The answer to that question is complicated and my answer is usually yes, but you have to be careful. We live in an age of explosive growth of knowledge. Much of it comes to us in the form of truth claims. Many of those claims are irrelevant to our lives, but some of them aren’t and some of them may are quite important. We all have busy lives and we can’t be experts at everything so in the end we have to rely upon the real experts, but we have to be very careful in how we do so.
Imagine you are sitting on a jury and you are presented with a prosecution and a defense expert that are saying very different things. You are forced to choose between them but other than their presentation you have no basis on which to know which is correct. It could be that 99 out of 100 relevant experts in the field would agree with the prosecution expert, but the hired-gun by the defense sounds very persuasive. You don’t know this information on expert consensus, but you are still forced to choose between them.
This same scenario confronts us almost daily. The media while trying to be balanced will often present “both sides” of an issue and leave one with the impression that it is controversial when in reality there might be a consensus of opinion among the relevant experts. Search engines rank results on the popularity of the pages and not on their accuracy. They don’t know who is correct so you may do a search and end up with a bunch of pages spewing quackery at the top of your results.
We also have a bunch of experts that end up being popular with the media. Dr. Oz is a medical doctor and obviously knows more about medicine in general than I do. However, the advice he dispenses is not always backed up by strong science. Dr. Oz came to prominence because he had a very important fan named Oprah. That doesn’t mean you should trust what Dr. Oz says.
You should almost never trust just one expert. Given that we can’t be experts on everything ourselves, we ultimately have to trust those people who are expert in the relevant fields. But we need to understand what the majority of experts believe on any given issue. That doesn’t mean the majority is always right, but given that we are unlikely to have the expertise to be able to determine that ourselves (otherwise we would be experts), the most rational thing to do is usually to go with the majority.
It matters whether that majority is 60/40 or 90/10. If 90% of climatologists believe that the earth is warming (I’ve recently read that number is now 97.5%) and that at least part of that is due to human activities, the odds of a non-expert like you or I being able to determine that the other 10% are correct and the overwhelming majority wrong is very slim. You don’t have the expertise to do that despite what you read on the Internet. If you did you would be a climatology expert and a very elite one at that. Just because you can find experts on the other side of an issue doesn’t mean it’s rational to believe them. Years ago I had serious doubts about warming of the earth. Now I don’t.
Determining just who are the experts sometimes is not easy. For example, there is a difference between nutritionists and nutritional scientists doing real scientific research or reviewing the research of others. Your local pastor may claim to know the age of the universe based upon what he reads in his holy book, but you probably should go with the consensus of the elite theoretical physicists on that one.
In the end you are responsible for your own decisions. However, just because you read an article on the Internet or because the people you agree with yell louder than the other side doesn’t make them right. Like everyone else I have my own biases and preferences. I like to find some intelligent expert who agrees with my position and thereby confirm my own bias. That is very easy to do in the age of the Internet. When I find myself inclined to do so, I have to force myself to behave more rationally.
What To Do?
My advice can be summarized as follows:
- If something is very, very important to you, then you should spend considerable time learning and understanding the issues involved. You should be able to speak reasonably well about what the evidence is and why the various experts believe as they do. If you are going against the majority, especially if that is a strong majority, you should have very, very good reasons.
- For most things you care about but aren’t as important as the first category you simply are not going to have enough time to gain the expertise to make rational decisions for yourself. You need to rely on the experts whether you want to or not. If there is not a strong majority either way, say at least 2 to 1, then there may be no good basis upon which to decide and choosing either could be considered rational. If there is a strong majority then you are probably being irrational to not go with that majority. In that case you are claiming to be an expert that is more expert than most experts.
- For things where you have to decide but aren’t that important. Do whatever you feel like!
For me it sucks to admit most relevant experts disagree with what I would like to believe. This happens to me fairly often. I’m just admitting I don’t have any rational basis to think I know more than they do no matter how I feel.
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