Friday, January 25, 2008

More on expertise

Brian63 has convinced me that the argument from expertise is not necessary fallacious. It is possible to understand and believe a statement such as "The Earth is 4.5 billion years old" without understanding, even in principle, the actual scientific justification for this belief.

(Chris Hallquist has also been tracking this subject.)

I still don't like the argument from expertise.

While it's not necessarily fallacious, it can be fallacious in the manner I describe earlier. It seems difficult if not impossible to understand a statement such as "light is both a particle and a wave" without understanding its justification. This fallacy is especially applicable to statements about God, especially philosophers' statements. What a philosopher means by "God" is quite often "the sort of being justified by argument X". The "God" established by Plantinga's modal argument is very different from the "God" established by Aquinas' arguments, which is very different from the character depicted in Christian scriptures.

It's very easy to misconstrue an argument from expertise as an argument from authority. Arguments from "true" authority are typically sound: Catholic doctrine is what the Pope says it is; the Constitution means what the Supreme Court says it means, the defendant is legally guilty or not guilty according to what the jury declares.

The problem is exacerbated in the sciences because scientists are authorities on what science says, but they are merely experts about how the universe actually works. The conflation between authority and expertise crops up all the time in discussions of evolution: Cretinists often misrepresent what science says, or argue that they should have equal authority to declare what science says, often arguing that the lack of perfection entailed by scientists' mere expertise about how the universe actually works undermines their authority to establish what science says.

Most importantly, though, the argument from expertise is lazy. Laziness is all right, I suppose, when you don't care much for some topic (I really don't care whether the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, or 3 billion, or 6 billion), but if you don't care about the topic, why should you care enough to bother to argue the point?

When you do care about a topic, however, the argument from expertise is inexcusably lazy. The vast majority of most experts' training is in how to do original work in their field. But lay people don't need to do original work, we need only to understand the work actually completed. If you want to understand the arguments establishing the age of the Earth at 4.5 billion years, all you have to do is go to Talk.Origins, search "age of the earth", and read for a couple of hours. To understand an argument it takes only a minuscule fraction of the time it did to construct the argument.

There are fields (e.g. quantum mechanics) where understanding the justification takes considerable work. However, it is precisely these fields where it is difficult to understand the proposition (e.g. light is a particle and a wave) without understanding the justification, i.e. where the argument from expertise is indeed fallacious.

The argument from expertise is dodgy, has pitfalls, can be fallacious, and even when it works it saves the reader only a trivial amount of time. Who can say anything good about this argument?

14 comments:

  1. There are some more comments I would like to make on this topic, but real life is keeping me a bit busy at the moment, and probably for the next couple of weeks. I will get back to this though, and hopefully soon.

    Thanks,

    Brian

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  2. Larry,

    Without this style of argument you would be deprived of ceationists passing on gibberish about handedness from a 'repected scientist'. Isn't that worth a few dodgy arguments? :)

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  3. Without this style of argument you would be deprived of ceationists passing on gibberish about handedness from a 'repected scientist'. Isn't that worth a few dodgy arguments?

    It's quite a sacrifice, but I think I could find a way to live with that.

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  4. Hi again Larry,

    Firstly I want to say that I am very much enjoying this topic. I have held these sorts of views for a while, and they have just been swirling around in my cerebrum for a while without ever really having to be explicitly stated. This is challenging but helpful.



    There are several different comments I would like to make in response to your post, and rather than writing one mega-post with all of them, I will opt for the simpler approach of just one or two points at a time, per post. After some back-and-forth and hopefully some resolution, I will proceed to the next point I had in mind.


    Point #1.

    I do think there are scenarios in which making an appeal to someone else's expertise makes more sense, and is more practical, than is personally verifying some particular claim by one's self. There are times when the person simply does not have the time and/or other resources to undertake the task. The clearest example that comes to mind involves elected officials. The President of the U.S., for instance, has multitudes of advisors partly because of this--advisors for economics, health, science, labor, politics, agriculture, et al. That one person could not realistically become expert enough in every possible field to determine the impacts of some proposed legislation in each of those fields. He (or she) must rely on other people that are knowledgeable in those fields to provide assessments. It may take only a "couple of hours" (which is a low estimate in many areas) to research the background of some issue to determine the soundness of somebody's argument, but adding up all of those "couple of hours" totals a lot more hours---more than a President would have available.

    If you decided tomorrow to run for President, and were successfully elected in November, would you rely on advisors who are more knowledgeable than you in certain fields to give you information on the merits of certain ideas within those fields? It would simply be the case, I suspect, that you would not have the time to hear from everyone all that you would need to know. You would have to rely on them to some extent, in the form of taking their word on some issue.

    To different extents, the same sort of argument applies to governors, senators, representatives, mayors, etc. Even in the private sector you would find this too. A CEO of a large company relies on expert analyses and recommendations from his/her people in fields like marketing, law, labor, IT, etc. No one person can really know all that is needed to know, or have the time to do the background research to get there.

    I take the following statement to be true then: For at least some people, for at least some of the time, it is more practical to rely on the expertise of another to evaluate a claim rather than doing all of the background research necessary to evaluate it by his or her self. I would go further and say it is even necessary to do so sometimes.

    Brian

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  5. Hi Brian. 'Tis a fun discussion indeed.

    I do think there are scenarios in which making an appeal to someone else's expertise makes more sense, and is more practical, than is personally verifying some particular claim by one's self. [emphasis added]

    Here's where I think we're not on the same page.

    I do agree with you that if some expert(s) assert X, I can justifiably believe it without performing the same investigation and justification that the expert(s) performed.

    But let me clarify: I'm talking about the "pure" argument from expertise: I believe X for no other reason than some expert(s) assert X.

    (This form of the argument from expertise is actually employed, for instance in a slightly weaker form regarding the "reasonability" of theism, as noted in my first post on the subject.)

    If an expert says "X, because experiment Y"; then I believe X not just because an expert affirms X, but also because experiment Y really does justify X; that's a direct argument for X. I am not, in this case, employing the "pure" argument from expertise.

    (Again, I agree with you that I don't have to actually perform experiment Y, nor do I have to perform all the failed experiments the expert employed to rule out all the alternatives.)

    I don't think your example of the President goes directly to my argument. The President delegates actions (on the basis of reliability); she is not actually justifying her own truth-apt beliefs on the basis of expertise.

    A good executive, however, (and I've been one) really should understand the underlying arguments for what his delegates would have him actually believe, since beliefs guide one's own actions. If my project lead asserts the software will be complete in 6 weeks, I'd better have some idea why this statement is true before I start committing money to the ancillary tasks.

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  6. Larry said:

    If an expert says "X, because experiment Y"; then I believe X not just because an expert affirms X, but also because experiment Y really does justify X; that's a direct argument for X. I am not, in this case, employing the "pure" argument from expertise.

    (Again, I agree with you that I don't have to actually perform experiment Y, nor do I have to perform all the failed experiments the expert employed to rule out all the alternatives.)


    But if you do *not* perform that same experiment Y that this expert did to reach conclusion X, how do you know that conclusion X is the rational conclusion of experiment Y?

    You can personally read the write-up, the journal articles, all the fine points and details of experiment Y yourself and come to that conclusion (without actually performing it yourself), but that is also very time-consuming. You can instead hear this expert explain it all verbally to you in the same precise detail, but again that seems excessively time-consuming. If this expert instead gives you only a general description of experiment Y, you will then be unaware of the details of it. You would not know if the experiment was really conducted properly. Perhaps some very subtle error was made when conducting the experiment that invalidates drawing conclusion X, and you would catch it if you knew of the finer points of the experiment.

    Unless you are physically performing the experiments yourself or meticulously reading over all of the details personally, it seems that at some point, on some level, you are trusting in the competence of the expert to have correctly drawn the rational conclusion X from a properly-conducted experiment Y. In this context, it seems to me that "competence" is synonymous with "expertise." We are trusting purely in the expertise of another, and we are being more practical, at the least, in doing so.

    Brian

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  7. But if you do *not* perform that same experiment Y that this expert did to reach conclusion X, how do you know that conclusion X is the rational conclusion of experiment Y?

    You can personally read the write-up, the journal articles, all the fine points and details of experiment Y yourself and come to that conclusion (without actually performing it yourself), but that is also very time-consuming.


    These two paragraphs ask different questions. The first paragraph doesn't seem relevant: actually performing an experiment is distinct from evaluating the evidentiary connection between the experiment and the conclusion.

    Again, understanding the argument or experiment in detail misses the point of the argument against believing an expert's assertion on no argument at all.

    Unless you are physically performing the experiments yourself or meticulously reading over all of the details personally, it seems that at some point, on some level, you are trusting in the competence of the expert to have correctly drawn the rational conclusion X from a properly-conducted experiment Y.

    We're starting to get meta- meta- here.

    That meta-conclusion that conclusion X can be rationally drawn from argument/experiment Y can be drawn from the actual examination of the experiment. It's rarely necessary to dig into the details. I don't think it's necessary to rely on the expertise of philosophers to apprehend that "All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore Socrates is mortal" is a rational argument for Socrates' mortality.

    It's legitimate, I think, to draw the meta-conclusion that argument Y is sufficient to conclude X on the basis of expertise. But this is a more subtle meta-: It's a statement, really, about the absence (or at least obscurity) about good contrary arguments and rebuttals.

    This meta-, however, is so fragile that it shouldn't actually be believed: Because the experts have not yet found no good rebuttals is a bad basis to believe that no such good rebuttals exist. It's actually the case that much of any experts' work consists of hoping to find such rebuttals: no one gets a Nobel price for confirming existing science.

    At best, this meta- establishes a basis for action: it's probably unproductive to look for superficial or obvious rebuttals.

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  8. It's legitimate, I think, to draw the meta-conclusion that argument Y is sufficient to conclude X on the basis of expertise.

    I should phrase this sentence a little less ambiguously:

    It's legitimate, I think, to draw on the basis of expertise the meta-conclusion that argument Y is sufficient to conclude X.

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  9. Back.

    I am going to move on to the second point I had wanted to make, as I think continuing on with point 1 would not be particularly productive.

    Point 2:

    You made a good distinction between using the argument for expertise when you care about a topic versus when you do not care about a topic, but I would go a step further and suggest that there are two distinct senses in which a person can "care" about a topic:

    1. They can find it interesting and want to learn more about the details of it, and/or
    2. They can consider the subject important even if it is not interesting.

    As an example, I consider anthropogenic climate change to be an extremely important subject (so much so that I have altered my own lifestyle in response to it), but I have done a little bit of reading on the scientific aspect of it and consider it to be immensely boring and dry. I "care" about it in the sense that it is important, but not in the sense that it is a subject I have an interest in learning much more details about. On this subject though, it seems clear that a scientific consensus still does exist (that humans are contributing to it) and it makes sense to make appeals to that scientific consensus.

    Brian

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  10. Again, Brian, I do not assert that you need to understand the justification in complete detail, just that you are convinced of some proposition on the basis of an actual argument, not merely the experts' authority.

    Not only does a scientific consensus exist, but you must have — even if you avoid the commercial media to the extent that I myself do — have encountered arguments that have (or could have) rationally persuaded you that anthropogenic climate change (global warming) is actually happening.

    This is especially true since global warming is a proposition of some controversy.

    You don't need to know it all, but my point is that you do need to know something, something beyond only the expertise of the proponents.

    How difficult is it? Temperatures have been rising steadily since the industrial revolution. Glaciers and polar ice coverage has been steadily declining. Just knowing these two facts constitutes some objective justification for believing global warming, believing on the basis of an argument, not just expertise.

    And, frankly, scientists and engineers do not have a perfect reputation for reliability. If you're going to change your life in substantial ways, I think it would be naive to trust even scientists entirely uncritically.

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  11. "And, frankly, scientists and engineers do not have a perfect reputation for reliability."

    True, and nobody does, but that also includes ourselves when we personally try to evaluate those scientific arguments when we have not done the same amount of background research as the scientists have. Nobody has perfect reliability, but the smart money is on the people that have generally done more studying on the issue than the people who have done less.

    As it seems that you are finishing with this subject, I will stop here as well. Thanks for your thoughts.

    Brian

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  12. It's sometimes difficult to tell from my abrasive, dismissive manner towards some people, but I actually enjoy having intelligent conversations such as this one with people I don't agree with such as you, Brian.

    I hope you've learned half as much from me as I have from you.

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  13. Thank you for the very kind words! Yes, I do learn a lot from your take on issues, and I link to your posts too when related topics come up elsewhere on the Internet. If you ever wonder why you are getting people coming to your blog via the www.anncoulter.com forum, you can be reasonably sure that it was my fault. :)

    Brian

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  14. You're linking to me from Ann Coulter's forum? That explains a lot. :O

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