Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, November 10, 2016

the problem with experts

Alastair Roberts writes,

Trump’s argument against vaccines works because people no longer trust the authorities — the governments, the scientists, the medical professionals, etc. — who tell them that they are safe. The biased mainstream media, the liberal elite, lying politicians, activist judges, crony capitalists, politically correct academics, the conspiring government, scientists bought off by big business, hypocritical religious leaders: all are radically corrupt, motivated by self-interest, and radically untrustworthy. In such a situation, people’s realm of trust can become more tribal in character, focusing upon people of their own class, background, friendship groups, family, locality, ethnicity, nationality, religion, etc. and deeply suspicious of and antagonistic towards people who do not belong to those groups. This collapse of trust hasn’t occurred because the general public has suddenly become expert in the science behind vaccinations and discovered the authorities’ claims concerning vaccines to be scientifically inaccurate. The trust that has been lost was never directed primarily at such scientific claims. Rather, it was a trust in the persons and agencies that presented us with them.

I think this is all quite right, but I think there’s another important element to the story: the creation, largely through radio and television, of a distinctive class. When a complex or otherwise disputed issue arises, the media look for informants, and those informants they call “experts.” The problem is that the term conflates several varieties of expertise and non-expertise. An “expert in infectious diseases” from the Centers for Disease Control is followed by an “expert in the paleo diet,” who is then succeeded by an “expert in political polling,” and then the hour is wrapped up by a visit from a “relationships expert.”

Some of these people don't know anything about anything. Others have deep learning in rigorously maintained fields of knowledge. But they have all been folded into the class of “expert.” And so when some of them are proved to be empty heads in empty suits, the reputation of the whole class is compromised. And that’s how you get a situation in which all experts are distrusted — in which their very designation as possessing expertise is just a big red flag.


  • Text Patterns readers interested in questions about expertise — and especially about what to do when competing authorities disagree — might also be interested in Robert Herritt's recent New Atlantis essay "Hard to Believe."

  • Anti-vax folks certainly are a tribe, but they're an odd bunch comprising both very liberal "spiritual-but-not-religious" folks and very conservative "fundamentalist" Christians. What often unifies these otherwise very different folks is not just suspicion and/or conspiracy theories, but a more fundamental distrust of the modern order--the people who would side with the Thoreau presented in Jill Lepore's beautiful essay, Vast Designs.

    Of course, there are plenty of those sorts of people who are not anti-vaccination, but I do think there's a lot of commonality there.

    I'd also say there are some who are not conspiracy theorists per se--who do not necessarily assume the worst about our medical industry or government regulators--but who take epistemological skepticism to greater extremes than most others... that is, they may not doubt all the studies that show no discernible link between vaccine and problem "x"... but they'd emphasize the "discernible" part, perhaps beyond the point of reason.

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