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Relying on Experts: A Proven Path to Failure

Guest post by Eric Stiles from Mises.com:

The warning lights on the dashboard of your car suddenly light up. You naturally take it to a mechanic to diagnose and repair. Cars are complex. You don’t have the time or accumulated expertise to figure out what is happening or to fix it.

We rely on experts daily. In a complex world filled with busy people, it is impossible for any one person to know and do everything. So, we outsource. By doing so, we of course rely on others’ expertise, but we also subject ourselves to their biases or simple mistakes. We are in the dark. They are in the know. When the stakes are limited to your car’s functioning, you are probably inclined to accept that occasionally you’ll get overcharged or have some unnecessary work done. That cost is small compared to the effort that would be required to become an automotive repair expert. So, you accept the cost.

Expertise is now everywhere. As complexity has risen, there are experts on virtually everything. Gone are the days when Newton could be relied upon by the masses to know philosophy, math, and physics. Today, one does not have expertise in philosophy. One has expertise in feminist social epistemology or racial ontology. School administrators considering whether to implement a new acronym in our schools seem to have no choice but to rely on the experts.

In evaluating the costs and benefits of relying on an expert to help with a decision, not all decisions are created equal. If an artist needs to build a bridge, he is probably wise to hire a trained engineer. If an engineer wants to pick a painting for his wall, he may not get the same benefit by hiring a trained artist.

At the center of the debate about expertise is the nature of knowledge itself. Understanding the differences between knowledge, preference, and opinion is critical when assessing the usefulness of expert advice. An expert’s client is subject to far more risk when seeking advice in an area subject to opinion or preference. The situation is compounded when the client is not able to evaluate whether the claimed expertise is knowledge or opinion.

Plumbers and Diversity Experts

Plumbers have an easy time making the case that they have the ability to make decisions that benefit their customers. If your pipes are leaking and the plumber comes and fixes the problem, you feel confident that he actually did something you didn’t know how to do. Self-proclaimed experts in fields such as culture, education, philosophy, or history (“theorists”) have a more difficult case to make. In fact, very rarely does a plumber proclaim that he is an “expert.” His observable work speaks for him. Theorists, on the other hand, are almost universally referred to as experts.

The work of the theorist is obscure to the client who relies on him as an expert. The client is not able to disentangle the knowledge of the theorist from his opinions. The situation is made worse when the theorist shrouds his work with jargon or hints of science. His results are “evidence based.” The field of experts has reached a “consensus.” In the face of complexity and obfuscation, the client seems to have little choice but to accept the expert’s recommendation.

The Stone Mason Is Not Interested in the Theory of Pronouns

The average person who decides to pursue a career in gender studies or even education is not representative of the average person. There is an obvious selection bias in how people choose their careers. Only a person who is interested in gender studies will pursue its expertise. Furthermore, the process of acquiring expertise further enhances the initial selection bias.

A person who thought that gender studies was a fraud would be unlikely to devote his career to its study. A school debating whether to introduce gender studies into its curriculum, when seeking the advice of a gender studies expert, should not expect unbiased advice. It should expect to hear that, of course, gender studies should be added to the curriculum. The expert will cite numerous studies by other gender experts, scientific evidence, that outcomes will be improved if his advice is followed. The school will have no choice, having decided to defer to an expert, to introduce gender studies.

The General of the Army Thinks We Should Go to War

Why should a school or even an individual ask for an expert’s advice in areas dominated by opinion? One possibility is that the client of the expert believes that there is objective knowledge that is needed to make an informed decision. The client may lack the knowledge or confidence to assert that the decision can be made independent of domain expertise. A school administrator may have failed to consider that the decision in question is largely a subjective one.

There is no correct answer. People of different ideologies or belief systems may have different opinions based on their objectives. Experts may claim that there is analysis that can inform the decision, but the truth may be that there are fundamental differences in opinion that cannot be resolved by analysis.

A second reason that a client may rely on an expert in ideas is more nefarious. When a school, for example, hires an expert in some special type of “ideas,” they accomplish two things that cannot be accomplished without the expert. They appeal to the authority of the expert to legitimize the decision, and they reduce their culpability for the decision. A school administrator who has an agenda can hire an expert that is aligned with their agenda and make their constituency more willing to accept the decision and protect themselves should anything go wrong.

Does the School Know Best?

When faced with an administrator or teacher with domain expertise, parents may be reluctant to claim that the school’s approach is wrong. After all, the school is populated with experts. What can a parent be expected to know about the latest pedagogical trends? Most parents don’t even know what the acronyms mean. How can they argue against them?

The answer is simple. The school cannot and does not know your preferences and opinions unless you tell them. Decisions about the implementation of new programs in the schools are not scientific. They are deeply colored by ideological biases. Experts will claim “basis in data” or “proven approaches,” but in the realm of ideas, there is no disproof of a preference.

Parents who want their teachers and schools to take a different path should not expect experts in the field to fight their battle. Only the family can represent the family’s preferences, and when it comes to ideological disagreements, no level of expertise can resolve an underlying fundamental disagreement about values. The family is the only expert on its own values.

Guest post by Eric Stiles from Mises.com.


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