Intelligent Design

When not to trust an expert

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Catholic blogger Simcha Fischer has written an excellent post titled, But what if we’re not scientists?, which addresses the question: how can laypeople decide whether or not to accept a scientist’s say-so on a given topic? She warns against some of the common cognitive pitfalls that we are all liable to make, on occasions (I’ve listed her key points only):

So, how do we go about deciding which experts to trust, and which to be suspicious of? Here are a few of the traps we can fall into:

Mistrusting a knowledgeable person because he expresses his ideas in an unpleasant way.

Mistrusting a knowledgeable person simply because he said something that makes you mad or upset or scared.

Trusting a knowledgeable person simply because he said something that makes you feel happy or peaceful or contented.

Trusting a knowledgeable person simply because he has a degree or went to a certain school.

Mistrusting a knowledgeable person because you disagree with him about unrelated things.

Trusting a knowledgeable person simply because he agrees with you about other things.

Trusting a knowledgeable person because it would be uncharitable to question his findings, or because his personal life is difficult at the moment.

Trusting a knowledgeable person because he has published a study in a scientific journal.

Trusting a knowledgeable person who says things that you don’t understand at all.

Regarding the last point, Ms. Fischer observes:

Remember, the reason you decided to trust this person is because you believe he understands things better than you. But he should still be able to convey at least some of what he understands to people who are not experts, or he should at least be able to point you toward more accessible explanations. Someone whose writing is entirely opaque to you is someone you have no reason to trust.

I addressed the issue of when it is rational not to believe an expert in my 2010 post, Expert, smexpert.

Can readers think of any more cognitive flaws, in addition to the ones identified by Ms. Fischer?

12 Replies to “When not to trust an expert

  1. 1
    kairosfocus says:

    VJT:

    A good question.

    I would go back to the three levers of persuasion: pathos, ethos, logos — roughly, emotions/passions, character/authority/credibility, facts and logic.

    No authority has greater weight than the balance of facts, logic and assumptions.

    Where, as science is an inescapably inductive praxis, it can only provide provisional empirical support not deductive certainty. Though in certain cases that can amount to moral certainty such that we would be irresponsible to treat the results as false simply because of residual inherent uncertainty. Where, too, one should not confuse mere logical possibility of error with a right to dismiss relevant evidence that shows significant substantiation. For instance, that in the abstract chance can account for achieving any configuration of components, is not grounds for dismissing evidence that FSCO/I is a well supported sign of design as cause, on trillions of cases and on the relevant search/sampling space challenge.

    Similarly, unanswered questions should not be allowed to become red herring distractors leading to dismissal of well grounded points. For instance, challenges to calculate specific probabilities and debates over the principle of indifference, should not lead to dismissal of the significance of the sampling/search needle in haystack challenge posed by FSCO/I.

    And, on matters of origins, we have only traces of the remote past, we cannot directly check our explanatory constructs against directly read-off reality.

    Where of course consensus of any school of thought, no matter how dominant, is not to be equated with “fact” and no explanation in itself is a fact.

    If an expert fails to give contexts on uncertainties in a context that is such that this is a material factor, s/he ought not to be trusted, as they have failed the ethos test.

    And if that is institutionalised, then the science in question is in trouble.

    Unfortunately, this seems to be significantly the case for the evolutionary materialist school of thought on origins.

    KF

  2. 2
    Tim says:

    VJT, thank you for the post. In it, you cited the following:

    Mistrusting a knowledgeable person because he expresses his ideas in an unpleasant way.

    And although I agree with you, I would add this, “Trusting a knowledgeable source because he expresses his ideas in an unpleasant way.” I have found this to be true of people who, looking for the “something new under the sun,” may be attracted to provocative ideas. Also, in today’s culture, sometimes we only get access to new ideas by nature of their being unpleasant.

    Critics may use terms like “avant garde” or “iconoclast” when upon closer examination, the knowledgeable person in question is simply unpleasant in presentation. My example is the philosophy of Peter Singer. I just finished re-reading Peter Berkowitz’s article on Singer,

    Other Peoples’ Mothers

    Itself a rather scathing review on many other levels, it also traces Singer’s skill at extending his philosophy to just the edge of edginess.
    The article concludes with some wonder that a philosopher of his learnedness was only beginning to understand the nuances and difficulties of his métier. Whether it is the ideas themselves or later how they are presented, Singer’s heap is provocative. With other fish to fry, the article only touches on his uncanny ability to market himself.

  3. 3
    JGuy says:

    When not to trust an expert?… hmm….

    “Neil deGrasse Tyson: Wake Up, People — Earth Is Killing You”

    http://www.businessinsider.com.....jiEJN0XnAy

    If he’s right, then could evolution even occur on earth?
    If he’s wrong, then why’d he say it?

  4. 4
    Mung says:

    Just wondering if Simcha Fischer is an expert on trusting the experts that can be trusted.

  5. 5
    JGuy says:

    If he is, then wouldn’t make his statement more true than not..regardless if he was trustworthy or not.

  6. 6
    JGuy says:

    clarification: “[…]then it wouldn’t that[…]”

  7. 7
    Axel says:

    On the subject of Darwinism, in which I had posted to he effect that chap on the Catholic blog the Cambrian Explosion and Irreducible Complexity knock Evolution on the head, I received his reply:

    ‘No one argues that a structure that looks “irreducibly complex” was created in one generation. Structures develop that are “over-engineered” and which, as the result of their over-engineering, take on new functions in the organism. Then every part unnecessary to the new function is removed through deleterious mutations. The final result, after thousands of generations, looks “irreducibly complex”.’

    Can someone please refute this, or is he correct?

  8. 8
    Axel says:

    Let me rephrase that first sentence!

    ‘On the subject of Darwinism, raised on that same Catholic blog as Simcha Fisher posts her column, I posted to the effect that the Cambrian Explosion and Irreducible Complexity definitively ‘knock’ Evolution ‘on the head’, and received his reply:’

    Sorry about the shocking mumbo-jumbo.

  9. 9
    Mung says:

    ‘No one argues that a structure that looks “irreducibly complex” was created in one generation. Structures develop that are “over-engineered” and which, as the result of their over-engineering, take on new functions in the organism. Then every part unnecessary to the new function is removed through deleterious mutations. The final result, after thousands of generations, looks “irreducibly complex”.’

    So this person believes in magic eh?

    So this is truly hilarious. This is exactly how you find out whether something is irreducibly complex. You remove bits here and there and see what happens. And here he proposes that this is what evolution does as well (but not why it should care on way or another).

    And what you’re left with is the irreducible core, which apparently was really there all long with extra unnecessary bits tagged on. So no wonder once you get all this bits gone it looks IC. It looks IC because it is IC.

    lol

  10. 10
    Axel says:

    Thanks, mung. I’ve posted it, acknowledging your authorship, to:

    http://www.ncregister.com/blog.....ospel-hour

    You might like to follow it up, if he comes back for more.

  11. 11
    Eric Anderson says:

    How about:

    “Trusting a knowledgeable person who says things that they don’t understand at all.”

    We see “knowledgeable” people saying things all the time that they don’t understand, particularly when they pontificate on the origin of life, the inevitability of Darwinian evolution, etc.

    Of course, recognizing that fact, one no longer trusts the “knowledgeable” individual, so maybe it isn’t an cognitive pitfall for the lister so much as it is an annoyance.

  12. 12
    Box says:

    Three quotes from a great movie, “The Remains Of The Day”:

    However, if a butler is to be of any worth to anything or anybody in life, there must surely come a time when he ceases his searching; a time when he must say to himself: ‘This employer embodies all that I find noble and admirable. I will hereafter devote myself to serving him.’ This is loyalty intelligently bestowed. What is there ‘undignified’ in this?

    (…) the likes of you and I will never be in a position to comprehend the great affairs of today’s world, and our best course will always be to put our trust in an employer we judge to be wise and honourable, and to devote our energies to the task of serving him to the best of our ability.

    Lord Darlington wasn’t a bad man. He wasn’t a bad man at all. And at least he had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakes. His lordship was a courageous man. He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really — one has to ask oneself — what dignity is there in that?

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