an informed and evidence-respecting opinion. No matter how much time and effort anyone may have devoted to an issue over which there is less than 100% consensus, everyone remains fallible for a variety of reasons: conflicts of interest, ideology, lapses of mental acuity, bad luck in not locating important evidence. Not that 100% consensus guarantees trustworthy information either. The whole history of the progress of scientific understanding is marked by milestones that are also gravestones of earlier 100% unquestioned mainstream consensuses. Scientific understanding has progressed via major revolutions in which earlier 100% consensuses were acknowledged to be wanting and were ditched in favor of something different (Kuhn, 1970).

Encyclopedias and other compendia are particularly to be treated with great caution, for they too are drawn up by fallible people. Most commonly, the authors suffer from faith in scientism, namely, “a too uncritically deferential attitude toward science” (Haack, 2013/14): using “science” or “scientific” as an honorific, signifying “to be trusted”; insisting on a clear difference between real science and pseudo-scientific imposters; asserting the existence of an unimpeachable “scientific method”; regarding science as the only source of reliable answers to all possible questions, and denigrating the legitimacy of such non-scientific endeavors as the humanities, the arts, theology.

Nowadays, it is quite difficult to locate individuals who are not to some degree addicted to and misled by scientistic belief — and those most immune to it most often suffer addiction to some comparably intellectually disabling dogmatic faith, say erroneously literalist and fundamentalist Islam or Christianity.

The unquestioned benefits that the Internet has brought have been accompanied by wholesale lack of reliable sourcing. I’ve described from personal experience the lack of fact-checking at Wikipedia and the lack of useful means to correct misinformation, for example, getting plainly wrong by half-a-dozen years two events in my career and thereby drawing an absurdly unwarranted conclusion (Bauer, 2008, 2009). Not that this happens only to ordinary folks like me: The Wiki entry for Francine Prose, a first-rate writer and novelist, has a plain error of fact whose correction has not happened because she “cannot face the byzantine process apparently required”. An even more famous writer, Philip Roth, had to publish at the New Yorker blog a 2600-word open letter before the self-appointed, anonymous officials at Wikipedia corrected an unwarranted inference about an alleged real-life model for one of Roth’s fictional characters (Prose, 2014).

Anyway: with Internet, Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica, the National Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization, or any other established authority, you believe them unreservedly at your peril. To discover what is most likely to be trustworthy, you need to find and evaluate primary sources for yourself.

Over the years I’ve found the conventional wisdom and the mainstream consensus to be significantly lacking — or just plain wrong — about the Loch Ness Monster (Bauer, 1986); about statins and many other prescription drugs (Bauer 2012b, 2014); about HIV/AIDS (Bauer, 2007) and about the Big Bang and about global warming (Bauer, 2012a); about what gets labeled pseudo-science (Bauer, 2001).

But please don’t take my word for it.
And don’t take anyone else’s word for the opposite, either.
Look at the evidence I cite,
look for other sources of evidence and other interpretations,
and eventually make up your own mind . . .
and don’t hesitate to leave a question open,
awaiting more and better evidence

——————————————————–

Barber, Bernard, 1961: Resistance by scientists to scientific discovery, Science, 134: 596-602;
Bauer, Henry H., 1986: The Enigma of Loch Ness: Making Sense of a Mystery, University of Illinois Press; also Genuine facts about “Nessie”, The Loch Ness “Monster”
Bauer, Henry H., 2001: Science or Pseudoscience: Magnetic Healing, Psychic Phenomena                 and Other Heterodoxies, University of Illinois Press
Bauer, Henry H., 2007: The Origin, Persistence and Failings of HIV/AIDS Theory, McFarland
Bauer, Henry H., 2008: Defenders of the HIV/AIDS Faith: Why Anonymous?
Bauer, Henry H., 2009: Beware the Internet: Amazon.com “reviews”, Wikipedia, and other sources of misinformation
Bauer, Henry H., 2012a: Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories                        Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth, McFarland
Bauer, Henry H., 2012b: Seeking Immortality? Challenging the drug-based medical paradigm,
Journal of Scientific Exploration, 26: 867-80
Bauer, Henry H., 2014:  Statins: Scandalous new guidelines
Haack, Susan, 2013/14:  Six signs of scientism, Skeptical Inquirer; Part 1, 37 #6: 40-5; Part 2, 38 #1: 43-7
Kuhn, Thomas S., 1970: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press
Prose, Francine, 2014: New York Times Book Review, 19 January, p. 27
Townes, Charles H., 1999: How the Laser Happened: Adventures of a Scientist, Oxford University Press

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