Just Enough Expertise?

Karl Sabbagh on this year’s Edge question:

I used to believe that there were experts and non-experts and that, on the whole, the judgment of experts is more accurate, more valid, and more correct than my own judgment. But over the years, thinking – and I should add, experience – has changed my mind. What experts have that I don’t are knowledge and experience in some specialized area. What, as a class, they don’t have any more than I do is the skills of judgment, rational thinking and wisdom. … Most of us confuse expertise with judgment. …

As a result of changing my mind about this, I now view the judgments of others, however distinguished or expert they are, as no more valid than my own. If someone who is a ‘specialist’ in the field disagrees with me about a book idea, the solution to the Middle East problems, the non-existence of the paranormal or nuclear power, I am now entirely comfortable with the disagreement because I know I’m just as likely to be right as they are.

I’m confident that, as an author and television producer, Karl Sabbagh frequently identifies others he thinks less likely than him to be right.  For example, he probably rejects most book or TV show concepts proposed by ordinary people, justifiably pointing to his superior experience and success in such ventures.  Thus Sabbagh thinks that on most topics he happens to have about as much expertise as is useful; less expertise than his hurts your accuracy, but more expertise than his doesn’t help your accuracy.

I think this same “I have the max useful expertise” view is shared by the typical internet “troll”:

A person who posts incendiary comments with the express purpose of provoking an argument.

Trolls are said to be distinguished by:

  • a lack of buy-in to the list philosophy or values
  • generally low level of activity, with sudden spurts of interaction …
  • a mixture of friendly posts with a confrontational style of interaction
  • the use of provocative language and sweeping generalizations …
  • a lack of in-depth understanding of the topic

This seems to me the classic arrogant young man, who dismisses “smaller” opponents as unworthy, but doubts “bigger” ones could beat him.  He talks tough and swaggers around looking for any easy fight with an audience.  And unfortunately non-expert trolls, and their non-expert audiences, often simply cannot see when their arguments are “beaten” by experts.  As Sean Carroll says:

There is also an unhealthy brand of skepticism, proceeding from ignorance rather than expertise, which insists that any consensus must flow from a reluctance to face up to the truth, rather than an appreciation of the evidence.  It’s that kind of skepticism that keeps showing up in my email.  Unsolicited.  Heresy is more romantic than orthodoxy.  … Many casual heretics can’t be bothered with all the detailed theoretical arguments and experimental tests that support the models they hope to overthrow.

You need non-trivial evidence to justifiably conclude you have just enough expertise.

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