The Fallibility of the Learned

Trusting the Experts

We, as a culture, are obsessed with the experts. They are celebrities; they are the gatekeepers of human knowledge. This does not stop us, however, from having our own opinions about things. There are experts in all of the areas in which we possess opinions, and hence, on many occasions throughout are lives, we are faced with a familiar decision: do we trust the experts, or not?

I, personally, have never been inclined to accept the opinion of an expert simply because he or she is an expert. This holds true even when the experts generally agree with each other, as I expect that they will also supply me with the evidence that has led them to their conclusions. Nonetheless, we are often unable to judge the data for ourselves, ignorant as we are of the subject matter. As such, we must decide when—and when not—to trust an expert.

I have concluded that the learned are fallible. This may seem obvious, but we do not always behave as if they are. Along these lines, there are two trends that strike me as troubling. First, I believe that we afford experts a measure of respect for their titles that either greatly exceeds (or greatly falls short of) that which they are due, because we fail to ask ourselves whether their expertise would allow them to say what they do. Second, I believe that we—especially if we fancy ourselves intellectual—flatter ourselves with the outrageous idea that we can entirely free ourselves from our most basic human biases.

As to the first of these points, I have surprised even myself with the conclusion that I’ve come to. I’ve concluded that no amount of understanding in one field of knowledge necessarily conveys upon you the understanding of a schoolchild in another. Anyone who truly disagrees with this has likely forgotten the examples. It may seem counterintuitive that a brilliant physicist could hold philosophical views inferior to those of a layman, but experience indicates that this is not impossible—the fragmentation of knowledge has subdivided the intellect beyond repair. Whatever extent physicists have mature philosophical views, I imagine they have developed them from scratch, having intentionally turned their intellect towards philosophy for the requisite amount of time.

It is not difficult to think of people who, in spite of their academic training, have severely underdeveloped views on a great many topics. Furthermore, academic training has done little more than to endow them with the confidence and the tone of an expert. This trend is no more prevalent among the irreligious than the religious, and it is in fact more obvious in the latter. Whether or not we recognize these shortcomings in ourselves, we should be discerning when weighing the value of a person’s experience. Would this experience equip such a person to answer the question? Might it even make their opinion even less valuable than that of a common person?

Far stronger than selective ignorance, however, is human bias. Despite the tremendous intellectual snobbery that is wielded against this point, it remains true. No amount of disciplined thinking can raise us so high that we are able to speak in a detached manner about life, death, faith and meaning. We cannot remain entirely neutral on these issues, because our biases on these subjects are the fundamental driving forces that have caused us to take up learning in the first place.

The complex intellect, like a tool, can be used to serve the most basic intentions. Consider a criminal genius—by way of his superior mind, he better fulfills his most basic desires. An electrical engineer builds a secret dungeon in his basement, sealed off by complex locking mechanisms, all so that he can impregnate his daughter and imprison her for twenty-four years. A bright law student perfectly arranges the deaths of dozens of victims. The very intellect that allows such a criminal to carry out his crimes could advise him against committing them, but it does not. It is no more difficult to believe that a man may write an excellent essay, however sound, driven solely by his basic desires.

Of course, few people are driven so completely by their desires, but this does not eliminate the existence of bias. We will always remain more open—however slightly—to those things that we wish to be true. Furthermore, we will not always be aware of what we wish to be true. We cannot think properly on life without thinking of our own life. We cannot think properly on death without thinking of our own death. We cannot think without thinking of ourselves.

I have concluded that an expert, when speaking about the specific thing that he or she has experience with, is probably more correct than I am able to imagine (provided the amount of controversy surrounding the topic is low). Beyond this, we are not obligated to regard words as having any more value than they, themselves, contain.

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One Response to “The Fallibility of the Learned”

  1. “The fragmentation of knowledge has subdivided the intellect beyond repair.”–Quite! Rabbit-trailing off this point, I’d remark that this is exactly what Dorothy Sayers saw happening and wished, strongly yet futilely, to prevent. Classical schools strive hard against this tendency in modern academic practice because it leads to such problems as you describe. There was a time, once, when wisdom, not knowledge, was valued far above rubies…

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