When is it right to trust the experts?

Last post (I’m beginning to see a pattern here) I looked at a number of scientific and historical facts where a bunch of non-experts challenge the consensus of the real experts. These areas were:

  • evolution vs creationism;
  • whether Jesus was a historical person and Nazareth was where he lived;
  • climate change;
  • the medieval church vs science;
  • the beneficial effects of religious belief and practice

On all of these matters, there is substantial agreement among the experts (scientists, historians, psychologists, etc) but the consensus is often challenged and disbelieved by sceptics. They ask us to believe them rather than the experts, and tend to accuse the experts of some sort of conspiracy or bias.

We all know that experts are sometimes wrong (though more often right). And most of us like to feel free to go against the experts on occasion. So when should we trust the experts?

Facts and opinions

We all understand the difference between facts and opinions, even though there can be shades in between, and we may not always agree on what falls into each category.

Facts are things that are objectively true. Any reasonable person, given the right information, should be able to accept the facts as true. Of course very little in life is absolutely certain, but facts are about as close and objective as we can get.

Opinions, on the other hand, are subjective. They often involve personal taste (e.g. I like chocolate and not coffee) or matters on which the facts are unclear (e.g. whether there is other life in the universe). We can argue about opinions, but in the end, we cannot objectively resolve them, otherwise they would be facts

Most of us would agree that we need to base our opinions on evidence. First understand the facts, then draw conclusions.

But often the problem is knowing the true facts.

Facts are facts

If I am discussing events and conversations in my own life, then, subject to human memory, I can be reasonably confident of the facts. But in important matters of science and history, how can I know the facts?

In the question I’ve listed, the information available is complex and copious. Getting reliable and current facts may require reading scores of academic papers, understanding complex mathematics or an ancient language and participating in conferences where new discoveries are shared. I am not a climate or evolutionary scientist, I am not a historian or archeaologist, nor am I a neuroscientist or a psychologist, and I have not had these opportunities.

It would be quite amazing if I could have anywhere near an adequate grasp of complex scientific or historical information (facts). Just as I rely on my doctor, my car mechanic and my investment advisor to give me the best information about my health, my car and my money, I cannot have much in the way of facts unless I rely on the experts.

So if the argument is about facts, we will need to find the consensus of the experts. If there is a consensus, we are compelled, logically, to follow that consensus unless we are ourselves expert, or we have a compelling reason to disregard it. And if the argument is about opinions, we would do well to establish the facts first.

When shouldn’t we trust the experts?

None of this means we should always trust the experts in everything. There are several situations where I think we should reasonably remain sceptical.

Opinions are not facts

After we have ascertained the facts on any matter, there will still likely be matters of opinion that we need to consider. For example …..

  • If the scientific facts point to evolution, do I think the Bible should over-ride the science? Is it reasonable to think that?
  • If Jesus existed and we have a reasonable understanding of his life and teaching, do I believe he was the son of God?
  • If climate change is real, how much am I willing to change my lifestyle to combat its adverse effects?

These are matters which the experts cannot tell us. The are personal opinions, personal choices. It makes sense to listen to what the experts say, but their expertise doesn’t generally run to answering the more personal, subjective questions.

Bias does occur, so look for consensus

The experts are human and make mistakes and can have biases. On some aspects of each of the above examples, there may be a wide range of conclusions even by the experts. Picking out one expert whose conclusions we feel comfortable with is not a good path to a true understanding of the evidence.

But science and historical study have a process for identifying poorly based conclusions. Publication and peer review allow all the experts on a particular matter to assess new information and hypotheses, and a often a consensus emerges. Where there is a reasonable consensus, we would be foolish to ignore it.

Sometimes there isn’t consensus even on the facts

Some cosmologists think string theory is the answer, others don’t. Some New Testament historians think John’s gospel is worthless historically, others disagree. Some neuroscientists think God-belief is the natural state of young children, others don’t. These are all matters of fact, but the facts are not yet known and agreed upon.

They are therefore not matters which we can call facts at present, and we can legitimately prefer one view to the other, provided we don’t pretend to others that they are settled facts.

Experts sometimes talk outside their expertise

An evolutionary biologist like Richard Dawkins or Francis Collins can speak with authority about aspects of biology close to their expertise, but have no special authority when speaking about history or philosophy. When they speak on these things, we can reasonably disregard their assessment of facts, unless they can convince us they have ascertained the consensus of the true experts.

Argument from authority?

It is not uncommon to quote an expert and have someone dismiss the expert’s view as “argument from authority”, as if that ends the matter.

It is true that an appeal to authority is sometimes considered a fallacy in formal philosophical argument, because a proponent should be able to present the reasons why an expert has come to a certain view. However philosophers recognise that an appeal to authority is often the most reasonable justification, especially in complex matters, provided the experts agree.

However “when there is controversy, and authorities are divided, it is an error to base one’s view on the authority of just some of them.” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Far from being a fallacy, science and history are built on the use of authority. No scientist or historian can possibly be expert in all areas of knowledge relevant to their work, and good academic papers and books provide copious references to support in formation, facts or opinions of others in their field having more expertise on a particular matter. We should surely do the same.

Determining the consensus of the experts

This is important, as we have seen, but isn’t easy. But there are some steps we can take.

Read well

Obviously we start with experts, people with relevant qualifications, experience and publications. And it makes sense to read the most recognised and respected experts.

Sometimes it is pretty clear who this is – e.g. Stephen Hawking is well known as one of the world’s most eminent cosmologists. But mostly we have to work a little to find out. Sometimes text books outline the various views and who the most important figures are in a particular field; checking a few different books may identify the same few names. Otherwise, we may be able see who is most often referenced by others in the field.

The publishing house or website can give us a clue. Books and web articles by reputable universities or a reputable academic publisher are more likely to be reliable than self-published material. Some newspapers and magazines are more trustworthy than others, particularly if the topic has political implications.

Read widely

If we are reading up on a contentious area, reading both sides of the question is important. For example, if we want to determine the historical facts about Jesus, reading at least one believer and one non-believer will give us a better balance than only reading from one side. But we should ensure that we choose the best qualified representatives of each view.

When researching a topic on the web, I try to find at least a dozen articles that appear to be reasonable and it will often mean looking up double that number to weed out some obvious “crank” or “fringe” sites. I try to vary my search terms to ensure that I find articles on the various sides of the question. (For example, when reading on climate change, we can use search terms like “climate change”, “climate sceptics” and “climate warnings” to cover some of the different viewpoints.)

Keep up-to-date

We cannot assume that knowledge is static. Scientists and historians are making new discoveries all the time, and some will lead to changes in understanding. Sometimes sceptical views (e.g. about the historicity of Jesus or the conflict between science and religion) are based on conclusions long since discarded by the experts. In most fields, anything older than about 30 years may be getting out-of-date, and a decade can be a long time in some fields of knowledge.

Be sceptical of the sceptics

It is relatively easy for a sceptic to ask critical questions and claim that the experts have no answers. But a question isn’t an argument, and often the experts do indeed have an answer. We should read maverick non-experts with a questioning and sceptical mind.

It makes sense

So I think it makes sense to trust the experts ….

  • in areas that I am not expert,
  • when it is a matter of fact, and
  • when the majority of experts agree.

Albert Einstein Wikimedia (Public domain)