Non-experts challenging the expert consensus is rarely wise, even when scientists do it

Chris Mooney has an article at Mother Jones, explaining why it’s not a good idea for non-scientists to challenge the scientific consensus, in the process, reviewing Harry Collins’s new book, ‘Are we all scientific experts now?’.

Read all the online stuff you want, Collins argues—or even read the professional scientific literature from the perspective of an outsider or amateur. You’ll absorb a lot of information, but you’ll still never have what he terms “interactional expertise,” which is the sort of expertise developed by getting to know a community of scientists intimately, and getting a feeling for what they think.

“If you get your information only from the journals, you can’t tell whether a paper is being taken seriously by the scientific community or not,” says Collins. “You cannot get a good picture of what is going on in science from the literature,” he continues. And of course, biased and ideological internet commentaries on that literature are more dangerous still.

That’s why we can’t listen to climate change skeptics or creationists. It’s why vaccine deniers don’t have a leg to stand on. And, in a somewhat older example, that’s why what happened in South Africa, when president Thabo Mbeki rejected the scientific consensus on what causes HIV-AIDS and opted to base government policies on the views of a few scientific outliers, is so troubling.

I agree with Mooney and Collins that challenging expert consensus, when you’re not yourself an expert in the subject matter, is rarely wise.  Often non-experts are wrong, and explaining to them why they are wrong requires substantial education in the subject matter.  If you’re going to challenge the expert consensus, you first need to become an expert.  (In the process of which, you’ll probably discover why the consensus is what it is.)

But the thing that bothers me about this article, is the scientific exceptionalism.  It seems to draw a line between all scientists and all non-scientists.  I think this is almost as dangerous a misconception as the one they’re addressing.

The fact is, it’s not much better when a scientist challenges experts in another field that they know little or nothing about than when a layperson does it, and this doesn’t apply just to expertise in the natural sciences, but to expertise in general.  I’ve seen scientists demonstrate their ignorance just as quickly as a layperson when they do this.

Examples that I’ve encountered in recent months include psychologists coming up with grand but defective historical theories because they didn’t partner with historians, physicists writing things about consciousness that any neuroscientist would know is silly, lots of scientists lamenting the threat of A.I. without talking with actual A.I. researchers, theoretical physicists dismissing the entire field of philosophy, and most academics when they lecture politicians about politics.

It pays to remember that when experts step outside of their own field, they’re actually laypeople, perhaps a bit more informed than a less educated person might be, but a non-expert just the same.  Scientists who opine on non-scientific matters, or even matters in science outside of their own specialty, are often just as wrong as the rest of us.

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32 Responses to Non-experts challenging the expert consensus is rarely wise, even when scientists do it

  1. Steve Morris says:

    99 times out of 100, when non-experts challenges the experts, they are wrong. But it’s nevertheless good for the experts to be challenged. It helps them to think clearly, and it helps them to better educate the public.

    1 time out of 100, the consensus will be shown to be wrong. This is when a great breakthrough happens, and it sometimes needs an outsider to do it. Think Einstein and Relativity, Trevithick and the steam engine, or even Craig Ventner and the human genome.

    But is it the job of the non-expert to prove the consensus wrong. The danger is when the non-expert is wrong but people believe them instead of the experts. There are plenty of examples of this happening. The more technical the subject matter, the more likely the public will be to believe the non-expert’s easy answer.


    • Well, I think it’s inevitable that experts will be challenged, and when challenged, they’re wise to come up with an understandable explanation. But that understandable explanation will typically involves analogies and metaphors, and non-experts who find problems with the analogies and metaphors should understand that they’re not necessarily finding problems with the actual theory or concept.

      I don’t know if the ratio is 1 out of 100 or 1 out of a 1000 or what, but it’s sufficiently rare that it shouldn’t be too emboldening for people. I really don’t consider Einstein to have been a non-expert. Yes, he was a patent clerk, but a patent clerk with a recent PhD in physics. Not familiar enough with the others to comment. (Not expert enough to challenge someone more expert than me 🙂 )

      Totally agree with your final paragraph.


    • I disagree. It is not and cannot be the job of non-experts to prove any scientific consensus wrong. You would have posses a deep and thorough understanding of what the consensus even is to come close to adding to it, let alone to prove it is wrong. Thus, you would no longer be defined as a “non-expert”.

      Further, in physics, a conesus is a special beast and shows us why it is extremely important to have a solid ground in a proper philosophy of science. Einstein as an example describes this situation well. He never broke any consensus, nor was he a non-expert. His addition of special relativity (SR) to physics was a person seeing past where the consensus was oblivious to.

      SR did not prove the consensus wrong; SR does not say classical mechanics or electromagnetism is wrong. Both are correct in their own realm of observation, it just says that the Newtonian assumption of reality is an incomplete one. In fact, Maxwell’s E&M actually possess the very symmetries that SR implies. It is just that nobody ever noticed them (Not even Maxwell himself), except Einstein . Einstein had a deep understanding of E&M and it led him to SR. SR, by definition, still has the previous consensus built into it. It has to! All physical theories have to.

      In a human-emotional sense, yes, he did change an emotional consensus that physics, at that time, had a complete understanding of nature. But I am sure we can agree that atrocious line of thought and was injected by the human condition having zero basis in science. There were hundreds of experiments staring them all in the face implying that they really had no clue of what was going on at deeper level.


      • Steve Morris says:

        “There were hundreds of experiments staring them all in the face implying that they really had no clue of what was going on at deeper level.”
        Marcus, that’s my point. It sometimes takes someone who is not part of the “club” to see what the experts failed to notice. Just because the experts agree on a consensus, it doesn’t mean that consensus is correct. Of course, it usually is. But when it isn’t, smashing a consensus can lead to very rapid progress.


      • ratamacue0 says:

        “I disagree. It is not and cannot be the job of non-experts to prove any scientific consensus wrong.”

        I thought SAP’s point about “whose job it is” was about the burden of proof, not capability.


        • I think that was Steve’s point, although I do tend to concur. My main point was that when scientists opine on subjects outside of their expertise, they’re just educated laypeople. A neuroscientist’s opinions on string theory shouldn’t necessarily hold any more weight than any educated person’s.


  2. I actually think philosophy is one area where expert opinion is often not much better than that of a layperson, particularly a thoughtful layperson. Most philosophers seem to me to be experts on what other philosophers have said and to a degree on what the issues are, not really on what philosophical ideas are tenable or on spotting the flaws in arguments.

    (I say this as a layperson who disagrees with a lot of philosophers on a lot of things and who thinks he spots a lot of flaws in the arguments of a lot of philosophers.)


    • I might catch some grief from the philosophers for saying this, but I think philosophy is a special case. Philosophical conclusions are largely personal conclusions. That said, challenging on expert on meta-ethics on meta-ethical frameworks is probably not wise. But their meta-ethical premises and conclusions are open season.


      • That’s the difference – a philosophical expert can’t tell you what grand position is “right” any better than a lay person, but s/he can tell you which positions are internally consistent, how they work, what they entail, and when you’re misunderstanding them better than a casual reader. My goal with my students is to get their premises and conclusions to match – not dictate what they are.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Hi Michelle,

          I’m not 100% sure that many philosophers are that great about identifying which positions are internally consistent. As I say, they are expert in what other philosophers have said, and some are great thinkers, but many philosophers are not great at spotting inconsistencies themselves.


          • Hi DM,
            So, I’ve found that everyone that disagrees with me is terrible at spotting their own contradictions. Remarkably, most of those who do agree with me are fine at it, at least on the things they agree with me on. It’s rumored that I might not be completely objective in this assessment.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Don’t worry, since you often agree with me I find that you have an excellent mind.


          • In all seriousness, of course I know I’m biased. I could be an ignorant blowhard and be none the wiser. Nevertheless, I believe I am not. I cannot justify this belief, it’s just a feeling I cannot shake. However, holding this belief means also believing that some philosophers are just not that bright in some respects.

            Since there are usually other philosophers who agree with me, I can make this point without bias, because if I am wrong then those I support are also wrong. Note that I am not talking about differences of opinion where different philosophers happen to prefer different accounts. I’m talking about disagreements where the philosophers concerned are convinced that they have shown the other to be completely incoherent while successfully defending their own theses.

            So whichever way you cut it, philosophers are often wrong on the subjects at which they are supposed to be expert.


          • DM, I can assure you that you are not an ignorant blowhard, or if you are then I am one too and we’re in the same boat.

            Philosophers don’t have a consensus on just about any interesting issue. (At least not nearly at the level typically achieved in settled science which usually enjoys a consensus north of 97%.) If you look at this survey, you’ll see the highest consensus is that there is an external world (18% don’t agree). No matter how you look at it, there are a lot of philosophers that are wrong about a lot of things. The problem is that no one agrees on who is right and who is wrong. Some of these questions might eventually be testable by science, but many will never be.

            So, while you and I probably agree on a lot of these questions, we can’t prove our answer is the answer. All we can do is advocate for our answer. I think this is an important thing to understand.


          • guymax says:

            Just to mention- that survey was ridiculous. I could not respond to it because my views were not represented. Half the time I couldn’t even understand the question. If you want clear evidence of bias and narrowness of thinking in the profession, the philpapers survey is it. ,


          • Just because there are bad philosophers it doesn’t mean that philosophy itself is lacking. There are lots of bad authors out there, but I still like reading!

            Liked by 1 person

          • Writing might be like philosophy in this regard. I think in many other academic disciplines, e.g. engineering, science, medicine, law, the experts are genuinely more skilled at what they do than novices.

            But I’m not sure that philosophers are necessarily better philosophical thinkers than novices, and I think that there are lots of authors (even successful ones) who are not really very talented.


        • As usual, you articulate better than I can.


  3. guymax says:

    One of the best things you’ve posted S. Completely sane and clear.

    The internet is destroying many industries but it’s doing wonders for philosophy. It would not be surprising if this is making some scientists uncomfortable. The telescope had the same effect on some priests.

    Michelle may not be sure that (professional) philosophers are necessarily better philosophical thinkers than novices, but I am very nearly convinced of it. In my view beginner’s mind is the entire secret of philosophy, and there is no sign of it in the professional literature. Novices tend to be much more aware of what they do not know.


    • Thanks guymax.

      Just to clarify, did you mean that you are convinced that professional philosophers do not think better than philosophical novices?

      I’ve found that a broad understanding of philosophy has sharpened my thinking and I think it made me much more aware of what I don’t know.


      • guymax says:

        Yes. That’s what I meant. I’d much rather talk to a teenager about philosophy than a professional philosopher, and would expect to make more headway. The pros usually think they know it all already, and are usually clever enough to be able to defend their preferred ideas come what may. This is a generalisation but it seems a fair one to me. The result is a post-modernist free-for-all where we can believe whatever ideas we happen to like. Clearly this is not a recipe for progress.


  4. agrudzinsky says:

    Is there a distinction between “challenging” and “questioning”?


    • agrudzinsky says:

      …an expert opinion by a lay person, that is.


    • Definitely. Questioning, it seems to me, is a good thing. Declaring that an entire field is wrong on their own subject matter, or acting as though that field has nothing to contribute on their own subject matter, is another thing entirely.


      • agrudzinsky says:

        Is it appropriate for scientists to dismiss nonscientific disciplines? Metaphysics is one example, but what about parapsychology and theology, for example?


        • On metaphysics, arguably many theoretical physicists and other scientists engage in it to one extent or another.

          The problem with parapsychology or cryptozoology is that those fields haven’t managed to convince other fields that the fundamental axioms of their own field are valid. Indeed, things have moved in the opposite direction. (A parapsychology association did manage to get itself affiliated with the AAAS in 1969. But it’s highly doubtful that would happen today.) I think a strong case can be made that both fields are riddled with scammers and crackpots.

          For theology, it’s also about the fundamental axiom. I do think that axiom can be criticized without getting into the details of the subject matter.


  5. Steve Morris says:

    Ha! Just came across this quote by Richard Feynman:
    “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”
    Beat that!


  6. Pingback: The reliability hierarchy of expert opinion | SelfAwarePatterns

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