Thursday, August 24, 2006

Why only yesterday ...

... we were raising again "the problem with experts." It may, in the future, be less of a problem: Age of the Empirical.

The exponential growth in the numbers of empiricists helps resolve another debate as old as that of the Greeks. Platonists are sympathetic to rule by experts and elites. Artistotelians are more receptive to democratic rule. As Aristotle himself puts it in the Politics, “For the many . . . may be better than the few good, if not regarded individually but collectively, just as a feast to which many contribute is better than a dinner provided out of the single purse.” Expertise in the form of empiricism straddles these two political poles. It is a more democratic expertise in that it is replicable, transparent, and sharable. Moreover, as discussed above, it is disciplined by the information inputs of blogs and information markets. Thus, expert judgments will no longer be those of the few wise persons who rely on authority to impress their conclusions on society. Instead, they will reflect the collective sentiments of the empirical community.


  1. We (all of us) have a problem with "authority." It has two quite distinct meanings (reminds me of the flap over evolution being just a "theory," now that I think about it). There is administrative authority (I'm authorized to tell you how to behave) and there is authorial authority, if you will (I've studied this to the point that I'm the world's greatest authority on it).

    Small d democrats legitimately resent the administrative sort of authority. But the fact that the same word is used in both senses leads some people to reject authorial authority as well (baby, bathwater). Hence wikipedia ;-)

    I'm not sure that Plato and Aristotle have much to do with the confusion; imprecision of language and thought have everything to do with it.

    This being a blog about books, I think expertise (authorial authority) ought to be welcome here.

  2. My objection to an undue reliance on experts stems from my having studied Thomism in college. Interestingly, Thomas thought the argument from authority was the weakest of arguments because it comes down to nothing more than believing something because somebody else says it's so. The authority's testimony has to be corroborated by evidence and sound reasoning. The problem with much expert testimony these days is that it is used to promote some sort of consensus idea about the truth or falseness of something. Truth is not dependent on consensus. It is dependent on evidence. All sorts of examples of consensus among experts being wrong can be cited (e.g., Semmelwiss and puerperal fever), which is why I favor as much input from as many different sources as possible, especially when that input is experiential.

  3. We're not disagreeing. Someone who is deemed an "expert" on the basis of title or office or who makes a pronouncement on the basis of majority rule is a hierarchical authority (what I called an administrative authority in my first comment). I don't trust such a person any more than you do. However, credentials aside, I think I can learn more from someone who has actually studied a subject and done work in the field (and perhaps published in it) than I can from someone who simply wakes up one morning with an opinion about the subject and decides to rewrite the wikipedia article to conform to that opinion because his toast was burnt.

    In other words, I'm saying there is such a thing as natural authority that is quite distinct from one's position in an authoritarian hierarchy.

    Can I be certain that everything such a person says is true? No. I also cannot be certain that in examining evidence directly myself, but without benefit of experience and training in a field, I'll come any closer to the truth. The best we can ever hope for is ever-close appproximations of the truth (if we believe the truth to be singular in the first place, that is).

  4. Yes, we do agree Dick. The great thing about things is that they really can't be pinned down definitively most of the time.