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Roy Porter is an expert on the Enlightenment. He has multiple books on it, and made a TV show.

But he doesn't know everything about it. For some issues in his field, he's mistaken.

Porter hinted that Burke was an anti-capitalist, as opposed to Adam Smith. But Porter doesn't know what he's talking about. A story is (it's hard to get really solid info about stuff so old) that Adam Smith said Burke was the one man who thought the same way as him on economic matters. Porter further implied that Burke was an anti-liberal, anti-Enlightenment man, but that's ridiculous: Burke was a lifelong liberal reformer and member of the liberal political party (Whigs).

Porter has Godwin wrong too. He thinks Godwin a hypocrite for his views on marriage and his actions, but he simply does not address Godwin's reasoning. He glosses over the issue quickly, and hopes I'll take his word for it, but I'm not going to, I have an informed view on the matter and Porter offered nothing to change my mind. Porter also makes a factual claim -- with no citation -- about Godwin wanting his daughter and Shelley to marry which I've seen nowhere else (I've read many books specifically on this topic).

Porter is certainly not the only person to get Burke and Godwin wrong. Thomas Sowell has them atrociously wrong, even misquoting them.

These are examples of the simple fact that no expert knows everything, and especially in broad fields there is so much to know that very few people study all of it.

People have holes in their knowledge, even experts.

In my experience with experts, when they speak to an area that I've studied a lot, the majority of the time they get it wrong. They are not usually right, but usually wrong.

Most philosophers have epistemology wrong. It's not just that they disagree with Popper but that they don't understand the issues and address his best arguments. They're outclassed and ignorant.

Most historians of the relevant types have Burke wrong. And most have Godwin wrong.

Popper says most historians of Plato and Aristotle are badly mistaken (and argued his case). He persuaded me. Popper isn't the only one to say this. Godwin had a negative view of them both. Bronowski recognized that Plato's politics were bad. And of course there were Greeks who didn't see eye to eye with Plato or Aristotle (such as, respectively, Pericles and Xenophanes).

These are cherry picked examples. I've simply taken the areas where I know a lot and focussed only on them. Are these same experts right about other stuff where I don't know what I'm talking about? Maybe they are and maybe they aren't, beats me.

Some may reply with arguments that I'm wrong on the examples I've given. So what? First of all for these narrow areas, I'd say I'm an expert. But if you want to think for yourself instead of accepting my expert knowledge, go right ahead. Second, I'd suggest we settle it the way everything should be settled: not by appeal to authority, or consideration of the sources of claims, but simply by critical debate. Post in comments and I'll tell you why you're wrong or I'll concede, simple as that.

Anyway, here's what I think, the lesson to be learned: when I'm in a serious position to judge an expert opinion for myself, I find it lacking the majority of the time. Why should the experts be more reliable for issues I haven't personally studied? I think the experts are simply unreliable all the time, and make mistakes constantly. That makes it all the more important to think for myself, and study important issues for myself.

Elliot Temple on August 31, 2010

Comments (12)

Popper and Deutsch excepted of course

Popper and Deutsch excepted of course

Peter D Jones at 5:12 PM on September 1, 2010 | #2077 | reply | quote


Excepted from what? And why?

Elliot at 5:14 PM on September 1, 2010 | #2078 | reply | quote


I think he means that if experts have no value, why would you care what Popper and Deutsch have to say about things they know about, more than you do about what anyone else has to say?

Stephen at 12:05 AM on September 5, 2010 | #2079 | reply | quote

I did not say "experts have no value". I said assuming expert opinions are true (or likely to be true) is a bad and irrational way to use them. Experts are wrong a lot.

People, whether you they are experts or not (whatever that means), have ideas which you can learn from by a critical approach. Some people like Popper and Deutsch have put out very large quantities of especially helpful stuff.

Elliot at 12:09 AM on September 5, 2010 | #2080 | reply | quote


So you think this statement applies just as well to Popper and Deutsch or don't you?

"Anyway, here's what I think, the lesson to be learned: when I'm in a serious position to judge an expert opinion for myself, I find it lacking the majority of the time. Why should the experts be more reliable for issues I haven't personally studied? I think the experts are simply unreliable all the time, and make mistakes constantly"

Stephen at 7:59 AM on September 5, 2010 | #2081 | reply | quote

Saying the majority of all expert opinions are mistaken does not imply that for any given expert the majority of his ideas are mistaken.

Yes of course it applies to Popper and Deutsch, but doesn't mean they are wrong much.

Elliot at 10:38 AM on September 5, 2010 | #2082 | reply | quote

So the RIGHT experts are not "unreliable all the time."

Stephen at 10:48 AM on September 5, 2010 | #2083 | reply | quote

When someone gets a bunch of stuff right (which we can tell *in retrospect*, not in advance) it's not because of "being an expert" but because of applying a strong critical attitude to their ideas, and knowing lots of criticisms to use -- doing that can remove a bunch of mistakes, leaving less mistakes.

Deutsch and Popper are just as worthless in the role of authorities as everyone else. The only thing to do, as alway is: if there is a disagreement, focus only on arguments not people.

Elliot at 10:55 AM on September 5, 2010 | #2084 | reply | quote

So if a question arose about epistemology, you wouldn't in advance, think that perhaps you should seek out Popper or Deutsch for an answer, not as an authority you would believe without question, but as an expert who is more apt to have the answer than the average Joe?

And if you would seek an answer from them about epistemology, but not with all subjects, isn't that because you believe their strong critical attitude, etc, has left them more apt to have the knowledge you seek in that area than the average Joe? eg, an expert?

Stephen at 11:47 AM on September 5, 2010 | #2085 | reply | quote

This is a bad example because if I'd never heard of Popper speaking to a question, I would not look for an answer to it in Popper -- I already have familiarity with his work.

But in general, if I want an answer about X and I want help from others, then I would look for people who address the topic. And prefer ones I judge are good thinkers, not ones with fancier degrees.

In no way does that imply the people I read are usually right. One doesn't have to be right very much to know more than nothing and offer a little help.

I don't think you have a clear point in your mind when you write your comments. You wish to defend the notion that some people are experts at some topics, but that's just words, you need to say what that means and why it matters. If it means only they have ideas about the topic I might sometimes consider worth reading and judging, OK, sure, who cares?

Elliot at 12:33 PM on September 5, 2010 | #2086 | reply | quote

"..you need to say what that means and why it matters."

That's exactly what I just did in my last comment.

Let me put it another way. We need a word for the people we seek out whose knowledge in a given area is more valuable than the average Joe's. When you have a plumbing leak, you are not going to seek out Deutsch, you are going to seek out someone who is a (fill in the blank) in the area. This doesn't mean you will completely trust everything they say and do. It means you know they have knowledge in the area that you don't and it will be fruitful to have their (fill in the blank). You would be unlikely to ask them about a difficult epistemology problem you are trying to figure out, as you might with Deutsch, if you could.

So, if you don't want to fill in the blank with 'expert,' what do you fill it with?

Anonymous at 1:12 PM on September 5, 2010 | #2087 | reply | quote

Whenever some guy has knowledge, and I don't -- so I can't judge for myself -- then he is wrong *the majority of the time*, is what my post was about. I will not assume they are right or probably right or trustworthy or anything like that. You aren't really engaging with my point, just contradicting it.

Let's consider again my argument:

We know that experts are usually wrong b/c we can judge sometimes, and in those cases we can see they are usually wrong. Then we can extrapolate there's no reason they would be more often right in other areas.

Do you have some criticism of this argument?

Elliot at 1:21 PM on September 5, 2010 | #2088 | reply | quote

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