Like many, I had a pretty naïve idea of what the world was like when I was growing up. Still do in some cases. But one area where I have changed my views significantly over the past few years (for the better, I hope) is trust in authority. I remember I was quite excited to start my first year at university — fantasizing about this wonderful place of knowledge, where everyone is united in their interest to pursue truth, where the professors were motivated by passing this truth down in order to have more people on the civilizational front-lines so that they develop tech to help humanity thrive. At university, I thought, people had it all figured out. All I had to do was go learn from them.
Instead, I was saddened to find that — while all that idealistic stuff was there in small pockets — it is mostly a bureaucratic organization that emphasizes credentialism, where the undergrads are mostly there to “get a job” and not fall through societal cracks, and most of the professors seem like the’re teaching out of obligation instead of interest. Now, I should hedge all this with “at least in my department”, but I have a feeling that others are not too far behind (ahead?). The University of British Columbia does not seem like a healthy institution.
Perhaps it’s not all their fault. UBC, like many other organizations, have a lot on their plate, and one’s expectations often fall short of reality. However, if before I thought that there were people or organizations that had it all figured out, I no longer do. Often, I tend to question the claims being presented to me and do my own research instead.
Did you know, for example, that psychedelics are among the safest psychoactive substances you can consume, and the alcohol has a higher active/lethal dose ratio than cocaine?
Of course, there’s a lot more nuance to the question of drug harm potential, but the conventional wisdom on this is vastly inaccurate: “Drugs are bad, and that’s why they are illegal. Alcohol, cigarettes and coffee are not drugs, therefore they’re fine.”* And it certainly doesn’t help that experts lie to avoid taboo topics that part from this conventional wisdom.
With the COVID pandemic, a lot of us have had a chance to witness unambiguous failure of our “authoritative” institutions — including the CDC and WHO (see my previous post). Even my university pitched in with genius takes such as:
So… what’s going on? Is expertise dying? I thought it would be a good idea to revisit two essays that speak to this question, and then explore some ideas for tackling the problems we seem to be facing.
Okay, let’s look at these deliciously polar-opposite essays:
Tom Nichols’ ‘The Death of Expertise’
Both are very much worth the read. For those in a rush, however, here’s a summary of them in a set of quotes (emphasis mine):
“Today, any assertion of expertise produces an explosion of anger from certain quarters of the American public, who immediately complain that such claims are nothing more than fallacious “appeals to authority,” sure signs of dreadful “elitism,” and an obvious effort to use credentials to stifle the dialogue required by a “real” democracy.”
“I fear we are witnessing the “death of expertise”: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wanderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all. By this, I do not mean the death of actual expertise, the knowledge of specific things that sets some people apart from others in various areas. There will always be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other specialists in various fields. Rather, what I fear has died is any acknowledgement of expertise as anything that should alter our thoughts or change the way we live.”
“This is a very bad thing. Yes, it’s true that experts can make mistakes, as disasters from thalidomide to the Challenger explosion tragically remind us. But mostly, experts have a pretty good batting average compared to laymen: doctors, whatever their errors, seem to do better with most illnesses than faith healers or your Aunt Ginny and her special chicken gut poultice. To reject the notion of expertise, and to replace it with a sanctimonious insistence that every person has a right to his or her own opinion, is silly.”
“What we have been seeing worldwide, from India to the UK to the US, is the rebellion against the inner circle of no-skin-in-the-game policymaking “clerks” and journalists-insiders, that class of paternalistic semi-intellectual experts with some Ivy league, Oxford-Cambridge, or similar label-driven education who are telling the rest of us 1) what to do, 2) what to eat, 3) how to speak, 4) how to think… and 5) who to vote for.”
“But the problem is the one-eyed following the blind: these self-described members of the “intelligentsia” can’t find a coconut in Coconut Island, meaning they aren’t intelligent enough to define intelligence hence fall into circularities — but their main skill is capacity to pass exams written by people like them. With psychology papers replicating less than 40%, dietary advice reversing after 30 years of fatphobia, macroeconomic analysis working worse than astrology, the appointment of Bernanke who was less than clueless of the risks, and pharmaceutical trials replicating at best only 1/3 of the time, people are perfectly entitled to rely on their own ancestral instinct and listen to their grandmothers (or Montaigne and such filtered classical knowledge) with a better track record than these policymaking goons.”
“The IYI pathologizes others for doing things he doesn’t understand without ever realizing it is his understanding that may be limited. He thinks people should act according to their best interests and he knows their interests, particularly if they are “red necks” or English non-crisp-vowel class who voted for Brexit. When plebeians do something that makes sense to them, but not to him, the IYI uses the term “uneducated”. What we generally call participation in the political process, he calls by two distinct designations: “democracy” when it fits the IYI, and “populism” when the plebeians dare voting in a way that contradicts his preferences. While rich people believe in one tax dollar one vote, more humanistic ones in one man one vote, Monsanto in one lobbyist one vote, the IYI believes in one Ivy League degree one-vote, with some equivalence for foreign elite schools and PhDs as these are needed in the club.”
So. Both essays linked above shed light on about half of the problem.
Nichols is worried about the flat-earthers, the climate change deniers, the people that get their stats from internet memes. The people that send physicists emails claiming to have a Theory of Everything while not understanding high school math. Et cetera. People are both overconfident about how much they actually know and — in the process of rejecting “trustworthy experts” — are prone to falling for and sticking with the first available alternative.
Taleb covers the other half of the question — the “trustworthy experts” aren’t actually trustworthy. Overwhelmingly, these people have been wrong in dangerous ways, and yet continue to feel as if they deserve to be in the position of advising the rest of the world. Furthermore, titles, credentials and awards are a) proxies and b) lagging indicators of competence. Not only that — they also depend more on ingroup recognition than genuine competence. In other words, “Any man who must say, "I am the King", is no true king.”
So yes, it does seem that people’s trust in experts has fallen significantly. The question is, out of these two, who’s more on the money?
I can’t help but notice that people (especially in January - March of this year) for the most part made good decisions regarding COVID not because of the recommendations of our expert class, but despite them. Some examples of ‘expert’ suggestions included:
“It’s irrational to stockpile food.”
Both a) “masks don’t work” and b) “they should be saved for the healthcare workers on the front-lines” (apparently it was embarrassing to say that we don’t have enough PPE).
Another variant of this: “there is no evidence that masks work, therefore don’t wear them.” We know of course that absence of evidence ≠ evidence of absence.
“COVID is just like the flu.”
“There is no evidence of COVID cases at our campus, therefore we have nothing to worry about.” (professors and administrators at my university actually said this, for almost a full month, as the country was being to shut down in Feb - March).
Thankfully, at least in my circles, people did stockpile food, and they did wear masks, despite the supreme wisdom of the WHO, UBC and others.
Maybe I’m just overly optimistic, but it seems that people are kind of good when it comes to recognizing true expertise. Very few people question Elon Musk’s knowledge of rocketry, or Bezos on supply chains, Jobs on design, Buffet on investing, etc. Yet if I read you the comments on the WHO’s or CDC’s Twitter accounts, for example, things don’t look so pretty.
In addition, there’s this idea that David Perell calls the Paradox of Abundance:
“As environments of food and information show, environments of abundance are bad for the median consumer, but extremely good for a minority of conscious ones. Average consumers are doomed to the tyranny of instinct. Meanwhile, consumers at the top are propelled by unlimited access to nutritious food and information.”
In other words, given a bunch of stuff, the median quality of the stuff goes down, while the tail of extremely high quality stuff increases. I notice this frequently on Twitter — amidst all of the politics and fighting, there are a few extremely high-signal individuals that emerge (e.g. Taleb, Srinivasan, Bach and others). Are these people “experts”? Mostly not in the traditional sense. They’re usually just people who have good track records of being correct and insightful about things, and as a result gain larger and larger followings. This gives me hope, as their growth in my tiny part of Twitter is completely meritocratic.
There is definitely room for improvement, as mentioned before. People fall for low-quality conspiracy theories. Books like “Why We Sleep” and “White Fragility” somehow have excellent ratings on Goodreads, despite one being junk science and the other — well, stirring up some controversy to say the least.** Yet it seems that on the whole, people are growing wise to fake experts and elitists while still having respect for true expertise.
It seems that our increasing difficulty to make sense of the world can be broken up into (at least) two questions. Question one is: how do we make more people into experts? This is the question of education. Improving education and making it easier for people to understand the world around them would at least start to address Nichols’ concerns. The second question is: how do we mend our current expert class?
Basically: we don’t want elitists telling us what to do, yet we don’t want to have everyone be clueless either.
Both of these questions require essays or perhaps even books of their own, but let me try to give some (hopefully helpful) pointers to close this thing off.
How can we improve education?
The whole ‘Tools for Thought’ trend inspires me. It’s described very well in Andy Matuschak and Michael Nielsen’s essay on the topic. People working on TfT are concerned with creating better software that helps people think — why wait for Neuralink when software can already give you superpowers?
Software in the ‘Tools for Thought’ vein includes note-taking apps like Roam Research, Notion and Muse, and learning apps like Babbel, SimplyPiano and NeuraCache, for example. Other cool projects include Tydlig and everything that MyScript is doing.
Figuring out better ways of self-teaching is also useful. I wrote a post about this if you’re curious — ‘Top-Down Learning’. I’m of the view that schools don’t focus nearly enough on learning how to learn.
How can we improve our expert class?
In talking with Eric Weinstein, he mentioned that the only way he sees of getting our experts back on track is to restart genuine economic growth and have it be faster than institutions’ Embedded Growth Obligations, or EGOs. His view is that we haven’t had real economic growth since the 1970s, and that’s the reason that everything is breaking down. To learn more about this listen to the first episode of his podcast, The Portal. Another great resource for this is wtfhappenedin1971.com.
But okay, let’s say either that his analysis is wrong or we can’t get growth going again (in which case we’d have bigger problems, but still). Another solution might be to change the incentive structure — reward people for honesty and penalize for dishonesty, for example. There are several startups trying to do this — I tried my hand at it myself — but I think one of the most promising projects is Mike Elias’ IdeaMarkets. They’re basically creating an Ethereum-based market for credibility, and it’s coming along quite nicely.
If anything, I’m hopeful that what we’ve been going though in the past few years is just a turbulent transitional period where the old institutions are dying out and new ones, more suited to the current world we live in, are getting created. Hopefully this’ll be sorted out in another few years and we’ll all be living in a better world. Hopefully. Let’s toast to the future, am I right? Happy 2020.
*This view is slowly changing with the legalization of cannabis in Canada, but it’s still nowhere near accurate.
**In the case of ratings, biases that lead to J-curves play some role in this, as discussed in my previous post.
If you liked this post, feel free to share it with your friends! If you have any feedback or if I got anything wrong, please let me know!
Thank you to Quentin Wach for reading an early draft of this piece! 🙂