From John Hardwig on the ethics of the expert:
An ethics for experts must be an ethics that acknowledges that where there is expertise, knowledge is not in fact open and accessible to all; an ethics that recognizes that the expert’s reasons cannot be checked by the layperson and often will not even be intelligible to him. It must be an ethics sensitive to a kind of power in knowing, a power unlike that of any of our epistemic peers, whose opinions we can usually test for ourselves. It must also, then, be an ethics sensitive to the very basic vulnerability that comes with deciding to let others make up our minds, for that kind of reliance on others undermines even the internal independence necessary to decide not to accept what the other says.
The entire thing is worth reading. Among the most frustrating aspects of being on a college campus is that the community seems to conflate “expertise” with “right” and with “consensus.” That is extremely unhelpful. The role of an expert is to be able to both communicate with other experts, of course, but more importantly to communicate with non-experts about “where the bodies are buried.” In fact, I am not even sure what it means to be an expert. I have a PhD in Economics, and have studied it in various guises for 21 years now, yet I do not at all feel like I am an expert and get a bit queasy when someone introduces me as such.
The part of the essay that resonated most for me was the author’s insistence that experts not claim to know more than they know, and to make it clear to people the level of certainty of your knowledge. Further, he urges experts to not be beholden to the “loyalty of the group of experts” by being willing to admit that there are limits to what the community knows or agrees upon. It is wrong to claim to know more than you do. I agree.
As an economist I run into this sort of problem all of the time. People want my opinion on whether China’s growth rates have been exaggerated, whether Greece leaving the Euro will be catastrophic, whether corporations are hoarding too much cash, on the best educational interventions, and so on. In almost every case, there is certainly nowhere near agreement on these questions, and just because I have a PhD in economics doesn’t mean that I have too much to offer in the way of opinion without having spent a career dedicated to it. In many cases I admit, “I haven’t the foggiest clue.” But do I have any obligations as an expert on matters like these? Sure, I believe I do. It is helping people know what particular tools we would rely upon in economics to think about these questions and to assess the policy alternatives, and to help people figure out the logical areas where confusion or questions would come up.
I don’t want to make this post too long, for there is a lot to say about things that I may literally claim to be an expert on and my obligations in those areas. For now, I’d like to offer up a strategy to evaluate whether someone is appealing to authority and violating the basic premise of what Hardwig is talking about. First, you might try to ask someone if they believe they have ever been wrong about anything and how they came to learn they were wrong. There are one of two ways to go here: first, if someone refuses to admit it, that would seem to suggest that they are not trying hard enough or being outright dishonest, or second, it might be because we stake out positions that are too weakly defined, or don’t stake out positions at all. I fear that I often fall into the latter camp myself. But to the extent that I have staked out positions, at least as a younger man, I used to believe that “improving K12 schooling” would change the world, a silver bullet so to speak. Now, not only do I not think it is possible to change K12 schooling very much (I used to think people were less entrenched and more truly interested in “the children” than they really are) but even if we made major changes I do not believe they would have much of an impact on our future well-being. I encourage you to think about where and why you might be wrong about something.
A second strategy is to see if your expert is willing to “betray the tribe” from time to time. For example, I suppose you can smear me with a label if you like, I hate that, as it undermines the very essence of the individual that I find so important, and is also quite dehumanizing. But if you were to label me it would be classical-liberally-ish or perhaps libertariany-ish or even perhaps anarchy-ish or something like that. Have I ever betrayed those tribes? Big time, yes. For example, I don’t think having the Fed “preserve the purchasing power of the dollar” is a very important thing, or least over long periods of time. For example, I tend to think that dogmatic adherence to the “non-aggression principle” sends us to incoherence even as an abstract idea it has some appeal. I could go on, but I want to make sure I get invited to some dinner party, somewhere! So, can the expert you are listening to characterize well the views of others, and make clear where the disagreements are? Can your expert illustrate an example of where on the basis of evidence, scientific judgment or just a whole lot of uncertainty that they do not “conform” with the views of their tribe? I’m simply not interested in attending talks, reading books, engaging with people in any tribe that cannot do this. The most simple reason is that there is a lot less to learn from these people than from the more honest brand.
Finally, in thinking about the ethics of experts, think about how experts in other areas often engage in arguments about areas outside their expertise. Are such experts accurately depicting the arguments being made by experts in the field? Are the creating straw-man versions of ideas? Are they even combating ideas with ideas or are they appealing to ad hominem types of attacks. For example, walk around campus and ask some other expert about what economist know and argue about regarding the minimum wage. You are just as likely to hear someone say, “The Koch Brothers are funding a scare campaign about the minimum wage” as you are to hear about the elasticity of demand for labor or the marginal rate of technical substitution of labor for capital or about the numbers of people we are talking about or about other unintended consequences or something else that economists seriously study and argue about. Indeed, think about almost any time you have engaged people about the minimum wage – how often are the arguments in any way scientific. “No one can support a family on $7.15 per hour!” Or, “Businesses like Walmart make plenty of profits, their CEO makes millions, surely they can afford to pay their low-end workers a bit more.” Or how about, “Social Justice. Because. Social Justice!” None of that is germane, and in many cases is simply not sincere.
Or consider how other experts respond to inquiries from people like me, who have little expertise in a field, but nonetheless are interested and read a lot about it. Take climate. Surely, as an environmental economist I have an interest in the subject. Surely, I have expertise in the economic impacts of it, but what that means is that I have to appreciate the pure science side of the climate issue. Imagine the response someone like myself would get when I ask, publicly, “Just what, exactly, IS the overwhelming opinion of experts in regard to climate change?” Or better yet if I asked, “how much do we understand what the true feedbacks in climate systems are – not just the variance in feedback estimates, but even the direction?” When I have asked the latter, I have ONLY received answers like, “you are not a climate scientist.” When I have asked the former, we get a complete straw-man type of argument that goes something like, “Climate deniers like James Inhofe are spreading misinformation.” Wait, what? It seems of course that everyone understands that the temperature is warmer today than 135 years ago by about 0.8 degrees. It seems that the warming, at least up until the 1980s, seems to have been largely caused by humans and it is obvious that CO2 concentrations are about 120ppm higher today than they were 135 years ago. Well, whoop – dee – doo! When serious “experts” are asking about the climate consensus, they are not asking in any way, shape or form, about this, Yet, the community of climate “experts” can’t help but straw man that question. ANY attempt to learn ANYthing about what we don’t fully understand about climate, and that seems to be a lot, is met with an appeal to denying “basic science” and the “basic facts.” Ummm, no. And what the climate community does not appreciate is that this sort of evasion, and the ad hominem attachs that emanate from it, undermines people taking seriously or respecting the very important questions that are out there to be settled and debated. If they are straw manning the most basic questions about climate, one can only imagine how really touchy and controversial questions will be handled.
And that gets me to my final point, and one that I cannot make often enough. You would think that if you were exercising your expertise on an issue, you would very much welcome any and all challenges to your understanding. How, after all, are you to learn the most you can about your field? Can you really and truly claim to be an expert if you have not thought hard about all of the possible angles to your positions and responded to challenges to it – either by demonstrating that you are right, or demonstrating that there is uncertainty in areas, or demonstrating that objections are about something different, etc.? You can’t. If you respond to a question by saying something like, “well, you’re not an expert, so I don’t need to deal with you,” it is a pretty clear sign that you are not being honest, or at least seeking to be a true expert.
Take a challenge. Think of one now regarding a field you think you are an expert in. Wouldn’t you relish a serious intellectual argument made against it? Wouldn’t you relish it even more if you have evidence and theory to demonstrate why your position is in fact the truth? If you are engaged in a challenge and you are not met immediately with such evidence of truth, what are you to conclude? Again, go back to my regular questions about the consensus on climate sensitivity and feedback. My understanding of the large pile of climate work I read is that we really don’t have a solid idea on what that true feedback magnitudes or even directions are. Yet when I ask folks, I just never get an answer. I certainly don’t get this, “That’s a great question, but you are wrong here. These 98373 papers and the following experiments and empirical studies demonstrate very clearly that when CO2 concentrations double, the amplitude of the temperature increase will be X.” At best I can get someone to admit that we know pretty certainly what the ambient temperature increases would be for increases in CO2 levels from various starting points.
My point here is this. If you were being challenged on something, wouldn’t you relish the chance to demonstrate quite clearly that you are right. So, for example, when folks argue with me about the minimum wage, before I even go into the economic theory, before I go into the debated empirical work, before I go into the morality or immorality of it, I simply address whether we are talking about the same people that critics seem to be talking about. We have the numbers. There is little question that first very few people make the minimum wage and second that among them not too many would be considered to be “poor” by the standards we are thinking about and third, that even if we disagree on this, and we think that everyone who may make the minimum wage is poor, this population is only a very small fraction of the total population in poverty today. In other words, if you have a real argument, USE IT. And not only should you use it, you should beg to have it challenged. And that is both how we come to a deeper understanding of the problem of poverty and of the minimum wage, but we can also drill down into the source of disagreement. Almost every single time we start going down the path like I suggest above, it turns out that many people do not actually want to engage in it, or will simply toss it aside. That’s fine, but then we know that the argument isn’t really about what people say it is about, it is about something else entirely.
Which takes me back to the discussions of climate change. I don’t believe people on “either side” of the debate (I hate saying there are two sides) really want to get down to the nitty gritty of doing what’s best for human civilization, I really don’t. I may even be guilty of that and perhaps come to my philosophical justifications for my positions only after the fact. At least I am honest enough to admit that I believe that human freedom is the aspiration of all humans, I admit that I believe that there are an enormous number of risks that people face, I admit that I think humans themselves are perhaps the greatest risk to humans, and I admit that were I to have to make the stark choice of a hot planet plus something resembling human freedom versus a cool planet with something resembling Venezuela, I prefer the former. As an economist I do not thing those are the actual choices we face, which is lovely, but even if they were, at least I admit that is where I come to the table. I also admit that there would be considerable amounts of evidence you could present to me that would make me alter how I think about the whole issue. Further, those who take “the other side” very rarely admit that there are other things going on, other values at stake and certainly fail to recognize what the economics experts have learned about the development and growth of human civilization, freedom and flourishing. The entire climate debate has dissolved into a game of which tribe you want to be a member of, and it’s become very hard to trust that you are getting a good, solid, reasoned argument from people on “any side” of it. Certainly, my experience has been that very rarely are real ideas about it actually exchanged, and that is unfortunate.
Finally, and to repeat myself, if I actually had perfect knowledge of the truth, I would sure want to take advantage of it immediately upon being challenged. I’ve never seen a chemist of a physicist, when asked about what temperature water boils at, appealing to who is funding the person asking the question. Or who built the thermometer they will use to demonstrate the answer. And there is no reason why economics or climate should be free from the same standard, even if achieving it is difficult.