The Cynical Appeal to Expertise

Frustrated with the tendency of social media users to uncritically go with what somebody told them somebody else said, I recently wrote on Facebook, “When you don’t read a report or a study or watch a speech or a press conference and let the media tell you what the report said or what was said at the press conference, what you are essentially saying is, ‘Here, you tell me what to think.’” I get it. Technocracy brings with it a popular over-reliance on expertise. At least technocrats (selectively) appeal to it. We hear the demand for such over-reliance in the refrain: “Trust the science.”

The phrase “the science” is a curious one. Notice I italicized the article. When I appeal to the power of science I might put it this way: “trust science.” However I put it, no article will appear. Science is a method of apprehending the world. It is not an entity. It is not the priest or the church. Consider that there were Nazi scientists. There were doctors and experts in fascist regimes forming opinions about a range of things. For example, the Nazis judged some races to be inferior to others. Some of them were hanged at Nuremberg. Apparently their expertise was not above reproach.

In this essay, by opinion, I mean a judgment about something not necessarily based on fact or knowledge. Of course, an opinion may be based on fact or knowledge. You cannot merely say, “Well, that’s your opinion.” Scientists form opinions. Judges form opinions. They have expertise in their fields of study and practice. An expert is a person possessing an authoritative and comprehensive knowledge of or skill in a particular area. A rational person will recognize that not all opinions carry equal weight on the scales of truth. He should also recognize that experts do not always agree on what is truth or likely to be true.

But the appeal to expertise is a common one in our culture. When I question an expert’s opinion, for example on the efficacy or safety of some medical intervention, such as a vaccine or the wearing of masks, I hear from others a criticism that points to my lack of expertise in medicine. How would I know whether the expert is right or wrong if I’m not an expert in that area? They suggest I listen to an expert, the name of whom they often have at the ready. This is an interesting move since, for the most part, those who make the criticism and provide the expert lack expertise in medicine.

There is an interesting paradox here. How does the critic know that the expert he provides is the correct authority if he is not himself an expert in that particular area? By his own lights, if I knew what I was talking about, he wouldn’t know it since he is not an expert. But somehow, he knows more than I do, since he knows which expert I should listen to. He somehow knows I should not be listened to. This expert he provides is not proffered. The expert has the final word on the subject. Listen to Fauci. “You don’t even have to think about, dude.”

If I ask why I should listen to this person, the critic will likely respond that he trusts that the person is knowledgable of and has been trained in that particular area and has been judged to be an expert by some official body or respected authority. But it’s easy enough to point to another person, knowledgable about and trained in that same area, also judged to be an expert by some official body or respected authority, who has a different opinion. We might suggest that different opinions is the way science and medicine get better over time (which is why it is so scary that social media platforms are censoring contrary opinions—even by experts).

When confronted by two experts with differing opinions who does the non-expert choose as the authoritative one? If one takes his time to study the respective opinions of these experts, perhaps even consult the scientific literature on the subject matter, then he might be able to rationally judge which of them has the better opinion. But, short of putting in this work, which people rarely do (who has the time?), it is likely that the non-expert is going to arbitrarily pick one of them. I say arbitrary here not in the sense of random choice or personal whim, but rather for some reason not based on fact or reason. The choice will be ideological. It will be political.

For the non-expert who selects his opinions on a political-ideological basis, the expert selected will be quite naturally the one who agrees with his opinion, which is by definition not an expert one since it is held by a non-expert. By the critic’s own standard, why should we listen to his opinion? By my standard, which is to avoid uncritically relying on an opinion formed merely on the basis of appeal to authority, I shouldn’t listen to his opinion. Not that expertise doesn’t matter. But the critic is not an expert. By this own admission. He knows an expert when he sees one.

But have you noticed that those who chastise others for not “listening to the experts” or “trusting the science” don’t really listen to experts or trust the science? I am an expert in several areas of sociology. Among my areas of expertise are race, crime, and criminal justice. You might use me as an expert opinion on the question of systemic racism in policing, for example. Those who insist on listening to the experts and trusting the science might appeal to my expertise. But in my experience, this only happens when my opinion agrees with their opinion. They want me to say something, but only when what I say is agreeable. When it isn’t, they disregard my expertise. (Hell, as I discuss in a moment, they disregard me altogether.) If a conversation ensures, it proceeds as if the lay person has as much knowledge about or training in my area of expertise. They rarely do.

Sometimes people get mad at me or tell me that they are disappointed in me when I express a disagreeable opinion, even when my opinion is formed on the basis of my expertise and represents a reasonable conclusion from the scientific literature on a subject (which I have been trained to analyze). On occasion (too many these days) I have had faculty (anonymously), family, friends, and students telling me that I am not the person they thought I was or, more generously, that, somewhere, somehow, I lost my way. Some bad opinion has corrupted, polluted, or radicalized me. With expressions of profound dismay, sometimes dressed in feigned empathy, more often aimed with shame, they tell me that they hope I will find my way back to their opinion.

Their opinion. That’s really what their complaint is all about, isn’t it? They thought I upheld their judgment. Far more important than my expertise—for if it were truly important, then they would consider my opinion—is whether my opinion aligns with theirs. At best, my agreeable opinion only served as an expert endorsement of their lay opinion, which is correct regardless of facts and reason. They exploited my esteem to bolster their case. They wanted to wear my authority. When I no longer agreed with them, I was no longer useful to them.

More than this, I became an adversary, one whose expertise could potentially sway those around them, which is all the more reason to dismiss my opinion as issuing from a man lost in the wilderness. “Don’t listen to him. Something happened to him.” The possibility that they may be confused or deluded by propaganda or ideology is skirted by portraying the expert—whose scientific training is fungible across a range of disciplines—as the ideologue. They are not unreasonable for clinging to an opinion this expert finds disagreeable. The expert is unreasonable and others shouldn’t trust him. Because, in faith-belief, it’s all about trust. This does not damage the practice of appealing to expertise because it is a cynical appeal. There are other experts out there who will articulate a more agreeable opinion. Cite them as the authority.

I am no elitist. I want people without expertise to throw themselves into an area and gain useful knowledge about it. If people want to challenge a trained sociologist, then bring it on. Plenty of people are smart and knowledgeable enough about subject areas in which they have little or no training to make for interesting conversations. But the amateur advances knowledge really only if he knows what he’s talking about or knows what he’s doing. And he usually doesn’t. Indeed, one thing expertise is good for is knowing when people don’t know what they’re talking about. But I’m damned here, as well; I am arrogantly lording my expertise over the amateur if I expose his lack of knowledge.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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