Saturday, March 29, 2008

On expertise

James Poulos musters his considerable intellect in defense of the public intellectual, and Mariel Leonard comments:
To me, you can only claim to know best if you have direct expertise or experience in the matter. Otherwise, you're just a guy with an opinion, no matter how well educated, famous, wealthy, or good-looking you might be.
Intellectuals aren't necessarily anything particularly special -- there's no one school or subject matter that singles them out.
In this, Miss Leonard seems to be siding with Hayek, whose insights about the diffuse nature of knowledge are applicable beyond the field of economics, in which Hayek won the Nobel Prize.

If someone really knows something, if he has first-hand direct experience with the facts of a given subject, he cannot be influenced by (and will almost certainly resent) anyone who tries to impose their theoretical abstractions on him.

The diffuse nature of knowledge means that everyone knows something, but no one knows everything. It is inevitable that people who want to justify a particular conclusion will select and emphasize evidence that best supports their argument. But in the universe of facts, there may be contradictory evidence that is omitted from any argument, and so each argument on a disputed topic is naturally countered by opposing evidence. This is Forensics 101.

Expertise can be dangerous in this context when the credentials of the expert are cited as authoritative -- "How can anyone disagree with this distinguished scholar?" But even the most distinguished researcher does not possess infinite knowledge, nor do his credentials mean that his statements are guaranteed to be untainted by bias.

"Facts are stubborn things," John Adams wisely observed, and all of us -- whether plumbers or Ph.D.s -- ought to search diligently for solid facts and ought to be skeptical of any "expert" who claims that his credentials make his arguments unquestionable.


  1. Hayek won the Nobel Prize, not the Pulitzer. Road to Serfdom was a bestseller--remarkable since it came from a university press.

  2. Thanks for the correction, Sean. Probably a fatigue-induced mental glitch. Lucky thing I didn't say Hayek won an Oscar.

  3. That depends on which Hayek you're thinking about.