On Faux Experts

We live in an age of expertise.  As a society, we readily trust experts and their opinions.  But should we?  Peek around the Web and you’ll find that expertise is ubiquitous, or so it seems.  There is certainly no shortage of people willing to put on the cloak of expertise, either through self-proclamation or through credentials, in order to amplify their voice.

Trusting experts can certainly be an intelligent thing to do; however, it can also be an unintelligent thing to do.  It’s the latter part of that last sentence that piques my curiosity.  What exactly does it mean to be an expert?  Is having a certification or credential enough to make one an expert?  Does creating an autobiographical webpage that states that you are an expert make you one?  Furthermore, when should we defer to experts and when should we be skeptical of them?

The whole notion of experts has long posed a serious problem definitionally.  In common parlance, an expert is someone who has a comprehensive knowledge of (or skill) within a particular domain.  That sounds simple enough, but there is, however, one incredibly important point to consider, i.e., ‘knowledge’ is a nebulous term.  Thus, as a philosopher, I must ask: What is knowledge?

Suppose I don’t know which city is the state capital of Illinois.  Furthermore, let’s suppose I were to ask you what the state capital of Illinois was.  Let’s say that you replied with “Chicago”.  You would, of course, be incorrect, but you would have provided me with information.  What’s happened in this hypothetical scenario is that you’ve shared information with me.  You haven’t, however, shared knowledge with me.  I have essentially gained information in this scenario, but I’m not any more knowledgable from it. In fact, this information may turn out to be harmful to me if I were to repeat it with fact-like confidence because most Illinois residents would think I’m an idiot. The capital of Illinois is actually Springfield; this is factual and verifiable, this is knowledge.

Information Versus Knowledge

What I think the example above illustrates is that there is a distinction between ‘information’ and ‘knowledge’.  Oftentimes people use the terms ‘information’ and ‘knowledge’ synonymously.  This, however, is an egregious mistake, albeit, it’s a popular mistake.  Information and knowledge relate to each other, but mere information is not to be confused for knowledge.  Information is abundant, knowledge is more scarce.  For further clarification, I’ll reiterate that knowledge consists of information, but not all information is knowledge.

What types of information, then, constitute knowledge?  Information that leads us towards truth could be, I think, classified as knowledge.  This may sound like a pedantic abstraction, but I think this is one of the most important characteristics of knowledge.  Any information that doesn’t drive us towards truth is thus not knowledge.

This definition, however, is still not stringent enough and creates some ambiguity.  Britney Spears may have had a hamburger for dinner last night. Lets suppose I’m able to verify that claim is true. Is this knowledge?  Knowing what she had for dinner last night is knowledge in one sense of the word, but it’s not very important knowledge to me and I suspect most people reading this essay wouldn’t find this knowledge valuable either.  This leads to a nuanced point about knowledge: not all knowledge is created equally.  Knowing what Britney Spears had for dinner is not as valuable to me as knowing whether or not the dinner I’m eating is nourishing my body or poisoning me. Each of us should theoretically be more interested in the valuable types of knowledge.

Philosophers since Plato have said that knowledge is a special kind of belief, i.e., it’s true and it’s justified through good reasons or evidence.  The tricky part is, of course, figuring out whether the justification for the truthful claim is sound.  In order for evidence to be valid it must be collected and interpreted in a proper manner.  Oftentimes, it is not. When evidence is not collected, analyzed, or interpreted correctly it can lead to faux knowledge, i.e., correct or incorrect information which doesn’t get at truth.

Knowledge-less “Experts”

The problem with many of the so-called experts in today’s society is that they are merely information whores who falsely think they possess knowledge. In other words, there is an abundance of knowledge-less experts. If we hope to solve complex problems, e.g., global warming, it’s important to realize that what we don’t know may in fact be more important than what we do know.

First of all, how do we know that global warming is really happening?  We don’t necessarily, but there are, however, logically sound reasons to believe that human activity is disrupting the biosphere in some capacity. Is disrupting the biosphere inherently bad?  Again, we don’t know. This should be a reminder that before we jump to rash conclusions we should think harder about what we think we know and what we don’t know.

Sometimes wisdom must be used in place of knowledge.  Global warming may or may not be real, but if faux knowledge leads us astray, we are likely going to pay a hefty price for getting it wrong in this scenario.  If we can’t live with the consequence of destroying the biosphere, no matter how unlikely, we should probably avoid gambling on it if the negative outcome is at least possible.  This type of wisdom, in my opinion, trumps all but the purest of knowledge.

Sometimes the most important piece of knowledge is knowing that we don’t have any real knowledge.  Admitting this, however, is not how people become famous, get elected to political offices, or become well respected for being smart. Alas, there are often financial and social incentives for branding yourself as an expert. The wise person is cognizant of this dilemma, while the charlatan’s victims are not.

If you discredit your own level of knowledge by showing epistemic humility you are not considered an expert and thus less likely to be rewarded by our society either financially or through social capital. The consolation is that you may, however, be considered wise by a select few fellow philosophers.  Wise people unfortunately rarely find themselves as important decision makers.  We sadly no longer admire the sage, but instead the branded faux experts.

Complexity and Experts

In domains that deal with particularly complex problems there is a real danger of oversimplification and for mistaking correlations with causation. This, for several decades now, has been readily apparent in the field of nutrition.

Many nutritionists rely on overly reductionist studies that simply ignore the complexities of the human body. Oftentimes the people conducting these studies are biased in the sense that they are looking to return a specific outcome because of the funding for their study. Would you expect a scientific study about the effects of breakfast cereal to come back with negative results if the study was funded by a breakfast cereal company?

Other times, it’s simply a matter of people who use tools they don’t understand. In his book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, Gary Taubes dismantles some of the most sophomoric of logical errors that many expert nutritionists espouse to the general public. Much like knowledge, not all calories are created equal.  Do we become obese because we overeat or do we overeat because we are obese?  It’s important to note that the answer to this question is not trivial; the causality is quite different in each case. I believe, as does Mr. Taubes, that experts have lead us astray on many issues pertaining to human nutrition and health, which is unfortunate.

There is often, however, good reason to trust experts on some issues.  The trick is having the intelligence and wisdom to know when. In some domains, like flying, having a legally certified system of expertise is probably a good thing.  In some other areas, however, I think there can be no experts.

There are two types of experts that I’m particularly weary of: self-proclaimed experts and those who think credentials alone make them experts. The former are virtually always charlatans and the latter type of experts I like to call ‘tautological experts’. They are merely experts because they have expert credentials, not because they can demonstrate a superior sense of knowledge.

I’m not trying to imply that experts don’t exist or that we don’t have knowledge about certain things, we certainly do; however, the people we often trust as experts are merely faux experts. In actuality, faux experts aren’t necessarily any more knowledgable than an intelligent and wise layperson. Faux experts, rather than solving problems, usually create more of them and make things worse.

This, in short, is why I believe the world is in desperate need of more philosophers.


9 Responses to “On Faux Experts”

  • Emma Stangl

    Hi Greg,

    “The problem with many of the so-called experts in today’s society is that they are merely information whores..”

    I sat silently grinning about that line for at least 20 seconds.

    “If you discredit your own level of knowledge by showing epistemic humility you are not considered an expert and thus less likely to be rewarded by our society either financially or through social capital.”

    Charisma naturally draws people in, but it seems charisma alone is the qualifier to become an expert (and if you want to be a super expert, throw in some catchphrases that deliberately oversimplify things, in order to satisfy people’s need for instant gratification (after all they don’t have to THINK TOO HARD about your content!!), and generate controversy or ‘buzz’.  That to me is a problem.

    In the current economically unstable times, people want certainty, and apparently it is easier to sell them certainty (with no actual substance) than what they really need.  If you have been following my comments here http://beyondgrowth.net/social-criticism/the-rise-of-digital-hipsterism/ you know that I have integrity concerns around that. 

    If you keep on only “selling what people will buy”, that’s not to say that people do not develop very useful products and services that people derive a benefit from in their life, but in the case of self-appointed “experts”, “sell what people will buy” ends up kind of circling back on itself, and there is no new information entering that system or dynamic, no progress.  I hope you will understand what I mean by that, and maybe even be able to describe it better than I can. 

    • Greg Linster

      Hi Emma,

      If I understand what you’re saying correctly, I agree that charisma is irrelevant to expertise.  It may, however, make one an excellent marketer or politician.

      As for your second point, I think certainty sells in many facets.  It’s why we tend to look to people with credentials as experts even though they may be knowledge-less.  We assume that there is a certain expertise that comes with credentials, when in some fields there is no such thing as expertise.  

      I’m not sure I really understand your last point.  You have to sell what people will buy, otherwise you won’t sell anything.   Even if you are an expert in something, say, Asian wind instruments, then there has to be a market of potential buyers for your skill or knowledge in order for you to sell anything.   Ethics certainly play a role in economic decisions as well.  In some cases it is unethical to sell people something even though they may be willing to buy it. 

  • MrTeacup

    Hi Greg–

    To me, skepticism about experts is a much more prevalent attitude today. Here’s a poll that finds that 76% of the public believe that scientists have falsified data: http://www.americanthinker.com/blog/2011/08/shocking_poll_on_global_warming.html

    Another example is parents failing to immunize their children against diseases because they no longer trust the medical establishment. Or grocery stores sell milk from cows not treated with rBGH even though the milk carton warning message says the FDA finds no significant difference between regular and organic milk. It seems difficult to claim that we’re too trusting of experts when a popular product like organic milk actually prints the opinion of the FDA that there are no benefits, and it still sells.

    The decline in the prestige and trust in the expert is exactly what creates the conditions for anyone to say they are an expert, and this claim is often rooted in a type of pragmatism, where having made money is evidence of the validity of your views.

    The other difference with today’s experts is in the second sentence of this blog post: “experts and their opinions.” This implies that expertise is subjective, experts don’t offer us objective facts. This view can be seen on TV news programs, where its common to have two “experts” who disagree with each each other – experts today mostly offer us multiple conflicting opinions, not a single objective truth. The overriding message of these programs is that experts don’t really know, and the anchor usually ends the debate with something like “We’ll let the viewer decide who is right.”

    • Greg Linster

      @twitter-15775115:disqus I speculate that your peer group and the people you engage with online, as well as mine, are probably not representative of the general public.  That poll you cite may or may not be representative of the general public at large.  I would need to know a great many things about how it was conducted and the sampling method used.

      *Some* people fail to immunize their children out of skepticism, but I would speculate that most still listen to the experts.  If I were a betting man, I would bet there is some empirical evidence to support my claim.  Since you mentioned organic milk, let me ask you another diet related question.  Do you think saturated fat, in any quantity, is bad for you?  I know many health conscious people who espouse this as if it were true.  Personally, I don’t believe it’s true.  They had to, however, get this belief from somewhere and I speculate that it’s from nutritionist experts.  I’m simply pointing out that rather than analyze the empirical evidence for themselves, most people defer to experts.   A few of my anecdotes versus a few of your anecdotes won’t prove either of our points, but I think there is a larger cultural trend that we trust and rely on experts.

      As for your third point, it’s a foolish mistake to discount the role of luck.  Suppose I have one amazing year in the stock market and I have the results to prove it.  Would you trust me as an expert?  Was this due to my skill or was it luck?  

      Finally, you write: ”This implies that expertise is subjective, experts don’t offer us objective facts.”  Not necessarily.  There are often objective truths lurking at the bottom of many hotly contested issues that experts disagree on.  However, some people want to be considered an expert even though they aren’t interested in truth.  The difficulty is sorting through the biases and agendas of the so-called experts to see if they are interested in getting at that truth or pushing their own biased agenda forward.  Sometimes the truth is painful, especially when it comes to political issues that may cause harm to certain individuals.  That doesn’t, however, make it any less truthful.  How the world *is* and how it *ought* to be should not be confused.  For example, are all people equally intelligent?  Are all people created equally?  There are serious policy implications that stem from these questions and there are objective and truthful answers to these questions as well.

      • MrTeacup

        But I’m not relying on anecdotes, I quoted a poll. Americans spend $34 billion a year on alternative medicines, against the advice of the medical establishment. The organic food industry is worth another $30 billion a year, and largely premised on avoiding pesticides, hormones and other chemicals that experts tell us are safe. I don’t claim that this means Americans are uniformly distrustful of experts, because there are situations where this is clearly not true. That’s fine with me, because I’m not trying to make that case. What I am saying is that your claim that “we readily trust experts and their opinion” is a very broad statement that doesn’t seem to hold up to the facts.

        I also don’t think that rejecting experts means Americans are interested in educating themselves. The usual frame is that complex knowledge belongs to the expert, and commonsense pragmatic knowledge belongs to the average person. The rejection of experts usually means celebrating commonsense or intuitive “wisdom” over education.

        • Greg Linster

          You cited one poll, which may or may not be indicative of a larger cultural trend depending on how it was conducted.  I would need to know a lot more about the poll in order to feel comfortable drawing any conclusions from it.  Also, when you mentioned that parents fail to immunize their children or that people ignore the warning label on the milk, I took these points to be anecdotes since there was no data to support those claims.  I agree with you, however, because I know people who do those things as well, but I don’t think that is grounds for dismissing a larger cultural trend.

          Suppose you wanted to become a nutritionist.  Regardless of your knowledge level, you would have to get a certification that proves you’re an expert.  Or how about lawyers?  Or doctors?  Or pilots?  Or barbers?  Or personal trainers?  Or teachers?  Again, I think we, as a collective society, generally are more willing to trust someone with a supposed expertise.  It’s often more about expert credentials than it is any level of knowledge.

          People often ask me about questions pertaining to economic issues and I frequently don’t know the answer.  I do, however, often have an opinion about the issue.  Am I an expert?  Should my opinion be valued more than someone without a background in economics? 

          • MrTeacup

            It seems weird to claim that the existence of certification implies that we are too trusting of experts. We want experts to be certified because we are skeptical of their claims. Why else would the public demand it? Some people believe that certification is sufficient proof of knowledge, but clearly many do not – the situation is mixed. But I think the default starting point is skepticism rather than trust.

            In many cases, the issue is not only about believing that experts are knowledgeable. It’s also about whether they are lying to us.

  • Andrew Russell

    I think you mean philosopher to mean a largely auto-didactic polymath, while accepting that specialization and teaching is needed in complex areas of which it may take ones whole life to make a contribution, say, particle physics, etc. But that we need more, as Taleb would say, Renaissance men and women who are less encumbered by conventional thinking and overspecialization, perhaps as statesmen.

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