Fallibility is not Equivalence

In my continuing series on partisan arguments that detour from reality, I’d like to discuss a common rhetorical tactic that usually goes unchallenged.

When arguing against expert recommendations, I often see people pointing to a single example of a mistake, and using that as proof that we should then ignore expert recommendations.

For example, I’ve heard plenty of people argue things like, “Why should I follow medical recommendations on diet? Doctors thought eggs were bad, and they were wrong.” The implicit and unspoken argument behind their asserted-without-evidence conclusion is, “If the experts were wrong about this fact, then they’re probably wrong about everything else, and thus we should assign equal credibility to all and I can follow my gut and do whatever I wanted to do in the first place.”

The reason that argument is implicit and unspoken is that if you actually lay it out, as I did above, its absurdity become obvious.

Each additional clause in that argument beyond the initial fact builds on what comes before and becomes more and more illogical.

“If the experts were wrong about this fact…” is the truthful foundation on which these absurd arguments are constructed. It is true that our understanding of the world tends to improve over time, which means that at some point, many things that we believe now will be disproved or changed. For example, Isaac Newton’s classical physics are now known to be wrong, and have been superseded by Einstein’s relativity, and at very small scales, quantum mechanics. But classical physics is accurate enough for most applications, and is still useful in our everyday lives.

“…Then they’re probably wrong about everything else…” is the first major detour from reality. Being proved fallible does not mean being proved incompetent. I often cite Wall Street’s “cockroach” theory of accounting irregularities–if you encounter one nasty surprise in a restaurant, there are generally others. But that doesn’t mean there’s a cockroach in every dish! Even though medicine held beliefs that have been completely disproved (e.g. malaria comes from “bad air”) that doesn’t mean that all medicine is incorrect, and that we’re better off with prayer and/or herbs. I imagine that you’ve been incorrect about something in your life; does that mean you’re always wrong?

“…and thus we should assign equal credibility to all…” takes us even further away from reality. I call this the Jenny McCarthy effect. Ms. McCarthy has been famous for a long time. Her list of IMDB credits is remarkably long (though not to Michael Caine levels). But her two years of study at Southern Illinois University do not qualify her as a medical expert. Yet she, more than any other person in America, has done more to create an anti-vaccination movement that has now led to measles outbreaks. Often, news programs will ask Ms. McCarthy and a medical expert on to “debate” Ms. McCarthy’s beliefs, as if their credibility was equivalent. It is certainly possible to become an expert without an academic credential. But it is difficult to become an expert who deserves our credibility without following the scientific method, and conducting research or meta-research. That fact that we all are fallible doesn’t mean that we’re equally qualified. Strangely enough, I don’t see people saying things like, “most heart surgeons have lost a patient, so I might as well save the money and have my neighbor perform my coronary artery bypass.”

The real point of this argumentation technique is the final clause: “and I can follow my gut and do whatever I wanted to do in the first place.”

The fundamental problem with the fallibility argument is that it’s not an argument designed to get at the truth; it’s just an excuse to go with your gut and do what you want.

As the saying goes, it’s a free country (at least if you live in the United States). If you want to go with your gut and treat your pancreatic cancer with a vegan diet (e.g. Steve Jobs), it’s your right to make bad decisions that will lead to your early death. But at least be honest about it. Don’t try to pooh-pooh expert advice to justify your decisions. Just own up to it and say, “I believe in doing what I want, even if it goes against expert advice.”

Who knows? It might even get you elected President.

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