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  • Writer's pictureRicky

Expert Opinion

My last few blogs have a bit long and technical—sorry, I’m prepping to defend my dissertation next week, so my brain’s in a weird place!—so today I just want to make a simple, uncontroversial point about the place of expert opinion in our lives.

(Lol, I’m being serious though.)

I’ve written a bit about Fake Experts before, but today I wanna ask a different question: What’s so special about expert opinion?

After all, if it’s just their opinion, why treat it any differently than a layperson’s?

Let’s back up for a second.

As my buddy Kyle likes to say, so much of philosophy is just about relearning things better.

We’re taught a bunch of half-truths as kids because the world is just too damn complicated for even the grownups to handle. (I assume you’ve noticed?)

So, we give kids quick and easy simplifications like Man = XY and Woman = XX. Got it? Now you know how that works, thanks to science! That’s definitely 100% of the story, there’s no more subtlety to be discovered here!

In other words,

  1. We teach kids simplified stories about the world to get them up and running.

  2. As grownups, our experiences expand and (hopefully) sophisticate our understandings of the world.

  3. But as experts specialize, they get tons of experiences and learn way more deeply about particular aspects of the world.

So…what’s so special about expert opinion?

Here’s a first stab at answering that:

  1. Experts are people who know the facts better.

  2. So, their opinions are better-informed.

  3. So, their opinions are better.

I think this is an easy, natural story for us to tell—but only because it’s based on a subtly childish understanding of what experts really are.

And that’s fine!

Childish understanding is our baseline for just about everything we haven’t had much experience with as grownups! I have a childish understanding of plumbing and astrophysics and retirement portfolios…

But on the story we’ve just given, there are opinions and there are facts.

Experts know more facts.

And somehow, that improves their opinions.

Sometimes this kind of story works. Getting the facts wrong can undermine our opinions. You think quinoa is gross, but you also think it’s seafood?

Oooookay I have no idea what you’re talking about, so that makes two of us.

So not all opinions are tied. An opinion can be straight-up confused if the ‘facts’ it’s based on aren’t really facts!

But stepping back for just a minute, what are facts and opinions?

Do you remember when you were taught the difference between them? If you’re around my age, you were probably shown something like this:

This story works pretty well for kids. But as grownups surrounded by advertisements, propaganda, fake news, and flat earthers, it’s probably worth relearning this distinction better.

So here’s a simple case:

Napoleon sneezed many times in his life. One of these two statements is a fact—it really happened. But can you prove which one is fact and which is fiction?

  • EVEN: Napoleon sneezed an even number of times.

  • ODD: Napoleon sneezed an odd number of times.

I can show somebody else that one of these has to be true.

But I can’t show somebody else which one. No one can.

And yet, one of them’s a fact, and one’s a fiction.

So the difference between facts and opinions can’t be that facts are provable and opinions aren’t.

There are tons of facts that we can’t prove one way or the other.

So what is the difference between facts and opinions?

I think that’s a tremendously subtle and messy question we won’t be able to answer today.

But we can at least level up our understanding. So notice this:

Sometimes we use the word ‘opinion’ to mean brute preferences.

  • “I like chocolate better than vanilla.”

And sometimes we use it to mean what we think is true.

  • “I think climate change is real.”

Now we can see why expert opinions might be better. If they know more relevant facts, what they think is true seems more likely to be right! Right?

Two quick points. First, notice that both kinds of opinions ultimately describe what we think is true.

  • “I think climate change is real” is really a claim about the world.

  • “I like chocolate better than vanilla” is really a claim about myself.

And I could be wrong about either one! Post-Freud, everyone agrees that we get our own preferences wrong all the time. We can be self-deceiving, or confused, or just inattentive…

But secondly, and more interestingly, the opinions of the expert jazz critic or master chef or Shakespearean actor are special.

We don’t just think expert opinions are brute preferences! We think they’ve been honed and improved by their expertise, and that we can learn from what the experts think. Even expert hunches can be informative!

So when the jazz critic says, “That was a strikingly original rendition,”

or the master chef says, “It needs more salt,”

or the Shakespearean actor says, “This soliloquy is deeply haunting,”

the right answer isn’t, “Well, that’s just your opinion.”

That answer isn’t just incurious, it’s also incredibly arrogant!

Here’s an expert who’s heard tons of riffs or scrambled zillions of eggs or delivered God-knows-how-many soliloquies. Why do you think your opinion is automatically on par with theirs?

Not all experts are great at sharing their expertise with us. But what we hope for from the expert critic is that they know how to hold our hand and guide us into seeing things from a different perspective that illuminates what we’re seeing in a new, deeper way, so we can recognize and appreciate aspects of it in ways we didn’t before.

By the way, experts aren’t just folks in ivory towers who live in New York and write op eds. We’re all experts on different things. You’re an expert on your own life and experiences, for starters, and probably a good deal besides. And your opinions on those topics are way more nuanced and worthwhile than those of a perfect stranger or amateur.

As you can imagine, that means experts aren’t right about everything! Becoming an expert comes with real costs. Submerging yourself in a topic changes how you see it, and not always for the better.

That’s why we might need to consult with outside experts like therapists to get a more objective perspective on our own lives!* They’re experts in how folks fail to recognize or cope with dysfunctional patterns of thinking and acting in their everyday lives.

But on the whole, in their area, experts are probably more right than laypeople.

  • They’re probably better-informed on the facts. (e.g. the evidence for climate change)

  • And because opinions aren’t just ‘brute’ preferences, their opinions are probably more sensitive to what’s interesting or valuable in that area. (e.g. how bad things could get)

So that’s today’s simple, uncontroversial fact:

On basically any seriously disciplined subject of inquiry where there can be experts, from speedruns to sinology, expert opinion is probably better than ours.

Okay here’s my one technical paragraph for today:

In a fascinating but difficult paper cited almost 10,000 times, Hilary Putnam explores the cognitive distribution of labor required for me to be able to use words like ‘beech’ and ‘elm’ even though I can’t explain the difference between them. Putnam goes well, some experts somewhere have figured out that difference for me, and when I use one word versus the other, I’m just deferring to however they’re drawing that distinction. And…it’s totally fine! The meaning of my words doesn’t just have to be in my head—language is something we share and develop together! But notice that how those experts draw those distinctions is probably not just a matter of fact. (That’s simply not how science works.) As a consequence, expert opinion is deeply enmeshed with your thinking, whether you like it or not. Better come to peace with that!

*Here I’m using ‘objective’ to mean something like, more responsive to the object of inquiry and less waylaid by the individual biases of the subject inquiring.

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