Sunday, September 28, 2014


Bill James doesn't like to be called an "expert." In the "Hey Bill" column of his website, he occasionally corrects readers who refer to him that way. And, often, Bill will argue against the special status given to "experts" and "expertise."

This, perhaps understandably, puzzles some of us readers. After all, isn't Bill's expertise the reason we buy his books and pay for his website?  In other fields, too, most of what we know has been told to us by "experts" -- teachers, professors, noted authors. Do we want to give quacks and ignoramuses the same respect as Ph.Ds?

What Bill is actually arguing, I think, is not that expertise is useless -- it's that in practice, it's used to fend off argument about what the "expert" is saying.  In other words, titles like "expert" are a gateway to the fallacy of "argument from authority."

On November 8, 2011 (subscription required), Bill replied to a reader's question this way:

"I've devoted my whole career to battling AGAINST the concept of expertise. The first point of my work is that it DOESN'T depend on expertise. I am constantly reminding the readers not to regard me an expert, because that doesn't have anything to do with whether what I have to say is true or is not true."

In other words: don't believe something because an "expert" is saying it. Believe it because of the evidence. 

(It's worth reading Bill's other comments on the subject; I wasn't able to find links to everything I remember, but check out the "Hey Bill" pages for November, 2011; April 18, 2012; and August/September, 2014.)

Anyway, I'd been thinking about this stuff lately, for my "second-hand knowledge" post, and Bill's responses got me thinking again. Some of my thoughts on the subject echo Bill's, but all opinions here are mine.


I think believing "experts" is useful when you're looking for the standard, established scientific answer.  If you want to know how far it is from the earth to the sun, an astronomer has the kind of "expertise" you can probably accept.

We grow up constantly learning things from "experts," people who know more than we do -- namely, parents and teachers. Then, as adults, if we go to college, we learn from Ph.D. professors. 

Almost all of our formal education comes from learning from experts. Maybe that's why it seems weird to hear that you shouldn't believe them. How else are you going to figure out the earth/sun distance if you're not willing to rely on the people who have studied astronomy?

As I wrote in that previous post, it's nice to be able to know things on your own, directly from the evidence. But there's a limit to how much we can know that way. For most factual questions, we have to rely on other people who have done the science that we can't do.


The problem is: in our adult, non-academic lives, the people we call "experts" are rarely used that way, to resolve issues of fact. Few of the questions in "Ask Bill" are about basic information like that. Most of them are asking for opinion, or understanding, or analysis. They want to pick Bill's brain.

From 1/31/2011: "Would you have any problem going with a 4-man rotation today?"

From 10/7/2013: "Bill, you wrote in an early Abstract that no one can learn to hit at the major league level. Do you still believe that?"

From 10/29/2012: "Do you think baseball teams sacrifice bunt too much?"

In those cases, sure, you're better off asking Bill than asking almost anyone else, in my opinion. Even so, you shouldn't be arguing that Bill is right because he's an "expert."  

Why?  Because those are questions that don't have an established, scientific answer based on evidence. In all three cases, you're just getting Bill's opinion. 

Moreover: all three of those issues have been debated forever, and there's *still* no established answer. That means there are opinions on both sides. What makes you think the expert you're currently asking is on the correct side? Bill James doesn't think a four-man rotation is a bad idea, but any number of other "experts" believe the opposite. 

Subject-matter experts should agree on the basic canon, sure. It should be rare that a physics "expert" picks up a textbook and has serious disagreements with anything inside.

But: they can only agree on answers that are known. In real life, most interesting questions don't have an answer yet. That's what makes them so interesting!

When will we cure cancer? What's the best way to fight crime? When should baseball teams bunt? Will the Seahawks beat the spread?

Even the expertest expert doesn't know the answer to those questions. Some of them are unknowable. If anyone was "expert" enough to predict the outcome of football games, he'd be the world's richest gambler. 


All you can really expect from an expert is that he or she knows the state of the science.  An expert is an encyclopedia of established knowledge, with enough understanding and experience to draw inferences from it in established ways.

Expertise is not the same as intelligence. It is not the same as wisdom. It is not the same as insight, or freedom from bias, or prescience, or rationality.

And that's why you can get different "experts" with completely different views on the exact same question, each of them thinking the other is a complete moron. That's especially true on controversial issues. (Maybe it's not that controversial issues are less likely to have real answers, but that issues that have real answers are no longer controversial.)

On those kinds of issues, where you know there are experts on both sides, you might as well flip a coin as rely on any given expert.

And hot-button issues are where you find most of the "experts" in the media or on the internet, aren't they?  I mean, you don't hear experts on the radio talking how many neutrons are in an atom of vanadium. You hear them talking about what should be done to revive the sagging economy. Well, there's no consensus answer for that. If there were, the Fed would have implemented it long ago, and the economy would no longer be sagging. 

Indeed, the fact that nobody is taking the expert's advice is proof that there must be other experts that think he's wrong.

Sometimes, still, I find myself reading something an expert says, and nodding my head and absorbing it without realizing that I'm only hearing one side. We don't always conciously notice the difference, in real time, between consensus knowledge and the "expert's" own assertions. 

Part of the reason is that they're said in the same, authoritative tone, most of the time. Listen to baseball commentators. "Jeter is hitting .302." "Pitching is 75 percent of baseball." You really have to be paying attention to notice the difference. And, if you don't know baseball, you have no way of knowing that "75 percent of baseball" isn't established fact! At least, until you hear someone dispute it.

Also, I think we're just not used to the idea that "experts" are so often wrong. For our entire formal education, we absorb what they teach us about science as unquestionably true. Even though we understand, in theory, that knowledge comes from the scientific method ... well, in practice, we have found that knowledge comes from experts telling us things and punishing us for not absorbing them.  It's a hard habit to break.


The fact is: for every expert opinion, you can find an equal and opposite expert opinion. 

In that case, if you can't just assume someone's right just because he's an expert, can you maybe figure out who's right by *counting* experts?  

Maybe, but not necessarily. As Bill James wrote (9/8/14),

"An endless list of experts testifying to falsehood is no more impressive than one."

It used to be that an "endless list" of experts believed that W-L record was the best indication of a pitcher's performance. It used to be that almost all experts believed homosexuality was a disease. It used to be that almost no experts believed that gastritis was caused by bacteria -- until a dissenting researcher proved it by drinking a beaker of the offending strain. 

Each of those examples (they're mine, not Bill's) illustrates a different way experts can be wrong. 

In the first case, pitcher wins, the expert conventional wisdom never had any scientific basis -- it just evolved, somehow, and the "experts" resisted efforts to test it. 

In the second case, homosexuality, I suspect a big part of it was the experts interpreting the evidence to conform to their pre-existing bias, knowing that it would hurt their reputations to challenge it. 

In the third case ... that's just the scientific method working as promised. The existing hypothesis about gastritis was refuted by new evidence, so the experts changed their minds. 

Bill has a fourth case, the case of psychiatric "expert witnesses" who just made stuff up, and it was accepted because of their credentials. From "Hey Bill," 11/10/2011 and 11/11/2011:

"Whenever and wherever someone is convicted of a crime he did not commit, there's an expert witness in the middle of it, testifying to something that he doesn't actually know a damned thing about.  In the 1970s expert witnesses would testify to the insanity of anybody who could afford to pay them to do so."

"Expert witnesses are PRAISED by professional expert witnesses for the cleverness with which they discuss psychological concepts that simply don't exist."

In none of those cases would you have got the right answer by counting experts. (Well, maybe in the third case, if you counted after the evidence came out.)  

Actually, I'm cheating here. I haven't actually shown that the majority isn't USUALLY right. I've just shown that the majority isn't ALWAYS right. 

It's quite possible that those four cases were rare exceptions: that, most of the time, when the majority of experts agree, they're generally right. Actually, I think that's true, that the majority is usually right -- but I'm only willing to grant that for the "established knowledge" cases, the "distance from the earth to the sun" issues. 

For issues that are legitimately in dispute, does a majority matter?  And does the size matter?  Does a 80/20 split among experts really mean significantly more reliability than a 70/30 split?  

Maybe. But if you go by that, it's not *knowing*, right?  It's just handicapping. 

Suppose 70% of doctors believe X, and, if you look at all times that seventy percent of doctors believed something else, 9 out of 10 of those beliefs turned out to be true. In that case, you can't say, "you must trust the majority of experts."  You have to say, at best, "there's a 9 out of 10 chance that X is true."

But maybe I can say more, if I actually examine the arguments and evidence.

I can say, "well, I've examined the data, and I've looked at the studies, and I have to conclude that this is the 1 time out of 10 that the majority is dead wrong, and here is the evidence that shows why."  

And you have no reply to that, because you're just quoting odds.

And that's why evidence trumps experts. 

Here's Bill James on climate scientists, 9/9/2014 and 9/10/2014:

"[You should not believe climate scientists] because they are experts, no. You should believe them if they produce information or arguments that you find persuasive. But to believe them BECAUSE THEY ARE EXPERTS -- absolutely not.

"It isn't "consensus" that settles scientific disputes; it is clear and convincing evidence. An issue is settled in science when evidence is brought forward which is so clear and compelling that everyone who looks at the evidence comes to the same conclusion. ... The issue is NOT whether scientists agree; it is whether the evidence is compelling."

If you want to argue that something is true, you have two choices. You can argue from the evidence. Or, you can argue from the secondhand evidence of what the experts believe. 

But: the firsthand evidence ALWAYS trumps the secondhand evidence. Always. That's the basis of the entire scientific method, that new evidence can drive out an old theory, no matter how many experts and Popes believe they're wrong, and no matter how strongly they believe it.

You're talking to Bob, a "denier" who doesn't believe in climate change. You say to Bob, "how can you believe what you believe, when the scientists who study this stuff totally disagree with you?"

If Bob replies, "I have this one expert who says they're wrong" ... well, in that case, you have the stronger argument: you have, maybe, twenty opposing experts to his one. By Bob's own logic -- "trust experts" -- the probabilities must be on your side. You haven't proven climate change is real, but you've convincingly destroyed Bob's argument. 

However: if Bob replies, "I think your twenty experts are wrong, and here's my logic and evidence" -- well, in that case, you have to stop arguing. He's looking at firsthand evidence, and you're not. Your experts might still be right, because maybe he's got bad data, or he's misinterpreting his evidence, or his worthless logic comes out of the pages of the Miss America Pageant. Still, your argument has been rendered worthless because he's talking evidence, which you're not willing or able to look at directly.

As I wrote in 2010,

"Disbelieving solely because of experts is NOT the result of a fallacy. The fallacy only happens when you try to use the experts as evidence. Experts are a substitute for evidence. 

"You get your choice: experts or evidence. If you choose evidence, you can't cite the experts. If you choose experts, you can't claim to be impartially evaluating the evidence, at least that part of the evidence on which you're deferring to the experts. 

"The experts are your agents -- if you look to them, it's because you are trusting them to evaluate the evidence in your stead. You're saying, "you know, your UFO arguments are extraordinary and weird. They might be absolutely correct, because you might have extraordinary evidence that refutes everyone else. But I don't have the time or inclination to bother weighing the evidence. So I'm going to just defer to the scientists who *have* looked at the evidence and decided you're wrong. Work on convincing them, and maybe I'll follow."  

In other words: it's perfectly legitimate to believe in climate change because the scientific consensus is so strong. It is also legitimate to argue with people who haven't looked at the evidence and have no firsthand arguments. But it is NOT legitimate to argue with people who ARE arguing from the evidence, when you aren't. 

That they're arguing first-hand, and you're not, doesn't necessarily mean you're wrong. It  just means that you have no argument or evidence to bring to the table. And if you have no evidence in a scientific debate, you're not doing science, so you need to just ... well, at that point, you really need to just shut up.

The climate change debate is interesting that way, because, most of the activist non-scientists who believe it's real really haven't looked at the science enough to debate it. A large number have *no* firsthand arguments, except the number of scientists who believe it. 

As a result, it's kind of fun to watch their frustration. Someone comes up with a real argument about why the data doesn't show what the scientists think it does, and ... the activists can't really respond. Like me, most have no real understanding of the evidence whatsoever. They could say, like I do to the UFO people, "prove it to the scientists and then I'll listen," but they don't. (I suspect they think that sounds like they're taking the deniers seriously.)

So, they've taken to ridiculing and name-calling and attacking the deniers' motivations. 

To a certain extent, I can't blame them. I'm in the same situation when I read about Holocaust deniers. I mean the serious ones, the "expert" deniers, the ones who post blueprints of the death camps and prepare engineering and logistics arguments about how it wasn't possible to kill that many people in that short a time. And what can I do?  I let other expert historians argue their evidence (which fortunately, they do quite vigorously), and I gnash my teeth and maybe rant to my friends.

That's just the way it has to be. You want to argue, you have to argue the evidence. You don't bring a knife to a gunfight, and you don't bring an opinion poll to a scientific debate.

Labels: , , ,


At Monday, September 29, 2014 2:23:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Phil,

I love your blog. I'm not sure how completely your motivation of this article was related to climate change, but I'm very curious what objective sources there are to read about the issue.


At Monday, September 29, 2014 2:25:00 AM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

No idea! Wasn't thinking about climate change except as I found Bill James talking about it when I searched.

At Monday, September 29, 2014 10:09:00 AM, Blogger Cyril Morong said...

Richard Feynman said "Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts."

At Monday, September 29, 2014 1:40:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

Cyril: Great quote.

At Monday, September 29, 2014 5:54:00 PM, Anonymous Brian said...

Anonymous, if you want a good source for the climate change issue, I'd recommend a book called Global Weirdness. It's put out by a group called Climate Central, an independent, nonprofit journalism and research foundation. It's fair to be skeptical about their agenda, but I found the book very level-headed and openminded. Even though the book ultimately takes the position that climate change is likely real and man-made, it consistently plays devil's advocate, is up-front about where the science is lacking, probes for alternate and competing explanations, and so on.

Oh, and great post, Phil, as usual.

At Monday, September 29, 2014 8:00:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

Thanks, Brian!

At Thursday, October 02, 2014 8:13:00 AM, Anonymous profpain11 said...

Excellent article, Phil. You correctly identify that examining evidence trumps trusting experts, but there's a third level of evaluation necessary: examining the source of the evidence. Especially regarding climate change: so much of the "evidence" that is available is not reliable in any way; not only can you not trust an expert's conclusion, but you also can’t trust the data that s/he presents. Almost all “science” on this subject is thinly-masked “activism”, and therefore you can be sure that the data has been manipulated to support an intended result. See Brian’s comment – he mentions an “independent, nonprofit journalism and research foundation” (seems like a good source of impartial data), and then expresses skepticism at that organization’s agenda. Who knows! And it’s not just climate change – in our activist, non-academic society, there’s almost no source of objective, factual information that can be trusted as impartial – look at how elementary school history textbooks have changed over the past 20 years. You almost have to start from scratch regarding every intellectual endeavor.

Maybe that’s why we like sports statistics so much – we can at least be sure that Baseball-Reference has correctly quantified Mike Trout’s number of at bats and total bases, so if we want to “prove” his slugging percentage, we can do so. (Until the Miguel Cabrera Society for MVP Aggregation pays Baseball-Reference millions – then we might need to question those stats).

So sports statistics are generally reliable. On just about any other subject – I don’t know what to believe.

At Saturday, October 11, 2014 10:43:00 PM, Blogger Don Coffin said...

My own take is that expertise is about *method*, not about *answers.* I'm an economist, I know a bunch of economic theory fairly well, so I would suggest that my knowledge of the methodology of economics is the thing I'm an expert about. When I use that expertise the try to answer a question about the way the world works (to mention one of the things I have done some work on--why the labor force participation rates of teenagers have precipitously declined since about 1995), then the best I can suggest is that you look at how I used both the theory and the data. My answer is *always* contingent both on my understanding of the theory (especially as it may develop over time) and on the available data.

Answers are contingent. But that does not mean that expertise is of no value.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home