Critical Thinking & COVID-19: Argument Against Expertise

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Critical Thinking & COVID-19: Argument Against Expertise
by Professor

In a previous essay, I went over the argument from authority and the standards to use to distinguish between credible and non-credible experts. While people often make the mistake of treating non-experts as credible sources, they also make the mistake of rejecting credible experts because the experts are experts. This sort of fallacious reasoning is worthy of a name and the obvious choice is “argument against expertise.” It occurs when a person rejects a claim because it is made by an authority/expert and has the following form:

Premise 1: Authority/expert A makes claim C.
Conclusion: Claim C is false.

While experts can be wrong, to infer that an expert is wrong because they are an expert is obviously absurd and an error in reasoning. To use a geometry example, consider the following:

Premise 1: Euclid, an expert on geometry, claimed that triangles have three sides.
Conclusion: Triangles do not have three sides.

It must be noted that there are rational grounds for doubting an expert—as discussed in the essay on argument from authority. When a person rationally applies the standards of assessing an alleged expert and decides that the expert lacks credibility, this would not be an error. But to reject a claim solely because of the source is always a fallacy (usually an ad hominem) and rejecting a claim because it was made by an expert would be doubly fallacious, if there were such a thing.

Since experts are generally more likely to be right than wrong, this sort of reasoning will tend to lead to accepting untrue claims. While this is a bad idea in normal times, it is even more dangerous during a pandemic. In the case of COVID-19, there are those who use this reasoning to reject the claims of medical experts. This can, obviously enough, lead to illness and death. Because the fallacy lacks all logical force, it derives its influence from psychological factors, and these are worth considering when trying to defend against and respond to this dangerous fallacy.

Our first step in understanding the driving forces behind this fallacy take us back to ancient Athens to visit our good dead friend Socrates. One of Socrates’ friends went to the oracle of Delphi and asked them who was the wisest of men. It was, of course, Socrates. While many would accept such praise, Socrates believed that the gods were wrong and set out to disprove them by finding someone wiser. He questioned the poets, the politicians, the craftspeople—anyone who would speak with him. He found that everyone believed they knew far more than they did—and the more ignorant a person, the more they believed they knew.

Reflecting on this, Socrates concluded that the gods were right: he was the wisest because he knew that he knew nothing, that his infinite ignorance eclipsed what little he knew. While some were grateful to Socrates, most were outraged at Socrates and saw to it that he was put on trial and sentenced to death. Sorry, spoilers.

While we now have smartphones, people have not changed since those times: most people believe they know far more than they do, and they resent anyone who would disagree. And resent most of all someone who reveals their ignorance. Technology has made this worse
thanks to the “University of Google” and social media, people not only doubt the experts but regard themselves as equal to or better than them.

The fundamental lesson of philosophy provides the obvious defense against this arrogant ignorance: realizing, as Socrates did, that wisdom is recognizing that we know nothing. This is not to embrace empty skepticism in which everything is doubted, but to accept a healthy skepticism of the extent of our own knowledge and to develop a willingness to listen to those who have knowledge.

We can continue our philosophical adventure centuries past the death of Socrates by visiting our good dead friend John Locke. While Locke is best known for “life, liberty and property” he also wrote on enthusiasm. By enthusiasm he did not mean being really stoked about your sports team or getting free guacamole—he was concerned with the tendency people have to believe a claim because they strongly feel it to be true. While Locke was very concerned with this in the context of religion, he held to a very sensible general principle that one should believe in proportion to the evidence rather than in proportion to the strength of feeling.

While psychologists and cognitive scientists have examined the various cognitive biases that contribute to what Locke calls enthusiasm, his basic idea is still correct: believing based on strong feelings is not a rational way to form beliefs. True beliefs can be backed up with evidence and reason. The power of this enthusiasm leads people to believe based on the strength of their feelings and they will often be wrong—thus leading them to reject what experts claim when there is disagreement. They will feel that they are right and that their strong feeling counts more than expertise.

The defense against this is not, obviously, to become unfeeling. Rather it is to be aware that feelings are not evidence and to endeavor to proportion belief to the evidence, not the feeling. This is very difficult to do—it is hard to fight feelings. But rational decision making that can save your life and the lives of others requires this—especially now. How we feel about COVID, social distancing or alleged cures proves nothing. Only proof proves things.

The above applies universally to all people, but what about Americans in particular? Unfortunately, we are especially prone to rejecting experts because they are experts. This tendency feeds into stereotypes that often appear in fiction and these stereotypes then feed the tendency. For example, the idea that intellectuals (especially professors) are helpless outside of the ivory towers and that problems are solved by manly men with loud voices and a strong right hook is a common theme. The defense against this is to realize that the stereotypes are just that.

A mistaken American conception of democracy also serves to fuel this fallacy. While American political philosophy holds that everyone is equal and everyone has a right to free expression, these are wrongly interpreted as everyone being equal in knowledge and that all opinions are equally good (although mine is first among equals). The science fiction writer Isaac Asimov noted this: “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” This view is also fed by relativism—the idea that there is no objective truth, that there are alternative facts.

The defense against this is not to reject democracy or freedom of expression but to realize that neither of these entail that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” We can accept democracy and accept that people have the right to express themselves, but the correctness of a claim is not a matter for a vote nor is any opinion automatically as good as another just because someone is free to express it.

Almost everyone realizes this when it comes to very practical matters: while people do sometimes try to do their own dentistry, build rockets, or rewire their house on their own most people realize that root canals, major electrical work, and rockets are best left to the experts. We turn to dentists, mechanics, and engineers because they are experts and we are generally not. We should get that the same applies beyond these areas, such as to epidemiology. This is not to say that we should blindly believe the experts, but that we should accept claims made by credible experts over our own ignorance. Or accept authoritarians over authorities.

While the professed political values of America are contrary to authoritarianism, a significant percentage of Americans have embraced it. As noted in an earlier essay, authoritarian leaders and followers are generally inimical to real experts and the delusions and lies of authoritarians can motivate them to accept the fallacy. While a rejection of experts is not limited to the right (see, for example, the anti-vaccination movement), the American right has systematically waged a war on experts whose views conflict with their ideological claims and key economic interests.

While the right did not, perhaps, intend to wage a war on all expertise, it has had this effect—distrust in experts has grown considerably and often with negative consequences. This is not to say that experts are blameless—there have been clear failing among experts and those purporting to be experts. But the lessons of these failures have generally not been properly interpreted. For example, it is often claimed that the failures in the Vietnam War were due to the arrogance of experts. While this has some merit, the true lesson of The Best and the Brightest was that ignoring credible experts was a major factor behind the poor decision making.

Since rejecting experts has become a matter of political identity for some Americans, overcoming this aspect is extremely difficult. Also, overcoming decades of a systematic undermining of expertise and science will also be extremely difficult. Neither is impossible, but it might be more realistic to focus on outvoting those who reject reason in favor of ideology. There is also some hope that the pandemic will shake some people out of their ideology—that they will realize that rejecting medical experts and going with their own beliefs is like trying to do their own surgery.

Stay safe and I will see you in the future.

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