Have we had enough of experts?

Michael Gove’s remark that “the people of this country have had enough of experts” has become the most quoted incomplete quotation since “there’s no such thing as society”.

A more complete version goes like this: “the people of this country have had enough of experts saying that they know what is best.”

That extra bit is important, because it shows that Gove was not referring to people with knowhow, i.e. people with practical skills, but to people who claim to know that something or other is the case (or know that something should be pursued as a goal). That’s a vital difference.

We all accept that some of us have practical skills or abilities that others don’t have. Pilots are better at landing planes than non-pilots. By some miracle, I was able to put new tyres on my bike yesterday. And so on. No one means to disparage this strictly practical sort of “expertise”.

But when we move on from knowhow to claims to know that something is the case, things are quite different. The main difference between them is that a claim is true or false, but a practical skill is neither true nor false. It’s just “there” in an agent’s repertoire. Is isn’t tested in the same way as claims such as scientific hypotheses are tested, but it is “put to the test” in the sense that we can quite easily judge how well someone is driving a bus, playing a violin, fixing the plumbing, or whatever. We can see practical expertise with our own eyes, especially its results, and so we can fairly reliably check whether someone has it.

The difference is especially sharp with claims in areas that are highly specialised, speculative, tentative, exploratory, theoretical, unusual, technical, complicated, abstract, arcane, etc. (henceforth I’ll just say “specialised”). With specialised claims, unless we are specialists ourselves, the best most of us can do is take someone else’s word for it, usually that of a supposed authority. Typically, such an authority will be someone with similar qualifications to the person making the claim. To find out whether a theologian’s specialised theological claim can be trusted, it seems we have to ask another theologian.

I hope it’s obvious how problematic this “non-independent checking” of expertise is bound to be. I’ll leave it as an exercise whether “peer review” fits this pattern.

Taking the word of an authority as a guide to truth is so antithetical to the scientific enterprise that one of science’s most highly respected bodies — the Royal Society — adopted as its motto an explicit warning to not do it: nullius in verba.

But even if we are lucky and have enough specialised training of our own not to have to take anyone else’s word for it, specialised claims are still “long shots” in an epistemic sense. I’ll try to explain. We can’t have absolute certainty about any sort of factual claim, but we can have more confidence in our beliefs about everyday things than we can in our beliefs about non-everyday things. For example, we can tell whether it’s raining or not just by looking out of the window. There’s a direct link (via light and the eyes) between the rain falling from the sky and our mental state of believing it’s raining. So direct is this link that the beliefs it sustains are formed in a reliable way: usually, if it is raining, we believe it’s raining; and if it’s not raining, we believe it isn’t raining. Forming beliefs about everyday matters like these is as reliable as “pushing a thumbtack into a noticeboard right in front of us”. But then forming beliefs about specialised matters is as unreliable as “shooting an arrow at a distant target”: it’s riskier — we’re more likely to “miss”, i.e. to get it wrong.

Science is one of the most valuable of human enterprises because of its ability to reveal the hidden structures of reality. But in doing so the claims it makes are like arrows shot at distant targets. These shots at distant targets are often revelatory, but they’re less certain than the more obvious truths of more pedestrian pursuits. The history of science bears this out: every branch is a string of theories once accepted as true, but later shown to be false. We have to accept that much of what is currently accepted in science is also bound to be exposed as false in the future. And what applies to science, where testing is de rigueur, applies a fortiori to specialised disciplines where there is less testing, such as philosophy and economics.

Language often plays tricks on us, especially when a single word refers to more than one thing. Words like ‘expertise’ and ‘expert’ are ambiguous in just that way. They can apply to practical skills in the hands of evidently capable agents, or to claims made by specialists using distinctly unreliable opinion-forming methods, which always includes soaking up the current orthodoxy of their peers. Let us cherish and respect the former, but treat the latter with due scepticism.

It’s especially important to be on our guard against this ambiguity when a single person seems to be in possession of both sorts of “expertise”. For example, a good doctor can exhibit the first sort of expertise by routinely diagnosing and curing illnesses. But one and the same doctor is also likely to have specialised opinions about (say) preventative medicine. The first is admirable. The second may sound impressive, but it’s really very much less trustworthy than it sounds coming from someone we already recognise as a “good doctor”. Yet we refer to both as “expertise”, and I think are inclined to trust both despite their very different epistemic status. We admire the person for the first sort of expertise, but then exaggerate his skill in the second.

Modern medicine has recently come to realise that its own advice on saturated fats — so confidently drummed into the ignorant masses for decades — is probably mistaken. This is absolutely typical of specialised opinion. There are abundant examples of specialised opinions coming to grief in much the same way in other disciplines.

The confusion of the two senses of the word ‘expert’ is so insidious that many people can’t resist the lure of expert opinion. They think it’s laughable or ridiculous to be more sceptical about it than about everyday opinion. When you point out to them that the opinion of an expert on almost any matter conflicts with the opinion of some other expert on exactly the same matter, they typically appeal to the majority: if most of the experts agree, they say, then the rest of us should take that as authoritative. But that hardly settles things, as any such opinion currently held by the majority of experts was at a previous time the opinion of a minority of experts, and going back still further, before the idea occurred to anyone, it was the opinion of no experts at all.

A show of hands is not a reliable way of serving truth — the question of God’s existence is not to be settled by calling for a vote in a roomful of theologians. Nor is the question of whether to stay in the EU settled by a vote among economists.

On a given topic in a given area of specialisation, most ordinary people simply won’t have any opinion at all. For example, I don’t have an opinion about quantitative easing. We might admire the diligence of anyone who does have an opinion about it, but we mustn’t allow ourselves to assume that his opinion is true. Very often specialised opinion is simply the less common alternative to having no opinion at all.

The revelatory power of science doesn’t depend on how confident we can be in the claims it makes, but when we make rational political decisions, confidence really does matter. That’s why cautious conservatives (small C) tend to be uneasy about specialist opinion in politics. Edmund Burke, “father of modern conservatism”, singled out philosophers and economists as being exactly the wrong sort of people to entrust with critical political decisions. Better decisions are more likely to be made by ordinary people from various walks of life, who have picked up practical skills though everyday living and working. It may not sound as impressive as mighty romantic schemes for future utopias, but a nation can suffer worse fates than becoming “a nation of shopkeepers”.

So far, I’ve taken “knowledge of what is best” to mean knowledge of factual matters, so that the experts Gove thinks we’ve “had enough of” presume to tell others about “is”s rather than “ought”s. A more obvious alternative is to take it to mean “knowledge of what is valuable”.

Here I follow Hume in taking a very simple approach. What is valuable is just what agents regard as valuable, what they treat as having value, what they choose, what they strive for in action, and so on. In a word, what is best for anyone is simply what they prefer. But over their own preferences, each individual is “sovereign”, as JS Mill put it. No individual’s preference can be gainsaid by any other individual. To do so would be a sort of usurpation. For example, homosexuals prefer to have sex with people of the same sex. No expert could conceivably overrule that preference, because homosexual desires, being desires, are neither true nor false. This is a humane liberal insight as well as a Humean point of logic: you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”. “The heart wants what the heart wants”, in other words, and no expert can do anything about that, however big-headed an expert he may be.

In a liberal democracy, voting has to be understood as an expression of preference rather than the utterance of an opinion. What a voter says he prefers when he casts his vote can’t be gainsaid by an expert telling him that he doesn’t want “the right thing” enough.

Ah well… it’s all academic now. On the most superficial level, Gove was evidently right: the referendum result confirmed that UK voters had indeed had enough of experts telling them to vote Remain, and the majority voted Leave instead. I would have voted Remain had I lived in the UK, but as the result was becoming clear, I changed my mind because I’m a democrat. I recommend other Remain voters do so too.


3 thoughts on “Have we had enough of experts?

  1. Two issues with the above:

    1. Practical expertise may require another expert to evaluate (at least before catastropic failure). A layman may be happy with his car service, or the restoration of his painting, only to discover the one was done incompletely causing damage to the engine and the other botched damaging the painting.

    2. Problem “not listening to experts” is not thinking their opinion on the economy is as reliable as looking out the window at the rain, but that we think it is more reliable than the opinion on the economy of non-experts. To take your arrow analogy, scientists are less reliable than pinpushers, but more reliable than some guy who has never fired an arrow. Gove said “he preferred to take the opinion of business people” which suggests he isn’t saying what you say (economics is very uncertain – maybe all economic forecasts should be ignored) but more “ignore those experts and listen to these people instead”.

  2. Hi Cathy! Thanks for the comments. Here are my thoughts.

    “Practical expertise may require another expert to evaluate (at least before catastropic failure). A layman may be happy with his car service, or the restoration of his painting, only to discover the one was done incompletely causing damage to the engine and the other botched damaging the painting.”

    — Usually, we just employ just one car mechanic, one plumber… then find out a week or so later that they did a lousy job! Or we gradually come accept a year or so later that they probably did an OK job. But in both cases we find out for ourselves.

    I accept that we do often ask other people about the practical skills of mechanics and plumbers before employing them, but we ask other non-experts — ordinary people who have had similar trouble with their cars or plumbing. To find a decent dentist, I don’t ask a professor of dentistry, but other people who have had trouble with their teeth: “Did the fillings Hackett put into your teeth stay put for a decent length of time? Did his injections hurt?” And so on.

    My crucial point here is that judging practical expertise is an observational matter. Almost anyone can do it. We are even able to judge practical skills that greatly exceed our own. For example, Maria Callas sang much better than I ever could, and Yo-Yo Ma plays cello much better than I ever could, but I can judge them both to be less talented than others with the same types of skill.

    “scientists are less reliable than pinpushers, but more reliable than some guy who has never fired an arrow.”

    — I think we have to be careful about exactly what we’re judging when we judge the “reliability of scientists”. Mature sciences always have associated technologies — for example, Newtonian physics is associated with “rocket science” among many other stunning achievements. The thing is, they’re practical achievements. What we rightly defer to in “rocket science” is the practical skill of people in (say) the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to (almost literally) “shoot arrows at distant targets”. We can have more confidence in mature sciences that underpin such technological achievements, because in effect they’ve passed more tests, but in many cases (including that of Newtonian physics) they’re still been shown to be false. To defer to Newtonian physicists by “accepting what they say as true because they’re experts in Newtonian physics” would be a mistake.

    Non-mature sciences (or “sciences”, as I call them) such as economics or psychology do not have such associated technologies, certainly no technology remotely as successful as those associated with physics. By all means let us defer to the practical skills of their practitioners where they are evident. But the simple fact is that precious little practical skill is evident in such disciplines.

    “Gove said ‘he preferred to take the opinion of business people’ which suggests he isn’t saying what you say”

    — Sure, and he even took back and apologised for the remark I’ve been defending. I only mean to defend that particular remark. Personally, I suspect that if pressed he would agree with me that it’s a good idea to have people with practical skills involved in decision-making, but a bad idea to just hand over decision-making powers to people with specialist opinions. That would be like deciding observation no longer matters in science.

  3. Forgot to reply!

    I agree one can judge motor mechanics or dentists after the fact. But the same is true for economists or other experts. It’s looking pretty implausible now that austerity helped the economies where it was used, for example. This at least should give one pause about the economic acumen of those who chose that route in the first place.

    And some experts Gove felt he could ignore were those with purely factual disagreements…like “leaving the EU will be difficult”. In the second year after the vote the early talk of the simplicity of leaving has receded among complications like the Irish border and Euratom and how exactly trade deals work.

    I do not think decision making powers should be handed over to experts. But that’s not the question at hand, is it? The question is, should we listen to experts? I don’t see you’ve established an ordinary non-expert decision maker will do better listening to other non-experts especially when it comes to matters of fact (like how FTAs work).

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