Experts and the Temple of Orthodoxy

Most of us here in the Bookworm Room express a healthy skepticism of “experts” in general. Most of us revel in our ability to think and discourse critically for ourselves, while others lament that socially-anointed “experts” are not solemnly revered through incense, incantations and burnt offerings made before the Temple of Orthodoxy. Ah well.

Age plays a factor. As a student in the sciences, I revered all my profs until I learned to see through their intellectual facades. By graduate school, I was far more discriminating. Don’t get me wrong – I was privileged to be able to study and discourse with true intellectual giants.  I recognized that a common trait of these models and mentors was their ability to constantly question convention and reexamine their premises. They could also doubt themselves. I admire them to this day and I wanted someday to be like them. I am still trying.

However, there was also another group of intellectual wannabees, professors and classmates, for whom the sole objective of the id was the ego. Their entire sense of self revolved around a desperate need to be recognized for their “credentials”. This group was highly insecure and many were not particularly bright. I recall PhD students who were already penning their “expert” bestsellers before having completed their orals. Alas, such “scientists” were so intent on creating unwarranted reputations for themselves that they would cause great intellectual mischief in my professional field. Thus do I take any claim to self-proclaimed expertise  or consensus opinion with a healthy grain of salt.

The point I am making is that scientists are humans, subject to all the quirks, foibles and fallibilities of other humans. However, because of their credentials, it is too easy for lay people to accept uncritically what these scientists profess. Scientists, like all other people, can also fall prey to herd mentalities and egos too often pose insurmountable barriers to self-reflection. For many of us, as we get older, realism displaces idealism and teaches many of us the need to think for ourselves. It’s part of our journey into adulthood.

I bring all this up because, at No Frakken Consensus, there is a delightful book review on “The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation”, by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky.

The book is a historical record of the many, many times that scientific, political, historical and social thinking and consensus have been proven wrong…badly wrong. It’s an intellectual journey sprinkled with entertaining footnotes and guide posts to help one navigate beyond the intellectual facades of credentialed experts (one of my favorites: “funding and forecasting may be dependent variables”).

If you click on the image of the book, it takes you to the Amazon website, where you can peruse pages thereof.

It’s a fun read and I am sure that all critical-thinking Bookworm Room aficionados could have loads of fun for years to come in adding to the book’s list of defrocked orthodoxies (it was most recently republished in 1998). It certainly yields more-than enough holy water with which to give the Temple of Orthodoxy a thorough scrub.

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  • Charles Martel

    Danny, you’re right, it looks like a delightful book that reminds us about our human tendency to folly. AGW, which, thank God, is in disarray almost everywhere, is certainly a contemporary example of it.

    I had to crack up, though. Victor Navasky is a crypto-Communist who was former editor and now current part-owner of The Nation, America’s number-one stooge publication for Marxism and related idiocies. The irony is that Navasky winds up writing a book about absurd notions, yet cannot see that among them his ultra-leftist worldview has been—next to Islam—the most absurd.  

  • Zachriel

    Question authority.

  • Danny Lemieux

    Interesting about Navasky, CharlesM. I didn’t know that.

  • Ymarsakar

    The question of whose authority to question is either decided by authority itself or by original thinking.

  • JKB

    The “funding and forecasting may be dependent variables” is so true.  About 20 years ago, I worked with someone who had just moved from a job doling out government grant for climate studies.  Discussing the then somewhat quaint problem with such studies, I lamented that “they wouldn’t fund those studies that hypothesized no global warming.”  His reply was that such theories weren’t true.  Well, a score of years later and we see where that got us.  In any case, if your job was to study climate, and you wanted funding, you had to theorize and confirm warming or get a job washing dishes.

  • Don Quixote

    Does it go without saying that if they knew which theories were true they didn’t need the studies?  How do people feel generally about government grants for esearch?  Is this an area that should be cut to help balance the budget or one that should be expanded to keep America competitive in the world of scientific development?

  • Ymarsakar

    If there is no national security requirement for the research, the government should cut it.

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  • Danny Lemieux

    DonQ, given the tone of my previous comments on this blog, my response may surprise you.
    I actually believe that U.S. government-funded research is a very positive thing, as long as the proper research controls are in place to demand accountability and as long as the process is not politicized. In addition, the government needs to provide mechanisms whereby to facilitate the easing of R&D results into the commercial arena, when ready.
    There is a role for government-supported basic research at the very early stage, before commercial outcomes are evident. Private industry cannot do this. I think that our ability to do this as a nation has been a huge strategic advantage for our country and is one of the reasons why the U.S. garners so many Nobel prizes in science, incubates so many technology start-ups and attracts so much intellectual talent to our shores (although we seem committed to chasing such talent away, these days). The key phrase here is “strategic advantage”.
    I have served on National Science Foundation project committees and have been very impressed by the professional rigor with which research proposals were reviewed before rejection or approval.

  • David Foster

    Agree with Danny that early-stage basic research is worthy of government support. However, political factors tend to drive government $$$ into mission-specific applied research. For example, I’d bet that a lot of the biomedical research which is politically directed into searching for cures for specific diseases would actually provide a better payoff—perhaps even for those very diseases—if invested at a more basic level.