Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Lamenting the death of expertise is lamenting the loss of power

Tom Nichols has a new book out, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters. I have not read it but have read the original essay from which the book is derived, the eponymous Death of Expertise.

Nichols is a deeply knowledgeable individual but the original essay struck me as an articulation of the arrogance which has become such a force in our governance and to which, I suspect, many voters are reacting. It came across as a plea that the peasants should leave the thinking to the, well, to the experts.
I am (or at least think I am) an expert. Not on everything, but in a particular area of human knowledge, specifically social science and public policy. When I say something on those subjects, I expect that my opinion holds more weight than that of most other people.


I fear we are witnessing the “death of expertise”: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all. By this, I do not mean the death of actual expertise, the knowledge of specific things that sets some people apart from others in various areas. There will always be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other specialists in various fields. Rather, what I fear has died is any acknowledgement of expertise as anything that should alter our thoughts or change the way we live.

This is a very bad thing. Yes, it’s true that experts can make mistakes, as disasters from thalidomide to the Challenger explosion tragically remind us. But mostly, experts have a pretty good batting average compared to laymen: doctors, whatever their errors, seem to do better with most illnesses than faith healers or your Aunt Ginny and her special chicken gut poultice. 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.
While there are many points in his essay with which I agree, there are as many, or more, with which I disagree. He concludes:
Expertise is necessary, and it’s not going away. Unless we return it to a healthy role in public policy, we’re going to have stupider and less productive arguments every day. So here, presented without modesty or political sensitivity, are some things to think about when engaging with experts in their area of specialization.
1. We can all stipulate: the expert isn’t always right.

2. But an expert is far more likely to be right than you are. On a question of factual interpretation or evaluation, it shouldn’t engender insecurity or anxiety to think that an expert’s view is likely to be better-informed than yours. (Because, likely, it is.)

3. 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.

4. In any discussion, you have a positive obligation to learn at least enough to make the conversation possible. The University of Google doesn’t count. Remember: having a strong opinion about something isn’t the same as knowing something.

5. And yes, your political opinions have value. Of course they do: you’re a member of a democracy and what you want is as important as what any other voter wants. As a layman, however, your political analysis, has far less value, and probably isn’t — indeed, almost certainly isn’t — as good as you think it is.
I agree - opinions aren't facts. So why do I disagree with so much of the essay?

Till now I simply left this unanswered. Too many other useful questions to answer first. But I came across an essay, The Expertocracy by Barton Swaim which helped crystalize the issues. I think my objection to Nichols' argument comes down to four elements which I do not think are taken into account in the original article.
Expertise in static and/or simple systems versus expertise in dynamic and/or complex systems.

Credentials versus expertise.

Variance in goals of individuals.

Inclination of experts to prognosticate beyond their realm of expertise.
In many field of expertise, there are bounds on that expertise which allow one to develop not only knowledge but also practice. One can become an expert plumber or an expert orthopedic surgeon because there are limits to the domain of knowledge. Only so much can happen to a leg, only so much variance in a system of plumbing. This is not to deny that those bounds might be broad and complicated, but it acknowledges that those boundaries exist. You can study in the classroom to know everything that there is useful to know and then you can practice to become familiar with the applied knowledge.

On the other hand, there are also innumerable fields of knowledge for which there are no bounds or for which the system is dynamic and complex. It is always changing and exogenous forces impinge to a much greater degree. Politics, diplomacy, sociology, culture, psychology, language, economics, education, etc. Basically, most human systems.

You can know a great deal about these topics. You can be an expert. However, because they are dynamic and complex and subject to exogenous forces, the variability of outcome can be enormous, no matter how much you know. Paul Krugman, winner of the Clark Medal in Economics and the Nobel Prize in Economics, is indisputably an expert. He knows his stuff. But economics is complex, dynamic, and subject to exogenous events.

On election night, as markets plunged on the unexpected news that Donald Trump had won the election, Paul Krugman offered his expert opinion of what was likely to happen.
It really does now look like President Donald J. Trump, and markets are plunging. When might we expect them to recover?

Frankly, I find it hard to care much, even though this is my specialty. The disaster for America and the world has so many aspects that the economic ramifications are way down my list of things to fear.

Still, I guess people want an answer: If the question is when markets will recover, a first-pass answer is never.
A forecast which was almost immediately invalidated by a strong and continuing market rally over many months. Krugman is routinely wrong about many economic things. It is wrong to say he is ignorant, and it is too easy to say that he is simply a partisan commentator. You can know a great deal about economics and still wrestle with making reliably useful forecasts of cause and consequence. It is the nature of a boundless, complex, dynamic system that is consequentially affected by exogenous events.

Credentialism is another bane. There are many people who have credentials but who do not know what they are talking about. I am not sure that needs much elaboration other than to say that with the rise in university attendance, credentialism has become even more prevalent than in the past.

A most critical issue is the totalitarian mindset which admits only one set of goals. However arrived at, there are only one set of goals and all knowledge/expertise is purposed towards achieving those goals. It puts the personal preferences of the expert above those of everyone else.

Keeping with the theme of economics, most mainstream economists are reasonably ardent in their support for unfettered global trade or at least managed trade. And they are perfectly correct - free trade leads to better allocation of resources, reduced waste, and rising prosperity for the global system. But, critically, not for every person.

When trade restrictions fall, there will always be some group of people who suffer from the changes. The expert in global trade can afford to make decisions about global trade because they will not be affected by those changes. Those who will lose their jobs and their communities might be willing to accept a marginally lower standard of living in order to maintain their communities and livelihoods.

The final weakness in the argument for deference to experts is that experts never stay within their domains of expertise. They have opinions about many things, most, necessarily, being unrelated to their expertise. They trade on their expertise in one field in order to gain power or influence in a separate field in which they have an interest but not expertise.

The above case of Krugman is likely an example of this. Yes, he is an expert in economics but he is also a rabid political partisan who hates conservatives in general and Republicans in particular. His forecast that markets would never recover from the election of Donald Trump was almost certainly not an expert economic opinion, though issued under the color of authority of expertise, but rather a passionate partisan comment. A comment on politics, a field in which he has no expertise.

UPDATE: A related argument is being made in On truth: A revolt against deference by Frank Furedi

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