Do We Have Too Many Experts?

By Chris Mooney | April 8, 2011 12:00 pm

I was just reading an interesting study on the politics of intellectuals and postgraduates, and one figure leapt out at me:

The number of graduate and professional degree students grew at a rate of about four percent per year over the past decade (Bell 2010), and data from the General Social Survey (GSS) show the percentage of American adults with advanced degrees has more than doubled since the 1970s, reaching just over 9 percent in 2008.

On Point of Inquiry in February, I somewhat jokingly asked Dan Kahan–who has documented how everybody thinks the experts supports their point of view–whether the problem isn’t simply that there are so damn many experts out there now that you can find one willing to say anything. These data would seem to support the contention, at least with regard to the growing number of experts.

Don’t get me wrong–I know it is very good for our society, in a myriad of ways, to have highly trained, smart people running around. However, I wonder whether one by-product is that it is easier to politicize science, because it is easier to find someone very smart who is willing to argue some strange contrarian position in a very convincing way–and indeed, may even pay the bills by doing so.

Comments (18)

  1. Jon

    Sounds something like the neoconservatives’ complaint in the 70’s about the New Class. And Irving Kristol went as far as creating an infrastructure of “counter-intellectuals” who would balance them out…

    http://www.tnr.com/blog/damon-linker/irving-kristols-other-journey

  2. Chris Mooney

    Yeah, Jon, but the counter-intellectuals had to get degrees too….

  3. Jon

    OK, but if you’re looking for the root causes of politicization of science, you can name some names and describe some inflection points, as well as look at the proliferation of degrees…

  4. Chris Mooney

    Right. We’re not disagreeing. We’re talking about the same phenomenon. I’m just saying the think tanks had to get people who were credentialed (and politicized)–and there were plenty of those to be found.

  5. dirk

    Even with fewer experts, there would still be ones that politicize science… and they would be held in an even higher regard than the ones that are out there now.

  6. Mike H

    We have too many people posing as experts. I am thinking specifically of places like ThinkProgress.

    TP Wonk: “I’m a Policy Wonk”
    Me: Oh Really, what makes you a “policy wonk” on energy
    TP Wonk: Well, I’m 27 year old legacy graduate from Yale with a law/journalism degree and mommy and daddy still pay my bills, so naturally that makes me an expert on subjects as varied as API codes relating to stress corrosion cracking all the way to RCIC systems in nuclear plants.

  7. james patino

    we’re missing the Expert of this blogpost.

  8. David Waldock

    I think the problem is that calling or treating someone as an expert is not the same as that person actually being an expert.

  9. Gaythia

    Expanding on the point @8 above, it seems to me that you can’t, certainly not without further definition, conflate “advanced degree” with “expert”.

    There are all sorts of institutions in this country claiming to be institutions of higher education. Some are clearly better at it than others. As I see it, some are not, in any conventional sense, even trying.

    As one example (at the undergraduate level), one can apparently obtain a “Bachelors of Science Degree in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology” from Bob Jones University. The first two “learning objectives” are:
    “Learning Objectives
    Explain and defend in writing the biblical philosophy of science.
    Explain in writing why science is limited as a way of knowing truth.”
    See: http://www.bju.edu/academics/majors/viewmajor.php?id=10362&p=0

    “Under Bio 300, Evolution and Origins”, one can study the following:
    “Discussion and critical evaluation of the biology and philosophy behind neo- Darwinism (materialism), the intelligent design movement and special creation. Extensive use will be made of a current evolutionary textbook, important recent monographs, scientific journal articles and position statements. The course will engage students in critical thinking and problem solving and prepare them to answer challenges to a biblical world view regarding evolution and origins.”
    http://www.bju.edu/academics/courses/?subject=Biology#Bio505

    I would have to doubt that they have any accommodationist philosophy in mind.

    Here in Colorado, and elsewhere, tuition at public universities is being raised, public education budgets are being slashed, and some school districts are working to implement voucher systems that would force taxpayers to fund students at private, and frequently religious schools. See: http://www.denverpost.com/search/ci_17623486

  10. However, I wonder whether one by-product is that it is easier to politicize science, because it is easier to find someone very smart who is willing to argue some strange contrarian position in a very convincing way

    I doubt it. Nobody seemed to have a problem finding doctors to advocate smoking in the 1950’s, experts to deny the connection between tobacco and cancer in the 1970’s, racist views on eugenics in the 1930’s, etc.

  11. They’ll never be a shortage of scientists willing to tell lies for a paycheck. This is not breaking news.

  12. Blamer ..

    On skepticblog, Steve Novella writes “I often find it challenging to find out what the consensus is within a specialized field – it seems like you will get a different picture depending on which experts you talk to.”

    Could there be a website that solves this problem? Perhaps something like wikipedia or snopes, but maintained by accredited scientists. Is this merely an enormous task, or mission impossible?

  13. Nullius in Verba

    #12,

    There’s a philosophical problem with the idea – it involves an infinite regress.

    I’ve discussed this before. (here.) There is a recognised problem that people not trained in the scientific method or critical thinking don’t have the means to judge themselves between competing claims, so what should they do? One solution often proposed is that they should put their trust in an authority – an expert or group of experts. But how do they determine who is an authority? There are, as you note, competing claims. So perhaps what they should do is ask an authority on authorities – somebody who accredits experts and tells you which ones are experts and which ones are fooling you. These include governments, universities, and academic journal editors. But which authorities on authorities should we trust? There are competing claims – some saying such authority authorities have their own biases, others pointing out that putative experts on both sides of the debate have been accredited by universities. And there are good and bad universities. So what we need is someone to tell us which expert accreditors are trustworthy, and which give out accreditation without checking – or for a different domain of expertise. But suppose you find that opinions differ over which universities are the best? Suppose we have competing claims on which authority authority authorities are trustworthy? If it is known that people are going to such web-sites, it would pay someone to set up their own to endorse their own opinions – a lot of them, since numbers count. We need someone to tell us which to trust…

    You can see where this is going. Eventually you just get tired of chasing endorsements, and you make a leap of faith. You trust someone because your friends or family do, your political party does, because it’s convenient or comfortable, or simply because that was the point at which you gave up. Argument from Authority is a logical fallacy. That doesn’t mean it isn’t ever useful, but you should never forget that it isn’t reliable.

    A better alternative, I think, would be a website teaching critical thinking, scientific method, and how to spot logical fallacies so that you have the means to make judgements based on evidence rather than opinion. That would still not be perfect – otherwise scientists trained in scientific method would not disagree as much as they do – but the scientific method is the best tool we have. You might not be able to teach enough for people to pass judgement on deeply specialised technical material, but you could teach enough to at least judge whether they were using the sorts of methods and care that ought to result in a reliable answer. Or you would at least know what you didn’t know, and remain appropriately uncertain. In science, “I don’t know” can be the right answer.

  14. Jon

    Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

    (For Nullius, the answer boils down to “Trust no one, and be sure to read my F. U. D.).”

  15. However, I wonder whether one by-product is that it is easier to politicize science, because it is easier to find someone very smart who is willing to argue some strange contrarian position in a very convincing way–and indeed, may even pay the bills by doing so.

    The way you politicize science is to pay someone $500 an hour to say exactly what you want them to say. It’s very easy to do. Just Google any scientific consulting firm and give them a call.

    How is this a hard concept for a science journalist to grasp?

  16. And here’s the Louis Berger Group, bagged for fraud and still getting government science and engineering contracts from the same agencies they defrauded:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/06/world/asia/06contractor.html

  17. Dark Tent

    The main problem is not too many actual experts.

    Just too many people who think they are experts (on pretty much everything) simply because they have a PhD (in what, it doesn’t matter) and/or have written a book (on what, it doesn’t matter) .

  18. luc v autour

    Most , maybe 80 percent of graduate degree in the usa are worth nothing from intelectual standpoint

    did mozart get a ph d in musicology

    did florence nigthingale get a phd in first aid

    ^just exemple of phony academic intelectual type of degree awarde in UsA

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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