Somewhere in the wilds of the INTARWEBS, I had the audacity to suggest that the opinions of experts actively practicing in a specialized field probably were things we should pay attention to – especially if they were held by a majority of these experts. Well. . .someone whom I would never, ever be so insensitive enough to characterize as dumb as a bag of hammers took great offense at this. His argument, which boiled down to telling me I was a poopy diaper head, was that if several people were strongly invested in an opinion that gave them emotional satisfaction, it should be held in the same high regard as that of a phalanx of well-educated, well-respected researchers whose opinions were informed by well-supported evidence.
Taking this tack would mean that at the next major convention of geologists, the guy who disproved continental drift by taping cut-out paper continents onto a balloon and blowing it up should be sitting at the table for the panel discussion on plate tectonics or continental drift. His opinion is just as valid!
It would mean that the guy who “disproved” that a plane hit the twin towers by hitting a stack of plastic inboxes with the side of his hand was just as credible as a professional engineer with specialized knowledge of airplane technology or the structure and construction of the towers.
Robin Ince posted a much better rebuttal to this idea in his blog entry “The Fascism of Knowing Stuff.” He’s more articulate about it than I could hope to be. He covers a number of reasons why these beliefs are held mostly by people who don’t know stuff, and people who are not afraid of what is known, but how it will be used. Some of his commenters “got it,” as well – it’s much easier to condemn specialized knowledge that you don’t actually have. It’s comforting to see your beliefs confirmed because you don’t understand the much more complex factual information that challenges them.
One expert, one “guru,” isn’t enough to hang all your understanding upon. Believers tend to believe a source and all those who agree with that source regardless of whether or not they themselves have any expertise. But when all or pretty much all the specialists in a field of knowledge say one thing is the most likely explanation, and the only people who challenge them have no background in that field, you really should have some confidence in the experts.
The Heritage Foundation, among other things, is a big anti-global-warming promoter. I sucked it up and watched one of their videos so I could have a cogent argument with a climate change denialist, and the one thing that every single speaker had in common was the admission that he was not a climate scientist. In fact, most of the speakers weren’t scientists at all. One former astronaut claimed that since he had seen the earth from outer space, that was proof enough to him that the earth looked just fine.
The things we know now are far more complex than the things we used to know. They consist of many more specialized pieces. There are few areas in which a general knowledge is sufficient for understanding. One expert can have a different view, or not really be much of an expert at all – but when an opinion is held about a piece of specialized knowledge and is the consensus among the other people who are actively working in that specialized field, it’s a safe bet to take their word over something some guy said on the internet.