Tuesday, 4 April 2017

On expertise and experts

During the EU referendum debate PM David Cameron advocated that we all 'listen to the experts' (see here and here). Expert politician Mr Cameron and his expert colleague George Osborne thought they would win the referendum but got their politics wrong.

Experts, so called, can often be found - starkly differing in their views - on both sides of an issue. Both sides can't be right. Experts, so labelled, in certain fields (not least in economics, politics, ethics) often fail to deliver the goods that experts should ie expertise. 

Before the June 23 referendum on UK membership of the EU, many economic experts made very gloomy forecasts. These forecasts were wrong, as some of them have acknowledged (see here and here).

'Experts' built the unsinkable Titanic (which sank), the Hindenburg airship (which went up in flames), the Fukushima Nuclear Power Stations (built in an earthquake prone zone and were hit by a tsunami caused by an earthquake) and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge (which shook itself apart during a gale). 

The experts of the time, so their credentials indicated, said Darwin's thinking on evolution by natural selection was wrong. Experts of the time ignored or dismissed Wegener's theory of continental drift for many decades (Wegener not having the label of expert in the relevant branch of science). Now, evolution and continental drift are amongst the major scientific theories.
Plenty more examples are available. Lets retain a healthy scepticism about 'authorities' on complex areas of life, the experts. Lets always thoroughly test all claims to expertise - and be willing to listen to those whose expertise we may be able to verify but may not have the label expert. 


  1. Glen, does this not totally defeat much of the AGW argument as that is entirely based on the opinion of "experts"? Also, the majority of economists whose views don't get in to the media party actually predicted Brexit as a fairly non-event event. It was only those economists wheeled out to the main news outlets that took that view. The media have been deciding who the "experts" are Can you give any argument to why one should doubt one set of "experts" but believe another? I can't see data and even if I did, I can't collect it and verify it's accuracy. All else is faith really.

  2. No, my approach does not defeat much of the AGW (anthropogenic global warming) argument because this argument is based on a huge and growing mountain of tested and checked evidence and not on the opinion of experts. Much of the data that climate scientists use has been published and is freely available on the internet.

    There are claims to have expert opinion on both sides of debates from people who have the credentials and the office and/or label 'expert' and so we have to look on all that is claimed with a healthy scepticism. Healthy scepticism means treating all claims to knowledge as having some uncertainties - and the more tests and checks the substantial claims made pass, based on the best available evidence, then the lower the uncertainties and the more we can trust the claims. This is basically what best practice science does, so I cant see why you would disagree with what I've said in my blog post.

    There is a vast amount of data and information out there on the internet for anyone that is inclined to look at, test and check - or get someone else to test/check.

    Some disciplines are more prone to failing checks and tests on their claims of expertise than other. For me this includes experts in fields such as ethics, politics and economics in particular. Take economists and their statements about the immediate and short term effects of the impact of voting for Brexit - the Office for Budget Responsibility, the Bank for England, the Treasury, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the International Monetary Fund, the Trade Union Congress and others all made big errors and many/most have since revised their forecasts of gloom.


Genuine, constructive, relevant comments are most welcome.