Expertise

One of the things that defines the times in which we live is our suspicion of anyone who presumes to know what he or she is talking about. We deny expertise. It’s one of the sadder effects of our egalitarianism. We move from the moral fact that all are equal to the absurd conclusion that no one knows any more than anyone else. Aside from our medical people and our auto mechanics, whom we must trust, we think all other opinions are of no great weight, certainly no better than our own. We forget what George Berkley once said: all opinions should be tolerated for what they are worth. Some opinions are heavy and others are so light they float away in the wind, many of our own included.

But if it is my opinion I am convinced that it weighs as much as yours, no matter who you are. “It’s just Plato’s opinion,” as one of my students said in reading a Platonic dialogue, with the clear implication that it weighed no more than this particular American college freshman’s did. “We are all entitled to our opinion” translates for many into “my opinion is just as good as yours.”

Take the issue of global warming, as an example. There are a great many people in our Congress who think that 97% of the scientists are wrong despite the fact that those scientists have examined the situation carefully and are reluctant to draw conclusions that cannot be corroborated by their peers. That is to say, those who sit on their butts every day making huge salaries think they are as smart as those who are paid very little to study the appropriate evidence and draw conclusions, many of which are unpalatable to them as individuals. Science is disinterested and a very strict task-master. Yet, those sitting on their butts in Congress, or running for president, claim to know better than they what is happening to our world. The problem is, of course, those who do not know control the mechanisms that might make our world a safer place in which to live and plan our collective future.

Expertise, if you think about it, is based on knowledge of one’s field. An expert in biology may not be the best person to ask about the literary value of a new novel. But in his or her field the opinions uttered have weight. We do ourselves a great disservice to ignore the experts in an age in which we are overwhelmed by information and have so little knowledge about so many things. Like it or not, we must trust others to help us understand what is going on in our world. If we have pain in the gut which we think results from listening to political lies, and it the pain persists, we really ought to visit the physician and listen carefully to what she has to say.

At some point we must trust the experts and acknowledge that there are people who know a great deal more than we do. We must trust those who know and know those who are worthy of our trust. But those people who stand up before us running for political office and who claim to know things that are patently absurd should not be trusted. We must always be on the alert for those who claim to be experts but who know less than we do, while at the same time acknowledging that there are experts who know a great deal more than we do. It requires judgment and scrutiny of every word and gesture — and a suspicious eye on the possibility that there is a hidden agenda somewhere that we might not want to embrace.

In a word: ask ourselves whether or not the person who is making the claim has something to gain from our believing what he or she has to say. The scientists who predict that our planet is in dire straights have nothing to gain from our accepting their conclusions. Those fat cats who sit in Congress and are paid to vote as the corporations want them to definitely have something to gain from the rejection of what the scientists have to say. And that politician with the strange hair who stands there making outrageous claims wants us to believe everything he says even though so much of it is bollocks. His agenda is not even that well hidden.

In a word, we must suspect all those “experts” who have a hidden agenda. But this is no reason to reject expertise altogether: there are some who really do know more than the rest of us. But, to my knowledge, none of them has strange hair.

Spurious Reasoning

This post is aimed at those among us who think everything is a “matter of opinion.” During my years of teaching that became one of my pet peeves — and I have many. There is such a thing as truth and there is such a thing as sound reasoning. The opposite of truth is falsehood and the opposite of sound reasoning is spurious reasoning. During the recent presidential race we were witness to innumerable examples of spurious reasoning. My favorite was: The economy is in the toilet. Sitting presidents are responsible for the economy. Barack Obama is the sitting president. Therefore Obama is responsible for the poor economy. There are two problems with this reasoning: it smacks of what logicians call “false cause,” about which I have blogged previously. And the second premise is false: the sitting president is not alone responsible for the weak economy. This raises the interesting question: how many politicians does it take to weaken the economy? I leave the answer to you.

But my favorite example of spurious reasoning of all time occurred some years ago when a woman in Maine was shot and killed by a deer hunter while in her back yard hanging up the wash. After the trial in which the shooter was found “not guilty” of manslaughter (!) one of the jurors was asked why he voted as he did. He answered: she should have known better than to have been in her yard during deer season. Now the woman had recently moved to Maine from Ohio so there might have been a tad bit of bias against “Westerners” — those who live West of the Maine boundary. But whatever the man’s reasoning process might have been, and I doubt there was any at all, it is most assuredly a prime example of spurious reasoning. It requires that we accept the fact that an example of a person getting shot is not an instance of “manslaughter,” which it is by definition. It also avoids altogether the ethical principle that one should not shoot at another person — even during deer season. In a word, it avoids the central issue altogether.

And this brings me to my main point: even in ethics where the common notion is that everyone is “entitled” to his or her opinion, there are arguments and claims that are just plain silly, and opinions that are just plain stupid. Ethical arguments where we try to establish the viability of an ethical conclusion by incorporating specific principles and relevant facts can be sound or spurious — just like our reasoning in any other sphere of investigation. We need to separate the facts from the falsehoods and examine the reasoning critically, which is why critical reasoning is such an important part of everyone’s education. We rely on sound reasoning in nearly every endeavor we undertake every day of our lives — and especially when we seek the “moral high ground,” or when we are deciding which candidate is best qualified for political office (which I suppose should be called the “moral low ground”).

That’s Your Opinion!

We are fond of saying “everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion.” In a sense that’s true. But in another sense it is absurd. As George Berkeley once said, all opinions should be tolerated for what they are worth. Why would one be entitled to hold an opinion that is blatantly false? For example, why should a person be entitled to hold the opinion that the earth is flat or that dinosaurs and humans walked the earth at the same time — as an alarming number of high school biology teachers in a recent Texas poll apparently believe? I mean, obviously a person can hold such an opinion, but why on earth would they want to? As Plato noted long ago, there is such a thing as right opinion — and such a thing as wrong opinion. One would think that we would want to jettison the latter and develop the former. I take it that “right” opinions are those that have intellectual support: they are reasonable. At some point right opinions become facts and dispute at that point is out of the question for reasonable people, though Congress will continue to debate their truth.

In the case of the shape of the earth or the time when humans lived on earth vis-a-vis the dinosaurs, opinions can be argued sensibly and evidence can be brought forward. But in the case of art and ethics, it is widely believed, it is open season on opinions: anything goes. I would contend that this is a wrong opinion. In ethics and art there are sound and unsound opinions: some claims can be supported by evidence and argument while others cannot. And like opinions about the shape of the earth, our job is to jettison the unsound opinions and develop the sound ones. Let’s take a couple of examples.

In ethics I might claim that the skin-heads are right to stand up for white supremacy. This is a value judgment and it is clearly unsound. There is no evidence whatever to support this claim: no evidence that whites are “superior” to any other race of humans. We have a value judgment based on a biological falsehood.  In any event, we have an example of an ethical claim that can be argued, defended, rejected, or accepted on the grounds of support and evidence. It’s not JUST an opinion.

In art a case can be made that some works are better than others because of the remarkable craftsmanship and lively imagination they exhibit. But after the case has been made, we can still like the inferior work. No matter how strong a case I make that Vermeer’s “Maiden With A Pearl” is a better work than Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post cover with the family bowing their heads over a Thanksgiving meal, one might still prefer the latter to the former. In that sense there’s no disputing taste. But experts can make strong cases for some works of art simply being truly remarkable and in some sense of that word “great,” whether we like them or not. The same can be said in literature, poetry, sculpture, and dance. Some works are good and some are really quite bad — again, whether we like them or not. In a word, some opinions are simply stronger than others. The evidence can be brought forward and reasons mustered on one side or the other.

In the realm of ethics and the fine arts opinions never reach the realm of facts, strictly speaking. There will always be room for debate because even though we might see the point of the evidence and argument that supports a claim — that Vermeer’s painting is better than Rockwell’s, for example — we might still prefer Rockwell, as mentioned above. The mind might assent, but the heart may be slow to follow. But the point I want to make is that discussion and rational argument have a place at the table of ethics and the fine arts just as do claims made about the shape of the earth, the desirability of certain types of treatment for illness, or the question of climate change. There are facts and there are sound or reasonable opinions and they need to be separated from the trash of half-truths, weak opinions, and absolute nonsense. This reasoning applies to the determination of who would make the better President as well.

Mill On Tolerance

Those who agree with me are the brightest people I know. Those who disagree with me are obviously stupid. Of course, I don’t really listen to the latter group, but I must be right. In a word, even though I would like to think I am a tolerant person I strongly suspect that I merely ignore opinions I do not tend to agree with and I suspect that is not what tolerance is all about. Alexis de Tocqueville once said that tolerance may simply be another form of indifference. He’s right, of course. In our culture today we all pride ourselves on tolerance but we may, indeed, simply be indifferent. There is much we don’t care about, and that includes someone else’s point of view. I know it’s true about me and I strongly suspect it is also true about others.

To be truly tolerant, it seems to me, one needs to listen closely to another point of view even knowing it to be totally opposed to our own before we decide whether to reject it or not. I recall the words of John Stuart Mill in his superb essay “On Liberty.” Mill said:

He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion. The rational position for him would be suspension of judgment, and unless he contents himself with that, he is either led by authority, or adopts, like the generality of the world, the side to which he feels most inclination.”

Let’s take a closer look at tolerance, taking our clue from Mill, even though he doesn’t use the word “tolerance” in the passage I quoted. Let’s say I’m listening to a political rant and after a few minutes I decide the guy is a wacko right-winger (or left-winger — they’re both wacko at the political extremes) and I stop listening to him. In a sense I am being tolerant. I haven’t bought a gun, followed the man into an alley, and shot him — as some in our society seem inclined to do. But I have certainly not been tolerant in the sense of the term Mill is speaking about. de Tocqueville is right, I am being indifferent: I don’t really care what the guy is saying.

Tolerance would require that I listen carefully and weigh what the man says — as Mill suggests. After that, I would then have to work through my own “take” on the issues being discussed and sort out those which seem to be the soundest in light of what I just heard. This might require changing my own beliefs, which is a very difficult thing to do. In fact, it is so difficult we don’t do it very often, if at all. That’s why we tend to dismiss those who disagree with us with a wave of the hand and, usually, a label of derision: he’s a “wacko,” or a “nut-case,” or whatever. Labeling the opposition is simpler than listening to him and taking what he says seriously. It makes things easier for us. So we embrace opinions that are most comfortable.

Tolerance is a very difficult virtue to practice, as Mill’s comment makes clear. We have come to the point in our society where we are bombarded by so much noise posing as personal opinions it is hard, if not impossible, to listen closely. So we don’t listen at all much of the time. We just filter it out. Or we half-listen and then dismiss, especially if we sense ahead of time that the person doesn’t agree with us.

And this is why we have become rather closed-minded and intolerant of others’ opinions. Not only don’t they fit in with the opinions we hold dearly and are reluctant to part with, there are simply too many of them out there and we need to protect ourselves from the bombardment. So we congregate with others of like opinions and watch and read those who agree with us, convinced that these are the bright ones — thereby firming up our own convictions. But, if Mill is right, and I think he is, we do this to our own detriment, because we lose out on the opportunity to learn something and have our minds grow and mature. I need to keep this in mind next time I dismiss the “wacko” on the TV trying to sell me the latest political panacea or farmland in the Everglades. Just because he’s wacko doesn’t mean he can’t be right.