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Monday, December 13, 2010

You have a right to your opinion-but it may be worthless (the opinion, that is)

Let me start by paraphrasing others

1. The late Robert A. Heinlein wrote a short story concerning physicists who, upon re-examining certain mathematical calculations, realized that a particular kind of nuclear power plant was far more dangerous than they had assumed.  They decided that the plant had to cease operations.  But the lead physicist was called into a meeting of the Governing Board of the plant, and was informed that the members of the Board had reached a different conclusion about the implications of the calculations.  The lead physicist responded with a statement to the effect of: "Unless they're nuclear physicists, they don't have the right to an opinion".

2. (On a lighter note)Fran Liebowitz, in her book, Metropolitan Life, wrote something like:  "As is obvious to any single woman who walks into a room at a party, all men are not created equal".

As many commentators have noted, we appear to be living in a political atmosphere which takes pride in anti-intellectualism, and a general suspicion of those who claim some "expertise" based on education or study.  Sarah Palin seems to take pride in her lack of knowledge in many areas.  The successful Republican candidate for Senate in Wisconsin took pride in his statement that he would need a map to find Washington, D.C.  Pundits on all sides scold President Obama for appearing "intellectual" rather than "populist".

There are reasons for this, and some of them are, at least to me, pretty good, or at least understandable. 

First, people with "more" of anything they consider important - education, money, good looks, or religious fervor, tend to look down upon those who have "less" of that item. It's particularly true in the "education"  and "religious fervor" areas because those areas seem to be more "status" oriented than money or power oriented.  The resulting condescension (which is often obvious) causes an understandable resentment in those of us who have less.  We "lessers" also may have some psychological insecurities that increase our resentment.

Second, intellectuals and "experts" in general have a not perfect track record.  They have a tendency to speak with a certainty that even their mere theories are correct based on their superior education or knowledge, and yet at least some of what they say is not obvious, is counter intuitive, and is often (eventually) proven incorrect.  I believe this to be particularly true in what we call the social sciences.  (This is not meant to be critical of anyone, including social scientists.  The nature of any kind of predictive science is that new evidence may demonstrate that current theories are not correct.)

Third, experts tend to set forth general theories which may run counter to our own particular experience in specific cases.  For instance, experts seem to believe that phonics is the best way to teach children to read.  Since I, my siblings and my children learned perfectly easily without using phonics, the experts' theory, although it may be correct,  starts off with two emotional strikes against it, at least for me.  This is even more true when we "ordinary people" have knowledge the experts do not.  For example - I have lived with my kids.  I know how my body tends to react.  I have been running my business.  The experts almost certainly know stuff that I do not about what I should do to "manage" my kids, my body and my business in certain situations, but the reverse is also true.

Fourth, like any other group, intellectuals have their share of idiots and those with their own axes to grind, but they (I'm tempted to say "we") tend to make our failures more public.

Fifth - an understandable but really "bad" reason.  Sometimes the experts want us to do stuff, individually or collectively, that we do not want to do.  This one is really tempting, really common, and really awful.

Generally, I believe I have a strong populist and egalitarian streak.  Nevertheless, I think the anti-intellectual /anti-expert streak manifesting itself in American politics is very, very dangerous.  The "experts", individually or collectively,  may or may not be right in any particular case, but they are usually experts because they have more training or experience in a given area than most people, and, as a result their opinion is often worth a lot more than "ours".

I'm a lawyer.  Have been one since 1978.  I know a lot about some areas of the law, and much less about others.  In some areas, I could be called an "expert".  Everyone (it seems) loves to argue about the law.  That's good.  It affects us all.  And when you are telling me what you think the law should be, your opinion may be worth as much as my own.  But, when you are a client or prospective client who asks me about an area of the law in which I am expert and in terms of what the law is at the moment, your opinion is not equal to mine; I simply know a lot more about the subject.  Many clients want to argue with me at length about what the law is or is not, because they do not like the answer I just gave them.  This is understandable, if sometimes annoying.  "Annoying" is OK, but having a client actually do or not do something because he or she thinks that he knows as much as I do is often dangerous to the client.

Some of my frustrating experiences in this regard have been with physicians, academics, and very successful business people - people who are, frankly, often "smarter" than I am.  Sometimes much smarter.  However, that does not mean that they know more about my field than I do.  (This is not to say that they cannot learn what they need to know about the law in their particular situation.  Given enough time and focus, most of them can and may actually do so.  The law (at least what I do)really is not that intellectually hard.  It's complicated, but not all that complex.  It can't be; it's created by people and supposed to be generally understandable.)

Politically, the most troubling example of this may be in the area of climate change.  Somewhere between 90% and 98% of those who could be considered "qualified" climate scientists believe that global warming is becoming a problem and will become a bigger one.  There is less general agreement on the causes of global warming and what should be done about it, but almost all the true "experts" believe that it is a very real problem.  These are generally very bright people, and they each have studied climate science for years; they are professional scientists opining about what is a scientific issue. Could they be wrong?  Sure. Are they?  Almost certainly not.

Despite the overwhelming weight of scientific opinion, a disturbingly large number of politicians have characterized global warming as "bullshit" or a "scam".  However, is any politician's opinion contrary to what almost all scientists are saying in this area worth anything ?  No.  Your basic politician (or lawyer) is about as capable of really evaluating climate change evidence as my dog is.  (Not intended as an insult; my dog is very smart, but she is not a climate scientist).  This is not necessarily stuff that just anyone can evaluate with a little reading.  As most schoolchildren (and adults who remember) will tell you, science, once beyond elementary levels, is hard.  And being a scientific "expert" takes a lot of knowledge as well as smarts.

There are other "political" examples of: "it isn't so because I say it isn't.  Nyah, nyah", but I won't go into them here.

What bothers me even more than the politicians (I have low expectations) is that a large number of the American people still seem to believe Snake Oil Salesmen, so long as they tell us what we want to hear.  Enough.

P.S.  Addendum

Since I posted the above thoughts, I have heard from some people who at least partially disagree.  They raise (along with some looniness) some good points:

1.  Scientists and the politicians who cite them often blur scientific conclusions with political conclusions, and claim that the combination is "scientific".   True.  So does everyone on all sides interested in making a political point.  This may make the "blurred" conclusions suspect, but the strictly scientific ones tend to be based on evidence or data that is generally transparent.

2.  Some of the scientists involved in the Climate Change debate fudged the data to support their own political agendas.  Yep.  But I think there were exactly 2 of them, and the overwhelming majority of scientists, using "unfudged" data, think it's a serious problem

3.  Most scientists are liberals.  Not sure where the data is on that. (If true, I think that says bad things about Conservatives rather than about scientists, but I have my doubts). It's possible, I guess, but it doesn't make their conclusions invalid or less "scientific".

4.  Scientific research which is inclined to come to "liberal" conclusions is more likely to be funded, and, therefore, science is likely to have a liberal bias.  This would be troubling, if true, but across the board, I think it's not true.  A lot of research is done or sponsored by companies that want to make a profit.  Period.


  1. Good post Jeff.... think you might find this interesting..

    Happy New Year..


  2. Don
    Thanks for the comment. I read the suggested article. It was very interesting. I have my doubts as to whether the transition from Huxley's vision to Orwell's is as inevitable or as far along as the author suggests. Orwell (particularly for Homage to Catalonia and Animal Farm) and Huxley (particularly for Island) are both favorites of mine, but I really haven't read (or reread) much of Huxley's stuff since college. Obviously, I'm going to have to reread Brave New World.