I defer to expertise

Philosopher Crispin Wright
Philosopher Crispin Wright

Well, often and mostly (but not always.)

Why am I talking about this? Because I frequently hear, from other people, an expression of global scepticism, along the lines of:

  • you can’t believe anything the media says
  • you can’t believe what scientists say
  • you can’t believe any official statistics, ESPECIALLY government statistics

Well I believe quite a lot of what the media says, a lot of what scientists say, and a lot of official and government statistics. Do I believe uncritically and without exercising judgement? No.

With the media, I tend to believe sources that have a well established tradition of balanced reporting – I would cite the BBC in this. There are no entirely objective media outlets of course – they all report from a perspective – the BBC from a British/European perspective, and it can’t, for practical reasons, always report on the complete spectrum of opinions – it tends to focus on those opinions which are supported by significant proportions of the population. And yes, it’s imperfect, it sometimes makes mistakes. I read the New York Times and listen to NPR – and I don’t claim these are entirely objective either, though overall my judgement is that there is a commitment to accurate reporting. Sometimes they fail and I’m also aware that both organizations are slightly left of centre – so to be fair I try to listen, read from more right-wing outlets too – pretty easy with the internet. What’s critical for me is an evident commitment to accurate and balanced reporting – organizations may fail, but if the overall commitment is there, then I am much more trusting.

With scientists I need to check who is funding the research, I need to check if it’s a minority position, and I need to check whether what is being said is towards a consensus position. (Yes, as astro-physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson points out, science DOES in practice proceed by consensus – viz the systematic review in health science which assesses a large range of well conducted trials and averages them out.) And if a scientist is making a claim that contradicts the large body of accumulated evidence, the scientist had better have extraordinary evidence to make extraordinary claims. Are scientists infallible? Of course not. But is science the best means we have of establishing the mostly likely explanation for phenomena? Yes. If science hadn’t been successful, it wouldn’t a) have transformed the world over the past few centuries and b) would not be in widespread use today, if its predictive powers had proven to be non-existent.

One example: after my recent concussion I had consultations with two experts in the field – both with decades of experience in handling concussion cases. Both had an international reputation and lectured around the world. I was urged by an acquaintance, with no medical training, that I should check alternative websites and try out, among other things, vitamin supplements. I told her to get lost. Why?  Should I put more weight on the opinions of two people with medical expertise and decades of experience (who hadn’t suggested vitamins), or someone with no medical training and no expertise in the area? By the way, it’s not that the two experts in question were closed to “alternative” methods – in fact I tried out one approach, using running, which was being explored by a lab in Buffalo. The difference though was that there was some scientific plausibility to this “alternative” approach and it was being carried out by credible scientists. There is no evidence, incidentally, that vitamins can help with a concussion.

Government and official statistics: it depends on the government. I will tend to give more weight to statistics issued by democratically accountable governments, and much less when there isn’t real democracy. I will tend to be accepting if there is no sufficient and specific reason to disbelieve them (and the fact that they come from government is not of itself a reason). I tend to think that figures, say, from the Centers for Disease Control, are issued with the genuine intention of spreading knowledge and improving medicine. Or, for that matter, economic analyses from the Congressional Budget Office, which was set up specifically to do non-partisan research. I might, though, be more sceptical of statements from the Environmental Protection Agency on fracking, since I’ve read specific media reports from a reliable source (Propublica) that they have come under commercial pressure to soften their conclusions about fracking. (The same might apply to the FDA, but again I’d use judgement and it would depend on what subject they were reporting.)

All of this is influenced by a paper from the philosopher Crispin Wright – who I had the good fortune to attend lectures with at NYU – he’s actually a Brit, but was visiting. The paper is “Warrant for Nothing” and it’s basically an attempt at a serious and considered answer to the global sceptic who says we don’t know anything – we might be a brain being manipulated in a vat, or everything might be a dream. In others words, according to the radical, global sceptic, we can take absolutely nothing for granted and don’t know anything. You can maybe see why I think there’s a broad analogy with the global scepticism mentioned above.

Anyhow, Wright sets out to argue that there is a way we can rationally justify saying we know stuff. He argues that we are “entitled” to accept and trust things as they are – even without absolutely conclusive evidence – provided a number of conditions are met. I won’t mention all of them – but one is that we have no sufficient or specific reason to doubt, for example, that my cognitive faculties are working OK at this time, or that what I’m asserting is true. Secondly, I should behave in a way that indicates I accept whatever it is I’m asserting – ie whatever from “I’m hungry”, to “there’s a table in front of me.” My actions should confirm that I really do hold those beliefs. We are entitled to assume that the laws of nature are uniform, Wright argues, so long as there is no better way to understand nature (other than observing and assuming regularities), and since making this assumption allows us to live happy and stable lives and since also we have no specific or sufficient reason to doubt that the laws of nature are uniform. Sure, we need to examine and investigate our assumptions in a responsible way, and we shouldn’t use methods and assumptions that we have reason to doubt before coming to conclusions.

On these bases, Wright concludes, we are rationally entitled to say we know stuff DESPITE the attack of the sceptic, and even though we can’t base everything on absolutely rock solid evidence – we trust instead in certain assumptions, that Wright argues, are reasonable to make. If you’re interested it’s a really interesting and dense article – it certainly took me several reads to get a grasp of it, but I think he has some really, really important insights. (I admit I haven’t done full justice to it – it’s very elegantly and subtly argued – I’ve reduced it to a few, crude extracts – which are hopefully not wholly misleading.)

In short, I think scepticism is often a valuable approach, but when it’s applied globally, it’s not warranted or useful, and ultimately leads to paralysis. If we believe nothing that we see or hear, we can’t function as a society, and hardly even as an individual. The old saying “Question Everything” has some value in its spirit but taken literally it’s an absurd and destructive idea. Quite a lot of the time, there are good reasons for accepting information, and for deferring to expertise.

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