Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Experts and Authority

It's sometimes thought that conservatives have a greater respect for authority than liberals. I think that's not quite right. Rather, it seems to me, they have different conceptions of authority. Liberals, though generally unimpressed by traditional power structures, may have more respect for the authority of experts. "Elitist intellectuals" that we are, we think that biologists probably know more about biology than your average Joe. Really, it never fails to amaze me that people see fit to make up their own opinion (usually grounded on nothing more than wishful thinking) on scientific issues like evolution or climate change. Surely it would be far more sensible to admit ignorance and defer to the authority of experts?

Of course, anti-scientific attitudes are not restricted to the right. Romantic environmentalists are opposed to nuclear energy and genetic engineering no matter the potential benefits to the environment. (I'm not entirely sure if the benefits outweigh the risks in either case, but they're surely worth looking into, rather than dismissing out of hand.) And if economists are largely agreed that free trade helps the third world, I'm not sure why so many leftists embrace trade protectionism.

Further, Chris at Mixing Memory points out that everyone thinks themselves qualified in linguistics and psychology, because we think and talk all the time. (Of course, this annoys the real experts - like Chris - no end.)

How about philosophers - do they tend to get annoyed by laypeople's philosophical musings? I guess most philosophers are pretty irritated by the unthinking relativism that's so widespread. And I myself get quite annoyed when I see stupid psychologists and economists making claims about "rationality" whereby they just assume that maximizing expected value in dollars(!) is the only rational thing to do. Ugh. But then again, most people don't really think much about philosophy anyway, apart from moral and political philosophy, at least. And are we really experts at those anyway? I've previously answered affirmatively, complaining at how the public sees religion as answering the "why" questions, when really it just makes thing up, and it's only philosophy that seriously tackles such problems.

Though that's not quite the same issue, I guess. One might grant that ethics falls under the dominion of philosophy, whilst denying that academic philosophers are themselves experts at it. (There's an interesting discussion of the latter issue over on Kieran Setiya's blog.) I'd grant that we needn't expect moral philosophers to be more virtuous than other people. But I should think that they are more likely to attain moral knowledge, if there is any to be found, and at the very least ought to have more consistent and well-justified values than would non-philosophers. It would thus seem appropriate for ethics panels to have more moral philosophers rather than the religious and other authorities that tend to dominate. But I'd be curious to hear what others think on this issue. I'm no expert, after all ;)


  1. I'd just add that I don't think that conservatives respect authority in the least. Indeed, at least in the American versions of modern conservativism, the movement is framed by a very healthy skepticism of authority of either sort.

  2. Really? That's quite surprising. I'd always thought of conservatives (in general) as being rather fond of authority figures and hierarchies, as in the military, church, schools, and so forth.

  3. I'm a leftist and am certainly skeptical of authority, but I'm also very skeptical of 'expertise' (but maybe that's because I'm a philosopher).

    For example, the so called experts that say free-trade helps the third world are the conservaitve economic experts. What they don't say is unless you give a market time to develop industry under the protection of trade barriers, liberalizing thier markets juest destroys their economy to the benefit of the first world, the WTO has done it again and again.

    A Game of Double Bluff

  4. Nope. In fact at the moment conservatives are being attacked because of all their complaints and attacks on schools and academia. Some conservatives feel there is too much ideology and propaganda there -- the controversy has been raging on various blogs. I tend to think that the most outspoken conservatives have vastly overstated their case. But I do think a healthy skepticism and questioning of the academic de facto positions and heirarchy is in order.

    Regarding the military many conservatives fear it, but also simultaneously think it important. Further they feel that people in the service are too often ignored and not respected. But even among conservative hawks and the military there has been unease, with many conservatives tending to see the military as too bureaucratic and afraid of risk. (You can see that in the tension between the military and the administration under Bush)

    Even in church there are interesting trends. The Evangelicals who, at the moment, shore up a significant faction of social conservatives tend to practice a very individualistic approach to Christianity. There aren't hierarchies at all. Indeed "non-denomenational" or a de-emphasis on denominations is probably the fastest growing segment of religion in the United States. (And perhaps to a degree in the world) Of course there are other groups, such as conservative Catholics. (And Mormons of course -- but we're still relatively small in overal numbers even if I believe we're now the fifth or fourth largest denomination in the country)

    And of course not all conservatives are social conservatives the way Evangelicals are.

    There is in conservativism always a strong does of Libertarianism, although conservatives reject some of the excesses of Libertarianism as well as often being more pragmatic about acting to achieve aims.

    Of course I should also add that there is probably a fair amount of bickering over just what conservativism is, after years of George Bush. (I think for a long time it's been largely defined by what it's not. i.e. opposed to traditional Liberalism)

  5. In my experience the left is much more accepting of nonexperts as experts - this leads to conspiracy theories and so forth.

  6. I think both sides do that. It's just that right now it is more obvious among liberals because of the problems of the day. A decade ago it was more noticeable among conservatives.

  7. Perhaps modern forms of media have a lot to contribute in this. They make only passable attempts to inform people, usually sensationalising the story -selling controversy if they can no matter how baseless. They give you a sound bite or two of information, that may be only uninformed opinion or over simplified/ out of context information. People in general then feel they have received information, are now informed and are able to make a judgement. If anything its in the same format as 20 seconds of advertising slot. If they hear it from enough sources of media it must be true. Simple repetition.

    Doco's are also edited to play off between the "experts" with their reason and logic (so cold and uncaring) and joe publics feelings and how they have been personally affected by the issue. They pit emotion vs logic.

    They know joe/sue public are 90% more likely to believe emotive based arguments rather than follow logic. Only ~10% of the population are rationals after all, so its a numbers game.


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