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  • Writer's pictureRicky

Fake Experts

Recently I’ve started thinking more about the political role of experts in society.

Who counts as an expert anyway?

We expect a lot from experts. They aren’t just supposed to be better at knowing how to fix problems, they’re also supposed to be wiser at knowing what counts as a problem in the first place.

For example, a plumber doesn’t just know how to fix your leaky sink. They also understand the importance of checking for subtle signs of water damage that could invite mold, structural decay, and so on. At this point I’ve basically exhausted my knowledge of what kinds of problems plumbers face, which just makes my point.

Similarly, a good car mechanic doesn’t just know how to switch the engine light off. They also know how to check the engine, to determine what’s gone wrong, to assess if it’s a problem you need to address now or just keep an eye on down the road. If they’re honest, they can tell you how cheap and reliable the quick fix would be, and help you weigh the cost of full repairs against the value of your car.

But that’s just the problem:

How can you tell if a mechanic’s honest without being one yourself?

Are you gonna put your faith in yelp reviews? (How do *they* know any better?)

There are lots of incentives for being seen and trusted as an expert, and these go beyond being able to upcharge folks who aren’t in the know. There’s a lot of subtle political power in being seen and trusted as an expert. To put it mildly, your ideas tend to get treated differently.

Thus, we can reliably predict the emergence of fake experts—folks who claim expertise (maybe even sincerely!) but just don’t have it:

Fake experts are everywhere in American culture today. Here’s a simple proof:

You might have noticed there are two warring cosmologies in America now. Democrats and Republicans do not agree on what the world is like. In general, how much can we trust science? How big a deal is sexism or racism these days? Wait, who won the last election?

Each side’s experts disagree pretty dramatically.

One side counsels vaccination against Covid, or action to combat a deepening climate emergency, or attention to the social nature of gender that goes a bit deeper than the XX and XY story you might remember from that one day of middle school genetics, and idk, worries about another January 6th in the months to come.

Broadly speaking the other side takes opposing views: COVID’s not a big deal and never was; maybe it’s even less dangerous than the vaccine itself; global warming is overblown; sex and gender really are the same straightforward biological phenomenon; and btw the real looming threat is voter fraud/another stolen election.

Both sides can’t be right. But both appeal to competing experts. That means at least one side’s ‘experts’ aren’t really experts. They’re fake experts.

But it’s obvious to each side that their experts are the real ones.

Who should I trust: climate scientists, or a guy who talks fast? People who study the biology and psychology and sociology of sex and gender, or an honest-to-God Jungian psychologist?

That’s a mean caption. A reasonable response might be, why should I trust accredited experts whose livelihoods and funding depend on their coming to conclusions that are broadly acceptable to the hyperspecialized communities that elevate them as experts? Scientists and academics don’t have to be dishonest or brainwashed for their work to be objectionably compromised by real institutional incentives.

Even when experts disagree with each other, they are motivated to lock arms and protect themselves against external attacks on their institutional reputation. We all know that sports refs will cover for one another, and Steve Javie will never, ever say another referee did anything wrong:

“And that’s why the right call is whichever one the replay official is about to make.”

In an excellent paper called Transparency is Surveillance,” Thi Nguyen argues we can’t avoid putting our faith in experts.

If we ask experts to explain everything to us in terms we can understand, we’re really asking them to reason like novices. But expert reasons are subtle and sophisticated. They’re often difficult to articulate clearly at all, even to another expert. So if you were hoping to suss out who’s an expert by having them break it all down in terms you’ll understand, they can’t do it because you’re not an expert!

Nguyen worries that when we ask experts to explain themselves clearly to non-experts, we are asking them to either lie to us by oversimplifying, or (even worse) to reason more like non-experts—that is, with less sophistication than before! Here’s his conclusion:

The difficulty here arises from the basic fact that human knowledge vastly outstrip’s any individual’s capacities. We all depend on experts, which makes us vulnerable to their biases and corruption. But if we try to wholly secure our trust—if we try to leash groups of experts to pursuing only the goals and taking only the actions that can be justified to the non-expert public—then we will undermine their expertise. We need both trust and transparency, but they are in essential tension. This is a deep practical dilemma; it admits of no neat resolution, but only painful compromise.

We can’t know everything, so we have to put our faith in others. But who?

How do you pick the right experts?

Seeing that (at least) half of the country is pretty wildly off the mark, we might want to have a bit more humility about our own beliefs, to spend a bit more time trying to assess the arguments on either side as best as we can. But we also need to note the limits of doing so, and admit just how much political power is attached to public recognition as an expert.

I started thinking more about this problem after reading this paywalled paper by Alex Guerrero where he proposes that instead of holding elections, we should randomly select citizens to hear information from experts before they get to debate and collaborate on solving political issues on our behalf. I’m at Bowling Green State today giving a talk on his proposal. Maybe I’ll share a version of that project soon!

But I couldn’t get over the way Guerrero seemed to think identifying experts was no big deal—not just that it was relatively obvious who to count as an expert, but that experts wouldn’t have increased political power under his proposal:

“Here, because whether an individual is an expert or not does not bear on whether they have political power[?!], the stakes involved in determining whether someone counts as an expert are lessened…”

But if these experts will be positioned in front of non-expert citizens as experts, as folks who are far better-positioned in terms of technical or specialized knowledge we aren’t privy to, we give their opinions quite a bit of political sway just by declaring that their opinions are worth hearing, no?

Guerrero’s not the only philosopher who seems to think that identifying who’s an expert isn’t that tough—he points to all the ‘objective’ considerations you’d expect, like advanced degrees, peer-reviewed publications and citations, years of expertise, and so on.

He also points out that we can credentialize your identity. If you’ve spent the last 30 years in a wheelchair, your experiences trying to get around and live your life in a world designed for people with legs have probably made you an expert on the social value of curb cuts. Same deal if you’ve spent the last 30 years working in construction. We might wanna ask you, how difficult and costly would introducing curb cuts be? Might there be other unanticipated effects worth considering?

But it looks like our choice of credentials already obscures a lot of the background controversy. If you distrust the scientific community, then when I tell you someone is a scientist, you’re gonna go, see? That’s disqualifying! Why should I listen to a climate scientist who works for the UN? If you think academia itself is deeply compromised, a PhD is just more proof that its bearer has made it this far within an untrustworthy system.

I don’t know how to solve this problem, or how to tell on uncontroversial grounds who is or isn’t an expert.

I do know that as a philosopher, I’m supposed to be an expert on arguments. And the quality and motivations behind some of the arguments floating around out there are really really bad—no like, some seem awful on purpose.

So how can you get better at recognizing bad arguments for yourself?

Studying arguments deeply takes more curiosity and care than watching “Top Ten Epic Debate Moments” on YouTube. It’s only by doing a bit more philosophy that we can learn how to think for ourselves a bit more critically.

(Obviously, don’t just take my word for it—I’ve been captured by Big Argument.)

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