Expertise, The Fallacy of

(Argumentum ad verecundiam)

Argument based on an uncritical appeal to expert opinion, pointing to the shame that (in the expert’s opinion) the other person ought to feel at challenging their expertise.E215

Those who consider themselves experts defend their status in many ways, and here are six:

1. The Train Crash Fallacy: a claim to instant expertise derived from a single personal experience.E216

2. The Genetic Fallacy: judging an argument by its source rather than by its content.

3. The Spillover Fallacy: belief that expertise in one field of science confers the right to pronounce on other areas, whether the scientist has studied them or not.

4. Perpetual Notion: faith that expert scientific opinion which is held to be true at the present time will always be so.

5. The No Evidence Fallacy: allowing the statement that “there is no evidence [that a proposition is true]” to be interpreted as “there is evidence [that the proposition is untrue].” But the lack of evidence may be due to a reluctance to look for it, or to believe it when it comes.

6. The Anecdote Fallacy: the related idea that occasional, or surprising, events and local particulars cannot be taken to be significant unless they are replicated in large-scale trials. But many of the most important clues on questions of the deepest significance come as individual straws in the wind, gold-dust information which it is reckless to ignore: the sickness caused by pesticides, the effectiveness of particular alternative treatments to particular symptoms in a particular person, the case for diverse education free to encourage diverse talents in diverse ways: these are matters which do not call for expertise but for the humility to encounter detail on its own terms. The expert’s research model may dismiss what matters as anomaly and noise (Ignorance).

Among matters of detail which are dismissed as anecdote is the question of resource depletion, which may consist of local gossip about depleting oil wells, or of fishermen’s reports of the changing behaviour of North Atlantic cod—a calamitously dismissed warning sign of the coming collapse in the fishery. Science prefers calculation, but sometimes what we need is moments of life-saving insight. The expertise of the future will be about acute observation and inference, used to create, for example, strategies for agriculture that work with the detail of the local ecosystem.E217

We have a long view of the power of observation and local invention, as distinct from the generalities of established authority, in the crises of oversupply that have shaped the last 700 years of farming. In each case, the effective responses have been the most innovative ones—the ones most certain to outrage the experts. The crashes happened in 1351 (after the Black Death), in the 1650s (following improvements in agricultural production), in 1879 (with the start of large-scale imports of cereals from the United States), and in our own day (productivity, imports and subsidies). On each occasion, recovery has been invented and developed from below, coming from experiment and ingenuity, incrementally building a diverse agriculture—at first dairy, pigs, rape, flax, saffron and new vegetables and herbs, followed by selective breeding, pumpkins, beans and mustard, then hops and sugar beet and, most recently, the organic movement. It has been the work of individuals, as the historian Joan Thirsk writes, “groping their way, after many trials and errors, [despite being] dismissed as harmless lunatics”. As for official policy,

The state may help indirectly, but it is unlikely to initiate, or select for support, the best strategies; and, out of ignorance or lack of imagination, it may positively hinder.E218

Experts can drive the car, but they don’t know the way. The future is safer in the dirty hands of harmless lunatics.E219


Experts and citizens

Not all experts claim to be the only people qualified to participate in a conversation about the application of science, but the claim is nonetheless common. Once it has been made, experts can then generally be relied on to endorse established institutions, to defend the paradigm of the day and to advocate large-scale technologies and standard procedures. When governments seek expert advice, these are the experts whose advice they will get. Expertise—fitness to be consulted on matters of public importance—becomes visible when it has floated to the top, where it will defend with vigour the work of institutions in endorsing and elaborating on current assumptions.

The debate on genetic modification (GM) is an illustration. Attacks on those who argue for a completely different kind of understanding of the problems and responses surrounding food production may appear to be gentle—the gentleness of the parent comforting the child who is afraid of ghosts: for the scientist and philosopher, Baroness Warnock, critics of GM are “confused and vaguely frightened”.E220 Or such attacks may be fierce: for Lord May, in his 2002 anniversary address as President of the Royal Society, opposition to GM is to be compared with the dogmas of Fundamentalism. Such breakdown in the quality of thought, he warns us, was responsible for the teaching of Creationism, and the Taliban prohibition of education for women. There is an assumption here that the application of scientific advance leads obviously and without question to corresponding improvements in human lives and probably to benefits for the environment as well. In the light of that assumption, Lord May contrasts anti-science—i.e., cautious insistence on evaluating the value of technical advance in its social, economic and environmental aspects before applying it—with the open-hearted values of the Enlightenment, “rational, humane, questioning”, which (he says) have been at the heart of the Royal Society since its foundation. Here we have a clear binary choice: the alert intelligence of the enlightened expert, or . . .

. . . a kind of Fundamentalism that wistfully looks to a throw-back world in which nineteenth century agricultural practices can feed today’s burgeoning population and unproven alternative medicines can afford the same protection as the products of the pharmaceutical industry.E221

But the argument about whether, and how, a scientific advance should be applied in practice needs an analysis as careful as—though belonging to a different discipline from—the science itself.

Citizens’ ability and willingness to participate in, or to be responsible for, decisions affecting them has been devalued by technical expertise. The privilege and responsibility of citizens has been dismissed. One scholar who has studied this problem at depth is Frank Fischer, Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University. Although it is widely supposed that the citizen is out of his depth in making sensible contributions to decision-making in which science and technology are involved, he writes,

. . . hard evidence demonstrates that the ordinary citizen is capable of a great deal more participation than generally recognised or acknowledged.E222

But surely citizens are incompetent in these matters? Some of the answers received by a survey of scientists’ attitudes to the debate on GM foods might tempt scientists to believe that they are:

I had a lady from a magazine ring me up about genetic manipulation and said their readers were worried, and they were worried about this fact that they were eating DNA. And I said, “Well, look, you know, OK, but we’re eating DNA all the time, you know.” “Are we? Really? We’re eating DNA?”E223

Anecdotal evidence, as noted above, generally has a hard time in science, but in this conversation, one illustration of ignorance adds its weight to a general assumption on the level of public ignorance about GM technology. Wearily, the presumption is confirmed that what is needed is not consultation, but instruction. As Professor Janet Bainbridge, Chair of the UK Government Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes explains, “Sometimes, you have to tell people what’s best for them.”E224

Some citizens are ill-informed about matters of science. It does not follow, however, that scientists have the information and mature judgment needed for its application. As Fischer points out,

While the scientific community complains of intervention in the pursuit of knowledge, the public increasingly comes to see that scientists are themselves laypersons in matters concerning political goals and social judgment.E225

So it may not be the public’s expertise in science that is lacking; it may be scientists’ expertise in citizenship. Science-based expertise is often no more than today’s populism; urban myth dressed up as expert opinion. Likewise, the conflation of technical advance and social progress is naïve:

. . . failing, for example, [writes Fischer] to sort out the differences between the kinds of welfare benefits resulting from computer-assisted medical diagnosis and the warfare potentials of computer-guided missile systems.E226


Expertise and the paradox of exactness

Suppose you look out of your window and you see a field, bounded by a stone wall. That is a satisfactory image. You could elaborate it if you like; you might see some taller grasses, some nettles round the edge, some windswept hawthorn trees, a gate at the far end, a few wavy paths made by generations of sheep, a rusty horse-drawn hay-rake and a drinking-trough. That is a satisfactory image, too. But now suppose you wanted to be more scientific about it. You could see it as a field of photosynthesising plant cells, bounded by slabs of calcium carbonate. Well, you’re a scientist, so you like to be more exact about things. But the problem here is that in reality the calcium carbonate is highly impure, containing iron and traces of quartz, and covered with lichen. The description of the surface as a simple spread of photosynthetic plant material is also far from accurate. In fact, the attempt to see the matter from the scientific point of view—to be more precise—has introduced such gross inaccuracies that it is scarcely justifiable in those terms to say anything about the field at all. The romantic, seeing the field from the window, though he may never have heard of calcium carbonate, would get closer to the truth. But then, no one, apart from his closest friends and his dog, really cares about what he thinks.E227

In the Lean Economy, expertise will be restored to where it belongs—the community. Technical specialisms will undoubtedly exist in the minds of the scholarly, but the heart of the matter will be local intelligence. Those rich with expertise in the first of those senses will have a modest role, providing an occasional service when called upon, like the economists imagined in John Maynard Keynes’ essay, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren”:

If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people, on a level with dentists, that would be splendid!E228

The application of expertise in the sense of local intelligence is a defining quality at the heart of Lean Logic’s concept of presence. Presence is the whole accomplishment of living in a local ecology, responding to it on its own terms, being part of it. The path to presence therefore deserves to be mapped, and Frank Fischer helps us to do so, making the case for three properties—deliberation, legitimacy and ordinary knowledge—each of which, in a sense, is both a condition and an outcome:

1. Deliberation

Deliberation is the chance to talk about options before they have been settled, with the confidence that the conversation matters—that its conclusions can have an effect on what happens. It confers ownership of the task on the people involved, and it takes responsibility for local initiatives, for their design, adaptation and endurance. During the era of cheap energy and confident growth, the participation of individuals in deliberation about how to serve the community, and in how to build the institutions they wanted, was not seen to be particularly necessary: experts were there to decide and to apply technical solutions; consumers were there to consume. But as we approach the energy transition, deliberation will be needed again.E229

In case there are any remaining doubts as to whether citizens have the knowledge needed to play a useful part in the complex decisions of our time, the sociologist Benjamin Barber offers a useful reminder that, when people feel there is something useful they can do with the knowledge, they will acquire it:

Give people some significant power and they will quickly appreciate the need for knowledge, but foist knowledge upon them without giving them responsibility and they will display only indifference.E230

2. Legitimacy

Legitimacy exists when there is a sense of ownership of an initiative by the people who are affected by it. There is an understanding of the task; there is intention to achieve consensus about it; there is a sense that they have the right to take action with respect to the community they belong to and the place that they know, and this right is confirmed by the fact of getting together to deliberate on it.E231

The recovery of legitimacy in policy formation, especially at the local level, is a matter of concern in both theory and practice. Robert Reich (Secretary of Labour in the Clinton Administration), has called it a process of “civic discovery”. The practice is being vigorously advanced in some communities, and one example of this is the US city of Portland, Oregon. In 1974, the city created The Office of Neighbourhood Associations, which legitimised activism, built it into the official life of the city, and gave neighbourhood associations an official role in deliberation on (as the enabling legislation put it) “any matter affecting the livability of the neighbourhood”. Central to this is the principle of call and response: neighbourhood associations can make decisions and take initiatives of their own—that is, the government does not force itself onto them, but the community can call on government resources when needed and, when it does so, the government has an obligation to listen. It’s the law. Outcomes have legitimacy.E232

And it is in the early stages of being explored, though still tentatively, by Transition and the Big Society.E233

3. Ordinary knowledge

Thirdly, there has been a loss—which needs now to be repaired—of ordinary knowledge. Ordinary knowledge is . . .

. . . knowledge that does not owe its origin, testing, degree of verification, truth, status, or currency to distinctive . . . professional techniques, but rather to common sense, casual empiricism, or thoughtful speculation and analysis.E234

In the context of agriculture (for example), ordinary knowledge is knowledge of the particular characteristics of fields and soils, water and microclimates, varieties and breeds; it varies radically from place to place, and it is taught by word of mouth. In the context of energy, it is detailed familiarity with the place, its assets and resources, and the whole range of behavioural changes available to it. Ordinary knowledge is the starting point for local invention directed to phasing-down dependence on fossil energy across the whole spectrum of local detail—food, transport, building, water treatment, the management of waste . . . .

From the expert, rationalist point of view, ordinary knowledge is a disorderly set of anomalies. In fact, it is knowledge of the locality as a living, unique resource, its physical assets, its skills and networks. It is the knowledge of the harmless lunatic; the intense local observation and commitment in terms of which the community thinks, deliberates, applies its mind.

There is nothing wrong with expertise as an accomplishment. The problem is that it has wandered into a lonely landscape of abstractions, and has been reduced to falling in love with itself. Lean Logic brings it home, where there are real people and places to engage with.


Related entries:

Deceptions, Practice, Galley Skills, Education, Household, Lean Food.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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