We live in an age where we are overloaded with information. To know what is going on in the world, what has happened in the past, and what may happen in the future, we often have to rely upon the testimony of journalists, government officials, civilians, military personnel, and experts. Without a foolproof way to determine who is telling the truth, there are those who advocate a rather extreme form of skepticism. It is not that they think we cannot know anything, but that our sources of knowledge are very limited. There are those who argue that certain kinds of testimony are either unreliable or that we cannot determine whether or not it is accurate. Specifically, the skepticism is generally directed at journalists (the “mainstream media”) and experts. But at times, testimony from other groups removed from the establishment is deemed reliable (e.g. certain government officials, civilians). Let’s call this view establishment skepticism (ES). Without journalists and experts, E-skeptics recommend the following two strategies for gaining knowledge.
1) Think for yourself
2) Rely solely upon personal experience and things you have seen firsthand
In this post, I will demonstrate why these strategies are prone to error and why dismissing certain kinds of testimony is not only misguided, but dangerous.
It’s generally a good idea to think for yourself. Provided that one knows how to employ valid reasoning and is well-informed about a given topic, independent thought can be useful in developing novel arguments and insights. But notice the potential pitfalls.
Suppose there is an individual who not only lacks (implicit or explicit) knowledge of basic logic, but who vehemently believes that fallacies (invalid arguments) are good arguments. It seems safe to say that it would be a bad idea for this person to think for themselves.
Suppose there is an individual who is capable of independent thought but has only encountered misleading evidence or false information. In this case, thinking for oneself will likely lead to many false conclusions given that the premises one has to work with are false.
In avoiding the pitfall of the second individual, how does one acquire good information? One might argue that a reliable way to get good information is through firsthand experience. If you are able to see with your own eyes that something is the case, how can you go wrong? Here are two ways:
(1) Your sample size is too small
(2) Your recollection of what you have seen is selective. We all have certain biases and tend to see what we want to see. [We tend to remember the hits and forget the misses].
Experts are in the business of correcting for all of the pitfalls previously discussed. To take two quick examples, they take into account the possibility of bias on the part of other researchers and have a solution for it (i.e. peer review), and they ensure that their sample sizes are large enough to make accurate generalizations. Nonetheless, experts sometimes get it wrong.
The most recent case of expert failure is the 2016 US presidential election. An often made argument by E-Skeptics goes as follows. The (polling) experts were wrong about Trump losing, therefore, experts, in general, are (probably) wrong about everything. This is a terrible argument and is patently fallacious. Consider the following parallel line of reasoning, which no reasonable person would accept.
Speedometers sometimes misrepresent the speed of a vehicle. Therefore, they always do (or get it wrong most of the time).
But the E-skeptic argument is even worse than this. The argument implicitly generalizes from polling experts to all experts. It would be like concluding, because speedometers sometimes misrepresent the speed of a vehicle, all measuring instruments are unreliable.
Not all domains of expertise are of equal epistemic authority. Polling experts have to work with data that is sometimes unreliable or hard to predict. So, pollsters will probably get it wrong a lot more often than experts in other fields (e.g. engineering, physics).
The relevant question to ask is, for a particular domain of expertise, “how often do the experts get it right?”
In the case of pollsters, some actually have a pretty good track record (e.g. 538). Even in the case of the recent US election, the state polls were off within a normal margin of error (1-3 percentage points), and even before the results came in, pollsters had warned about this possibility. The national polls weren’t that far off at all. Pollsters predicted that Clinton would win the popular vote by 3 percentage points. She won the popular vote by 2. More recent elections, such as the presidential election in France, have reminded us of the general reliability of election polling.
The reality is, we need to rely upon the testimony of experts and journalists in order to know what’s going on in the world. Thinking for yourself has its limitations, some of which I have already discussed, and we should be well aware of them. We do not have God-like powers to see everything in the world firsthand, so, we need to rely upon other people who have seen things firsthand, as well as those who have observed more indirect forms of evidence (e.g. archaeologists, geologists, astronomers).
Now, we should not assume that experts are infallible. It’s possible that they could have employed bad reasoning to reach their conclusions, or that they are unaware of evidence that undermines their position, etc. Nonetheless, we are warranted in accepting expert testimony, as long as it is in general agreement by most of their peers, and there is no strong evidence that negates what they say.
Regularly watching the news, reading some articles or watching youtube documentaries does not make you an expert. Most of us cannot dedicate the time and energy to become well-informed about complex issues, so we have to rely upon the testimony of those who do. There’s a reason why we have graduate schools and advanced degrees. [This isn’t to say that one cannot become an expert after years of extensive study on one’s own. Only that, it takes a lot of time to become an expert and a graduate education is the most common, and, perhaps, most reliable way of gaining expertise.]
What’s the harm in considering journalists and experts to be generally unreliable sources? One harm is that someone might end up putting all of their trust into a dangerous and unreliable source (e.g. a corrupt politician). Tyranny usually begins with government leaders attacking the press while seeking public support for their policies through propaganda and lies. By selectively pointing out things that journalists or experts have gotten wrong, and by selectively pointing out the things they themselves have gotten right, authoritarian politicians try to mislead the public into thinking that they are the only reliable source of information. Note how the same bad argument mentioned earlier gets transformed into an argument for listening to certain politicians over everyone else.
Politician A is sometimes right about what he says. Therefore, he is probably right about most things.
The relevant question to ask is “who has the better track record of getting things right? The experts or politician A?” But those who have already become won over by clever politicians will likely conclude that the politician has the better track. After all, they believe that the politician is the one stating the facts. If it gets to the point where the only justification for believing what the politician says is that he or she said it, we have a serious problem. There would seemingly be no line of argument that could be used to get them to change their closed minds. That’s why we need to ask ourselves and each other to provide some kind of non-circular justification for the beliefs we hold. I conclude with a few suggestions for preventing the kind of dangerous closed-mindness just discussed.
(1) Read widely. Don’t get all of your information from a small set of sources. Read essays and articles written by those you disagree with (If liberal, read e.g. WSJ, Daily wire, or Fox from time to time. If conservative, read e.g. NYT, CNN or the Guardian from time to time).
(2) Make sure your arguments are logically valid (Ask: Would I accept the same argument form if applied to other contexts, or stated by other individuals?)
(3) Communicate to people you disagree with. Try to understand why they believe what they believe, understand their arguments and reasons, and articulate why you hold your own views.
(4) Have some humility. There are issues where even the experts reasonably disagree with one another. If it’s a controversial subject, don’t rest much weight on your conclusions and be open to entertaining alternative views.
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