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.