Most people prefer experts, of course, especially when it comes to health care. As a surgeon myself, I can hardly object to that tendency. But a problem arises when some of those experts exert outsized influence over the opinions of other experts and thereby establish an orthodoxy enforced by a priesthood. If anyone, expert or otherwise, questions the orthodoxy, they commit heresy. The result is groupthink, which undermines the scientific process.
What Afghanistan shows is that we need a new definition of expertise, one that relies more on proven track records and healthy cognitive habits, and less on credentials and the narrow forms of knowledge that are too often rewarded. In an era of populism and declining trust in institutions, such a project is necessary to put expertise on a stronger footing.
Tetlock and the Taliban
How a humiliating military loss proves that so much of our so-called “expertise” is fake, and the case against specialization and intellectual diversity
The American-led coalition had countless experts with backgrounds pertaining to every part of the mission on their side: people who had done their dissertations on topics like state building, terrorism, military-civilian relations, and gender in the military…Meanwhile, the Taliban did not have a Western PhD among them.
Below are a few different resources from author Jonathan Rauch discussing concepts of truth, knowledge, misinformation and the roles of institutions in producing knowledge. His work covers a lot of important ground related to TOK.
When Americans think about how we find truth amid a world full of discordant viewpoints, we usually turn to a metaphor, that of the marketplace of ideas. It is a good metaphor as far as it goes, yet woefully incomplete. It conjures up an image of ideas being traded by individuals in a kind of flea market, or of disembodied ideas clashing and competing in some ethereal realm of their own. But ideas in the marketplace do not talk directly to each other, and for the most part neither do individuals. Rather, our conversations are mediated through institutions like journals and newspapers and social-media platforms.
The very idea of truth and science, Jonathan Rauch argues, is now under threat from many quarters. In his latest book, The Constitution of Knowledge, he gives a novel account of the principles of science, and explains why democracies must strive to preserve the truths that bind us together.
So the “believe the science” chorus gives the credentialed mavericks no notice unless it’s to defame them. Apparently, under the believers’ model of science, truth comes down from a secular Mount Sinai (Mount Science?) thanks to a set of anointed scientists, and those declarations are not to be questioned. The dissenters can be ignored because they are outside the elect. How did the elect achieve its exalted station? Often, but not always, it was through the political process: for example, appointment to a government agency or the awarding of prestigious grants. It may be that a scientist simply has won the adoration of the progressive intelligentsia because his or her views align easily with a particular policy agenda.
Now, I’m all for interdisciplinary collaboration and intellectual modesty, as a general rule. But although Ballantyne raises interesting points and creates food for thought, he fails to make a conclusive case that what he calls “epistemic trespassing” is, on balance, bad for society. And his arguments raise uncomfortable questions that he doesn’t really wrestle with — most importantly, the question of who gets to decide who’s a trespasser.
David Epstein Knows Something About Almost Everything (People I (Mostly) Admire Ep. 35)
Related to the essay above is a podcast episode in which the guest makes similar points about the value of individuals stepping outside their narrow expertise. In particular, around the 11 minute mark the guest talks about Claude Shannon.
Meaningful discussions around the concept of the production and utility of scientific knowledge, interdisciplinary knowledge, and the limitations of expertise.
It is, moreover, true that scientific consensus is often fleeting and regularly overturned, and that, in any case, consensus is neither unanimity nor a marker of infallibility. But the problem that we raise would remain a problem even if scientists were unanimous and infallible in their respective fields, and omnipotent about particular circumstances of time and place…
When the phenomena of multiple scientific fields interact, such as when it is necessary to trade off the health costs of a virus against the economic and other costs of a lockdown, policymakers can turn to experts about isolated phenomena. But there are no experts about the interaction of different kinds of phenomena or about the proper weighting of some against others. Policymakers can ask epidemiologists to weigh in on epidemiology, infectious disease specialists to weigh in on infectious disease, and economists to weigh in on economics. But there are no experts about how these subjects interact or how to balance them.
It’s not just that people don’t know a lot about science or politics or geography. They don’t, but that’s an old problem. The bigger concern today is that Americans have reached a point where ignorance—at least regarding what is generally considered established knowledge in public policy—is seen as an actual virtue. To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to demonstrate their independence from nefarious elites—and insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong…
I fear we are moving beyond a natural skepticism regarding expert claims to the death of the ideal of expertise itself: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople, teachers and students, knowers and wonderers—in other words, between those with achievement in an area and those with none. By the death of expertise, I do not mean the death of actual expert abilities, the knowledge of specific things that sets some people apart from others in various areas. There will always be doctors and lawyers and engineers and other specialists. And most sane people go straight to them if they break a bone or get arrested or need to build a bridge. But that represents a kind of reliance on experts as technicians, the use of established knowledge as an off-the-shelf convenience as desired. “Stitch this cut in my leg, but don’t lecture me about my diet.”