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RS16 - Deferring to Experts

Release date: August 29, 2010

At a talk he gave at TAM 8, Massimo argued that non-experts in a field aren't qualified to reject an expert consensus, such as that on anthropogenic climate change.  Most recently, he has taken Jerry Coyne to task for making a philosophical argument without having the necessary expertise. This raises a number of questions: Are there fields that have no experts, or that have pretend experts?  If there is a lot of disagreement among experts on a topic, should we take any individual expert's opinion less seriously? How much consensus is required before a non-expert should say, "OK, looks like this question really is settled"?

Perhaps noted expert George Carlin had it right when he said: "I have as much authority as the pope, I just don't have as many people who believe it."

Comment on the episode teaser.

Julia's pick:  "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion"

Massimo's pick: "Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar . . .: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes"

References (2)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.

Reader Comments (24)

Ultimately, what matters to me is who's more likely to be right. If a consensus of experts on a given topic is more likely to be right than any non-expert, then it makes sense for non-experts to defer to it, but the question is how do we know who's more likely to be right. For example, I wouldn't defer to a consensus of homeopaths.

August 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMax

I agree with Julia that Massimo's examples of agreement in Philosophy were metaquestions.

Perhaps a better example is Dualism - does anyone nowadays believe in it?

There's disagreement in Maths as well, but even Fermat's Last Theorem was solved in under 4 centuries. Whereas there're many issues that Plato brought up that Philosophy is still grappling with...

August 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAgagooga

Hey Agagooga,
Regarding the issue of disagreement among philosophers over whether it's legit to use our intuitions as guides to what exists in the world... In the podcast I called that a "rule of inference," but it has been brought to my attention that I really meant something a little more general. It's not exactly a disagreement over the technical rules of logical inference, which I suppose is how Massimo interpreted my point, but it IS a disagreement over what constitutes sound philosophical methodology. (A meta-question, yes.) And it seems like something really fundamental to their field, and therefore worrisome that they still disagree about it.

August 31, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJulia Galef

Julia: Well, moral intuitions are only guides as to what exists if you believe in objective moral facts - but then there isn't agreement about that either :)

August 31, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAgagooga

Agagooga, actually, the point is not that many philosophers believe that our moral intuitions are a guide to which moral facts are true, assuming you accept that that there exist objective moral facts. The point is instead that many philosophers believe our moral intuitions are reason to believe that there exist objective moral facts.

August 31, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJulia Galef

Okay, I'm pondering how that logic works... It would seem quite strange to have moral intuitions which are different from moral facts if you believe the intuitions mean some facts exist.

August 31, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAgagooga

I recently started listening to Rationally Speaking, after listening to plenty of interviews with Massimo on other shows and more recently hearing a panel that both of you did, though I can't remember what podcast featured it (Reasonable Doubts, maybe?). I'm enjoying the show, so thank you for putting it out there for us.

One thing struck me as questionable with this episode, though. At one point, Massimo indicated that 30,000 hours of experience was about the amount of time to gain mastery in a subject, which he said was coincidentally about the same time as is required to get a PhD. I crunched some numbers, and sure enough, it seems way off the mark.

Even if you include the amount of time it takes to get a bachelor's degree as part of that time (not a valid inclusion, in my opinion, since so often, someone with a PhD got an undergraduate degree in an unrelated or tangentially related field), it seems wrong. Assuming someone working on their degree works a solid 10 hours a day (I know a student's days are often longer than that, but they're also often much shorter), and does so for 300 days a year (50-60 more days that a "full time" job, meaning the student studies full-time during academic breaks), this would be 10 years of solid work, with very little time to rest and relax, six years more than the "standard" graduate study time for a PhD, and two years more than the "standard" undergraduate+graduate time. If someone worked that hard on an undergrad degree, they'd easily be done with it in less than three years, probably two, and while graduate work is considerably more intensive, I can't imagine anyone hitting 30,000 hours to get a single PhD.

Did I misunderstand? Was Massimo talking about the 3,000 "expert" time frame, and not the 30,000 "master" time frame? If so, 3,000 seems too low, unless you start the counter when someone who has a master's degree begins his or her PhD work.

September 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterErik Harris

Julia makes a statement right at the beginning that intrigued me: macroeconomic models are less likely to be correct than climate models. I was very curious to hear the justification for this (because my own intuition is opposite), but it never came. Does anyone care to elaborate on this?

My intuition on believing macroeconomic models more than climate models comes from my understanding of the track records of these types of models in making predictions. Generally speaking, macroeconomic models seem to be pretty good at predicting, say, next year's GDP. Obviously, there are well known errors, like not foreseeing the current recession, but in general, they are pretty accurate in predicting growth rates. On the other hand, climate models seem to be fairly inaccurate at predicting, say, next year's average temperature. Recently, the models have continually predicted next year's avg temperature to be higher, but temperatures have remained stagnant.

I suppose some might argue that the ability of these models to make predictions is not important. But aren't the claims that climate models are being used to support exactly this, i.e., predictions?

September 5, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterz


I obviously can't speak for Julia, but my take on it is that it's because climate models are based on a series of natural and deterministic variables. While we don't fully understand all of these variables, their effects should each be determinable and repeatable. Economic models, on the other hand, are dependent on human psychology, which is a lot less predictable, and subject to a nearly infinite number of variables, many of which are way outside the expertise of economists, yet can have a profound effect on spending. Worse, these variables affect different people and different populations of people very differently, making it harder to aggregate them in a predictable and repeatable manner. On the other hand, big groups of people average out the extremes in the group, presumably making macroeconomic trends a bit more robust than microeconomic trends (just as looking over longer temporal and spatial extents in climatology reduce the effects of extreme weather events and short-term weather trends).

Plus, climate scientists have been working in their field refining their models over and over. The details keep changing, but the overall "gist" of the model has not changed, and the changing details pretty continuously reinforce the overall message. The consensus within climate science on the "big picture" questions is overwhelming (to about the same degree as the consensus among biologists on evolution, according to Donald Prothero... and according to virtually every other expert, but that's a reference I had fresh in my mind). Are there similarly overwhelming consensuses (consensi?) on "big picture" questions in economics? It seems to me more like there are multiple diametrically opposed views on overall macroeconomic models (with two big ones being Keynesian and Neoclassical, if I understand correctly), with none of them claiming the support of a significant majority of economic experts.

Climate models do not predict "next year's avg temperature." They predict longer term trends, with any given day, week, month, or year falling within some less-predictable range outside that trend, based on annual and sub-annual effects. Data in complex systems are noisy, and claiming they're valid because a dot on the trend line is preceded by one a bit above the trend line and followed by one a bit below the trend line, creating a short-term decline amidst a long-term increase is poor statistical analysis in any field. Criticizing climatology on those grounds is much like saying macroeconomics is BS because it doesn't predict what my family will spend on lunches over the course of the next year.

September 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterErik Harris

You should bring a second philosopher on your program. Many of Julia's intuitive objections to Massimo's arguments are actually serious positions within philosophy. I also think there's a little pot/kettle going on here.

Take for example Harris's position regarding science and morality. Massimo suggested that Harris had not familiarized himself with metaethics, implying that he does not have the expertise. As someone who specializes in metaethics and is familiar with the requisite literature, one of my eyebrows shot past my hairline when I read this.

Harris's position is not a novel one within metaethics and while I don't completely agree with him, his knowledge of my specialization is robust. What's slightly unusual about Harris is the fact that he's popularizing a particular position within a longstanding debate. Massimo would have been better off disagreeing with Harris rather than calling into question Harris's expertise.

A number of faculty members at my campus have both a dim view of Harris and Massimo, probably because they resist their approaches to popularizing philosophy; however, there was much more sympathy for Harris's position, particularly with respect to the is-ought problem. Philosophers specializing in meta-ethics can't stand how popular philosophers and scientists have run away with the is-ought problem. I would almost suggest that it has attained a mythological station in certain circles, much like Poppers falsificationism.

Massimo is in danger of using expertise as a blunt instrument to escape serious discussion. If he disagrees with someone he can just claim that his interlocutor hasn't read the right stuff. Personally, I don't think Massimo will do that, but he should be conservative when challenging the expertise of others as he is himself a specialist in a particular area and yet he waxes-philosophical about many subjects beyond his own expertise, not least of which is expertise itself.

September 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJSS

Climate models do not predict "next year's avg temperature." They predict longer term trends, with any given day, week, month, or year falling within some less-predictable range outside that trend, based on annual and sub-annual effects. Data in complex systems are noisy...

For me, what you bring up here -- the ability (or inability) to make verifiable predictions -- is central.

I don't find the amount of effort required to gain expertise in a subject (nor how "technical" it is) to be a persuasive indicator of how much I should defer to authority. After all, it might take many years to become an expert in astrology, and perhaps they have very sophisticated, technical means of making their predictions. That does not in any way suggest that they are correct.

Similarly, there may be a great deal of consensus amongst astrologers. (I think Massimo used this example, actually.) That too does not suggest they are correct.

I am much more persuaded by the extent to which claims in that field can be subjected to experiment. When a physicist says that the strong force acts in a certain way, I have a lot of faith in that statement because I am confident it has been tested in many detailed experiments. Whereas if, for example, an anthropologist says that a certain social force acts in a certain way, I have much less faith in that because it is very hard to test such claims.

The comparison of climate science to macroeconomics seems very apt to me, though, because both have similar difficulties in performing experiments. We cannot setup a "control economy" and compare it to the "test economy", for example. It seems as though the best we can do is to make predictions about the specific economies that exist in nature and see which variables in the model seem to be most accurate.

And on that front, the current macroeconomic models have become fairly accurate, whereas the climate models have not. So while I have less confidence in experts from both of these sciences than those from, say, physics, based on these criteria, I would have to have more confidence in the statements of macroeconomists than in those of climate scientists.

September 5, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterz

Massimo said that "almost nobody take serious training in formal logic...except mathematicians". First of all, that is absolutely not true. Computer science has a theoretical components that include computation theory and formal logic. Not every computer science program requires PhDs to have formal logic but a lot of computer scientists are very well-trained in this area. It is very easy to verify.

Second, lots of mathematicians and computer scientists migrate to experimental sciences. Massimo tends to talk as if experimental scientists (let's say biologists) are not well-trained in logic and therefore philosophers have advantage in logic, at least compared to biologists. I don't know. I have a degree in mathematics (and yes I have taken classes in formal logic, set theory, and all that). Now I am a physiologist. My background is not unusual at all in biology. It is true that a standard training in biology does not include formal logic, but many biologists do not receive standard trainings in biology. It is a very open field.

Third. Logic always produces the same results. Massimo himself said so (in the section about the logic class he took). If philosophers are so good at logic, how come they don't agree with each other? Mathematicians don't disagree with each other. Logicians don't disagree with each other. Computer scientists don't disagree with each other. Why is philosophy an exception? Can it be that philosophers either 1: don't use logic, or 2. abuse logic?

Forth. Let's grant philosophers expertise in logic. Let's take their arguments to mathematicians, logicians, or computer scientists and ask them if they agree with philosophers. The answer is no. Again we can verify this by checking the track record (this can be done quantitatively). Mathematicians publish papers with computer scientists. Computer scientists do publish papers with biologists. They all publish papers with each other. But none of these field publish papers with philosophers.

September 6, 2010 | Unregistered Commenteropticalradiation

I took a course in philosophical logic and compared notes with computer science people - philosophy logic is more wordy, and has more translation of words into logic statements. Philosophers disagree on logic because the way you translate sentences into logic statements is contestable. So don't use logic vs abuse logic is a false dichotomy

And philosophers don't publish papers with those people because the fields are very different. String theorists do not publish papers with economists. That does not mean they disagree, just that the fields are too different.

September 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAgagooga

Ha ha ha ha! I've signed tons of petitions, but never donated money to a cause!

September 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCamus Dude

D'oh! This isn't the first time that I've commented while listening and then when my comment post the page refreshes so the podcast stops. One would think I'd learn. I'm a poor Pavlovian apparently.

September 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCamus Dude

To z:
Which climate models to you have a problem with and why? How close would they have to be to actual temperatures or whatever they are modeling before you had confidence in them? Be specific.

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July 15, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterLatestNews
Reliability of an Expert = (k)(Consensus in the Field of Expertise)(Credibility of the Field of Expertise). Homeopathy, for instance, may have tremendous consensus on a certain issue, but the entire field lacks credibility. Therefore, the formula yields k*1*0 = 0. Use of this formula also requires careful definition of the Field of Expertise.

Moral Truths require more than just mere "intuition" to support their premises!
February 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson
After re-reading Julia's post above, "Agagooga, actually, the point is not that many philosophers believe that our moral intuitions are a guide to which moral facts are true, assuming you accept that that there exist objective moral facts. The point is instead that many philosophers believe our moral intuitions are reason to believe that there exist objective moral facts.", I think I now understand Massimo's point.
February 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson

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