What to do when you’re not an expert

So I was listening to the very interesting discussion between William Lane Craig and Lawrence Krauss at the City Bible Forum, which I’ll discuss another time.  There was a good question at the end where the moderator asked – what is a layperson to do, when they may not have the resources, knowledge, or time to be able to properly evaluate the position of the “experts”.  Craig’s response, which was reasonable by incomplete, was to read the book reviews after reading a book by an expert, to see what the responses are.  Krauss retorted that that was another appeal to authority, and added that when you read something, “if it seems crazy, it probably is”.  Krauss’ response is ridiculous, and is especially bad given the field he is in – who doesn’t think anything in modern science sounds crazy?

So, what do I do?  Mine is closer to Craig’s, but I take it a step further.  When I hear a claim, I try to find someone claiming the polar opposite.  I then read each of their supporting arguments, and the refutations of the other sides.  I look, then, for a specific claim that each side disagrees with, but can be easily checked – and I try to check it.  This usually involves going back and forth between the two sides a bit, because of the qualifications to the arguments.  Someone claims that the Bible condones slavery, another doesn’t.  I hear the quotes from each side, and the context, and then I go to the text to look at a couple of the passages – the ones I think are most critical.  I may then go back to the arguments, to see if what they are saying matches what I read, etc…

I also look at the style of the arguments.  One of the reasons I switch from being a global warming alarmist to a luke-warmist was because of climateaudit.org.  I could tell that they made a big deal about putting the data up, and turn-key scripts to do the analysis, so it was completely straightforward to check every step.  I didn’t need to check every step myself, but the effort to make things transparent was quite evident.  If I see people dodging the meat of a challenge, or not being transparent, or engaging in special pleading, I need not have to evaluate the argument in quite so much detail to be reasonably convinced that there is a problem with it.

I think the habit of examining the opposing view, even – and especially – when you agree with the original view is extremely important, and something that many do not do.  They follow blogs that agree with them only, read newspapers that agree with their point of view, listen to podcasts that agree with them, etc…  That’s one of the reasons I really like the Unbelievable podcast.




About brianblais

I am a professor of Science and Technology at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, and a research professor in the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, Brown University. My research is in computational neuroscience and statistics. I teach physics, meteorology, astonomy, theoretical neuroscience, systems dynamics, artificial intelligence and robotics. My book, "Theory of Cortical Plasticity" (World Scientific, 2004), details a theory of learning and memory in the cortex, and presents the consequences and predictions of the theory. I am an avid python enthusiast, and a Bayesian (a la E. T. Jaynes), and love music.
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2 Responses to What to do when you’re not an expert

  1. Tim says:

    Well, hmm, I do agree with Krauss, that reading the reviews of a book to determine what you ought to think of it yourself is a bad idea. To demonstrate this, merely pick a book you think particularly good and go read the reviews of it. You’ll find they’re all over the place.

    People love to point to this “appeal to authority” argument in order to make it seem like you can’t really “know” anything. As if a person who believes a preacher’s message and a person who believes a scientist’s findings are equally relying on “faith” and “authority”. There certainly are cases where the preacher gets something right and the scientist gets something wrong, but the two cases are nevertheless worlds apart. It’s like that Asimov quote about people who say that believing the earth to be flat is equally wrong as believing the earth to be spherical — that position is wronger than both the others.

  2. brianblais says:

    I don’t think that was what Craig was implying – that you should necessarily believe the reviews – but that would give you a broader exposure to the variation in perspectives on a topic. Yes, they are all over the place, which is my next step of trying to determine at least one point where one can distinguish them. I think relying on your own idea of what sounds crazy is a bad idea, because much of modern physics sounds crazy but is in fact demonstrable. Intelligent design sounds a lot less crazy to many people than evolution, etc…

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