Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Half an Hour, Aug 16, 2015



In an article last year (and soon-to-be book) Tom Nichols complained about the new relativism brought about by Wikipedia and Google and bemoaning the declining authority of the expert. I encountered his article today via Facebook; I'm not sure whether the source of this information had any impact on its veracity.

"Today," he writes, "any assertion of expertise produces an explosion of anger from certain quarters of the American public, who immediately complain that such claims are nothing more than fallacious 'appeals to authority,' sure signs of dreadful 'elitism,' and an obvious effort to use credentials to stifle the dialogue required by a 'real' democracy."

To be sure, the three things he cites here are all things to be avoided:
  • 'Appeal to Authority' is an actual fallacy; it occurs when an authority is cited in cases where (a) the authorities disagree among themselves, or (b) where the authority is speaking outside the area of his or her expertise.
  • Elitism is a structural defect in society, representing a state of affairs where those who are in power and authority manipulate the rules in order to maintain their (or their children's) position in society.
  • Stifling the dialogue, as we are seeing in Canadian society today, is a breakdown of communications that prevents society as a whole from learning about its mistakes, exposing sources of corruption, or uncovering injustice.
How do I know all this? Well, I too am an expert - or, more accurately, I am called an expert by people who are in a position to know, or to recognize, that I am an expert. And the relation between democracy, expertise and authority is, I would say, much less straightforward than described in Nichols's column.

Let's take democracy as an example. Here's what Nichols says about democracy:
But democracy, as I wrote in an essay about C.S. Lewis and the Snowden affair, denotes a system of government, not an actual state of equality. It means that we enjoy equal rights versus the government, and in relation to each other. Having equal rights does not mean having equal talents, equal abilities, or equal knowledge. 
It is true that it does not follow that because we are governed by democracy that we attain an actual state of equality. But it does mean, as Nichols suggests, that we are all equal before the law. But what does that mean? A naive interpretation would suggest that the law treats each of us the same. But experts know (having read Rawls) that democracy means something like "justice as fairness". That is, even though we are not all equal, in a democracy, the law should tend toward helping us all become equal.

It's a complex idea but simple enough in practice. It means that society should help improve the talents of the untalented, that it should seek to increase the skills of those with lesser abilities, and to expand the knowledge of those with less knowledge. Yes, there is the presumption that there should be equality before the law (this is the famous dictate of Solon) but what it means in practice is that people in positions of power and authority should not bend the law to their own advantage. There's nothing wrong with using the law to enhance the standing of the poor and disempowered. Or as Plutarch says:
Thinking it his duty to make still further provision for the weakness of the multitude, he (Solon) gave every citizen the privilege of entering suit in behalf of one who had suffered wrong. If a man was assaulted, and suffered violence or injury, it was the privilege of any one who had the ability and the inclination, to indict the wrong-doer and prosecute him. (Life of Solon, 18.5)
So when Nichols says this:
It assuredly does not mean that “everyone’s opinion about anything is as good as anyone else’s.” And yet, this is now enshrined as the credo of a fair number of people despite being obvious nonsense...
he is wrong. In a court of law everyone's opinions are as good as everyone else's. Indeed, we even make allowances to the favour of those who are not in a position of authority or high social standing.  The facts and justice stand independently of anyone's opinions. That is what Solon enshrined, and that is the rule that forms the basis of democracy. And it is the foundational principle of reason, science and enquiry to this day.

As have numerous pedants before him, Nichols appears to be far more concerned about the source of knowledge and information than about its veracity (that is, its truth or fair representation).  "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," he writes. Google-fueled indeed; that's how I found the references to Rawls and Plutarch.

Yes, experts make mistakes, he concedes. "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," he writes. This is true, just as it is true that a rich person has more money than you. But we shouldn't so lightly accept the moral authority of either.

But let's acknowledge this, and agree that "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." Quite so.

But notice that it is in a democractic society, where experts are far more likely to be challenged, that experts hold the most sway. Before the widespread rise of public information, people were much more likely to purchase snake oil. Old wives tales, in an enlightened society, are exactly that: tales. It is when experts are beyond challenged by both the informed and uninformed that the true value of expertise can take hold.

Nichols ought to pause for a moment to consider why this is the case.

He writes, "The death of expertise is a rejection not only of knowledge, but of the ways in which we gain knowledge and learn about things. Fundamentally, it’s a rejection of science and rationality, which are the foundations of Western civilization itself."

This to me represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how science and rationality work. The world of the expert - of any expert - is obliged to be subjected to the widest possible criticism. This applies equally to practitioners of snake oil and anti-cancer vaccinations. That is how we are able to distinguish between the reasonable and the irrational. And it does not matter whether the criticism comes from within the domain of enquiry or from an authoritative source. Because rationality isn't about getting things right, it's about getting the right things right.

Look at his examples: "'Western civilization': that paternalistic, racist, ethnocentric approach to knowledge that created the nuclear bomb, the Edsel, and New Coke, but which also keeps diabetics alive, lands mammoth airliners in the dark, and writes documents like the Charter of the United Nations." These make my case far better than they make his case.

First of all, those experts who also happen to be paternalistic, racist, and ethnocentric can be questioned on that basis. We know that facts do not exist in isolation, but rather, they are a product of a perspective or a point of view (even an expert's, most especially is he or she is paternalistic, racist, or  ethnocentric). We should question whether modern physics embodies a western perspective of time. We ought to ask whether a biological thesis is informed by racism. Shielding the authority from uninformed questioning is more likely to shield the authority from these questions, which come from outside the field.

The Edsel is a really good example of getting the right things wrong. It featured many advances in automotive technology, including engine warning lights, seat belts, and child-proof rear door locks. But it failed on non-technical features such as aesthetics and price. It's the sort of failure experts could have avoided with non-expert opinion  (and it's why companies use devices such as focus groups to ensure they don't make similar mistakes in the future).

Not trusting the expert is dangerous, writes Nichols. "We live today in an advanced post-industrial country that is now fighting a resurgence of whooping cough — a scourge nearly eliminated a century ago — merely because otherwise intelligent people have been second-guessing their doctors and refusing to vaccinate their kids."

Well yes. But the reason people like Jenny McCarthy jumped on the anti-vaxxer bandwagon was that an expert, British physician Andrew Wakefield, "published a paper in The Lancet that purported to identify a link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and the appearance of autism in children." And history is such that sometimes the lone expert is more trustworthy: witness the case of Frances Oldham Kelsey, who protected the United States from the horror of Thalidomide poisoning.

Had Jenny McCarthy been right, she would today be hailed as 'an expert'. But she was wrong; Wakefield's paper was revealed as a hoax, and there is no link between vaccines and autism. But in the same breath, we would be dismissing Kelsey as a crank had Thalidomide turned out to be same. One of the features of expertise is that it is typically revealed only after the fact, when it is too late to be of any use. Before that time, we have to make use of argument, evidence and statistics, and not credentials.

Nichols displays an increasing impatience with the rigour of disproving the Kelseys of the world. "You will get snippy and sophistic demands to show ever increasing amounts of 'proof' or 'evidence' for your case," he writes, "even though the ordinary interlocutor in such debates isn’t really equipped to decide what constitutes 'evidence' or to know it when it’s presented."

But Nichols confuses between making the case generically, and making the case to the satisfaction of a particular individual. As an expert with a long history of engaging in arguments with people, I can say with assurance that it will not be possible to convince everybody of anything. People - experts and non-experts alike - have their own 'riverbed propositions' from which they will not budge no matter how reasonable the evidence. When an expert responds to an argument, it should be done publicly, as the intent is to demonstration to the public as a whole, not the individual in question. As a society, we decide.

And we need to be clear about the nature of the two assertions Nichols is making. First, he is arguing that there are things that count as evidence and things that do not. And second, he is arguing that non-experts are incapable of drawing this distinction. I think that on both counts he is wrong.

Sure, people may make unreasonable demands of science. For example, they may criticize evolution on the grounds that it is "only a theory", or demand "proof" of human-caused climate change. This does not mean these are not forms of evidence; it merely means they are unattainable (scientists would love to be able to refer to the law of evolution, or point to proof of global warming, but it's just not forthcoming).

And things like Biblical references, the missing link, the little ice age, and other such non-evidence are not non-evidence: they are anomalies that the theory must explain. The coincident increase in diagnosis of autism with vaccination is a real thing, and it needs to be shown that this is the result of the better diagnosis of autism over time, not the needle. This is what Carnap calls the principle of total evidence, and recognizes that new evidence, even seemingly unrelated, might impact whether something being considered is true or not.

And when Nichols argues that non-experts are incapable of making that distinction, he must explain the countervailing fact that society as a whole, which consists mostly of non-experts, has made that distinction, and that our medical system, our code of justice, and social infrastructure in general are built around the fact that vaccines are helpful and thalidomide is dangerous. And Nichols has to explain why societies where experts are more likely to be questioned and challenged are societies which are more likely to make this distinction.

And he can't just argue that these counterexamples are coming from a non-expert, that the evidence here cited does not count as the right evidence, and that this is only a blog. Such responses would quite rightly be dismissed as fallacies by both experts and non-experts alike (and it is indeed the prevalence of fallacies in non-expert responses that is one of the major ways non-experts can spot frauds in the ranks of experts).

And what of those people who are not even able to distinguish between a valid argument and a non-sequiter? Nichols has no time for them and finds them exhausting. I find them exhausting too, but I make my case for all to see, and have taken the time and effort to make the basis for argumentation and reason available to all. Because I value the contributions of non-experts, and would like to help them formulate their objections in the most effective manner possible. This is called the principle of charity, and is a fundamental rule in logic and reasoning.

To get to the point of Nichols's argument, he wants a return of the gatekeepers:
the journals and op-ed pages that were once strictly edited have been drowned under the weight of self-publishable blogs. There was once a time when participation in public debate, even in the pages of the local newspaper, required submission of a letter or an article, and that submission had to be written intelligently, pass editorial review, and stand with the author’s name attached. Even then, it was a big deal to get a letter in a major newspaper. Now, anyone can bum rush the comments section of any major publication. Sometimes, that results in a free-for-all that spurs better thinking. Most of the time, however, it means that anyone can post anything they want, under any anonymous cover, and never have to defend their views or get called out for being wrong.
Yes. Anybody can publish whatever they want. This has resulted in a lot of clutter. But it has also resulted in Assange, Snowden and Manning, among many other notable examples.

To understand why this is important, it is necessary to understand the role of gatekeepers. And - frankly - it was never the role of the gatekeepers to keep out the cranks. A brief look at the letters sections of most any newspaper before the days of the internet is evidence of that. It was to protect the newspaper from retribution from the rich and powerful should seriously damaging evidence or allegations be published.

Let us be clear: the time before the internet was a time when the elite entrenched and protected each other. Even Nichols makes this point (though it is not clear he knows he is making it):
There was once a time when presidents would win elections and then scour universities and think-tanks for a brain trust; that’s how Henry Kissinger, Samuel Huntington, Zbigniew Brzezinski and others ended up in government service while moving between places like Harvard and Columbia.
Yes. There was pretty much a closed walkway between positions of power and authority and the elite institutions like Harvard and Columbia. And when Nichols writes that "I have a hard time, for example, imagining that I would be called to Washington today in the way I was back in 1990" he fails to understand that this is a good thing, and that calling people like George Siemens (an itinerant blogger born in Mexico, former restaurant owner, and self-made PhD in education) instead is far far better.

And consider how Nichols regards those other gatekeepers, teachers and university professors:
One of the greatest teachers I ever had, James Schall, once wrote many years ago that 'students have obligations to teachers,' including 'trust, docility, effort, and thinking,' an assertion that would produce howls of outrage from the entitled generations roaming campuses today.
And despite the lupine ad hominem, students should indeed protest such instructions. Nobody has an obligation to produce trust and docility. Far better to be a nation of wolves than a nation of sheep! There are good reasons to eschew docility; women especially understand the need to challenge the orthodoxy of thinking emanating from the professorial pulpit. A requirement of trust and docility is in itself a betrayal of trust.

But what Nichols is really worried about is that the experts might become servants of the people. This shows up in a number of ways near the end of his article. Consider this language:
The idea of telling students that professors run the show and know better than they do strikes many students as something like uppity lip from the help
 Or this:
many academic departments are boutiques, in which the professors are expected to be something like intellectual valets.  
But the argument is a bit more subtle than that. It's that we would be happy serving the people, but the people are not good enough to be masters.
When citizens forgo their basic obligation to learn enough to actually govern themselves, and instead remain stubbornly imprisoned by their fragile egos and caged by their own sense of entitlement, experts will end up running things by default.
And so this is a "terrible" thing, he will oh so reluctantly take his position as expert, and step into his natural place as the ruler of society. Or so he thinks.

But he's wrong, and worse, he is dishonestly wrong. He is disappointed he is no longer getting calls from the White House, he yearns for the days when professors demanded docility and respect, and he would much rather return to the days when the only public discourse was that vetted by the editorial guardians of society. He does not actually want the non-expert to contribute to the governance of society, for if he did, this column would be a call or education and empowerment, and not a declaration to the effect that the masses are revolting.

His kind just is the kind that brought us the excesses of the 20th century, and more recently the debacle in Iraq. He most properly should be ashamed of himself for setting himself above the likes of you and me. But as is so common among the realm of the self-declared expert, he feels no shame.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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