A belief in the expertise of experts

Anyone who has been taught by me will know that I am a devotee of the late Richard Feynman. Feynman was a brilliant physicist and Nobel prize winner. He worked on the Manhatten project early in his career and the investigation into the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster shortly before his death. He was a bongo-playing oddball, and a regular visitor to strip bars, where he seemed to gain inspiration for his study of Physics. His documentary The Pleasure of Finding Things Out is one of the great science programmes, involving little more than Feynman talking to camera. He could lecture to brilliant scientists and explain science to the layman. He was a superb intellect, but also a wonderful teacher.

When teaching a new junior class, I used to begin with a Feynman quote: ‘science is the belief in the ignorance of experts’. I took this to mean one should not accept something as truth because a nominal expert decreed it to be the case. The scientific method allows one to come to their own conclusions through rigorous experimentation, data collection and the analysis of these data. I don’t think Feynman was suggesting experts are not to be believed as a matter of course, but given they are not infallible, appropriate scepticism is healthy.

The UK politician and Brexit supporter Michael Gove went further, suggesting in 2016 that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’. This was in response to the general consensus amongst EU Economists that Brexit would be an economic disaster. This rejection of expertise in order to further his own agenda was perhaps understandable. What was less understandable was the fact this anti-logic ended up bringing it home for Brexit, the full ramifications of which we are yet to find out.

Donald Trump recently announced the possibility of creating Space Force, which despite sounding like a straight to DVD 80s film starring Steve Guttenberg, is in fact a supposedly necessary addition to the US military, given that, according to POTUS, ‘space is a war-fighting domain just like the land, air and sea’. Except it isn’t, of course. This didn’t stop his supporters embracing the idea. One amateur conspiracy theorist claimed Space Force will be responsible for space exploration and rather than being disappointed when informed this was the job of NASA, mysteriously stated that ‘NASA just tell us what they want us to know’.

The success of Trump and Brexit in winning over the electorate are both are rooted in an appeal to the fundamental mistrust of experts and expertise. We are wary of those who know far more than us, and the likelihood that their advanced expertise will be used to hoodwink us. We feel powerless when confronted by those with genuine expertise and instead rush to the appeal of the common man; the man who tells it like it is. Who wants to listen to an expert urging caution when we can revel in the bombast of an inexpert foghorn?

The Dunning-Kruger effect suggests that people of low ability have illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is. Put in simple terms – if you don’t know what you don’t know, you may believe that you know it all. Experts tend to be aware of the limits of their knowledge and understanding, but some novices mistakenly believe their own non-expertise allows them to make valid decisions. They underestimate massively the extent to which their knowledge is limited. Ignorance, perhaps, is bliss.

This has led to a worrying strain of anti-intellectualism, where voters are drawn to politicians and political parties that routinely display disdain for expertise. Don’t like what the data on climate change tells you? Simply discredit the source as an expert. We’ve all had enough of those. When a politician is no longer constrained by facts or objective truth, political debate becomes little more than a points-scoring slanging match, which plays into the hands of playground politicians like Donald Trump.

Cognitive science tells us that novices and experts have different cognitive architecture. Novices, in any field, are constrained by the limits of working memory, which can only cope with a few pieces of information. Novices rely on this working memory, which becomes overloaded quickly. Experts however have large interconnected tracts of knowledge called schemas, which are firmly embedded in (to all intents and purposes limitless) long-term memory. These can be easily retrieved to ensure working memory does not become overloaded. For this reason, it is pointless to talk of students ‘thinking like scientists’ or ‘thinking like historians’ because by their very nature they are novices, not experts. Scientists think like scientists because of their domain-specific schema, and to reject this expertise is foolish in the extreme.

It is interesting to note in recent decades that the average age of Nobel prize winners has been increasing. This is because in order to advance scientific knowledge one needs to first understand up to and including the current ‘bleeding edge’. Only then is one able to extend that edge. As the edge moves further away, it takes longer to reach, hence the Nobel prize winners are becoming more venerable. Perhaps an appropriate analogy is that they are now having to stand on the shoulders of a greater number of giants.

Expertise is something we should treasure in others and aspire to ourselves. The majority of us are generalists, and few devote their life to the study of a single area. Those who do are collectively responsible for furthering human understanding and they deserve our respect and admiration, not our scepticism and rejection. We are not going to be able to educate the finest minds of the next generation without employing some of the finest minds of our own. We should firmly believe in the brilliance of experts.