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Saturday, February 08, 2014
Experts vs the know-it-alls
This is my Kingston Whig-Standard column from January 31, 2014.
KINGSTON - I have been wondering for some time about the seeming decline of trust in and respect for expertise or considered expert opinions. What triggered it were two very personal experiences that I want to relay to you before I make a broader point.
The first example is the ongoing debates on the safety of vaccines. Well, when I say ongoing debates, they are not quite debates amongst experts. The consensus among experts is that vaccines do not cause autism and that it is highly advisable — life-saving in many cases — to get flu shots prior to flu season. And yet, talking to acquaintances and friends about the subject, I quickly discovered that the consensus among experts counts for precious little. One friend told me that his aunt is a nurse and she told him not to get flu shots — one does wonder where she would have received her training. A colleague told me that she would never (rolling eyes, voice raised) get flu shots, because she’s certain that they would be harming her body. When I wrote a piece suggesting that we have a moral obligation to our fellow citizens to get vaccinated because it would create herd immunity and so protect us individually as well as as a group, I quickly learned from comments under the article that the vast majority of public health experts who recommend this course of action are pharmaceutical industry shills, that taking some humbug homeopathic concoction would also do the trick, and the list goes on. Invariably, this noisemaking was accompanied by fairly aggressive language and deliberate attempts at denying one’s opponents’ expertise, morality and ultimately credibility. No scientific evidence was provided; at best there were links to Internet sites featuring alternative health “information.” The thing that I cannot wrap my head around is the apparent lack of trust in specialist professional consensus opinion among so many. Any bogus “alternative” take, no matter how silly, seems to carry more weight with very many of us. Perhaps it’s a sign that our experts need a lesson or two in communicating their knowledge and advice better.
The other example: a few weeks ago I posted a comment on the website of a national conservative newspaper. In question was an article on assisted dying and what I thought was misleading content in the article. I knew my way around the subject matter because in 2009 the Royal Society of Canada, our national academy of arts, humanities and sciences, asked me to chair an international expert panel tasked with drafting a major report on end-of-life issues in the country. Our multi-disciplinary team, consisting of senior clinicians, lawyers and philosophers, spent two years working more or less full time on producing what arguably constitutes a landmark book-length (onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/bioe.2011.25.issue-s1/issuetoc) report on the subject matter. So, I had some expertise to comment on said article. Now, within a few minutes of me posting said comment, someone whose name I had never come across in discussions on this topic berated me, telling me that I should do my homework before commenting in public on such issues. I replied by posting a link to our report, suggesting that I had at least some claim to expertise on the subject matter. Within no time, the commenter had found me on the Internet — not a difficult task with a last name such as mine. To my surprise, she then proceeded to berate Queen’s University for hiring me. Scandalous! There was Queen’s University daring to hire someone with whom she happened to disagree. Clearly this showed the university’s utter incompetence. I will get back to that competence issue in a moment.
Of course, in a democracy (actually, everywhere), people are entitled to their views and should be able to express them — well, short of calling someone racist names, threatening to kill someone, that sort of thing. It seems to me, though, that the non-expert activists in the two cases I have just described believe that their views are just as valid as those of actual demonstrable experts capable of backing up their claims with facts. And that, of course, is utter nonsense. It just isn’t the case that the views of someone believing in homeopathy are as valid as those of someone who has done actual clinical research and can back up her views with research results that are testable and reproducible.
In some ways, I think, this rejection of expertise constitutes a threat to how we do business in our modern societies. Rationality and evidence were at the core of how we developed policies, and they should be at the core of how we ought to develop policies. As anyone who follows Canadian politics knows, since the advent of Stephen Harper’s reign, this isn’t the case any longer, either. He has shuttered crucial government research facilities simply because they produced evidence that conflicted with his ideological take on reality. It’s a make-believe world that is being created. Meanwhile, actual scientific expertise is deliberately destroyed in the process.
Funny enough, experts being what they are, have investigated this phenomenon, and there is even a name for it. It’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect. Basically, what it does is describe how people could possibly be as uninformed as they are and fail to notice that they really are clueless. Experimentally, the researchers were able to show, for instance, that the worst performing students consistently overrated the quality of their performance while the best performing were typically more skeptical about their place in the academic universe. So, as a writeup at Psychology Today(www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolved-primate/201006/when-ignorance-begets-confidence-the-classic-dunning-kruger-effect) puts it: “People fail to grasp their own incompetence, precisely because they are so incompetent. And since overcoming their incompetence would first require the ability to distinguish competence from incompetence, people get stuck in a vicious cycle.”
I think the mass media — yes, let me finish this up with a quick round of media bashing — must take some responsibility for the mess we are getting ourselves into. Typically, any talk show, newspaper article, even news program, aims to provide for-and-against-type programming. Ostensibly, this is designed to demonstrate balance. But really it more often than not pits an actual expert against a Dunning-Kruger-effect-type activist. Yet they are happily put together on stage, quoted in newspaper articles as if their opinions carried the same value. What really happens here, however, is that audiences are misled by those who put those programs together.
So, there’s the problem. The question is, how can we fix it?
Udo Schuklenk isn’t an expert in most things, but he does claim expertise in a few things, he also teaches at Queen’s University and tweets @schuklenk.