Sunday, April 17, 2011


Some time ago I had posited that a good problem to solve in the philosophy of science would be to answer, "How should we treat experts?" The problem arises because one doesn't want to just take a person's word on the truth of some claim, yet there are disciplines in modern society which require a a restrictive amount of time to become "expert" in -- and therefore one must rely upon the truth claims of others in certain domains. This may not seem to be a problem, but suppose the recent bank scandal: The experts were the bankers, and they used their expertise to gain. As such, the trust which "expert" status was broached. Even more than this "expert" status is always potentially abusive, not only socially but also personally. The solution to the problem should treat this: How does one minimize potential abuse while still having experts in a given domain, a thing which surely is useful?

A few possible solutions:
1. Remove expertise status. No expertise status, no problem of experts. This has some potentially undesirable consequences, however, as we surely enjoy our brain surgeons to be trained as brain surgeons before doing brain surgery. This solution is still viable in some sense, however, because we could restrict expert status to a few occupations which we deem as acceptable (Doctor, Lawyer, Scientist for example) This would minimize the potential for abuse. However, this is already largely done on a social level, so there isn't much of a problem being solved here.

2. Ethics: If we were all ethical, then there wouldn't be abuse of expertise status. This would require a certain level of trust between members in a society which would be earned by our acting in proper ways. This is an ideal solution. By ideal I mean, totally impractical in every way because we don't take ethics terribly seriously on a social-wide level. It's a "personal" thing. So to implement this solution we would first have to start revising what our social ethics amounts to, which would likely push aside some of our other social values.

3. Trust Experts: This is a common solution to the problem. The value of experts is held above the potential for abuse to the point that we all agree to trust experts despite this potential for abuse.

4. I have a possible rule that might be adopted, and I would think of this as a sort of middle path between 2 and 3. It would be "Require experts to be able to teach". This indicates that when an expert makes a claim, a non-expert is allowed to question that claim. Naturally there are good and bad ways of going about this. If a non-expert states "Well, fuck you buddy!" this will likely not facilitate proper or positive communication between either party. Instead, he could state something along the lines of, "I do not believe you. Could you explain yourself further?" This would require something of a social change, as well -- that we be socially allowed to civilly disagree, even on potentially hostile topics. This would require a form of training which would help persons to express their disagreements in a succinct and communicable manner. The best discipline for this, I feel, is philosophy. So, solution 4 really boils down to not just a rule, but a change in our education by requiring philosophy be learned by everyone in High School. However, it does have the advantage of engendering trust between persons as they come to understand one anothers' position more, and thereby allowing experts to exist, while placing them subject to the possibility of a willing "student" asking questions.

It's likely apparent which solution I prefer.

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