Why We Need Fewer “Experts”

An interesting view that I have seen appear across many differing topics in the past few years is that only experts should opine on any given area.  This has been used across the political spectrum:  only economists should opine on the economy; only climate scientists should opine on climate change; only disease experts should opine on COVID; only nuclear scientists should opine on nuclear power and so on.  What is amusing is the hypocrisy of selecting the delegation of opinion to experts only when it meets a particular political view.  It is not uncommon to find a person who claims that we must absolutely listen to whatever the scientific consensus is on climate change, but that a scientific consensus on nuclear power is somehow not to be listened to.  Or a person may claim that we should listen to economists in regard to what is best for the economy, but not COVID resources.  Both left and right claim to rely on experts –  but only when it suits them.

One explanation for this is that intelligent people are more successful at arguments not because they are more correct, but because they are better able to find justification for their views.  This is supported by the lack of correlation between intelligence and either success or happiness.  That is if intelligent people had such a superior insight into the world then why are they not more wealthy or happy?  (Of course, I am intensely amused by the possible irony that the views in this article are not particularly insightful, but merely the result of finding justification for preconceived views).

The problem is that policy to fix complex problems such as climate change or the economy are themselves complex and multifactorial.  One part of the solution might be a technical one, but there will be wide ranging impacts into many other areas.  Doing something which might be a positive action according to scientific consensus such as reducing pollution will have trade-offs in the economy, welfare, technology application of scarce resources and so on. This does not mean that complexity should stop beneficial policies; I am not arguing for inertia.  My point is that an expert opinion is not a trump card in a debate.  It is one factor to be considered and negotiated amongst many.

Give Unto Science That Which Belongs To Science

If someone claims to be an expert in a particular field, their specific skill set can be challenged, especially in the field of predictions.  For example, take an evolutionary biologist who comments on the future of human evolution and recommends policies based on that prediction: should we treat their views as undebatable? For example, predicting that because of the vast amount of time society is spending looking at screens we will develop square eyes, and to counter that we should make all screens round.

They may point to their knowledge of the scientific consensus that humans and other animals have evolved and how they have done so: eyes have evolved depending on the environment.  Then they could refer to the leading models on evolution and extrapolate out future trends: an environment of square screens would lead to square eyes.  And then on the basis of those trends suggest recommended policies: make all screens round.

But an evolutionary biologist does not have a monopoly expertise in either prediction or creation of policies from that prediction. And neither prediction nor policy is “science”. At the evolutionary biologist has is a domain expertise in studying the evolution that has happened in the past (or, cynically, writing journal articles about that). It is that – much narrower – domain that we should defer to their expertise.

And of course the notion that the sole opinion which ought to be given weight is that of someone who has credentialled themselves as an expert in the field is an ad hominem argument. To suggest that only the views of an expert in a field should be deferred to and the opinions of other individuals bear no weight is to disregard the factual accuracy of the sentiment being asserted. The discussion accordingly shifts from being concerned with the substance of the argument to discussion of the credibility of the individual presenting it.

This does little to further discussion on the critical issues of today. When more weight is attributed to an opinion purely based on the credentials of the person making the assertion than the accuracy of the opinion we allowing to experts to create a set of rules. This set of rules, which can otherwise be viewed as non-disputable scientific facts, inform policy making decisions and become a form of technology.

Rules Are Technology

Technology is a system, including a system of rules, so in trying to create an expert rule and delegate decision making to that, there has been delegation not to ‘expertise’ but instead to technology. That is, there is a virtual program that exists not in a computer but instead in the method of expertise. Indeed, there might be some actual computer system such as a “predictive” model.

In my view we should not delegate decision making to technology. Nor should we abandon technology We should instead remember that humans and technology are symbiotic and best work together, bringing their respective strengths to the union.

This applies to experts too. We should not delegate our decision making to experts. Nor should we abandon them. Instead we should utilise the domain expertise as part of broader decision making that takes into account the exceedingly complex and unpredictable world that we live in.

Pin It on Pinterest