Monday, September 14, 2009

Don't Trust the Experts - Trust Us!

I've been thinking about distrust of experts, elites, intellectuals, etc. a lot over the past few days. And there's been much fodder for my thoughts, in the form of teeth bleaching internet ads saying "Don't let the dentist fool you!"; the anti-vaccination crowd seeing a conspiracy theory that isn't there between the FDA, APA, and AMA; and the comments of someone Cameron was debating.

Today I'd like to talk about trust and distrust. I grew being taught extreme scorn for all experts, whether it was scientists, doctors, politicians, teachers, psychologists, therapists, and even coaches and athletes (grandma was fat, short, and unathletic - therefore athletes were unholy sinners). We also had the much-less-typical learned distrust of our own pastors, because Gig wanted to be the ultimate authority. Most detrimental of all, I was taught not to trust myself or my own abilities.

Whether it's 9-11 "truthers", UFO believers, armed healthcare demonstrators, the 9-12 marchers, unassisted home birth advocates, anti-vaxers, or certain home schoolers -- distrust of the government, of powerful organizations, and of experts runs rampant in the fringe corners of our society.

In sixth grade we watched a video on Lucy and the fossil record. I remember thinking, "Well that valley is full of bones. Clearly they just stuck a bunch together and there's no way to discern if those bones actually came from the same creature. They probably just got chimp bones and people bones mixed up." (Yeah, I sucked.) I thought I knew better than PhD scientists working in specialized fields, and handling and testing the actual evidence. I was 12. Maybe it can be blamed on my age, but I think it's probably due to my upbringing.

To give you some idea of how we regarded experts, I'll remind you that I was born at home, without a doctor or midwife. I was never vaccinated. I didn't go to a doctor or a dentist or a school as a young child. My family didn't belong to a recognized denomination of Christianity. And my grandmother advocated that True Christians ought to remove themselves from the "Seven Systems" of the world - education, religion, government, banking, medicine, entertainment, and science. (Think about it - I was told to avoid at all costs education, religion, government, banking, medicine, entertainment, and science. What the heck is left?)

There is only one nice story my grandmother ever tells about my brother, who she victimized and abused for years until he was thrown out of the house at age 12. He was young and in Sunday school, and he corrected the teacher on a passage of scripture. Standing up against the expert, or perceived expert, was apparently the greatest thing he'd ever done in her eyes. (Of course, standing up to her wasn't tolerated, and was her justification for physical, verbal, and emotional abuse.) I'll go ahead and add in here that there are lot of nice things to say about my brother, like the fact that he's almost completed his PhD in physics, that he is an excellent dancer, that he's good at making and keeping close friendships, that he is a good if messy cook, and that is a kind person who for the most part leaves people to do and believe as they wish. But you can't get her to acknowledge any of that. The only thing she valued was seeing another Christian authority figure dragged down by a kid.

At this stage in my life, I love experts. I realize how arrogant and foolish it is to try to be an expert at everything yourself, and to reject the lifetimes of work and study people have already put into these areas. I trust scientists to tell me what is good and bad science; doctors to tell me if it's a good idea to vaccinate my kid; and cult experts to tell me how to get better. Now, I'm not claiming all experts are credible, trustworthy, or right. That would be an argument from authority, which is classified as a logical fallacy.

I went through three pediatricians in as many months, till I found a doctor who would actually diagnose my son instead of telling me he "just has colic" and that I was merely freaking out because "first time moms worry a lot". (He had gastro-esophageal reflux disease, GERD, and by the time he was diagnosed at 3 months old, already had severe scarring on his esophagus from stomach acids.) Also, if my mechanic seems to be ripping me off, I'm likely to get a second or even third opinion.

Healthy skepticism is good (although not the food-conspiracy group that goes by the name Healthy Skepticism. They're full of something that rhymes with it.) Checking sources, investigating claims, and considering arguments from multiple sides are all useful tools in determining whether or not a claim is true or valid. But an individual expert, or group of experts, can have broad credibility. I can say "95% of US scientists accept evolution as true" in support of my claim that evolution is true (because it is). I can also further say that ">95% of US evolutionary biologists accept evolution as true". In this comparison, clearly the biologist has more expertise on the questions of biological life. Now again, I'm not going with attempting to go with bandwagon fallacy. ("Everybody's doing it!") If I thought that was a decent way to live my life, I'd be a Christian. But the larger scientific community does have credibility because of internal checks and balances such as the peer review process.

Furthermore, if I have reason to trust 99% of what an individual expert says, it may be unnecessary for me to investigate as thoroughly every single claim this person makes. For example, I really respect Matt Dillahunty at Atheist Experience. I find that I agree with a majority of his stated opinions, and have not found him to have tremendous factual errors, even as he speaks off the cuff on the Atheist Experience. Furthermore, I have heard him admit to making a mistake, and taking action to correct it. In my opinion, based on this track record, I think he is probably a credible source for certain topics he studies thoroughly, like Christianity and atheism. So when he (and everyone else at the ACA) says that the movie Zeitgeist is pathetic conspiracy theory nonsense (I am sooooo paraphrasing), I take them at their word. I may see the film at some point, but I might not. Like reading the review to decide whether or not to watch a box office feature, I can rely on experts or people with extensive knowledge, who show themselves to be credible (especially for something as relatively insignificant as a documentary).

A third source that I trust, and therefore might not approach with full skepticism, is the Rachel Maddow Show. Like scientists and the ACA, when she has been wrong about something, she takes steps to correct it. She announces on the air where she has made an error, and retracts or amends it.

People who claim to be infallible, who never admit to being wrong, and who claim to have all the answers, are the people we should view with the highest degree of skepticism. The less extraordinary a claim is, and the more it fits in with reality as we know it, the less thoroughly we need to examine it.

So go ahead, trust the experts a little. Investigate claims that seem untrue or counter intuitive, or that come from an untrustworthy source. (Example: Glenn Beck.) Don't turn off your skepticism, but don't confuse being open-minded with being gullible.

Oh, and in general response to the whole 9/12 thing (which I find so completely disrespectful to the memories of 9-11 victims, their families, and our military), here's Rachel.