Saturday, May 10, 2014

Question authority

On the one hand

Richard Carrier is the renowned author of several books including Sense and Goodness without God and Proving History, as well as numerous articles online and in print. His avid readers span the world from Hong Kong to Poland. With a Ph.D. in ancient history from Columbia University, he specializes in the modern philosophy of naturalism and humanism, the origins of Christianity, and the intellectual history of Greece and Rome, with particular expertise in ancient philosophy, science and technology. 

On the other hand

And yet, it is often enough the case that a consensus of experts is wrong (as proved even by the fact that the scientific consensus has frequently changed, as has the consensus in any other domain of expertise, from history to motorboat repair). And our brains are cognitively biased to over-trust those we accept as authorities (the Asch effect), putting us at significant risk of false belief if we are not sufficiently critical of our relying on an expert. It’s only more complicated when we have warring experts and have to choose between them, even though we are not experts ourselves.


  1. Question everything. Except for me.

  2. Has that Derridean feel to it
    Everything is interpretation. Hey you misunderstood me!

  3. Why would you ever contradict an expert? It's either because you have a preconceived notion that the expert threatens, or it's because you are yourself an expert in some sense.

    If you're just trying to protect your cherished notions, then you might simply contradict the expert. You can huff and puff for a while and then stomp off into your safe corner.

    Alternatively, you can provide evidence supporting your dissenting view, and this can lead to a productive discussion. If you're smart enough to provide serious evidence, though, that means you're a kind of expert in your own right.

    The moral of this story is that we should try to be experts.

    1. Actually, I was illustrating the fact that Carrier is exempting himself from his own strictures.

      One reason to contradict an expert is if the experts contradict each others.

      There's also a bit of a conundrum. Unless I'm an expert, I lack the expertise to evaluate who's an expert. So I can't defer to the experts even if I should.

  4. An expert isn't someone who knows the truth about something. Instead, an expert is simply someone who has looked at all the arguments and thought about them for a while. Thus, you can become an expert with a certain amount of effort. But it you're not an expert, you should stand aside and be neutral on the issue. Just because two experts are slugging it out, that doesn't mean you can freely declare one the winner. You have to get in there (become an expert) and throw a few punches of your own.

    1. "an expert is simply someone who has looked at all the arguments and thought about them for a while."

      That's just your made-up definition of an expert.