A lot of energy is being spent on conservative sites, even more now than previously, when it was already considerable, in being skeptical of experts, especially those with any authority. It's a fine Western and especially American tradition, and we should all be ready to ask ourselves questions about what we are hearing, and sometimes - to ask those questions aloud. Notice, however, that I framed this as being around questions. These must precede the skepticism. Skepticism is not in and of itself a good thing. It is a tool, very useful at times. These days it seems to be prized for its own sake. I remember thinking years ago the more leftist bumper-sticker Question Authority, immediately wondering what the intended replacement would be. Because of course, it can only be a different authority, however disguised.
It's one of the reasons I so enjoy Razib Khan, who is a targeted rather than general skeptic. I listened today to his interview with Dr. William Gunn, a microbiologist who worked for Mendeley, then Elsevier, and is now Director of Communications at Quora. (The website says for paid subscribers only, but it popped up for free on the podcast app on the device I carry with me when I walk.) In reply to Razib's observation that it seemed that Indians were now the primary experts replying in many fields on Quora, Gunn noted that people were leaving Google and Microsoft to come work on the AI at Quora because it is so fascinating. I did not know this, not an inkling.
Gunn is thus clearly tuned in to the change over the last twenty years in how science information gets out. He gave very clear information about how peer-review was an excellent system in the 50s and 60s but is now overwhelmed. A million papers a year require peer review, and in some specialties, only 10-20 are qualified to review a new paper. He described his amusement at the first time one of his own papers was given to him to review - an accident that is not common but not at all unheard of. He knows the complaints from very close up at his previous jobs and observes how even those whose primary output is academic science publication do not entirely understand the system and make invalid complaints. He reviews some of the new media possibilities of how dissemination of science is to be done instead (including Quora), noting the immediate difficulties that many of the favorite panaceas present. Those of you familiar with academic publishing will likely appreciate the entire discussion.
The very last part of the interview will be of more general interest. Razib and Gunn discuss all the problems with covid information coming out. Gunn talked about the difficulties of knowing what to emphasise and how to frame things. Even when there is no particular political angle, only one person in a thousad will hear what you say directly in the moment. The rest will get their information second, third, fourth hand, and even if they go back to the original source, they will already have been influenced by the intermediary sources. The original sources try to anticipate the many ways that the information will be misheard and misunderstood, trying to head off potential very wrong criticisms, and highlighting what they believe to be the most important points. As that is something I find myself doing when I write - perhaps not very successfully - I understood the problem immediately. There are ways that people bend information other than partisan politics - and nearly all of them are wrong. I had thought it might be 90% of the skeptics that just didn't have a good understanding, with a hefty portion of those being flat-out loons, but Gunn thinks it's 99% of skeptics have no business weighing in on a subject. He says this while acknowledging that the 1% often have insights that are very helpful.
Our discussion can go in a few directions from here. Is Gunn's impression colored too much by his personal experience of being on the receiving end of skeptics and trying to solve that? I thought I was pretty skeptical of the skeptics by estimating 90% inaccuracy and have admonished folks here that we aren't being skeptically enough, moving to all manner of unstable watercraft if we believe the main vessel has a leak or steering problem. 99% would be an amazing number...and yet he is much closer to this than I am. This is how he makes his daily bread.
I thought next of the subjects that I weigh in on, here and elsewhere. If the true number is 90%, then I am reasonably qualified to weigh in on a few things. Yet even on those, I am always aware of aspects where I only know "much more than average," not an amount that I should be seriously questioning people who have clear expertise. Mental health treatment and mental health law would be good examples of that. In general, I can comment, even taking on experts, because I have known and worked with experts who were incompetent, or so tied to one belief or another that they could not see the rest of the questions clearly. Yet I am not a prescriber, and so comment only in general on medications and promising new treatments. I quote people who seem to me to make sense and have done their homework. That seems within my grasp. But if the real number is 99%, then maybe I'm one of those just-misses who also just doesn't get it and should shut up. Or on another topic, I read pastors and Christian writers who get things just wrong, sometimes badly, and will comment on interpretation. Mostly, I follow CS Lewis, who I regard as more trustworthy than most others writing. If the percentage of reasonable skeptics is 10%, I qualify, especially as I will defer to others in places where my knowledge is only approximate, as in translation. But if the number is only 1%, I may be less helpful than I thought.
And yet...my strength is usually in discerning who is showing motivated reasoning, who is fighting fair, who is listening to and processing pushback information versus seizing on small points and treating them as definitive, or worse, disregarding pushback altogether and just bulling forward, reciting their claim more loudly and angrily. Having knowledge in an area helps alert me to people doing that, as I can know they are likely flat wrong right out of the gate. Yet even in situations where I start out neutral because my knowledge is slight - epidemiology would be a good example - I can usually tell who is making the better case. All of this bears further thought.
On the other, other hand, I worked with doctors all my career, who had this voice they would adopt, clearly based on the attitude they had of "I'm a doctor." This was used not only in medicine outside their specialty - some justification there - but outside of medicine altogether. It roughly translates as "I'm one of the smart ones who has to know about a broad range of things." It ain't so. (There is a pattern of the demographics of who are the worst offenders in my own generation - males from anywhere, the older the worse - compared to the worst offenders among the younger doctors - American females. It's an amazing switch.) Pastors also have that tone, based on that attitude of "but it's my job and my training to understand and apply Biblical principals to society at large and the Real Lives that people live." And thus they speak as if they are at least semi-experts on sociology, economics, criminology, psychology, history, and everything else where they had some carefully curated academic instruction. Again, it ain't so. A few lecturers and professors I have known do the same, even outside their fields. They are usually smarter than the average bear. The often have read widely and their knowledge does extend beyond their specialty. But they overreach repeatedly, as I can plainly detect when they come into my territory. If I am harsh about them, how much more should I step back and ask "Do I know what I am talking about here?" William Gunn used the phrase epistemic humility.
Where Razib went was related to my thoughts about the validity of my own skeptical challenges, but I think he went one better. He asked if there was some difference when we had things like covid, where political considerations were pretty obviously coloring the views of the experts. Gunn had already dropped a few hints that suggested he is liberal, and his defense of experts did start out sounding like special pleading of the "they only made such a confusing mess of things because they were trying to steer around all the unreasonable skeptics" variety. Yet that did not last long, and he agreed pretty thoroughly with the idea that this had happened. Sidebar: Gunn mentioned the masking switch (I would add depressing the curve), which is a common complaint, but Razib hit a different moment. His recollection, following both conservative twitter and science twitter at the time, is that the health professionals endorsing the George Floyd protests was a tipping point. They aren't the CDC, so it's not entirely fair, but he thought people were willing to overlook the mistakes about masks and even the wrong predictions, because it was all uncharted. But for people to go out chanting in protest and getting applauded for it was a stark declaration of "We don't really mean what we are saying when push comes to shove." I had not thought of it that way, as people being jerks is a given in my book, and thus usually irrelevant. Yet I trust Razib's memory and Gunn agreed that this was very big. Huh. This is how history is remade in memory. Or my memory, anyway. Also, if health professionals were doing this, perhaps the CDC had the responsibility to call them out?
Ironically, outdoor transmission, even with chanting, turned out to be minimal, which is perhaps why the hypocrisy has receded in my memory. But we did not know that then, and were still encouraging people in all sorts of caution.
Gunn did not think this was a one-off, and thinks it will happen on political issues again, because all the things that bend experts remain stable: where their funding comes from, where professional status comes from, professional ideologies that they have built careers on, or defending those they trained under and their school of thought. String theory eating up funding or the professional danger of destruction for attacking Chomsky's Universal Grammar is real in all fields. Politics is merely one of those ever-recurring problems. However, Gunn still thinks that attending to the experts is a better bet than attending to the skeptics. Because the skeptics are mostly loons. He believes that the 1% of skeptics are usually the only ones who can bring down the Conventional Wisdom. The rest of us are just chirping. He thinks we should save our fire for targets we can hit. He may be trying to reduce the irritation of people who have to put up with nonsense. But he's got a solid point here, and he has seen the crap flow into question boxes or onto bulletin boards for quite some time.
I see his point and think I will shade in that direction, but I don't think it is going to turn me around. I might be more cautious. But I can still know an ad hominem argument when I see one, detect at least a possible conflict-of-interest in a person answering, or sniff out views that are more fashionable - or the delicious fashion of being anti-fashionable - than reasonable.