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#108- Defending the Experts A Conversation with Tom Nichols

 
Nhoj Morley
 
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Nhoj Morley
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13 December 2017 17:56
 

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Tom Nichols about his book The Death of Expertise. They discuss the “Dunning-Kruger Effect,” the growth of knowledge and reliance on authority, when experts fail, the repudiation of expertise in politics, conspiracy thinking, North Korea, Trump, and other topics.

#108- Defending the Experts A Conversation with Tom Nichols

This thread is for listeners’ comments.

 
Thomnewman
 
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13 December 2017 21:56
 

So disappointed with Sam’s comments about relying on experts in this overbroad way. He mentions reliance on doctors—which I think is a perfect example of how you can go to extremes on either side.  Sam mentions science or scientists to be the vehicle to question science—experts free to challenge others in the field—Einstein questioning Newton. But I think there is room here for lay people, especially those who have a vested interest in learning more and who are outside the system.  It is one of the reasons I enjoy the podcast—which tackles a wide variety of topics with depth and skepticism—and which is unafraid to take on experts.

Examples: To be anti-vaccine seems to be ungrounded at the current time in any science. That is an easy case and lies at one extreme of people losing sight of facts against experts.  It is like saying you know how to do brain surgery better than a brain surgeon. However, in other instances, doctors and other experts may have misaligned incentives even at their most intelligent and good-intentioned. They are also expert in a certain segment (performing brain surgery for example) but maybe not in making the decisions in other very close adjacencies. Understanding what they are “expert” in is also critical. The same doctor who tells you to get a vaccine may tell you to get an an MRI on your sprained knee at the cost of thousands of dollars. There is ample evidence that over-testing is rampant in some segments—knee MRIs being one of them. The doctor often earns money through this recommendation with very little downside to her. So, it is highly appropriate to ask what is the protocol now and how is that likely to change based on the results of the MRI and what is the evidence that those protocols are effective in studies. And moreover, whether surgery will cause more pain than will be relieved.  My guess is that there is systemic bias here—bias that costs patients a lot in money, pain and time. We should also ask what the expert is expert in? Leaving aside expertise in science, is she also supposed to be an expert in our values: how we balance cost, risk, pain,  and health. The answer to whether I should get the test might be very different if I am an avid tennis player sidelined by this injury or a couch potato who relishes the time to play more xBox with his kids.

More often than not, the fearful patient—in a position where the doctor is exerting power through many different channels—is too deferential.  I trust and hope that Sam believes this—but it is an important message and one that got lost in this discussion. Lifting up experts in an uncritical way could be as damaging as cutting them down in ignorance. On a lighter note, I spent the last 5 years forcing my young kids to brush their teeth twice a day and floss nightly because the dentist said so. When I looked up the science behind this (yes I googled it), I found about 20 studies commissioned by Colgate, urging kids to floss, with zero independent studies that showed any correlation between flossing and cavities in the literature. Should I tell my kids? At the risk of de-fanging, if you will, the experts?  If Sam is telling his kids that there in so Santa Claus, maybe he should also tell them that dentists have some myths also. As do all experts. Well, maybe not until they’re grown up or at least until my wife (the ultimate expert) concurs.

[ Edited: 13 December 2017 22:16 by Thomnewman]
 
Gamril
 
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14 December 2017 08:52
 
Thomnewman - 13 December 2017 09:56 PM

So disappointed with Sam’s comments about relying on experts in this overbroad way. He mentions reliance on doctors—which I think is a perfect example of how you can go to extremes on either side.  Sam mentions science or scientists to be the vehicle to question science—experts free to challenge others in the field—Einstein questioning Newton. But I think there is room here for lay people, especially those who have a vested interest in learning more and who are outside the system.  It is one of the reasons I enjoy the podcast—which tackles a wide variety of topics with depth and skepticism—and which is unafraid to take on experts.

Examples: To be anti-vaccine seems to be ungrounded at the current time in any science. That is an easy case and lies at one extreme of people losing sight of facts against experts.  It is like saying you know how to do brain surgery better than a brain surgeon. However, in other instances, doctors and other experts may have misaligned incentives even at their most intelligent and good-intentioned. They are also expert in a certain segment (performing brain surgery for example) but maybe not in making the decisions in other very close adjacencies. Understanding what they are “expert” in is also critical. The same doctor who tells you to get a vaccine may tell you to get an an MRI on your sprained knee at the cost of thousands of dollars. There is ample evidence that over-testing is rampant in some segments—knee MRIs being one of them. The doctor often earns money through this recommendation with very little downside to her. So, it is highly appropriate to ask what is the protocol now and how is that likely to change based on the results of the MRI and what is the evidence that those protocols are effective in studies. And moreover, whether surgery will cause more pain than will be relieved.  My guess is that there is systemic bias here—bias that costs patients a lot in money, pain and time. We should also ask what the expert is expert in? Leaving aside expertise in science, is she also supposed to be an expert in our values: how we balance cost, risk, pain,  and health. The answer to whether I should get the test might be very different if I am an avid tennis player sidelined by this injury or a couch potato who relishes the time to play more xBox with his kids.

More often than not, the fearful patient—in a position where the doctor is exerting power through many different channels—is too deferential.  I trust and hope that Sam believes this—but it is an important message and one that got lost in this discussion. Lifting up experts in an uncritical way could be as damaging as cutting them down in ignorance. On a lighter note, I spent the last 5 years forcing my young kids to brush their teeth twice a day and floss nightly because the dentist said so. When I looked up the science behind this (yes I googled it), I found about 20 studies commissioned by Colgate, urging kids to floss, with zero independent studies that showed any correlation between flossing and cavities in the literature. Should I tell my kids? At the risk of de-fanging, if you will, the experts?  If Sam is telling his kids that there in so Santa Claus, maybe he should also tell them that dentists have some myths also. As do all experts. Well, maybe not until they’re grown up or at least until my wife (the ultimate expert) concurs.

I agree with you about Doctors.  But I didn’t take the whole discussion the same way that you took it.  I think the key here is to not be anti-expert.  There are many intellects who are not good at planning or decision making.  So yeah, its okay to reason things out for yourself but you need to do so after listening to opposing sides of people who actually think carefully and study these subjects.

In terms of flossing, I thought this was more so for gum health rather than cavities.  Also, it depends on genetics, so its hard to know who will benefit most from brushing and flossing but better to just go ahead and get the habit at a young age until you find out otherwise.

 
labmath2
 
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14 December 2017 11:03
 

I agree with first comment. Two things that can negatively affect expert recommendation are incentive and consensus.

[ Edited: 14 December 2017 11:07 by labmath2]
 
TimVanBeek
 
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14 December 2017 13:49
 
Nhoj Morley - 13 December 2017 05:56 PM

...the repudiation of expertise in politics…

When you look at criticism of Clinton and Obama and compare that with praise of G.W. Bush and Trump, you’ll notice that at least some of this criticism is about that one cannot trust humans that are smarter than you are, because those can manipulate you. Bush and Trump cannot manipulate you, because they are dumb. Like: “Yes, Trump lies all the time, but everybody sees through that. Obama was so good at this that he almost always got away.”
Another point is mistaking educated eloquent intelligence with arrogance, which applies to all people who think that Obama is arrogant, but Trump isn’t.

 
ubique13
 
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14 December 2017 17:45
 
TimVanBeek - 14 December 2017 01:49 PM
Nhoj Morley - 13 December 2017 05:56 PM

...the repudiation of expertise in politics…

When you look at criticism of Clinton and Obama and compare that with praise of G.W. Bush and Trump, you’ll notice that at least some of this criticism is about that one cannot trust humans that are smarter than you are, because those can manipulate you. Bush and Trump cannot manipulate you, because they are dumb. Like: “Yes, Trump lies all the time, but everybody sees through that. Obama was so good at this that he almost always got away.”
Another point is mistaking educated eloquent intelligence with arrogance, which applies to all people who think that Obama is arrogant, but Trump isn’t.

Yep.

Hillary Clinton is such a talented attorney that she actually manages to avoid lying (generally) without ever addressing the truth. That is usually a desirable characteristic in politicians. Reality television is apparently so convincing that a low-information voter obsessed with Fox News can be confused for someone who actually has an education. Go figure.

 
 
JeffJeff
 
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14 December 2017 22:41
 
Thomnewman - 13 December 2017 09:56 PM

So disappointed with Sam’s comments about relying on experts in this overbroad way. He mentions reliance on doctors—which I think is a perfect example of how you can go to extremes on either side.  Sam mentions science or scientists to be the vehicle to question science—experts free to challenge others in the field—Einstein questioning Newton. But I think there is room here for lay people, especially those who have a vested interest in learning more and who are outside the system.  It is one of the reasons I enjoy the podcast—which tackles a wide variety of topics with depth and skepticism—and which is unafraid to take on experts.

I agree with your entire post, and want to expound a bit on your points.

Tom arrogantly asserts that people who want to read medical journals, who are laymen, simply won’t get it.  Sam pointed out that he has a PhD in NeuroScience and therefore is more well versed than the layman to interpret scientific studies, but regardless the reason we have access to these important documents is specifically to cross-reference and debate even studies we may not fully understand, but can clearly make coherent judgements based upon their conclusions.

Further, on the one hand Tom states that “conspiracy theorists” should be discarded entirely as hypocrits: first they’ll say George W. Bush is stupid, yet also state he’s masterminded an effective strategy to destroy the twin towers on September 11th.

However, just moments later, when Sam attempted to discuss the imminent danger that is North Korea and its unruly dictator with his hands on the nuke trigger and how this may pose a serious threat not only to our nation but the world, Tom dismisses it, using conjecture and assumptions along the lines of, and I’m paraphrasing, “I’m sure he has his advisors that won’t allow him to do such a thing,” which assumes there are people smarter than Kim in control, and he’s not a dictator, yet a democratic leader who cares about his cabinets opinions.

I guess Tom also thinks that the United Nations are simply conspiracy theorists when they talk about the “unspeakable atrocities” like forcing mothers to drown babies and having inmates eat rodents to survive.  I mean, who the hell are we to say that he didn’t have advisors that told him to do that, and it wasn’t his decision to engage in such a vile, inhuman act.

Then again, who am I to question the thoughts of an elitist Jeopardy winner who is convinced that non-doctors shouldn’t read medical journals. 

The truth is, not only am I entitled, but it is my right to know exactly what my Doctor, and my President, has access to in terms of information, and for me to be allowed to interpret his ability to correctly implement that information into workable strategies to heal people, and to run a country, respectively. 

My final point: Tom condescendingly suggests people who dismiss the weather reports that say “20% chance of rain” and don’t bring an umbrella are simply stupid.  Then again, in another glaring contradiction, says the polls that suggested that Donald Trump had only a 20% chance of winning didn’t mean the pollsters were wrong, but that 3 out of 4 times the election would have went to Hillary.

That is a pseudo-scientific obliteration of common sense and a misunderstanding of probability.  Then again, he’s not a pollster, nor a scientist, and according to him has no basis for questioning the pollsters or outcome. 

I’m not a college graduate.  Hell, I’m just a regular person who enjoys Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, lifting weights, and Star Wars movies.  Does that mean that because I’ve never attended Yale that my daily devotion to independent studies in Quantum Physics, Exercise Physiology and Psychology are null and void because of a lack of a degree? 

Nonsense.

It is people like Tom that would have prevented scientific discoveries being made during the enlightenment, simply dismissing anyone who didn’t believe in God or the Bible as idiots who “shouldn’t dabble” in such things they weren’t trained in. 

Sam, I love your podcast and will continue to listen and am glad that you bring on people like Tom Nichols on your show to discuss various topics.  It is the freedom of this country and the internet that allows these types of forward-thinking discussions to be presented coherently and for people like to Tom to be exposed for who he truly is.

Perhaps Tom should take his own advice and stick to politics and jeopardy wins, and let the rest of us idiots read the journals and figure out stuff for ourselves. 

PS: Sam, have been trying to contact you regarding helping with transcriptions of your podcast.  Feel free to contact me via email.

[ Edited: 14 December 2017 22:50 by JeffJeff]
 
Saint Ralph
 
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14 December 2017 22:52
 

AMEN!  A very good discussion.  Both Sam and Tom know exactly why we (progressives and America in general) are going to lose again in 2020.  the DNC and the Social Justice Warrior tribe who congregate around them are hellbent on making all of the mistakes of 2016 all over again.  They will go to war with a platform and candidates that only accentuate the Left’s elitism in the eyes of White Middle America.  Our side will be rejected outright by almost half of the electorate and the remainder will be less than maniacally enthused about the platform and the candidate.  Remember: Trump’s supporters will be maniacally enthused and they will all vote—-every one of them.  In the end Trump will win again with a good solid minority.  If we were to win we would have to woo some of Trump’s support away from him, maybe not to us but away from him.  At this time, we are not equipped to do that; we simply don’t have that kind of leadership on our side.  What “leaders” we do have are not listening to anything outside of their bubble.

I am an expert, at least a middling one.  I have a two year certificate in Electronics and a bachelor’s in Computer Science.  I designed electronic devices and wrote computer programs fer the gubmit fer forty years one time.  I watched experts go from being highly respected for their ability to make things and do things to being referred to (in a derogatory fashion) as “subject matter experts” by children with MBAs who had been trusted with the management of the defense and aerospace firms I worked for.  The MBAs thought of themselves as indispensable and the subject matter experts as field-replaceable cogs.  They may have had it backwards; all of the divisions I once worked at have been closed now.

As far as the normalization of chaos and degradation goes, listen back to Sam’s conversations with Anne Applebaum and Juliet Khayyam.  They explained a year ago or more what is happening and how it’s being done and why it works so very well towards the goals of a despotic regime.  We’ve been here before; we just didn’t know there was a here here at the time.

 
 
Mick Mckeown
 
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14 December 2017 23:32
 

I did not enjoy this particular podcast. Not enough was made the fact that the whole point of the scientific approach , the scientific method, is that there are no authorities, and that everything and everyone should be questioned. I for one am glad that Einstein questioned his hero Newton.(The God of Physics) and also glad that the quantum mob questioned Einstein . Those that puff themselves up with the title expert should in my opinion be questioned all the more.

 
ubique13
 
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15 December 2017 05:55
 
JeffJeff - 14 December 2017 10:41 PM

I’m not a college graduate.  Hell, I’m just a regular person who enjoys Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, lifting weights, and Star Wars movies.  Does that mean that because I’ve never attended Yale that my daily devotion to independent studies in Quantum Physics, Exercise Physiology and Psychology are null and void because of a lack of a degree? 

Nonsense.

Amen.

Someone please correct me if I’m wrong, but hasn’t Mr. Harris explicitly stated that he doesn’t work in a setting which might be conducive to scientific research specifically because of his personal disdain for academia?

I dropped out before I got stuck with a bill for something that I didn’t want, and I certainly can’t claim expertise (at anything), but it just so happens that I regularly converse with a neuroscientist whose body of published research is laughably more impressive than what Sam Harris ostensibly used as a springboard to launch his own career off of.

And just for name-dropping laughs, my personal physician had Daniel Dennett as a Philosophy professor. From what I’ve heard, Dennett is less impressive than one might believe after seeing him perform for a paying audience.

Defend the experts from themselves.

 
 
mapadofu
 
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15 December 2017 06:38
 
JeffJeff - 14 December 2017 10:41 PM

My final point: Tom condescendingly suggests people who dismiss the weather reports that say “20% chance of rain” and don’t bring an umbrella are simply stupid.  Then again, in another glaring contradiction, says the polls that suggested that Donald Trump had only a 20% chance of winning didn’t mean the pollsters were wrong, but that 3 out of 4 times the election would have went to Hillary.

That is a pseudo-scientific obliteration of common sense and a misunderstanding of probability.  Then again, he’s not a pollster, nor a scientist, and according to him has no basis for questioning the pollsters or outcome.

Can you explain how he mis-represented the interpretation of probabilistic assessments in more detail?  It was not obvious to me how he made a “pseudo-scientific obliteration of common sense and a misunderstanding of probability” during the conversation.

[ Edited: 17 December 2017 20:57 by mapadofu]
 
WhiteRhino
 
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15 December 2017 08:31
 

Tom Nichols taking a victory lap for expertise and experts by claiming it is the reason we aren’t scavenging for canned good is in a post nuclear wasteland seems pretty narcissistic and arrogant which is funny given that is the charge he puts on those who question expert authority.  The problem as I see it is while dismissing expertise and ultimately knowledge is a road to a new dark age.  But the opposite, a world in which technocrats tell us what is true and we accept blindly it is a road to new kind of tyranny. It is also worth noting that the Soviet experts of which Nichols was one were taken completely by surprise by the fall of the Soviet Union.

 
Rhody
 
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15 December 2017 09:11
 

I have to admit that I started to question his position on expertise when he asked the question of who figured out that eggs aren’t that bad for you. This example throws a big monkey wrench in the whole discussion, because he says it was doctors who figured it out. But the truth is that it was scientists who are funded by the egg industry, and they found no such thing. They found that eggs are not as unhealthy as junk food and that once your body is already saturated with cholesterol, eggs have a negligible effect on your cholesterol. Other studies show that people who eat a plant-based diet (containing no dietary cholesterol) experience a huge jump in their blood cholesterol after eating eggs. Other studies also show that eggs have no significant effect on good cholesterol and that “fluffy” cholesterol is nearly as bad for you as regular LDL. So, he actually raises the question of whether we should question these studies by compromised experts and the media coverage of the studies, which twists the findings to tell people what they want to hear about their bad habits.

Just this example caused me to pause the podcast, gather my thoughts, and go back with a fresh perspective.

[ Edited: 15 December 2017 09:21 by Rhody]
 
ubique13
 
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15 December 2017 09:13
 
WhiteRhino - 15 December 2017 08:31 AM

It is also worth noting that the Soviet experts of which Nichols was one were taken completely by surprise by the fall of the Soviet Union.

Careful not to delegitimize your own statement by pointing out the biggest flaw of expertise (namely, being trained so extensively that one loses focus of the bigger picture)... zipper

 
 
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17 December 2017 07:06
 

Come on people, no one is telling you to listen to this podcast like it’s the immutable verbatim carved in stone,  un nuanced gospel.  You haves to bring something to the table and use common sense and an appreciation for the general gist of the commentary.  In a continually ever more complex knowledge and technically based society we have no choice but to put greater and greater “faith” in experts.  Every time you start your car, board a plane get a yearly check-up you are depending on the expertise and yes, implied good intentions, of those who probably know a hell of a lot more than us on any particular subject.  Sam and Tom never suggested anyone jettison their common sense at the door or abandon their filtering system that’s specific to all the complexities and contingencies of ones life. 

At least to my ears Sam and Tom proffered sound and logical advise.  Who is in favor of the alternative? Yes, rage against the machine, speak truth to power, protect you and your family,  don’t acquiesce to authority but be informed and don’t lose trust in the scientific method even if the human factor must be watched closely with a critical eye.

It’s no wonder to me that the human condition will seemingly always be one of contention and misunderstanding.  Even a basically straight forward, progressive podcast like this garners its detractors.  Even the media, ostensibly populated by wordsmiths, manages to miss nuance and context often misquoting and interpreting speech and facts.  This is what, often with justification, feeds Trumps’ claim of fake news.  If Sam said Maine is north and Florida south, I have no doubt someone would post a disagreement.

 
Emmett
 
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17 December 2017 13:57
 

I’m surprised by some of the commenters who appear to be overly defensive against perceived criticisms of their self-educated intellectual curiosity. I didn’t get the impression that Sam and Tom were against the idea of non-experts ever being able to accumulate necessary domain knowledge to critique and question science from a given domain. Instead I interpreted their points as being that someone who claims to have a deep understanding of scientific research or an esoteric domain without foundational knowledge is more often than not on a fool’s errand. The vast majority of time, such pseudo scientists eagerly jump to conclusions based on untested assumptions or discard an entire research domain because of one faulty study. An example might be the criticisms of climate science. It’s one thing to truly understand the data and models being used in the study and it fits into the larger models and complementary research. Most of the criticisms, however, come from people with enough knowledge to critique one small finding as a disingenuous attempt to discredit the whole domain. The way I see it, any self-taught expert has every right to challenge scientific evidence. But, to borrow from the saying, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” we should also expect that “Extraordinary criticisms of scientific evidence require extraordinary justifications.”

One area that was left out of their discussion is the abject failure of media and journalists to ensure that the general public understands the implications of research. Unfortunately, they too often resort to sensationalistic headlines even from mundane findings and researcher careful framing results as “the data suggests” or “further research is needed”.  And when “5 out of 4” people don’t understand basic descriptive statistics wink, news of results from a new study often becomes a recipe for public disinformation. John Oliver had a great segment on this: https://youtu.be/0Rnq1NpHdmw

For Doctors/medicine, clearly there are a lot of doctors educated 5, 10, 20 or 30 years ago who’ve rarely picked up a research journal since medical school. Having lived in France for many years, it’s scandalous how many doctors who insist on Vitamin C for cold prevention, believe that being outside in the cold without a scarf leads to a flu, and suggest homeopathy is at all a viable treatment. And Pharmacies which sell, alongside drugs designed with the most stringent of studies, creams that claim to remove fat while you sleep. No wonder consumers so readily swallow conspiracy theories. Science, pseudoscience and outright snake oil mix together in the public mind.

 
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