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You Lost Me On Hello. A Plea for Expertise

For the past several weeks we have seen more than ever why we need experts.  It is absolutely fine to have uninformed opinions.  We all have thousands of them.   But we should no mistake our uninformed opinions for knowledge.  And real knowledge takes expertise, and expertise takes years and years of training and hard work.  It doesn’t come from watching the news or reading a few articles and then making up your mind.  Since we ourselves cannot be expert in everything, we have to decide whether to trust those who are experts or to persist in our contrary views.  And as we are seeing now, in some areas expertise is a matter of life and death.    In other pressing areas (climate), it may mean the survival of the human race and the planet.

Most areas of expertise are not that significant in terms of history or human life.  But the same principles apply.  My view is that pPeople really shouldn’t work desperately hard to convince others about something that they really don’t know anything about.  I’m not saying that we should be somehow *forced* to accept our contrary view, and mindlessly accept whatever the experts are telling us.  You can think pretty much whatever you like, as far as I’m concerned, about most things.  I continue to think the 1984 Tarheels were the best college basketball team of all time, experts be damned.  But for more important matters, if you try to convince others of your uninformed views, that almost never leads to something good.

Most of us are experts in one thing or another – maybe not world-class experts, but extremely knowledgeable.  That’s one reason I don’t think affirming expertise is at all elitist – the charge that is often made against it, though not so much right now, at least in one rather serious area of our lives over the past few weeks.  An expert doesn’t need to claim to be a superior human being because of their expertise.  They aren’t a superior human being.  They simply know more than most people, or in some cases than virtually everyone, about one thing or another.

I’m an expert on all sorts of things that most people know almost nothing about, nearly all these things connected in one way or another with ancient Christianity (the Greek scribal tradition of the Gospel of John; the history of early Christian persecution; the interpretation of the Acts of Pilate; lots and lots of things).  So what?  I have no idea how my toaster works or how to repair a timing belt or how to determine the distance in light years of the nearest sun or almost anything about Genghis Khan or the history of the interpretation of Beowulf or …. The list reaches to infinity.

And for that reason I don’t give people advice about how they ought to do these things or what they ought to think about them.

Why is it, though, that when it comes to matters of history and religion so many people think that anyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s?  Even when these matters cross over into the realms of science?   You wonder if that’s true?  If there really are lots of people who know nothing about a topic and try to convince others to share their ignorance, thinking that they actually do know the truth?

OK, then, think about the beginnings of the universe and the origins of life.

As happens with frustrating regularity, I received an email recently from someone wanting me to read their book.   Sent me the book electronically, as well.  In the email the person wanted to spark my interest and so included the opening line of the book:

The idea that existence, with all its complex order, unity, inherent creativity and intelligence, arose from an unintelligent, random and mechanical process like the Big Bang and evolution and that humans magically evolved from an organic soup of amino acids is just nonsense, crap, BS, not true.

My first thought was, “Good god….”   My second thought was: why do people who know nothing about a topic pronounce on it?  I mean it’s fine to think that everything the experts have shown in, say, astrophysics or geoscience, is completely wrong.  But do you really want to try to go toe to toe with them?

I responded to this person by asking what his expertise is.  He doesn’t have any advanced training, but he did do an undergraduate degree with a double major in biology and computer science.  OK, fair enough.  I suppose an outside might think, “Hey, he took a bunch of biology courses in college, so he surely knows what he’s talking about, right?”

Yeah, not right.  My field is nowhere NEAR as complicated and technical as the “hard” sciences.  But there’s not a double religious studies / computer science major in the universe who would be able to understand just my dissertation, let alone any of the hard-core research I’ve done since then.  It would take lots and lots of explaining even to give them an idea what it’s *about*.  But they wouldn’t be able to understand it from the inside – only on the outside based on the best explanation I could come up with to simplify it for them.  And that would mean that there is NO WAY on God’s green earth that they’d be able to *assess*, *analyze*, or *critique* it.

So why do people do that with matters of science?  Again, it’s *FINE* not to believe in the Big Bang if you don’t want to, or to think that there is simply no way to explain the beginnings of life without believing in a Creator.   Sure – believe what you want.  But why would you write a *book*trying to convince people that science is wrong when in fact you haven’t been trained in the field and cannot understand it from the inside, but only know what others have told you who have had to to overly simplify it just for you to get a sense of it (for example, on the most basic level, the math)?

In any event, I normally try to be very polite to people when I respond to them.  But I have to admit, this kind of exchange really gets to me.  And so I decided to tell him what I really thought.

Just a response to the first statement.  Anyone who has no credentials or expertise who says that the most intelligent human beings on the planet–  who have spent their entire lives devoted to the difficult work of mastering a subject of such major complexity as cosmology or astro-physics — are in fact spouting “nonsense, crap, BS,” in my opinion, should actually learn the field before attacking it.

He responded to me by pleading with me to read the book.  I read the beginning, got the thesis, and, well – if I want to know about the Big Bang, I think I’ll talk to a cosmologist instead.   When it comes to stars, climate, or viruses, I really want to know what experts think.


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Comments

  1. Cheryl
    Cheryl  March 15, 2020

    Hear! Hear!

  2. Avatar
    tadmania  March 15, 2020

    So true. In my work, I deal with this all the time. Generally, I ‘get the guff’ from folks who stand to lose money if my expertise is accepted. I understand the tension. As for the Bible, people might be forgiven for deeming themselves worthy of vying with more educated persons. First, it is almost certain that ignorant peasants who knew nothing of physics, biology, cosmology, geography, history, et al wrote the entirety of its content. Second, it is such an integral part of western culture that people cannot see the fishes for the aquarium. Seems clear enough to me, that’s the common attitude………right?

  3. Avatar
    Nathan  March 15, 2020

    Hi Bart, great post.

    Two comments:
    The Big Bang doesn’t describe the origin of the universe. It describes the “expansion” (I’m avoiding using my preferred word, evolution, as I use it differently below) of the universe after the origin. I would say we don’t have the foggiest idea on the origin of the universe. I have a PhD in physics but it’s not in cosmology, so it is in the realm of possibility that someone with even more expertise could further refine my statement.

    Evolution and the origin of life are not the same thing. There is no doubt about evolution. The evidence and theory are solid. We haven’t yet shown how life began but we have some pretty good ideas.

    • Avatar
      Nathan  March 15, 2020

      On reflection, I think that my use of the words ‘not the foggiest idea’ requires me to affirm that I agree with you. Your emailer has no chance in explaining the origin of the universe unless he goes on to study heavy-duty math and physics at the PhD level and beyond.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2020

      You’d be amazed at how much doubt there is about evolution here in teh South, among educated people. *Origin* of life? Forget it….

      • Avatar
        Brittonp  March 16, 2020

        Sounds like my in-laws … “well the Bible says”

      • galah
        galah  March 16, 2020

        There are those who know, but then, aren’t ready to give up their social status.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 17, 2020

          I was actually referring to advanced university students who were just regurgitating what they grew up on, even though they were relatively well educated.

      • Avatar
        Nathan  March 17, 2020

        It’s amazing the mental gymnastics we as humans can go through to believe what we want to believe.

        I have a friend that doesn’t believe in macroevolution for religious reasons. However, she is convinced that microevolution happens.

  4. epicurus
    epicurus  March 15, 2020

    He sounds like yet another example of faith based reasoning and evidence gathering.

  5. Avatar
    roy  March 15, 2020

    I’ve gotten to a point in life where I have come to realize that the more I learn the more I realize how much I do not know. reading your blog(and comments), watching your lectures and videos have been very enlightening. thank you for all you do

  6. Avatar
    dankoh  March 15, 2020

    I have long noticed a tendency throughout American history toward extreme individualism. You might connect it to the colonial days when – according to myth – the lone frontiersman had to do everything himself. Including, I suppose, making his own rifle from scratch. This later morphed into the lone cowboy, the lone entrepreneur, and so on. The myth of self-reliance is easily extended to the myth of self-expertise, especially when backed by the democratic fallacy that “my opinion is just as good as yours.” Layer that over with a suspicion of higher education which has been encouraged by those who stand to lose power and influence if their followers start to apply logic, facts, and reason to their pronouncements, and you have a perfect recipe for disasters like your correspondent.

    • Avatar
      flshrP  March 17, 2020

      I would recommend reading Kurt Andersen’s “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire–A 500-Year History”, Random House, 2017. Part II–Chapters 9-16 cover the 1800s and resonates with your ideas.

  7. Avatar
    Matt2239  March 15, 2020

    Ah, but his formal expertise in two STEM areas — science (biology) and technology (computer science) are superior to Bart’s. Not diminishing anything that Bart produces. Just saying the objective academic credentials of the would-be author are appropriate to his anti-science screed.

    As for relying on experts and authorities, that works only in limited ways. For example, soldiers in Vietnam were once ordered to execute civilian villagers in Mi Lai, commonly known as the Mi Lai Massacre. Reliance on authorities in that scenario was morally wrong.

    Likewise, if you want to grant a tax credit to me for driving an electric car because there’s too much carbon in the air, okay. But demanding that I agree with hateful attacks on others who are sceptical is something I won’t tolerate.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2020

      One of my major points is that getting a BA in a field or two does *not* provide a person with expertise. I can say that with some authority, as someone who has taught many thousands of BA students for over 35 years. I would also say there is a massive difference between social, political, and moral authority (which themselves cannot actually be grouped together) and academic expertise.

      • Avatar
        Matt2239  March 16, 2020

        A post-secondary school academic credential does connote a level of expertise. I didn’t major in biology or computer science but my degree did require coursework in both. STEM degree holders are not slouches and do possess expertise, even on the undergraduate level. Their credentials are often called Bachelors of Science, not Bachelors of Arts, incidentally. As an expert in your area, your assessment of your students’ levels of expertise beyond your area has limited validity. Could you expound on the talents and contributions of Newton versus Einstein? Me neither. And yet with your expert credential, you attempt to assess the abilities of students in areas that may be quite far from your own. Why not be flattered that the potential author would want your input?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 17, 2020

          I’m afraid we’re going to disagree on this one Yes, an undergraduate has undergraduaet expertise — a biology major knows more than a history major about biology. But she or he does NOT have anywhere near the expertise they would have if they spent twenty more years studying nothing else. n undergraduate who has taken, say, seven courses on various aspects of biology (as my emailer apparenlty did) is definitely not qualified to evaluate the claims of experts who have devoted their entire lives to the subject, let alone to cosmologists and astro-physicists. For starters, they simply aren’t able to understand the math, let alone do it, and most of all let alone critique it. You will not find a biology / cosmologist / physicist at any college/university in the world who disagrees with this. The only ones who can critique experts are fellow experts. It’s just the way it is.

          • Avatar
            Matt2239  March 17, 2020

            Academics in science tend to be universally opposed to any form of religious belief and their ranks can include folks that hate religion and religious believers of any type. Hence, it’s not unusual to find a person with more talent than education who is strangely anti-establishment for reasons even they don’t understand.

          • Bart
            Bart  March 18, 2020

            That’s actually not been my experience with scientists. I’ve known a number who were believers.

    • Avatar
      Scott  March 16, 2020

      I would say that the students with TWO majors are at a disadvantage. They have probably managed two degrees by meeting the MINIMUM requirements for each degree while those with a SINGLE degree have used some of their 120 semester hours to dive deeper into one or more aspects of the subject they are pursuing.

      Besides I have two STEM degrees (bachelors in Engineering and and masters in Computer Science) and find the STEM people to be full of hubris. I have spoken!! 🙂

  8. Avatar
    nichael  March 15, 2020

    Another thing that often muddies the waters in “discussions” like these is the myth of The Lone Genius Who Overturned a Whole Science.

    Usually phrased as something along the lines of “Well, they laughed at X, and he was right!” Or “The so-called experts just don’t want to admit that this new theory is correct they’re more interested in protecting their jobs.”

  9. Avatar
    nichael  March 15, 2020

    Having been involved in my share of these discussions over the years, you’re right that at first you should at least try to be polite. But when all else fails I usually turn to the following response:

    “In short, you’ve given us a very stark choice.

    Either
    1] In this entire field of inquiry there is not a single qualified expert who, after a career of studying the topic, does not have the simple intelligence to noticed this trivial point that you’ve raised; or, if they have, does not have the intellectual integrity to admit that it is a problem.
    Or
    2] You are wrong.

    I trust you will forgive us if we go with the odds here.”

  10. Avatar
    FredLyon  March 15, 2020

    Amen!

  11. Avatar
    nichael  March 15, 2020

    There’s the old saying:
    “People don’t want to _be_ informed, they want to _feel_ informed.”

    [Please note how carefully I avoided adding any political comments. 😉 ]

  12. Avatar
    AstaKask  March 15, 2020

    “My field is nowhere NEAR as complicated and technical as the “hard” sciences.”

    You should talk to Sean Carroll. He says he chose to study physics rather than the biology or the social sciences because physics is so much easier. I suppose it’s a matter of where your natural aptitude lies.

    (In fact, Sean has a podcast called the Mindscape podcast, and I have suggested that you be invited as a guest – especially now that there’s a book coming out).

    • Avatar
      flshrP  March 16, 2020

      You’re right about Sean. I have a MS in Engineering Physics and had to take several mandatory chemistry courses as an undergraduate. Chemistry, like biology and the social sciences, are far too difficult and messy for someone like myself who needs to do the math. And engineering and physics are math-centered (sit down and calculate). But I’m more of an engineer (32-years as an aerospace engineer) than a physicist.

      “Scientists discover the world that exists; Engineers create the world that never was.” Theodore von Karman

  13. Telling
    Telling  March 15, 2020

    HI Bart,

    It is Jane Roberts, the Seth Material, a series of metaphysical books I often mention here, where Seth says: You can prove anything is true by simply ignoring the contrary evidence.

    Science imposes such restrictions, ignoring other ideas, even very ancient ones, about the nature of reality. the Seth Material is such material, as are the Eastern religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, etc, and the very modern Robert Lanza, and expert in biology and a science called “biocentrism”. These combined sources turn science on its head. Lanza is recognized as saying science will never come to a right answer until they recognize consciousness as the foundation of everything, and he makes good sound supporting arguments. Science cannot answer, they cannot go there, it is forbidden. Thus they remain the “experts”, just as the Catholic Church was one time the undisputed expert on the earth’s formation.

    Your expertise is in biblical discrepancies, but you knock down a contributor who makes general statements about science, your authority being what some of those experts say. Are you not falling into the same trap as is the contributor, making general statements regarding a discipline you are not expert in?

    Lanza is very familiar with the conventional science, and he rejects it, giving good sound reasons. I’ve posted YouTube links to his speeches previously. Your contributor’s complaint is consistent with my above mentioned sources that are taboo to science.

    Lastly, I’ve often said the Bible is a metaphysical book, which it clearly is. Can theologians really understand it while ignoring the wealth of existing metaphysical sources, on the idea that these other sources are of the devil? And similarly can science, equally, reject the Bible yet also having no such metaphysical background or knowledge?

  14. Avatar
    diguardi  March 15, 2020

    I think a big part of it is how we think about what “smart” is. To many people it’s an innate quality that means they can’t be wrong about anything, and if they read something written by an expert that is contrary to their opinion they assume that person must have an agenda. I’ve known scientists with advanced degrees who form their opinions about matters of history by using the same arguments climate deniers use (what about this one guy with a PhD, all those experts have an agenda, they’re really just guessing…). And don’t get me started on people who think they know everything because they passed the Mensa test.

    People are assured from childhood that they have this quality when their parents marvel at how smart they are for getting an A on their book report instead of congratulating them for their hard work. A false idea of what it is to be smart becomes so ingrained that people can’t admit that they need to trust someone more knowledgeable and adjust their beliefs.

    Of course, I’m not a developmental psychologist, so someone correct me if I’m wrong. 🙂

  15. Avatar
    mathieu  March 15, 2020

    This post should go viral … that’s just my opinion, of course.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2020

      It would do a lot more good than what really is going viral just now….

  16. Avatar
    AJ  March 15, 2020

    I had a similar exchange recently on the internet with someone decrying “the experts” and how they’ve gotten everything wrong from global warming, to the housing bubble, to which is better margarine or butter. The implication being that experts in virus transmission are in no better position to critique public health policy than anyone else. Yikes! So, we just trust our own gut opinions I guess. Some of this anti-intellectualism seems to be fueled by ideological rigidity, where no amount of evidence can shake a certain belief. I’m sure you see it daily with evangelicals. We certainly see it with those most politically invested (on either side). The problem is, how does democracy survive if we can’t agree about basic facts or at least acknowledge the need to learn basic facts? Religion is certainly tougher because there are no experiments to run or equations to balance….it’s probability….an assessment of what is likely to have happened centuries ago from writings that are at best biased. I like that you frequently freely admit, “I don’t know”. I think most serious experts are not absolutists…that most complex situations suffer from some degree of uncertainty and doubt. I wish your budding author had expressed some basic intellectual humility. I think your response was more than fair….

    • Avatar
      diguardi  March 16, 2020

      With people composing their social circles around their opinions and beliefs, taking the word of an expert can mean you have to get a whole new circle of friends. It can be scary and isolating, especially now that politicians have become idols and anything they have an opinion on can become political.

  17. Avatar
    gwayersdds  March 15, 2020

    Bart, This reminds me of a comedic character from a generation ago who appeared on Johnny Carson among other shows. Professor Irwin Corey, billed as “the world’s greatest authority”.

  18. Avatar
    Pegill7  March 15, 2020

    Bart,

    Very interesting. Tom Nichols’,
    *The Death of Expertise*, deals in detail with this issue. Sort of like someone with no military experience knows more about war than the generals.

  19. Avatar
    anthonygale  March 15, 2020

    I think part of the problem is that people don’t know what they don’t know. They learn a lit bit, have no idea how much more there is to it, so think they are better informed than they are. Unless someone has pursued advanced education and training, I think it unlikely they would have a clue what becoming an expert entails.

    I don’t think rejecting the mainstream is limited to non experts. I’ve seen people with advanced level degrees (assuming they weren’t lying about their credentials) reject evolution and advocate for creationism. Their thought process was that despite what the evidence says, they have absolute faith in the Bible, so assume a mistake must have been made in the scientific process.

  20. Avatar
    Macavity  March 15, 2020

    There are experts and then there are experts. Consider the field of music. The music departments at our universities are filled with PhD’s none of whom are composing any music worth hearing and most of whom couldn’t perform a concert that would draw more than a handful of people. The professional schools like Curtis, Julliard and Eastman are exceptions. Could Mozart have gotten a job at Harvard? Probably not. He was too busy writing and performing music to spend the time to jump through the academic hoops to earn a PhD. All of which prompts me to ask: Are there any equivalents of Mozart in the field of Religious Studies?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2020

      I’d say there is a very big difference between someone who is an expert composer and someone who is a performer and someone who is a historian of music. Also, being an expert composer isn’t the same as being aesthetically pleasing to most people’s taste….

      • Avatar
        Macavity  March 16, 2020

        Expert composer. Never heard that expression before. Musicians talk of great composers – composers whose music is so interesting that it is (likely to be) performed and heard for centuries. Has little to do with academic degrees. I think of Sir Edward Elgar. He was a self-taught composer.

        My question still stands: Has anyone ever been so intellectually gifted – like a Mozart – that they made a significant contribution to the field of Religious Studies without first being credentialed by the academics guarding the entrance to the realm of Religious Studies?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 17, 2020

          I’m afraid the way you phrase your question shows your strong opinion about the matter. (!) Do you think that academics are guarding the entrance to the realm of Geography so that people who believe in a world wide flood about 5000 years ago are not being allowed to publish their views in academic journals or teach in universities? But in answer to your question, I would say the Dalai Lama has made a impact on religious studies. And Ghandi. And Martin Luther King Jr. And lots of others. But do you mean do I know of people without PhDs who have made a major impact on the academic study of religion? No one comes to mind — but maybe someone can point out an exception or two? do you know of others in other fields, such as biology, cosmology, Greek classics? Maybe philosophy?

          • Avatar
            Macavity  March 17, 2020

            Some notable individuals without advanced degrees:

            Computer Science – Edward Fredkin: At 34 began working at MIT as Full Professor of Electrical Engineering, then Professor of Physics at Boston University and now Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon. One of the pioneers of AI. Highest Degree: High School Diploma.

            Mathematics – George Boole: No academic degrees. Became Professor of Mathematics at Queen’s College, Cork in Ireland. Created Boolean algebra which is foundational to the development of the digital computer.

            Philosophy – Bertrand Russell: Only degree was B.A. from Trinity College, Cambridge. Became a lecturer at Trinity College. Wrote Principia Mathematica with Alfred North Whitehead. Ludwig Wittgenstein was Russell’s PhD student.

            Astronomy/Physics – Galileo Galilei: College dropout. Has been called the father of observational astronomy and the father of modern physics.

          • Bart
            Bart  March 18, 2020

            Thanks. I’ll note that none of these was opposed to the principles of science.

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