Screwballs and Experts—Part Two: Picking Up Where I Left Off

October 29, 2020
As perhaps one or two of you will recall, I suffered a disaster last Thanksgiving weekend, a writer’s worst nightmare —I woke up that Saturday to find that my trusty laptop had died, hard drive and all. What had formerly been the device on which my brain effectively was stored was now a useless doorstop, and all my work in progress on it was inaccessible to me. Far worse, I had been delaying backing up the last hundred or so documents I had created, thinking I would tackle that job once the fall semester (and my entire teaching career) was over, in early December. I had been trying to back up files periodically but I couldn’t get my flash drive to function—turns out, it was broken, but I had assumed my inability to use it had to do with some software-related problem I wasn’t quite understanding, and that I really did not have the time to devote to exploring in detail. So, "I’ll do that in a few weeks," became my slogan, which was my undoing when my hard drive crashed.
 

The solution proved to be to pay a small fortune (much more than I would have thought possible, so much more I’m ashamed to say how much, but take the highest conceivable amount you’d imagine it would take to reconfigure a non-functional hard drive, and triple it. Now double that, and you might be approaching the amount I paid.) I paid this astronomical ransom to a firm specializing in salvaging data, which crime labs and other vital organizations sometimes have need of, cost be damned, because after all, we’re talking about capturing a dangerous child-molester here, right? It also took several months, because my university agreed to reimburse me for one-quarter of the cost, but they required that we go down several avenues of doing it more cheaply, none of which worked, before they would sign on. So, sometime in March I got my old hard drive back.

From December 2019 through September 2020, I improvised my articles for BJOL. That is, I had been working on several pieces when my laptop died, but all the work I submitted in late 2019 and most of 2020 was stuff I began from scratch. (If you’re interested, my BJOL work was not sufficient motivation to pay the ungodly sum to get my hard drive back. I could have lived with losing the articles I had been working on, but I could not live with losing the latest versions of the three book-length manuscripts I had been working on.) I’m going to submit those old articles over the next few months—most of them don’t suffer from lost timeliness, though some will require explanations and links.

For example, I had published here an article entitled "Screwballs and Experts—Part One," https://www.billjamesonline.com/screwballs_and_experts/?AuthorId=23&pg=5 (and as long as I’m supplying links to my own articles, here’s one to my one encounter with the late, great Tom Seaver:  https://www.billjamesonline.com/the_time_i_almost_batted_against_tom_seaver/?AuthorId=23&pg=7 .)  But no "Part Two" ever appeared, because I’d been working on a draft, which now appears below. I was also writing another two-part article, and was just about to publish Part One of that when the disaster struck. The first part was about the new Linda Ronstadt biopic that had just been released in November, and implausible as it may seem, that was going to lead into a baseball-related topic that I had just begun researching. I published those two articles last month.

This present article is Part Two of the "Screwballs and Experts" piece, Part One of which ended (in February of 2019) with "I intended to lead into my main topic of experts from my introductory topic of screwballs, but I seem to have dwelt on screwballs for a full column’s length. We will have to leave the subject of experts, and my profound respect for them, to another day." That other day is here.

The entire subject of experts and expertise has become astonishingly controversial, both in general and here on BJOL specifically (http://boards.billjamesonline.com/showthread.php?14712-Climate-change/page3 for one recent example), "astonishingly" because I’ve always assumed the normal, default position to be "All else equal, ya listen to what the experts tell ya," but generally that position is much more widely challenged than I would have thought possible. Governor Kristi Noem of South Dakota, speaking at the GOP convention this summer, expressed this challenge when she asserted that "we are not the subjects of an elite class of so-called experts," as if we American citizens have always sought out, instead, the opinions of the dimmest and the dumbest so that, in any crisis, we can equip ourselves to act in the least informed way possible. My naïve assumption has always been that I want to find the most reliable expert in any area I am not myself an expert in, so I can be guided wisely through complicated and difficult subjects that some smart person, thankfully, has studied closely and carefully. 

And since I’m no expert in almost any field you would care to name, that means I’m hooking my wagon to a vast team of experts to pull me through the confusing muck that is my life. I’m glad there are experts willing to share their erudition with the likes of me, and I consider "elites" to be a category I can only yearn to join someday, not as a category of people to be despised and denigrated.  It’s humbling to realize how little I know, and how grateful I must be to those who know more than I do and are willing to give me access to their expertise.

The concept of "humility" gets me back to BJOL, and to Bill James specifically. One of Bill’s master themes, running throughout his work, is his understanding of how complicated almost any subject is, and how easily we fall into the pit of thinking we understand something we have barely scratched the surface of. His reminders to value humility are, well, humbling.

But on occasion, Bill doesn’t practice humility as often as he praises it. One of his more delightful rejections of humility shone through a few decades ago, when in the middle of some baseball controversy, Bill testily (and correctly, in my view) called for "clearing the room," as I recall, of all amateur opinion-spouters, and letting the experts in the field declare that controversy settled, so we can all move on to discussing the real issue, not the muck these amateurs insisted on treating like a live issue.

I forget the original context—bunting? range factor? optimal use of relievers?—but it was some subject that Bill was exasperated over, because his own expertise (and that of others whose expertise Bill respected) was repeatedly being challenged by amateurs who refused to master the rudiments of the subject under discussion but who insisted, nonetheless, on their opinions being  heard. "It’s time to clear the room of amateurs" is the call I remember, with delight, Bill making, though it’s hard to reconcile that delight with Bill’s calls for humility, which also delight me.

Plainly, as a man of good sense, Bill views the years he’s spent, and Tom Tango has spent, and John Thorn et al. has spent, acquiring their deep knowledge of the narrow subject of baseball as privileging  their conclusions, where they’ve reached conclusions, over those of the less-read, less-studied, less-informed dabblers in the field of baseball.  He takes pains (all of these et al. people do) to explain at length why he thinks as he does, he takes us generously through his patterns of thought (many of which I find too complicated to follow), but at the end of the day, he’s comfortable asserting that he, the baseball expert, has reached the right conclusion, and he often feels comfortable advising us dumb amateurs to give up quibbling and get with the program already.

Now, that ain’t very humble, but there are limits to the uses of humility. Sometimes, experts and elites are entitled to give us a blast like "It’s time for amateurs to clear the floor" so we can make progress and not remain bogged down in the endless, circular discussions of matters that the best-informed of us have reached their firm conclusions on. I, for one, am very glad not to be arguing any more over whether walks have real value or whether pitchers should routinely throw their 140th pitch in a tied game with the bases loaded. I’m glad these things have been studied by experts who have reached their conclusions.

Which brings us back to the broader issue of "experts" and "expertise." Bill hasn’t picked up this red-hot poker in recent months, much less jammed it up any of our asses, so I’m tempted to let it lie there untouched myself, and I must admit that, try as I may, something about Bill’s explanation of his position on "experts" generally just doesn’t get through to me, so I might be arguing over something that I simply misunderstand. It can’t be, for example, that Bill is simply expressing some sort of free-floating general hostility towards academics, people with exalted titles, or those with reputations for doing excellent work, since Bill is often deferential to individuals in all three categories. I think what Bill has a problem with is people who declare themselves to be experts, especially in fields beyond their own limited expertise, or in fields evolving so fast that no settled definition of expertise exists. Such people bamboozle the rest of us, or they try to, by claiming that their expertise must make up our minds for us.

Otherwise, we must declare ourselves as competent as these "experts" are, in every field that might be discussed, which seems like a formula for no progress ever being made in any field.  So we must be careful in deciding whom to accept as experts in a given field, and we must be skeptical about bamboozlers’ claims of expertise, and we must even (on occasion) challenge the more bizarre positions taken by even those experts we accept.  By "(on occasion) challenge"  I mean that this is not only rare but daunting: if I’m going to go up against the claim of someone I recognize is far more educated, far more experienced, far more thoughtful than I am in a given field, I then have the responsibility of educating myself, getting experience myself, and thinking in ways that I have never done before. Beyond saying, "Wal, I dunno…." and shaking my head mournfully from side to side,  I have the responsibility to get some serious education, some real-life experience, and some hard thinking done before I mount a challenge to expertise that I expect to be taken seriously.

I must say that the topic of "Experts" is a sensitive one in these parts, because Bill has expressed his own views on the subject very heatedly and very often in a fashion I disagree with down to the marrow of my bones. I disagree so vehemently with Bill, in fact, that I assume that he doesn’t even agree with himself because –what sane person could possibly buy the whole passel of twaddle Bill professes to believe on the subject of expertise? I must also say that Bill is amazingly hands-off on the topics I choose to write about, and the manner I choose to write about them in, so it’s not out of any fear of offending him that I consider the topic of "Experts" a sensitive one. I’m sure I could disagree with him diametrically on any topic and the worst he might do is to dismiss what I’m writing about as ignorant and misguided.

No, my fear here is that I disagree so diametrically that I suspect that I’m oversimplifying or simply misunderstanding Bill’s position, which I have just characterized as "twaddle." Fortunately, though, there is another thinker who shares explicitly the position I think Bill holds, and so I can characterize my position as being opposed to this person’s and not mention Bill (much) at all.

This person has presented a contempt for expertise that is even more naked than Bill’s hostility is (Bill’s is wearing a g-string and tassel-pasties), and his contempt clearly shows the weakness of that entire argument. This person is the current President of The United States, whom I feel entirely comfortable characterizing as a person utterly contemptuous of expertise, on principle, and who is in the frighteningly rare position of being able to do something about his contempt for experts and expertise.

The President’s case against expertise, much more clearly than Bill’s, stems directly from a comical -tragical insecurity about his own lack of credentials for proclaiming on any subject, much less whichever subject happens to be the one currently under discussion. "I probably know more about X than anyone on earth" is a flat statement we’ve all heard from him, many and many a time, on various disparate subjects that, I assume, he knows almost nothing about, and what he does know is wrong. "Wrong," that is, according to experts in the field, whose expertise he chooses to deride.

It is almost as if he is saying that the more expertise a person has in a particular subject area, the likelier it is that that person holds fundamental biases about the subject, and that his own lack of professional training qualifies him to expound on the subject objectively and authoritatively, whether that subject be pouring concrete, epidemiology, or military tactics. Where other presidents may have thought (may have thought) that they understood these subjects better than a cement-crew supervisor, a WHO department head, or a five-star general, because he had more distance from the subject-area than the expert had, this thought would never before have escaped any President’s mouth.

The appeal of such a concept is easy to see: if true, it qualifies everyone equally to expound an opinion on any subject in the universe, including the reasons for the existence of the universe. It levels the playing field flat, which in a sense is only fair and just.

The larger senses, in which it is neither just nor fair, undermine the concept of ambition, the idea that one can better oneself through diligent effort. That, more than brainpower, fuels most experts’ credentials: mastery of a subject is mostly hard work, and anyone with a doctorate can tell you that mere mastery is the easy part.

Even those holding doctorates look down their noses at others’ doctoral training, and among those most qualified to look down their noses, there are hierarchies of respect and deference given to those on the higher levels of expertise.

This talk about mastery and doctoral qualifications is just a metaphor: I don’t mean to imply that true expertise is all about (or only about, or even primarily about) earning advanced academic degrees, just that these degrees betoken a certain high measure of time and effort expended to become familiar with particular areas of study.

It’s always possible that someone can acquire expertise without putting in that time and effort, just as it’s possible for someone like Abraham Lincoln to practice law brilliantly without having attended law school for a day, or to perform intricate brain surgery without the advantage of formal medical training. But, thank you very much, I’m going to insist that anyone operating on my brain, or keeping me from jail, has the appropriate degree hanging from his office wall.

Certainly, you are going to insist that the person performing either of these difficult feats at least has a proven track record in the specialty.  No sane person is going to turn over the scalpel to someone without a medical degree and a few successful operations on his resume.

But that’s exactly (by analogy) what people are calling for when they equate their untrained selves with those people credentialed and experienced in the field. These untrained selves are not claiming to hold a phenomenally rare expertise in a field through supernatural or other unlikely sources of insight, but are typically claiming to have great "common sense."

Push has indeed come to shove recently in the discussion of medical expertise. President Trump has consistently touted his common-sense approach on medical matters above that of the specialists from the C.D.C., causing thousands of Americans to die as he bumbles his way through complicated medical subjects he has literally not one bit of actual knowledge or understanding about.

This is the single most damaging thing to happen to the entire "EXPERTISE BAD" movement since President Trump has headed up that movement. I’m sure his many supporters laud his advancements in the field, but his many more detractors have grown even more solid in their disapproval of the case against expertise since this whole Covid-19 thing has exploded our notion of society.

Now, we (those looking to care for ourselves, our families, and friends) have plainly given up on understanding the fine points of epidemiology and the cutting-edge work being done to develop a vaccine. We just want the experts to point us in the right direction, the safest direction, and don’t bother telling us the hows and whys. You want me to wear a mask? Done. You think I should stay home and not see anyone for weeks on end? Okay. You think I can save my life by scrubbing my groceries in hot water and soap? All right. Oh, now you don’t think the virus adheres to surfaces so all the grocery-scrubbing is actually unnecessary? Also all right. It’s hard to break the habit of scrubbing one’s frozen foods in hot water, but I’m slowly returning to the simpler stage of putting my frozens directly into the freezer. Whatever you say, doc, just get me through this thing alive.

This Covid-19 thing has divided our entire culture into those who eagerly seek out expert advice and those who categorically reject it.  It has brought the whole issue into high relief.

I wonder if those who categorically and reflexively reject the general concept of expertise have also rejected  specific expert Covid-19 advice in the same broad way: If a so-called expert tells them to do something, do these folks refuse to do it unless they’ve understood the entire argument themselves on the finest granular level possible?   Some have, of course. But I’m interested in those who haven’t, those who talk a strong, brave game of rejecting expert advice on trivial matters like climate change, for example, but when their own lives are immediately threatened meekly conform to whatever Doctor Fauci or Doctor Emmanuel or Doctor MyEyes or Doctor MyAss or whichever Doctor of the Day is recommending actions on  TV.

One of their better arguments is that sometimes, as the facts about Covid-19 become known, Fauci and Emmanuel will disagree on some point or other. Two experts disagreeing, even on points trivial and minor, is a moment of great glee for deriders of expertise. "See?" they like to say. "If so-called experts disagree, then one of them, if not both, is definitely wrong, and if one of them is wrong about his field of expertise, then I am free to ignore all experts as always wrong on every subject, and I choose to exercise my freedom." Where my interest in this pettifoggery exists is actually in the arguments over Covid-19, which is immediately life-threatening in a way that, say, climate change is not. (My assumption with climate-change deniers is that at least part of their argument is not rooted in awareness of the science involved but rather in philosophical conservatism, in two senses of the word: the belief that any proposed radical changes are suspect and must be considered with far greater deliberation than the proposers are suggesting, or screaming about, and the bias towards business interests over social interests generally. But even if you think that climate change will wipe us out as a species, no one thinks it will finish us off in a matter of months, and very few believe, as many do regarding Covid-19, that it could well kill them off, themselves, any day now.)

The pretense to logic in maximizing differences between Dr. Fauci’s views and those of Dr. Emmanuel is a mere grasping of straws, an attempt to bolster one’s prejudices with something that appears to be intellectually defensible. Of course, as a field of study emerges, a consensus among experts is going to build slowly at first. There will be disagreements as the experts decide where the evidence lies and where it tells the truth.

I don’t see how it could be otherwise, especially in the earliest stages of study of an emerging subject. That is simply the nature of science itself: people, preferably expert scientists, offer hypotheses, and then test them, rigorously and repeatedly, eliminating some while advancing others. But unless you get once-in-a-lifetime-lucky, which Donald Trump claims he gets about once-an-hour, you need a certain high degree of training in a field of study just to offer up a feasible hypothesis.

With Covid-19, the real experts in the field agree about basic precepts of epidemiology upwards of 90%, perhaps higher than 99%. But there is bound to be some small percentage of areas of disagreement as we find out more, and it seems to me intellectually indefensible to jump up and down on that tiny (and ever-shrinking) percentage of disagreement as an excuse to justify your belief in wacky, longshot, downright crazy ideas about epidemiology, reasoning "Hey, even your so-called ‘experts’ aren’t positive they understand everything about Covid-19." True dat. If they did understand absolutely everything about a problem, it wouldn’t be a problem anymore, would it?

This is the nub of harsh criticism about expertise: sometimes the experts are wrong. Books have been written on that nub, some of them pretty good and pretty funny books. My own favorite of this sub-genre is THE EXPERTS SPEAK: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky, an often brutally mordant take on all sorts of wrong-headed predictions, declarations, and assertions made by experts in a variety of fields over the centuries. But this, I believe, is just the price we pay for expertise. The alternative is to have a slate of authorities with nothing more profound to say on any subject than "We’ll have to wait to see how it comes out."

Of course we need to reserve some well-placed skepticism about expert pronouncements, but that axiom doesn’t negate the use of expertise, nor the need for it. We all need to select subjects that we hold skeptical views on. I will confess to being an anti-vaxxer, on the same exact grounds that Bill Maher and others have voiced skepticism about: personal experience. I have gotten one flu shot in my entire life, back in the late 1970s, after which I contracted the worst case of flu I’ve ever heard about, short of fatality.  I was in bed for days with a temperature approximately that required for slow-cooking a chicken, and I resolved to adopt the slogan of the militant Jewish Defense League on the subject of Nazi genocide: "Never Again!" I remember vividly being furious that I got talked by experts into getting that flu shot which, I still believe against all evidence, gave me a flu to end all flus. (And I haven’t gotten the flu in the forty years I’ve rejected pleas from doctors, friends, and families to submit to one.)

But I will also confess to feeling guilty and stupid about my opposition to the flu vaccine. And while I still don’t take a flu shot, I often think that I’m being a bit of a dick on this subject (I’ve heard all the pro-vax arguments, and all the cases against anecdotal evidence, regarding the flu vaccine, trust me) and every flu season I wonder if this is the year that I’ll get over my lonely crusade and submit to that flu shot that every expert in the world assures me I can take safely.

More to the point, I’m a skeptical dick only on this one subject. I don’t rail against vaccines in general, and I certainly laugh bitterly at the mindless cretins who rail against Western medicine across the board, especially those who proclaim in public their ignorance on the wisdom of wearing masks to protect themselves against contracting Covid-19. Like them, I admit that my position on the flu vaccine is based on nothing much other than my own uninformed opinion, but unlike them, I freely admit that my position is pretty dumb and indefensible.

I imagine that many people have betes-noires like this, limited subjects on which they hold irrational beliefs. We’re all ashamed of holding such beliefs, but I think it’s a fairly harmless tendency, probably related to our need for asserting our individuality. Some of us hold a long series of contrarian beliefs, and are able to justify them—we’re just very independent thinkers, not at all subject to group-think held by a large and mindless herd of sheeple. And the extreme contrarians among us, including those who suffer from (or may even enjoy) a syndrome known as Oppositional Defiant Disorder, pretty much want to know which positions are widely held just so they can hold opposing views, however stupid or ill-informed or nonsensical they may be.

The latter group is where the extreme anti-expertise people should be classified. Their blanket condemnation of expertise in general speaks to a profound mistrust of the world in general. This opposition to expertise is often lumped together with a hostility towards what they may choose to call "the elite," which baffles me. Again, don’t we all want elite doctors and lawyers if our lives are threatened? Normally, we can’t afford their services, and have to settle for near-elite practitioners if we can afford them, but no one sets out to find the laziest, most incompetent, morally dubious person in any field that we need help in. I don’t really get how the term "elite" became a term of approbation. "Elite" is good. "Experts" are desirable.

I think the problem came in when we saw cases of elite experts who disappointed us, when we put our trust in them to deliver us from a scary fate that they assured us they understood far better than we did, and they failed us, much like the flu vaccine in 1977 let me down. If this happens to you once, in a context of a hundred or a thousand times that the experts did correctly prescribe a remedy we did not understand but which nonetheless worked perfectly, we’re likely to be traumatized by that one-in-a-thousand occurrence and vow (like I’ve done with the flu shot) never to trust experts again to do what they, the pompous imbeciles, assure us they can do.

It’s reasonable, I believe, to regard experts skeptically when they are giving you unpleasant or inconvenient advice, and to apply that advice slowly when it flies in the face of common sense or offends your deepest values. That’s bound to happen, and it’s not a terrible instinct to have.

But I think it’s even more important to be skeptical about your own skepticism. In other words, when you are defying expert advice, especially when that advice concerns a life-altering or life-threatening outcome, be humble. Ask yourself, "Am I reacting skeptically because I just don’t want to change my life or my habits or my daily practices? Or does my skepticism here derive from an actual and valid criticism of the advice itself, which I am determined to educate myself about so I understand the issue much, much better than I do?"

Another good question to ask oneself is "How often do I regard experts as totally wrong while regarding my non-expert self as totally right?"  If extreme skepticism is your typical response to expert advice, that should be a concern—it betokens laziness rather than sincere doubt. It requires real work to understand a field so that you can parry in it with those who’ve done that work. It may be reasonable, for example, to reject one warning that your doctor gives you, whether that’s "Lose some weight" or "Get a colonoscopy every five years" or "I want you to take these blood-pressure pills I’m going to prescribe for you" or "Cut back on your drinking" or "The iron levels in your blood are dangerously low," but if you’re rejecting all of them on the principle that doctors don’t know everything, you’re playing a scary game of self-deception, and I’d like to be named as a beneficiary on your life-insurance policy. Your doctor might hold a crackpot opinion in one of these areas, maybe, but is it likely that he’s wrong about each of them, and many more?

It took me a few days to work out some issues I had with wearing masks, for example. The simplified version of the experts’ advice was just "Wear a mask." It took a frustrating amount of time for me to figure out where this three-word maxim applied to me and where it didn’t. It mostly didn’t, and I rarely wear a mask these days, mainly because I restructured my life so that I almost never am exposed to the virus. I stay indoors from dawn to dusk nearly every day without fail, and I live alone, so obviously I don’t need to wear a mask when I’m at home. I’ll sometimes get a grocery delivery, but I just open my car trunk and instruct the deliverer to put the grocery bags in there, and I retrieve them when he’s gone. I exercise outdoors twice a day for an hour each time, but I’m completely alone when I go for my pre-dawn bike ride or my sunset walk, on either of which I can see someone approaching from hundreds of feet away, so I just cross the street, or turn myself around. (It’s hot in South Florida, and I can avoid bright sunlight, and heat, by exercising in the cooler parts of the day, when the streets are mostly deserted.) I’ll wear a mask if I absolutely must enter a store, but I almost never do, so I almost never need to wear a mask, which I find extremely uncomfortable. It’s been a burden to live like this, but I’ve managed to find ways to live that minimize the mandatory wearing of masks, and I’ve been able to accomplish this by teaching myself a little more about the experts’ advice than just blindly obeying the three-word slogan. Most people don’t have the luxury I have of being able to adapt their lives as radically as I have over the past few months, and they find themselves in situations calling for mask-wearing more often than I do.

Below is an exchange I had with Bill on "Hey, Bill" in April of 2017 and, honestly, while it registers with me that his answer is basically "You were born wrong, and you’re going to die wrong," I totally fail to get his central distinction between "scientists" and "experts" (much less which he considers himself to be in his field of sabermetrics):

_______________________

Here's the problem with your answer (which I endorse wholeheartedly) "People who are not scientists have sometimes not dealt honestly with the material, not because they are dishonest but because they just don't QUITE get what science is":  

Of course, they don't understand science nearly as well as scientists, and so they tend to overstate, and misstate, sometimes sincerely, sometimes duplicitously.  But scientists are the experts in their fields,

Asked by: Steven Goldleaf


Answered: 4/30/2017

 No, that's not right.    But I give you credit for having perfectly stated the fallacy, the misunderstanding.     Scientists are NOT the experts in their field.    There is a very fundamental difference between a scientist and an expert, an irreconcilable difference.   Anyone who thinks that a scientist is an expert in science doesn't understand what science or what it does.  That is the exact core of the problem.   

 

The dichotomy between scientists and experts is very much like the split between scouts and analysts described in Moneyball (a split which, I repeat, I have not seen in my own experience, but don't question that Michael Lewis described accurately from his.)   Scouts are experts in baseball.   Analysts are scientists, or joke scientists at least, borrowing scientific methods for petty causes.   They have fundamentally different views of the world. 

 

An expert represents the current state of knowledge in a field.  An expert takes the wisdom of previous generations and advocates it in the current generation, understanding that by "a previous generation" we may mean two months ago, but an expert unavoidably and always argues that what is BELIEVED to be true, IS true. The truth is what the experts in the field believe it to be.   

 

A scientist ATTACKS the current state of knowledge in the field, undermines it, questions, probes constantly for its weaknesses and failures.  This is what science is; it is probing for the errors in our current understanding of the issue.  An expert is a hitter; a scientist is a pitcher.   What one is trying to do, the other is trying to prevent.   

 

A scientist can be an expert in the same sense that a pitcher can be a hitter--as a minor part of his job, at which he is almost always not very good.   But expertise and science are not only fundamentally different, they are inherently at war with one another.   

__________________________________________ 

 

Is Dr. Fauci an expert in epidemiology, or a scientist? To my mind, the only path to being an expert in epidemiology is to, first, be a scientist, a good scientist, an elite scientist.  Is there any other path? It’s a false distinction, in other words, even a false dichotomy. In that clearly credentialed field, the two circles of the Venn diagram overlap like the moon overlaps the sun in a total eclipse. I wouldn’t accept anyone’s standing as an expert who couldn’t show me extremely daunting credentials as a scientist in that field. On what basis would a non-scientist be able to overrule a scientist’s expertise? Not knowledge, certainly, but maybe on the basis of having the power, the political power, to reject scientists’ expertise and decide on policies that fly in the face of scientists’ recommendations? An expert must synthesize scientific views, which is something like wrangling cats, since as Bill points out, scientists’ function is to disagree with other scientists.

Look at what a non-expert, and non-scientist, Senator Rand Paul had to say on this subject, earlier this year: "It is a fatal conceit to believe any one person or small group of people has the knowledge necessary to direct an economy or dictate public health behavior. I think government health experts during this pandemic need to show caution in their prognostications. It’s important to realize that if society meekly submits to an expert, and that expert is wrong, a great deal of harm may occur."

Senator Paul suggested experts "might consider the undue fear they are instilling in teachers who are now afraid to go back to work. We shouldn't presume that a group of experts somehow knows what's best for everyone."

But isn’t the Senate, whom presumably Rand Paul was exhorting to take a different tack from scientists or experts, precisely "a small group of people [who have] the knowledge necessary to direct an economy or dictate public health behavior"? Isn’t acquiring expertise, or relying on experts, their job definition? Who watches the watchmen, in other words? Paul’s rejection of government health experts’ legitimacy has no basis that I make sense out of—in sabermetric terms, he seems to be questioning the small sample size: if you have a very large group of people chiming in, then by definition, some of them won’t be the most credentialed experts in the field, but if you elevate your standard to the most elite of the elite, who all agree with each other, then you’ve got only a "small group of people," again by definition.
 

Note that Paul doesn’t give any reason to dispute experts’ recommendation—he just says that if the experts are wrong, society can suffer harm. Duh? OK, but how are they wrong here?  Are they wrong here? He doesn’t bother with that. I also like the word "somehow" in the middle of this sentence: "We shouldn’t presume that a group of experts somehow knows what’s best for everyone," like they’re just taking wild guesses to reach their conclusions. It’s "somehow" because virtually all non-experts lack the training to follow every detailed step of the explanation, and if the experts dumb it down enough so that all non-experts can follow, then they’ll (again by definition) be oversimplifying such that Paul can then claim that their explanations contain errors.

Note too the overstatement "what’s best for everyone." I doubt that experts ever state definitively that everything they’re saying applies universally to everyone under every conceivable circumstance, but (again) if they qualify their statements, Paul will pick up on the exceptions and the qualifications, and if they under-qualify their statements, he can charge them with inaccuracy. It’s a mug’s game, but one that too many folks are willing to play.

Bill’s key distinction between experts and scientists seems to rely on experts’ willingness to reach conclusions: "an expert unavoidably and always argues that what is BELIEVED to be true, IS true." This is what we push them to do, because we need recommendations. According to Bill, we don’t need scientists in public policy discussions because they’re always questioning hypotheses, poking holes in other people’s conclusions and therefore miring us in doubt and further questions when we’re seeking definitive answers.

But how does someone process a million different questions and provisional answers that require further questions into a clear public policy without having the training and the know-how to evaluate the complicated field? In effect, we’re asking scientists to pretend to understand their fields better than they actually do, and put on the hat of "experts," and then we’re (Bill James and Rand Paul) promptly questioning their recommendations on the basis that they’re pretending that the open questions in the field don’t exist.

This is just a glorified way of exalting the non-experts’ standing to the level of the experts’ standing, so that everyone is equal, and my stupid conclusion is exactly as valid as your educated conclusion. It’s the fly in the ointment of democracy, which doesn’t work if taken literally: once you’ve convinced dummies that their vote not only counts equally with that of smarter people (which it does), you take the next step of convincing them that they need not heed what smarter people think, or even that an equal vote means that everyone is equally perceptive. The idea of democracy only works if people acknowledge that there are better informed people around and that we need to figure out who those better informed people are so we can take guidance from them.

 

This is already too long for an article, over 6000 words, so I’ll try to break the rest of it down into smaller bits over the next few weeks, all under headings like "Screwballs and Experts—Part 19," so you can recognize them easily and ignore them if this opinionated piece didn’t float your boat, because the next ones are only going to be more opinionated.

 
 

COMMENTS (4 Comments, most recent shown first)

Marc Schneider
It's a really good article with which I agree probably 99% with. (I also know people who refuse to get the flu vaccine because they got sick once. Not a good position, in my opinion). I still don't really understand Bill's attack on "experts" or whatever he railed against.

One issue, I think, is that there is a difference between scientific expertise, based on experimentation and experience, and other kinds of expertise. For example, one might say that Dean Rusk and Robert McNamara and, later, Henry Kissinger, were "experts" in foreign policy and all they did was bring us Vietnam. I think there is a tendency to distrust experts generally because of all the mischief that certain kinds of experts have wrought.

The other thing, which you sort of alluded to, is the way that people receive expert opinion is through the mass media, which normally oversimplifies complex subjects. The use of masks and the risks of spreading the virus are, I think, enormously complex, but we typically hear only binary arguments-yes or no-when, in fact, its probably not that simple.

And, of course, science has been wrong and it changes. See Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. At one time, eugenics was considered a legitimate science. And, in the 70s, we heard a lot about likely Malthusian famines. Let's be honest, some scientific nostrums have been agenda-driven, not necessarily by scientists but by others intentionally misrepresenting a supposed scientific consensus.

Don't get me wrong, I am deeply disturbed by the attack on expertise. I would like to ask Senator Paul if he is concerned about the potential effect when he gets on an airplane. Think about it. The airplane mechanics are "experts" in how they maintain and repair the planes. What if they are wrong? You are going to crash. Obviously, experts being wrong can exact serious consequences-doctors make mistake all the time-but the danger of ignoring expertise is far greater.

The real problem with the anti-expertise attacks today is that they are almost entirely tendentious. I guess anti-vaccers actually believe that vaccines can cause autism, but I suspect there is some deeper political agenda that drives those beliefs.
4:22 PM Oct 30th
 
malbuff
One of the issues I take with tying generally-agreeable statements about expertise to the current political situation is we are today awash in self-described media-focused "experts". Gov. Noem's skepticism is a healthy one; it's not an appeal to ignorance, it's a many-times-burned many-times-shy realization that just because one claims to be an "expert," that claim does not make it so. It's as phony as the claim of "scientific consensus" on a given subject; science is the enemy of consensus. When disinformation on all sides is the order of the day, skepticism is essential.
3:00 PM Oct 30th
 
bearbyz
Hey I like your articles, so I am glad you made the sacrifices to bring them here. Thank you.
6:18 PM Oct 29th
 
steve161
Keep going. You're on the right track.
4:42 PM Oct 29th
 
 
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