Trust the Experts

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

The pandemic is further uncovering a deeply rooted and troubling problem in the United States. While experts everywhere are saying that the only effective way to stem the spread of the virus is by continuing to stay socially distant, many Americans are avoiding these clear instructions outright, treating them more as loose guidelines on which their protests can gain focus than measured procedures that have been put into place after deep consideration for the profound effect they will have on the everyday life of every American.

The issue is about more than just COVID-19, it brings with it deep political, sociological, and psychological ties. Tom Nichols called it the Death Of Expertise in his book on the matter, and his pioneering essay prior to it. Nichols saw the reverence for expertise dying around him, as social media and the internet at large gave voices and then influence to wikipedia-researching back-of-the-napkin thesis writers, proclaiming their knowledge with more confidence than education. “Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of anything related to public policy, is an actual virtue.” Nichols argues that rejecting the advice of experts is “a way for Americans to insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong about anything.” (Quote pulled from Nichols’s book “The Death of Expertise”, cited by the New York Times). Even further, experts have been shunned as members of an elite class. While, at its core, this remains true; in that Americans of means are typically the only ones able to afford to educate themselves to the point of expertise, it does nothing to discount their knowledge and it certainly shouldn’t. For some reason, expertise has seemed to have become democratised, despite it having clear requirements. There’s a growing ideology that seems to be almost unperceived by those who participate in it that experts can be contested by those who are, by definition, laymen. This cohort tends to believe that their points can be upheld with the same level of validity because it’s “what they believe”. While there’s a certain quality to challenging the status quo, this being the new normal in discourse is more than a step too far.

The proliferation of the internet has only made this worse. Armchair experts can be validated by similar thinkers. Although the internet has been a great equalizer of sorts, the outcome of its wisdom is completely diametrically opposed: although it contains the information to teach an expert, it also empowers those with no knowledge to assume they have the basis to disagree with facts. Confirmation bias is partly to blame, and it’s not as easy to solve as one could hope.

Studies have shown that even those who are aware that they have bias going into a situation, they are still likely to confirm their own beliefs, rather than challenge them. A piece in the New Yorker investigates why facts don’t change people’s minds and the conclusion is interesting. It finds that cognitive bias is so pervasive that it’s almost impossible to perceive whether an individual is aware of it or not. Even with the best intentions of making a change, confirmation bias seems to be an innate human instinct that was once very useful, but is now only frustrating in public discourse. The New Yorker piece goes on to discuss that where our ancestors would have likely developed this as a skill to trust only those that agree with them, now the usefulness of such an evolutionary trait is gone and we’re left with people who would rather talk to people they agree with than discuss with people they disagree with. Politically-aligned news confirms beliefs before information has even gotten to its audience, friends confirm those beliefs before consulting another source, and a widespread disdain for not wanting to argue over politics have all contributed to make disagreements taboo rather than productive.

A study conducted by the University of California Berkeley cites that party-confirmation bias is prevalent throughout the United States. The focus of the study is that there is growing mistrust of the governmental establishment from both sides of the political aisle. This skepticism of established individuals could very well be extrapolated to other areas of expertise like science. It shows the potential for constituents to follow the lead only of their elected officials who confirm and further their beliefs. The movement away from the political mainstream has just furthered the divide between parties and moved to fracture American government as a whole. It has built a “my way or the highway” mentality that just adds to the stubbornness of Americans in trying to look at things from another perspective. All of this just further complicates the issue. It shows that confirmation bias is such that Americans only trust those in power that they trusted to begin with and that anyone who is an extension of someone on the other side of the political aisle (and in some cases, on the same side) is an enemy, no matter their credentials. In times like this, it’s important to think for one’s self, but that doesn’t mean to assume you have the knowledge to take on a neuroscientist in a discussion on the brain. It means you have to think and trust the right people, the people whose education and experience deserves it, not just the people it might feel good to trust.

Jenny McCarthy is a perfect example of this. For many people, the familiarity and friendliness of her public persona makes her feel much more trustworthy than a cold scientist who only tells you not to do something that you want to do. McCarthy uses this to her advantage to push her fringe views on the public. Her anti-vaccine movement has likely been the death of numerous of her own followers’ children, who are refused vaccinations despite the clear scientific evidence that points to their effectiveness. Yet this one anecdotal piece of evidence that has no basis in science and is a classic case of correlation not meaning causation is the source of an entire movement of Americans who are skeptical of something without really having any reason to be, other than that Jenny McCarthy thinks it’s true. The power celebrities wield without having any credentials other than that they are famous (which isn’t a credential) is enormous and it affects a huge amount of the population.

Jenny McCarthy is hardly the first celebrity to use her influence to spread unfounded beliefs, and nor will she be the last. The Seattle Times reports that a study performed by the University of Glasgow showed that out of nine analyzed influencer blogs related to the topic of nutrition, only one “provided credible, trustworthy information”. Importantly, that one was the only individual who had any educational background in nutrition. The same principle goes for any individual. If it’s not their area of expertise, it’s best not to trust the information that they’re giving.

The information that experts bring to the table is not up for debate; it’s not a discussion. It is fact. If someone has expertise in a subject, whether you like them or not, their facts cannot be argued with your own facts. As the requoted and reattributed saying goes, “Everyone is entitled to [their] own opinion, but not [their] own facts.” as stated this time by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Washington Post.

In any case, expertise, like for example the presumed best way to tackle a pandemic, is not something that is a political matter and nor is it an opinion. Decisions are based solely off of data that suggests that if things continued as they were before social distancing measures were put into place, there would be no economy to save. It’s a matter of very short term gains to the detriment of long term health and economic stability.

And yet still, people choose to believe dubious sources instead of believing those who know the information best. In its truest form, avoiding confirmation bias and having faith in expertise is a huge and underrated personal asset. It’s an often overlooked skill that most successful CEOs have. In reality, a big part of running a company, especially in its early stages, is finding the right people to do it. Monumental leaders like Steve Jobs use this to their advantage to push the best ideas forward in pursuit of a greater cause. Jobs was known for his hiring sense and is famous for saying “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

This sort of mentality goes beyond the world of business. It can be applied to everyday situations. In areas that you might not have as much knowledge in, it’s far better to listen to the experts of that field rather than other laymen or to come to your own uneducated conclusions. This is the reason we are a democratic republic and not just an outright democracy. Our job as the public is to hire, to elect, people whose full time job it is to make policy decisions. Just like you wouldn’t hire your doctor to fix your bicycle, you wouldn’t want to have a businessman run the country. That means trusting politicians. Even though career politicians are getting a bad reputation, it’s important to note that their entire job is to serve their constituents. If that isn’t their first priority then alternatives should be considered. The point here is not to blindly support those who hold a position of power, but is to trust those who clearly have more expertise in a field rather than being skeptical of their every move. Be skeptical of those who claim expertise without having it, not those who do have it. Experts simply know more about their area of expertise than you do. They become experts so they can advise those without that expertise. Let them do it and don’t disagree with them just for the sake of it.

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(Mostly) tech writer based in NYC. Other interests include movies, games, music, soccer, and traveling. You’ll find a little bit of all of that here.

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Jacob Mitchener

Jacob Mitchener

(Mostly) tech writer based in NYC. Other interests include movies, games, music, soccer, and traveling. You’ll find a little bit of all of that here.

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