When it Comes to Expertise, Even If You're Outnumbered You Can Always Fight a Guerilla War

By Chris Mooney | June 15, 2011 10:43 am

This is the third in a series of posts elaborating on my recent American Prospect magazine article entitled “The Reality Gap: Now more than Ever, Republicans and Democrats are separated by expertise–and by facts.”

In my last two posts about my American Prospect piece, I showed how the Democratic Party today has become the chosen party of experts and “empirical professionals,” but also that conservatives have plenty of experts of their own and, indeed, have made a conscious attempt to cultivate them, while also bashing liberal experts for bias. Thus, both sides have many more allied thinkers than they did in the 1970s.

Now, in the third post–this time, the bulk of it is at DeSmogBlog–I explain the psychological consequences of this dynamic. The upshot is when it comes to expertise, you can always fight a guerilla war. Why? Brief excerpt:

First, the experts on both sides argue with each other—in print, on tv, in their own minds, or wherever—and both sides become more convinced they’re right. The theory ofmotivated reasoning predicts that the sophisticated are capable of becoming more extreme and polarized, thanks to both their confidence and also their competence. They’re better at reinforcing their own views.

Second, for the non-experts out there, whatever side you’re on, it’s easy in this situation to find an expert who supports what you believe. And indeed, for the very same basic psychological reason, you’re not only more likely to find an expert who agrees with you than one that doesn’t (due to confirmation bias), but also to believe that person the person who agrees with you is a real expert, whereas the one who disagrees with you is a fake one. This was shown in a recent, amazing study by Dan Kahan at Yale, in which people with different values tended to discredit the expertise of experts who were depicted as supporting positions that were contrary to their values.

Third, when all of this plays out in the media–at least insofar as it’s a typical expert-versus-expert on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand show–you can expect the public to leave feeling confused about who’s right and what’s true. Again, there’s research on this. I’ve blogged about it here. The Ohio State University communications professor Raymond Pingree has shown that “passive” media coverage, where reporters don’t take sides on who’s right about the facts, leaves media consumers less sure that the truth is “out there” somewhere that they can actually grasp it.

Hey, at least we can laugh at this situation. As I write in my Prospect piece:

For an amusing example of [the] expertise imbalance, consider Project Steve. This is a ploy by the pro-evolution National Center for Science Education to undermine conservative sign-on letters boasting large numbers of “experts” who question the theory of evolution. Project Steve goes one better–it finds scientists named Steve who support evolution. To date, over a thousand Steves have signed on–and, as NCSE boasts, Steves constitute only about 1 percent of scientists.

So, yeah–we liberals have lots of high-caliber experts. And a lot of good it is doing us.

Again, you can read the DeSmog item here and the original American Prospect piece here.


Comments (11)

  1. Fred

    The left my have plenty of experts, but it has no expertise.

    The typical consensus argument from the left always begins this way. It starts by stating that all of the real experts are on the left. Any experts on the right are fake experts. They aren’t scientists, and if they are, they’re not climate scientists, and if they are, they’re not published, and if they are, they’re took Exxon money 20 years ago, so their obviously liars.

    If the public isn’t satisfied counting lab-coats, they’re told to count societies. The official position of prestigious scientific organizations may support the left. But even if its really just the leadership, and a huge portion of the membership is vocally opposed, we don’t’ hear it.

    When counting scientists and counting lab coats aren’t enough, we’re told to count each other. Public opinion polls are show to prove how much the public wants to be capped and taxed to show their moral superiority over those who doubt the consensus.

    In all this counting, we the public are never asked to consider the science itself. We are given the false choice of belief. Irrationally, we are told that we are qualified to accept the science, but we are not qualified to deny it.

    We live in a society that values the weight of words over the weight of individuals. The public has neither the time nor the inclination to listen to all of the speakers on any given subject.

    Scientific Truth is not determined by how many “experts” you can put in a line.

  2. Chris Mooney

    “Scientific Truth is not determined by how many “experts” you can put in a line.”

    And definitely not determined by how many non-experts can make up critiques on the internet.

  3. gradstudent

    I always find it funny when a Republican responds to a post about how Democrats are smarter and his/her response is rife with spelling and grammar errors. S/he is only proving the point that Republicans are less educated than Democrats!

  4. Allison

    @2 Chris Mooney

    Was your above post an attempt to demonstrate this sentence in your article:

    “in a recent, amazing study by Dan Kahan at Yale, in which people with different values tended to discredit the expertise of experts who were depicted as supporting positions that were contrary to their values.”

    You don’t know anything about his expertise, but you seem to be doing exactly what you accuse other of. You dismiss Fred out-of-hand, because he holds the “wrong” viewpoint in your opinion.

    Or were you referring to yourself with the phrase “non-experts can make up critiques on the internet”. If so I apologize.

  5. Incredulous

    In our world of sound bites, the pundits are making this worse. They take the cheap shots instead of really discussing issues. Instead of crucifying idiots with their own merits, they jump to improper arguments. Don’t criticize Bush’s policies, make fun and call him stupid. Don’t refute the claims scientific claims of Anti-vaxers, make fun of them. Don’t make a reasoned argument why you don’t agree with the Tea Party, make lewd jokes of the double entendre. Don’t address someone’s point in a blog, make fun of their grammar or a spelling mistake.

    In this case, I am not picking on Liberal or Conservative. Both have chosen this attack method so often where it seems like normal debate. Instead of debate, we have people playing the dozens.

  6. CAV

    Actually Incredulous, you are picking on liberals in your post – because it is usually liberals that are 1) making fun of Bush; 2) making fun of anti-vaxers; 3) making fun of teabaggers; 4) making fun of the fact that a commenter on a blog apparently never made it out of fourth grade. And I would ask what pundits you are watching, and which blogs you are reading, because in general, I find that the liberal media I choose to view DOES explain the faulty science behind the anti-vaxxers, and the contradictions in teabagger ideology, and why the Bush policies have screwed us over, etc. In fact, they do it to death – so they try to liven it up with snarky, somewhat amusing comments that “make fun”.

  7. Rex the Wonder God

    There’s nothing preventing Fred, or anyone, from actually looking at and into any and all theories, predictions, data, findings, conclusions and arguments about, of or from science; it’s all it completely transparent. Moreover, no one is requiring that he take any argument involving science on faith or by virtue of numbers (Numbers were certainly heavily against Galileo when he adopted the findings of Copernicus.). So, I gather what Fred really is saying is that simply because HE PERSONALLY doesn’t understand the science behind, say, evolution by natural selection, or, say, anthropomorphically-caused climate change, due to his own ignorance or laziness, no one else is entitled to trust it.

  8. Incredulous

    Well if it seemed that those were singling out one side, I apologize. I specifically chose examples that would be identifiable to the audience. I could have just as easily used the stupid “Hide the Decline” video, the bile spewing from Mark Levin, or many other sources. It might have been snarky and amusing the first few times. After endless repetition, it looses its cachet. It is not like a fine wine that improves with age. The whole point is that you end up with overused tripe that is supposed to be some real “zinger” and feeling like you are debating Beavis and Butthead.

    This goes to the point of Mr. Mooney’s premise. The tactics have been taken to the level of getting in the quick shot rather than having a real discussion.

  9. JMW

    @1. Fred, I think the problem is a bit subtler than you appear to get.

    Scientific truth does not have a bias to the left or the right. It just is. Sometimes it can be in dispute.

    The problem occurs when political parties ignore scientific fact just because it doesn’t fit into their worldview. In the United States, the Democratic Party has done this in the past – 40 years or more ago. But in recent years the Republican Party has raised this to an art.

    In one sense, you’re right. Scientific fact isn’t decided by the number of experts, or societies, or even laypeople who support it. However, when you have duelling experts, it’s the best we can do. Even if 99% agree with one point of view and 1% dissent, that’s the best you can do.

    Because if there’s one thing that politicians should be thrown into prison for, it’s for convincing the rest of us that everything is political. Sometimes it isn’t.

  10. shams

    Conservative “experts” are anti-empirical. See, first culture intellectuals.

    The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.

    In the past few years, the playing field of American intellectual life has shifted, and the traditional intellectual has become increasingly marginalized. A 1950s education in Freud, Marx, and modernism is not a sufficient qualification for a thinking person in the 1990s. Indeed, the traditional American intellectuals are, in a sense, increasingly reactionary, and quite often proudly (and perversely) ignorant of many of the truly significant intellectual accomplishments of our time. Their culture, which dismisses science, is often nonempirical. It uses its own jargon and washes its own laundry. It is chiefly characterized by comment on comments, the swelling spiral of commentary eventually reaching the point where the real world gets lost.

    Both conservatism and libertarianism (libertarians are quasi-secular crypto-conservatives) are anti-empirical– for example the “freed” market. Free market theory is based on a teleological calumny– that “freed” markets lead to improvement in the human condition.
    This is proveably false, in America at least, where market based policies have led to such horrors as NCLB and the Econopalypse that Ate America’s Jobs.


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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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