An Expert Opinion

Every lawyer is, by definition, an expert. If you wanted to call a lawyer to the witness stand to ask her legal opinion, the only qualification required would be bar admission. But, of course, every lawyer is not an expert in the non-legal definition. More significantly, put ten lawyers on the stand and you’ll get ten different opinions, a few of which may be totally batshit crazy.

The point isn’t that the ten lawyers who disagree are wrong, but that “expertise” does not assure a “correct” opinion. Indeed, there often isn’t a correct opinion, but there are incorrect opinions. And this is just as to law. There are an infinite number of issues upon which opinions can be formed. Some require no expertise (which tastes better, chocolate or vanilla?) and every opinion is just as valid as every other (yes, there will be that person without taste buds. Just stop). Other areas of inquiry require a foundation of base knowledge before a person can have a legitimate opinion at all, after which valid opinions can be formed and debated.

But at the Federalist, Tom Nichols (@radiofreetom*) raises the populist attack, the death of expertise.

I am (or at least think I am) an expert. Not on everything, but in a particular area of human knowledge, specifically social science and public policy. When I say something on those subjects, I expect that my opinion holds more weight than that of most other people.

I never thought those were particularly controversial statements. As it turns out, they’re plenty controversial. Today, any assertion of expertise produces an explosion of anger from certain quarters of the American public, who immediately complain that such claims are nothing more than fallacious “appeals to authority,” sure signs of dreadful “elitism,” and an obvious effort to use credentials to stifle the dialogue required by a “real” democracy.

An ominous start, not because his point isn’t valid, but because the word “expert” is loaded. The dictionary definition of “expert” is someone with comprehensive and authoritative knowledge or skill in a particular area, which is fine as far as it goes. This, obviously, compels the next question, which is who decides whether someone has the requisite knowledge or skill?

Lawprofs regularly describe themselves as “experts” in a field. And journalists, commonly, accept their self-characterizations without question, giving rise to a bit of a circle jerk that ultimately creates an impression of expertise. After all, if credible media calls you an “expert” enough, then you are one, right? Who can be bothered tracking every claim of expertise back to its ignominious source of facile self-description?**

At the same time, questions as to the validity of comprehensive knowledge give rise to the opposite claim, that expertise is a sham designed to silence the opinions of others.

I fear we are witnessing the “death of expertise”: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all. By this, I do not mean the death of actual expertise, the knowledge of specific things that sets some people apart from others in various areas. There will always be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other specialists in various fields. Rather, what I fear has died is any acknowledgement of expertise as anything that should alter our thoughts or change the way we live.

This is a very bad thing. Yes, it’s true that experts can make mistakes, as disasters from thalidomide to the Challenger explosion tragically remind us. But mostly, experts have a pretty good batting average compared to laymen: doctors, whatever their errors, seem to do better with most illnesses than faith healers or your Aunt Ginny and her special chicken gut poultice. To reject the notion of expertise, and to replace it with a sanctimonious insistence that every person has a right to his or her own opinion, is silly.

The popular mantra, that every person has a right to an opinion is, as Nichols asserts, “silly.” It’s not that every person doesn’t have the right to express an opinion, but that they are not entitled to have their opinion given any credit if they lack the foundation to hold it. When it comes to preferred ice cream flavor, we’re all equal. When it comes to aerodynamics, we’re not.

Worse, it’s dangerous. The death of expertise is a rejection not only of knowledge, but of the ways in which we gain knowledge and learn about things. Fundamentally, it’s a rejection of science and rationality, which are the foundations of Western civilization itself. Yes, I said “Western civilization”: that paternalistic, racist, ethnocentric approach to knowledge that created the nuclear bomb, the Edsel, and New Coke, but which also keeps diabetics alive, lands mammoth airliners in the dark, and writes documents like the Charter of the United Nations.

In too many minds, all issues are decided by a binary, in this instance expertise either exists or doesn’t, experts are either good or bad. There is no recognition of the spectrum between the end points. If only there was a spectrum expert to explain this to us?

The questions that should be asked start with the ones a judge should (but too often doesn’t) ponder when admitting expert testimony. Is the substantive question one that requires comprehensive and authoritative knowledge? if a jury can figure it out without the aid of an expert, then a party has no business introducing expert testimony, putting a witness on the stand to usurp the jury’s function by telling them what an expert thinks.

Even so, there are often “dueling experts,” where both sides put on their own expert, each of whom will recite the litany of their education, experience, publications and awards, for the purpose of earning their ridiculously high fees and persuading the jury they know what they’re talking about. Sometimes these experts “offset.”

Other times, the jury is left to its own devices to figure out which witness’ testimony to favor. It’s a rather insane system, since the jury is no more qualified to believe one over the other than it would be to find facts without possessing the comprehensive and authoritative knowledge necessary in the first place.

Yet, none of this “solves” the problem. Ask an engineer what will happen if you push a bumblebee off the roof, and he may explain, complete with calculations, why it will end poorly for the bee. Yet, bumblebees fly quite nicely, thank you. Sure, there’s a hammer/nail issue here, but would you prefer the airliner in which you’re flying to have been designed with a mechanical pencil or a crayon?***

The logical fallacy of “appeal to expertise” is often conflated with expertise. The former occurs when someone claims “experts [of some specific ilk] say this is so,” as opposed to a substantive reference to a particular person, an offering of their competence to opine and an explanation of the basis for their opinion. The latter can be assessed for its validity. The former cannot. The latter opens discussion. The former closes it.

Don’t hate experts. Without them, airplanes would fall from the sky. And no matter how you feel about an issue, or even how right you turn out to be, that doesn’t make you an expert or mean that your opinion matters. Nichols makes some points that help to enable us non-experts in serve as gatekeepers of our personal understanding and appreciation of what to believe:

  1. We can all stipulate: the expert isn’t always right.
  2. But an expert is far more likely to be right than you are. On a question of factual interpretation or evaluation, it shouldn’t engender insecurity or anxiety to think that an expert’s view is likely to be better-informed than yours. (Because, likely, it is.)
  3. Experts come in many flavors. Education enables it, but practitioners in a field acquire expertise through experience; usually the combination of the two is the mark of a true expert in a field. But if you have neither education nor experience, you might want to consider exactly what it is you’re bringing to the argument.
  4. In any discussion, you have a positive obligation to learn at least enough to make the conversation possible. The University of Google doesn’t count. Remember: having a strong opinion about something isn’t the same as knowing something.
  5. And yes, your political opinions have value. Of course they do: you’re a member of a democracy and what you want is as important as what any other voter wants. As a layman, however, your political analysis, has far less value, and probably isn’t — indeed, almost certainly isn’t — as good as you think it is.

And how do I know all this? Just who do I think I am?

Well, of course: I’m an expert.

Oh, come on. That was funny. While Nichols’ claim to expertise is in public policy, an exceptionally contentious area where, knowledgeable people might argue, the very nature of expertise doesn’t exist in the first place, what makes you feel your Ph.D. from Dunning-Kruger University gives you the authority to disagree?

*Mention of Nichols evokes outrage from Trump supporters. This is not a referendum on Nichols nor a mechanism to vent anger toward him. If you don’t think Tom Nichols, despite your fury, has anything worthwhile to say, consider this a blind squirrel opportunity and save your angst for another time and place. I’m not interested and it won’t be allowed.

**There’s a secondary, and far more disturbing trend, of scholars who, on paper at least, have a legitimate claim to expertise, but abuse their “authoritative” opinion to promote their advocacy. Intellectual dishonesty has become a weapon to serve their political agenda, and scholars who do so are nothing more than disgraceful liars.

***Just don’t go there. It’s too easy.

37 thoughts on “An Expert Opinion

  1. albeed

    Are you bad-mouthing my Aunt Ginny’s chicken gut poultice? No one, absolutely no one stayed in bed after an application of her poultice, even if some were carried off by dogs, wolves or raptors.

  2. Billy Bob

    Non-experts need not reply. That’s the best we can do today.
    May have to come back to this later. Hate it when that happens.
    (Not fully comprehending the first time, that is.) How do we know a real expert if we’re not one ourselves? Gotta give that Dunning-Kruger a second look too. Notice we did not say Tr*mp once.

  3. Ross

    “In too many minds, all issues are decided by a binary, in this instance expertise either exists or doesn’t, experts are either good or bad. There is no recognition of the spectrum between the end points.”

    This ranks very high on the list of thoughts you’ve expressed that need to be pounded into the brains of everyone with a brain. Thinking in binary terms brings comfort to the masses, but does little to resolve any issue, and is the root cause of much of the political strife that hamstrings this country.

    1. Billy Bob

      In other words, “the root of all evil.” Go ahead now and say it!
      Thanx for your perspicacity and for tunin’ in.

    2. Btfine

      But of course you can’t make them understand because there are two types people, those that see everything binary and those of us who know better.

  4. Mike G.

    It is hard to give credence to Nichol’s claim to be an expert. He doesn’t seem to know the difference between a Democracy and a Constitutional Republic. If we were a Democracy, Hillary would be measuring for new drapes in the White House instead of that other person.

    But I’m just a layman, so what do I know.

    1. SHG Post author

      It doesn’t matter if Nichol is an expert or not. In the same vein, the obsession with calling it a democracy or constitutional republic is stupid, unless you don’t think he’s ever heard of the electoral college. That people sometimes use common language to make themselves reasonably comprehensible even when less than precise is usually a good thing, unless you want to find a reason to smack him. I don’t give a damn either way, and it’s irrelevant to this post, so save it for someone who cares.

      1. Mike G.

        My apologies for going off the rails, so to speak, but that is a pet peeve of mine and as you are wont to say; Words have meaning. And my intention wasn’t to “smack” Nichols.

        I read the linked article, ( I know, amazing, right?), and actually agree with many of his points. The younger crowd does seem to have a penchant for disregarding the advise and counsel of experts.

        I’m sure in your field of expertise, that clients who didn’t heed your counsel found themselves behind bars or with longer sentences than they would have had if they had listened to you.

        I guess I would be considered an expert in my field with almost 40 years under my belt, but I don’t promote myself as such because there is so much more out there to learn.

        Funny thing about experts, though.As the foreman of a blasting company told me one time when I asked him if he was an expert…Son, the only experts in this field are dead.

        1. SHG Post author

          I am not very fond of anyone who calls himself an expert. If others want to do so, fine, but you don’t do it yourself.

          1. Kirk Taylor

            “Expert” bothers me as well. I use the term “Super Genius” (of Tax)
            The problem with expertise is that some things, like law and taxes, are hard, and, despite my being a “Super Genius” I consider my knowledge barely adequate to serve my clients. The fact that many self-proclaimed “experts” have far less knowledge only cheapens the term.

            (Changed the website linked to prove that I’m not lying about the Super Genius part)

  5. David Meyer-Lindenberg

    Nichols is a great writer, but like you, I was disappointed that he failed to address the existence of fraudulent experts, or experts who deliberately misrepresent to shill for their favorite causes, or fields like gender studies, where “peer review” breaks down because each “peer” is as absurd as the other.

    That aside, if you buy into his expert/layman binary, it’s a hell of a persuasive article.

    1. SHG Post author

      If you accept that he was dealing with a sliver of the issues, his binary and failure to mention collateral problems was understandable, but maybe his hammer/nail focus was different than my generalist view. After all, he’s an expert. I’m just a lawyer.

      1. David Meyer-Lindenberg

        I’m guessing the way he’s under constant personal attack by the twitterati has something to do with his reluctance to acknowledge the expert nonbinary. (Damn, that feels good to say.)

        If anything, you ought to get more imputed credibility than he does. You’re a trench lawyer; if someone in your profession is an expert, it’s easy enough to show. But his credentials are in a decidedly airier field. Can’t blame him for feeling a little insecure.

        1. SHG Post author

          Not to denigrate airier fields (because who doesn’t love airy fields, amirite?), but soft “science” is more art plus theory and experience than objective knowledge. The problem there is you can get a bigly degree, write lots of great stuff, and find yourself so deep down the misguided theory rabbit hole that there’s no way out.

          One of the minor things I noted about Nichol’s post on the twitters is that expertise sometimes blinds an otherwise knowledgeable person to the errors of his ways. Just as the stupid person falls down the Dunning-Kruger hole, the knowledgeable person wraps himself in his expertise cocoon and refuses to ever consider* heresy from the groundlings.

          *Note use of italics. Not you, David, but anyone disinclined to give meaning to all the words.

  6. Paul L.

    During the Fifth Estate podcast, “Professor Tom Nichols from the Naval War College” said that Police are experts in the Law.
    If Police are infallible experts on the Law, why do they need Qualified Immunity?

  7. David

    “Ask an engineer what will happen if you push a bumblebee off the roof, and he may explain, complete with calculations, why it will end poorly for the bee. Yet, bumblebees fly quite nicely, thank you.”

    Actually as an Engineer, years ago I would have told you that I don’t know how a bee generates sufficient lift given its wings but that it does fly and that the flying can easily be demonstrated. More recently with more modern tools, the bee’s flying has been better analyzed and we can now explain how a bee flies.

    The bee shouldn’t be able to fly is believed to have originated as a joke but enough non experts repeated it until it became truthy enough that people believed it even as they watched the bees fly from flower to flower.

  8. Dragoness Eclectic

    When my spouse was in the Navy, aboard ship, there were forms to be filled out for maintenance and repairs, which required things like giving reasons for making a particular diagnosis or repair. One acronym the crew members used for reasons was ‘VOE’: “Vast Operator Experience”. When you’ve seen the same symptoms stemming from the same cause hundreds of times, you have a good idea what’s wrong without running elaborate diagnostics and step-by-step procedures. That’s expertise.

    Lots of things in nature and in humans are on a spectrum: expertise, sexual preference, even gender.

    1. SHG Post author

      I never tire of hearing another fascinating story all about you, even if it shows that you didn’t really grasp the post at all.

      1. Billy Bob

        Be kind to Dragoness. She means well, and we do not want to lose her. Don’t do, I’m warnin’ ya.

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