In 1848 poor people were dying of cholera right and left. It was a truly horrible situation. The actual numbers vary, but as many as 50,000 people could have died from the pandemic that swept through London. The prevailing expert theory was that ‘bad air’ caused the disease.
Today we now know those experts were wrong and it is the germ theory that best explains the problem. However, experts at the time felt the ‘bad air’ theory was just as true as we feel the germ theory is true now. This can lead to a tricky problem when have to deal with experts.
What Are Experts?
- People who have deep knowledge of a specific field (like infectious disease)
- People who give advice, training, solutions and get paid for it.
- People actively seek them out for the above.
In general, experts are very knowledgeable people who should be trusted. They have spent more time and money than you on a particular field. That is why many pay a good deal of money to get advice and help from them.
In my case, I spent more than 15 years speaking to various audiences in the US, Europe, and Japan. I have taught presentation skills to probably a thousand people at various training events at various companies and NPOs. I even had the opportunity to give a TEDx talk.
This could make me an expert, but this doesn’t make me perfect. Nor do I think that my advice would work for all people in all kinds of situations. I can only comment on what the latest research says and what my own experience says. Your mileage may vary.
The Problem with Experts
There are a couple of things that you should be careful of:
- Experts are human (i.e they make mistakes, have biases, etc.)
- Even experts disagree
- Questioning an expert doesn’t equal disagreement
- Saying you’re not an expert of (fill in the blank) is not an argument
- Credentials are not evidence either
Experts are human
Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia.”
Experts are human. This almost goes without saying. It would be fine if the only problem was making mistakes. But you need to be on the look out for:
- Dismissing contradictory evidence because of personality issues
- Dismissing contradictory evidence due to conflict of interest
- Simply not wanting to seem to have made a bad judgment in the past
When I talked about the Backfire Effect, very few doctors believed Semmelweis that washing hands saved lives. There were several reasons for this. One of the big ones being Semmelweis’ abrasive personality. People are human and not Vulcans. As Robert Cialdini mentions in his book Influence, it helps to be likable.
Experts with conflict of interest?
Then there is the issue of conflict of interest. Suppose that a health expert says that tobacco is not bad for you. Up til now your “common sense” told you that tobacco is bad for you. You find out that the expert conducts research and part of that research is funded by Japan Tobacco, Inc. It could be reasonable to assume that the research would be biased because of where the money comes from.
Now, the researcher may say that he or she takes special care to avoid that the money coming from contributors influence the research. From a purely logical point of view, you can say that would be possible. That is why you need to look at the methodology and data very carefully. There could have been some unintentional adjustments that brought a more favorable conclusion.
Another issue could be that an expert who had spent all his life promoting a particular theory would be slow to accept an opposing theory. Even if that theory ended up having more conclusive evidence, it is hard to give up on something that you spend a lot of time and energy on. The whole sunk cost fallacy rears its ugly head just about everywhere.
Experts are not Vulcans. It is OK to give experts more leeway but still insist on data and logic.
Even Experts Disagree
There are going be cases where Expert A says something and Expert B says something else. If you facing one of those cases, there is no point in simply swallowing what one side says. But it can be really hard to decide who is right.
According to this chart you can clearly see 5G does cause cancer.
According to this one you can clearly see that 5G does NOT cause cancer.
Ah, ha. But you did not take into account the blah, blah study.
That study has bad methodology. It wasn’t even cited in any major journal.
If you run into a situation where say Dr. Tom insists that 5G causes cancer, you could find other studies that show that conclusion is false. What gets tricky is that most average people don’t have the knowledge or background to determine which study is more valid than the other. It is going to come down to logic and the trustworthiness of the data and accompanying evidence. But, even figuring that out takes skill.
If you can find a counter expert, use that person. However, be careful. The counter expert and that expert’s data need to be credible.
So-Called “Non-Experts” vs Experts
While dealing with the facts where two experts disagree on something can be tough. However, dealing with the facts where a non-expert and an expert disagree should be easy, right?
If, for example, Bill Gates had a different opinion about malaria than your local pediatrician, who would you believe? Your local pediatrician knows a lot about medicine. You get medical advice from this person all the time. On the other hand, Bill Gates is just the former CEO of a large IT company. What does he know? Apparently a lot.
Especially in medicine, it is not uncommon that so-called non-experts know more than so-called experts. Doctors tend to be very busy people and cannot study the latest in medicine on every relevant topic. So, in some cases it the patient or the Bill Gates of the world that more informed than the so-called experts. You will need to be careful about that. Not all experts are really experts.
Questioning doesn’t equal disagreement
There was a interesting piece of back and forth on Twitter that went something like this:
Can someone do a fact-check on the claim that “healthy” children die of seasonal flu? Is it more likely an underlying problem not detected?
Now please stop dismissing the tragic pediatric flu deaths.
As you can see here, “Jack” is not dismissing that children dying from the seasonal flu is tragic. He is just wondering if children dying from the flu had some sort of undetected pre-existing condition, like a weak immune system.
However, you are going to run into experts who do not take questioning well. Some of these are just intellectual bullies. “How dare would any ignorant hick comment on something complicated as medicine,” would be how they might think.
I feel that is a bad attitude to take. If one is an expert, then simply answer the question. If they have data to destroy the argument then show it. It should not be hard. After all, an expert should have all relevant data at their fingertips.
Granted, if it was a leading question, then it would be perfectly valid to argue the premise of the question. But in that case, all the expert would need to do is to show how the premise in the leading question was false. Getting upset about the question doesn’t help.
If an expert gets on your case about simply asking a question. It is better to not to trust that person in the future. Also, insist that that they answer the question.
Saying you’re not an expert is NOT an argument
Some times we run into a situation like this:
This study shows that cholera is not spread by ‘bad air.’
Just where did you get your degree? At the Khan Academy?
Here the expert isn’t even attacking the evidence just attacking the person. This is just another cases of intellectual bullying. Saying that the other person is not an authority does nothing for the argument that is made. If that happened to you ask them what is wrong with the study.
However, most likely you would get a dismissive reaction like this:
I have no time to look into every little study. It is perfectly obvious that cholera is spread by ‘bad air.’ But it would take years of schooling for someone like you to understand.
Experts are experts because they have do have deeper understanding of a subject. However, in the case of arguing or debating, it is important for the expert to clearly state why something is true or false. Just saying that the other person would not understand is running away from the the problem. You can say as much.
Experts need to defend their points like everyone else. Experts are experts because they have the knowledge and experience to make their point better than non-experts. Don’t let them dismiss you or your question simply because your not an expert yourself.
Credentials are not evidence
Ph.D, MBA, MD etc. are proof that people studied hard, worked hard, and also know a lot of stuff. But it is no excuse to get the other side to shut up.
Considering that more and more jobs are going to be replaced by AI and robots, don’t you think BI is a good idea?
And where did you get your MBA at? Mine’s from Harvard.
Credentials can be a quick way to show that you know what you are talking about. After all, that is the whole point of credentials in the first place. However, it is not a replacement for a sound argument.
If someone, brings up their credentials, there is no point in getting into a fight about that. Just insist that they answer your question. But, if it makes you feel better you can also demonstrate how much more knowledgeable you are than they, by going over both sides of the argument.
If an expert, just argues that they are more qualified or have more expertise than you don’t argue that. Instead insist that they answer your questions. You can even show how much more knowledgeable you are on the specific topic.
In come cases the average person can easily argue with the expert. The thing here is to:
- Do not insult the other side. Treat all people and all opinions with respect
- Experts can and do make mistakes, be careful
- If an expert focuses on their “expertise,” “authority,” etc. you have probably already won.
- Do not let “experts” simply dismiss your questions or statements wait to hear their logic and data before your change your mind.
If you need help with creating a good persuasive presentation, I can help. I help people effectively use logic, psychology, and rhetoric to build powerful presentations. A good presentation can make or break a business. Just contact me through the contact form or leave a comment if you like.