When Should You Trust an Expert?

I like this article at Cosmic Variance; it seems like there’s always a conflict between encouraging people to think for themselves and question authority, and encouraging people to trust authority figures and not be conspiracy theory nutjobs. This article finally makes this disconnect explicit and explains why we might place more trust in the authority of a natural scientist versus a social scientist.

Although that’s not an easy question, the basic point is not difficult to figure out: in the public imagination, natural scientists have figured out a lot more reliable and non-obvious things about the world, compared to what non-experts would guess, than social scientists have. The insights of quantum mechanics and relativity are not things that most of us can even think sensibly about without quite a bit of background study. Social scientists, meanwhile, talk about things most people are relatively familiar with. The ratio of “things that have been discovered by this discipline” to “things I could have figured out for myself” just seems much larger in natural science than in social science.

As with many things, this is applicable to the “question the theory” anti-evolution, anti-climate change type approaches; independent thinking is great, but there’s a point where laypeople are just not equipped to plausibly reject the scientific consensus. 

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2 Responses to When Should You Trust an Expert?

  1. “None of which is to say that social scientists are less capable or knowledgable about their fields than natural scientists. Their fields are much harder!”

    You heard him Dre. My field is much harder than yours. Therefore, by extension, I am MUCH smarter than you. Boom.

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