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.