Saturday, September 03, 2005

The matter of experts ...

It is, I believe, fairly widely known that newspapers are having a hard time of it these days. Circulation figures and ad revenues are both down. Various reasons have been adduced as to why this is so, the commonest being the easy — and free — access to the news online.
But I continue to think that if, when you picked up your newspaper every morning, you found it filled with well-written, well-researched stories about interesting things you didn’t know about — and couldn’t find anywhere else — you’d make sure to re-up your subscription.
I think the decline of newspapers has to do with other things. I alluded to one in a recent post: preferring punditry over reporting. But reporting has its problems, too, one of which is the reliance on experts.
Reporters are very fond of experts (I suspect the fondness is mutual). But reliance on the testimony of experts is simply a variation on the argument from authority. Thomas Aquinas was a great respecter of authority, but even he noted that the argument from authority is the weakest form of argument. The problem is that it really doesn’t amount to much more than asserting that such-and-such is true because so-and-so says it is.
As it happens, experts are often wrong. If you had gathered all of the literary experts — writers, critics, scholars — in the United States together in one place — say, Harvard — in 1895 and asked them who the two best American poets of the time were, it is doubtful they would have chosen Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson.
Astronomers in Galileo’s time, asked about the solar system, would have cited the Tychonic system, devised by Tycho Brahe, the greatest astronomer of the day and one of the greatest ever. His system had the planets revolving around the sun, and the planets and sun in turn revolving around the Earth. Tycho was an expert and other experts agreed with him.
This is not to suggest that expert testimony should not be sought out. It is rather to suggest that it not be sought out in order to arrive at some sort of consensus. Science has nothing to do with consensus. The consensus in the 16th century may have been in favor of Tycho’s system, but the consensus was wrong and Galileo was right. One scientist with correct data constitutes a majority of one.
It is far more fruitful to seek the areas of disagreement among the experts and explore them, not in order to settle them, least of all in order to take sides, but simply in order to inform the rest of us about them. Otherwise we lead people to think that more is known for sure than is in fact the case.

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