Critical Thinking Tip #3: Discover What Experts Say

Experts know more about their subject of expertise than you do. So, if you discover that you possess a view that contradicts the vast majority of experts, it’s more likely than not that they’re right and you’re wrong. In determining your own level of confidence on a matter, this is an important fact to keep on the table (and not brush it under a rug). Finding out the opinions of experts on a matter is not meant to arrest your own process of critical evaluation, or default that process over to others, but weighing the opinions of experts is part of critical thinking. Below are four suggestions for doing this sensibly:

  1. On the matter that concerns you, discover whether expert opinion has (a) arrived at a broad consensus; or (b) is divided. For example, with regard to the age of the earth, experts in geology have reached a broad consensus: the earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old. The consensus is strong; you will find vanishingly few geologists who posit, for example, that the earth is only 10,000 years old. By contrast, experts in physics are not in broad agreement concerning the value of string theory: some think that string theory is likely to be proven correct over the next few decades; others think not. Whether you discover consensus or division, ask yourself this question: to what degree does it exist? In other words, how strong or weak does it appear to be? Is it on a matter central to the discipline, or is it peripheral?
  2. If you become aware of an expert expressing an opinion not shared by the vast majority of experts in a field, bring closer scrutiny to the expert (for some experts are more likely to be right than others). For example, is he or she widely known and respected by peers, broadly published, and teaching at an esteemed institution (like Harvard)? Nobody is perfectly objective (obviously), but is there any reason to think that something other than the truth is driving this particular expert’s conclusions (financial interest, attention-seeking, strong political or religious motivation, senility etc). Also, ask yourself whether this person is actually speaking to a matter in which he or she is, in fact, an expert. For example, an astronomer offering an opinion on the value of childhood vaccinations is no more an expert in that subject than you are.
  3. Even if you have not been to China, you can nevertheless be confident (on reliable testimony) that China exists. Likewise, a consensus of experts in a field like physics can give you equivalent confidence that Einstein’s theory of relativity is true. You may not directly or clearly understand how experts arrive at their consensus concerning relativity, but you can treat it exactly as you do China, as part of your background knowledge. Here is a good rule-of-thumb: wherever scientific expert consensus exists, you are warranted in giving it strong belief; where opinion is divided, agnosticism is warranted; and where you are entertaining an expert’s minority viewpoint that sounds plausible to you, you are (perhaps) warranted in apportioning a small amount of cautious belief to it.
  4. Academic endeavors, as social endeavors, are not perfect processes, and some disciplines are far more empirical than others (compare medicine to history). If you have good reasons to believe that an expert consensus is skewed by such things as inertia, peer pressure, source funding, insufficient empiricism, or cultural bias, you are warranted in discounting it accordingly. Keep doubt alive. But experts should be grappled with, never ignored.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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5 Responses to Critical Thinking Tip #3: Discover What Experts Say

  1. Pingback: Critical Thinking Tip #2: Be Alert to Your Premises | Prometheus Unbound

  2. Mike says:

    2 areas I would like to see you address:

    1) What about instances where the consensus is wrong (eg. the sun revolves around the earth, the earth is flat)? Are we only as smart as our experts?

    2) Are matters of faith (eg. the nature of God, the purpose of life) different? How do you evaluate the truth claims of a Jewish scholar versus a Christian scholar versus a Scientologist?

    • santitafarella says:

      Mike,

      Good questions! I’ll take a stab at them:

      1) With regard to #1, first I would say that consensus, in empirical matters among experts, is a matter of probabilities: simply knowing that there is a consensus on something within an empirical discipline (like biology) increases the likelihood that it is true. It’s a data point a non-expert should take into serious account. This does not mean that you don’t grapple with the arguments experts provide for arriving at the consensus (insofar as you can understand them). The key is that you don’t ignore the consensus, or treat it as something to be dismissed without very, very good reasons.

      As for Galileo, I would liken him to a resident of China. A resident of China knows China from the inside. Galileo knew his science from the inside. His confidence in taking on his fellow scientists was born of being a citizen of the scientific community of his day. He knew the territory. His confidence, even against the consensus, is warranted because he KNOWS things.

      Brian Greene, the famous physicist, is a string theory proponent and is confident that he’s on the right track even though he has a lot of resistance from colleagues. His confidence is warranted because he knows the terrain of physics like the back of his hand and he takes seriously, and grapples with, his colleagues objections (as did Galileo). He knows he could be wrong, but he also knows that science progresses on hunches and taking risks.

      You and I, I presume, cannot enter into a discussion of physics and have a similar confidence because we are not “citizens” of the physics community. We must, necessarily, on so complicated a matter, get our knowledge, as it were, secondhand (as we get our knowledge of China secondhand if we have never been there). In a complex world, learning about a consensus can give us something we can include in our “background knowledge” and probably be right about (until we discover a new reason to doubt it).

      (2) As for #2, I think I may have addressed it here:

      https://santitafarella.wordpress.com/2011/01/30/critical-thinking-tip-4-distinguish-experts-from-authorities/

      —Santi

      • Mike says:

        1) I think I agree that in complex matters (from physics to economics to politics), the lay person is extremely handicapped in discussion and truly forming an educated opinion. I am amazed at those who are able to follow these technical issues and are able to glean any insight or truth. Mostly, I feel we are like Norm and Cliffy at the end of the bar when trying to speak of what we don’t really know.

        The tricky bit is that we have to believe something, and how do those beliefs change our lives? Does “An Inconvenient Truth” affect my opinion of the Green movement? Will I Reuse, Reduce, or Recycle more? Or is it just “An Inconvient Truth”? Or I do I choose to see it as “An Improbable Truth” or “An Outright Lie”? I agree on applying critical thinking skills before allowing an “expert” affect my actions.

        2) I think you missed the thrust of my second question. I agree if I’m not Catholic, I don’t have to agree with the Pope, he’s not my authority. My question is how do I evaluate his truth claims? Let’s assume that some religious leader or atheist leader has correctly grasped the nature of God. How can I evaluate their truth claims to determine for myself who is correct? From your original post, this is obviously an area where there is no clear concensus, so you say agnosticism is warranted. Are you content to leave it there? When I look at string theory and multiple universes, I don’t see how this will impact my life. It will likely never pass the boundary of background information for me. But when I look at the nature of God and the purpose of life, these are things that have daily impact on my decisions and actions. I am not content to remain agnostic or rely on experts or authorities to guide me. I want to KNOW the truth.

        So how do you propose to evaluate the truth claims of divided experts or authorities? And are spiritual truths different than scientific truths?

  3. santitafarella says:

    Mike,

    As a quick response (which maybe I’ll develop into a fuller post later), I think you tackle religious claims the way you do other claims: via abduction. The truth is the whole, and so, via a process of abduction, you lay out the varied religious and irreligious hypotheses on offer and ask yourself whether you think one stands out as most likely to be closest to the truth. For me, I’ve landed at agnosticism that wavers between Jeffersonian deism and (sometimes) suspicions that we live in an atheist universe. Since there are no experts on God—people with an empirically discovered body of knowledge about God—we’re all stuck with our own half-assed figurings out, aren’t we?

    I like this Twilight Zone. I think it’s where we, in fact, are:

    Also, I think that there comes a choice. If you feel that life is intolerable without believing that God exists, I suppose you have to take a leap of faith based in intuition (as Brian Greene surmises that string theory is probably correct and devotes his professional energies to pursuing it). But if you can tolerate the ambiguity, I suppose you’ll go through a process of abduction and follow it wherever it leads.

    —Santi

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