It began with this article on public dismissal of expertise. I heartily agreed with the article (although I took issue with the phrase “Western medicine”, as though there aren’t scientists in Asia and Eastern Europe developing advanced medical techniques). I shared it. Then, and only then, did I read the comments.
“This guy is so arrogant!”
The cycle has concluded with this article on a paediatrician who refuses to accept new patients who do not vaccinate. His reasons are sound, and his heartbroken frustration is palpable. I honestly cannot find fault with this decision.
Then I read the comments.
“This guy is so EGOTISTICAL.”
Again I say, whut.
It’s no use, dear reader, to remind me not to read the comments. I know better (or I should), but when it comes to science communication, not all the passion and all the verbal skills in all the world will do any good if you don’t know your audience. As it happens, the audience writes internet comments. Prior to last September*, if I got overwhelmed and frustrated and needed to take a few days away from the internet, it would be because I was reading the comments and they were so full of extraordinary volumes of misinformation that I would become discouraged and unmotivated. I’d need a break to recollect my passion for (polite) discussion and communication.
We abuse these words. Every time someone believes that they are right, or that they know more about a topic than we do, we label them arrogant or egotistical. That would be bad enough, but we do this regardless of their qualifications or of the weight of evidence they have provided. The belief that everyone is entitled to their own opinion (which is true) is conflated with the idea that every level of knowledge is equal and that opinions via some magical process of unicorn rainbow farts somehow become facts (“fart” is only one letter different from “fact”! Coincedence?!).
This is a well-documented phenomenon, and in the age of Google University, it is becoming increasingly problematic. People think that clicking on a few links makes them an expert on such advanced topics as climate science, immunology, animal behaviour… conspiracy theories… chemtrails…
It’s worth taking a moment to defend some aspects of Google University. The ability to undertake a swath of research in numerous fields mean that, presuming internet access and a good level of English literacy, we have the potential to make more sensibly informed decisions than ever before.
The problem is that we haven’t all learned to evaluate that evidence. Not everything that people call “evidence” is actually evidence of anything; anecdotal evidence (“I got the stupid flu vaccine and then I got the flu lol”) leads to poor decision-making (“…so I’m never getting the flu vaccine again and you shouldn’t either lol”); and emotional appeals (“WOULD YOU DO THIS TO YOUR CHILD? INJECT THEM WITH ABORTED FETUS TISSUE!!!!111!”) and shaming tactics also lead to poor decision-making.
(Disclaimer: giving your child a vaccine does not involve injecting them with aborted foetus tissue. However, if it turned out that this would prevent my hypothetical child dying in agony of whooping cough or of developing permanent brain damage from encephalitis caused by measles, then hell yes, bring on the aborted fetus tissue and let’s inject that sucker.)
It’s complicated. The world is complicated. Interactions are complicated. No-one can know everything (as much as I would like to believe otherwise), and a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
I have a tendency to heavily research big decisions. I take advantage of both my scientific background and my university library subscriptions to read review articles outside my field if I am unsure and don’t have an expert to ask. This can be a hug problem and involves my own confirmation bias issues – since they’re outside my field, I am often not familiar with the analyses, much of the terminology, problems with the studies and so on and so forth. If I have concerns, say, with a veterinary procedure, what I can do is approach my vet with the study on hand and ask if there are any glaring methodological flaws that mean I can dismiss it.
Here’s the rub, though. I have a scientific background. Hell, as of this afternoon, I actually have a PhD (there was a floppy hat and everything). This means that I have an increasingly specialised field of knowledge which culminates in a very small area in which I have solid expertise. I understand logical arguments, generalised scientific principles, basic biology, zoology, ecology, principles and methods of conservation, population genetics, molecular evolution, marine invertebrate larval development – all up to a point (I can, of course, make glaring logical errors and assumptions in spite of all this). I know more than the vast majority of the population about these things, and when someone says something that is patently, demonstrably wrong, I’m going to correct them. I feel that there is little value to having all this knowledge if I’m not going to share it. I like knowing things, I like sharing those things, I like other people knowing things.
The flipside is that, in my field, there are heaps and heaps of people who know more than me in pretty much all those areas (except my specific projects). The flipside is that when they talk, I listen. Actually, I listen, and when I don’t understand something, I ask for clarification. If I think they are wrong, I’ll argue, and then they’ll usually point out the flaw in my argument, and I will leave the conversation knowing more than when I started.
I like knowing things.
Don’t you like knowing things too?
When you know things, it’s much easier to make sensible decisions.
But we come back to the point that we can’t know everything (not even everything that is currently known, which is a dribble in the ocean of things that are out there to be known), and not everything is going to understand the explanation that comes back at them simply through a lack of background knowledge. No one person can be an expert in all things. Explanations to the layperson often involve simplifications and metaphors. I use these tools with wild abandon. Eventually, we reach the limit of what can be explained without a bachelor’s degree and we have to make a choice to trust. It is the world we live in. We simply cannot be extraordinarily well-informed about everything. We must trust people with specialised knowledge – they fix our cars, prescribe our antibiotics, fly our planes, develop our software, build our bridges…
And we have to trust that they know how to build a goddamn bridge.
Experts can be wrong. Of course they can be wrong. They are, in fact, human. But the fact that they can be wrong in their field still does not outweigh the fact that they are far, far, far more likely to be right than you are. A bad engineer is still going to build a safer suspension bridge than I am, even if I look it up online and make diagrams and take notes.
If you think your expert is wrong, interrogate them (politely is usually best). Present your evidence. When they critique it, consider that critique. Take it seriously even if it goes against what you believe. If you want to rebut the points of these, you’re going to need something more solid than “it’s a cover-up!” (the last refuge of the damned).
If I say that I know more than you about population genetics and you do not, in fact, have a PhD in population genetics, it’s very likely that I’m right. There’s a very small outside chance that you’re a self-educated wunderkind, but I wouldn’t take that bet on a dare.
It does not make me arrogant to say it (unless it’s completely irrelevant to the conversation). More importantly, it doesn’t make you stupid. It doesn’t make you a lesser person. It just means that in this particular case, I know more than you.
That is not what arrogant means. If you proposed a possible alternative explanation and I was a condescending arsehole about it, that would probably make me arrogant. If I just tell you that, actually, you’re wrong, because [reasons], then… no.
It also doesn’t make me egotistical, because that is not what egotistical means. Knowing more than you and pointing that out does not make self-centered. It just means that the last fifteen years I spent at university (yes, fifteen. Yes, I changed courses a lot at the start. My HECS/HELP debts exceed the common house deposit) weren’t a complete waste of time.
An expert explaining why a given approach in a particular situation would be ineffective can, in the present climate, be debated by a person with no education and no expertise in that field, and they will conclude with “Well, that’s what I believe, and it’s arrogant of you to tell me that I’m wrong.” The expert is not arrogant. The accuser really does not know as much as the expert. If, however, they’re arguing with you about something in which you have the expertise, then your thought-out opinion will carry more weight than theirs.
An expert saying that they find it hard when a patient will not take hard-won medical advice, the absolute standard of care endorsed globally, is not being egotistical. They are being frustrated. They have knowledge, and like me, they want to share it. They want that knowledge to do good, to make a difference. It’s their job. When someone won’t let them do their job effectively, and they have trouble with that, they are not being egotistical.
It is hard for me to back down in an argument. I’m pushy and opinionated and I love the sound of my own voice (oh, how I love!). It’s hard for me to put the brakes on when I’m in full throttle, but I’ve been working on it. I’m now a lot better at saying, “That’s a good point and I’ll have to think about it,” or, “I hadn’t thought of that, but you’re right,” or even “Really? I didn’t know that. Huh.” It has taken time and work to get to this point.
Even with my scientific background, I still occasionally fall into the trap of believing that a dismissal of my position is a dismissal of me, personally. It isn’t. I still fall into the trap of believing that, if I back down, I’ll lose face. I won’t. The people in my world generally have more respect for you if you surrender to a superior argument.
If I have a take home message, it’s this:
Sometimes people know more than you.
That’s not rocket science (aside: I know nothing about rocket science. I think it involves rockets, and burny flamey things). It’s not controversial at all. It is okay, and expected, because you can’t know everything. You don’t have time. I don’t have time. I’m at home in a DNA lab, but I don’t even know how change the oil in my car. I’m comfortable with an undergraduate level of literary theory, but I don’t know jack about international relations.
Sometimes that knowledge will be important to you.
Again, not controversial. Every time you go to a doctor, you’re admitting that someone knows more than you, and their intellectual advantage in this case is something that will benefit you. Every time you drive across a suspension bridge…
It doesn’t make you stupid or lesser. It’s not an insult. It’s not a dismissal. You don’t have to win every argument. It is more important to end up knowing more, and having correct knowledge, than it is to win an argument.
More controversial, for all of us. We all do this. It’s human.
All I am saying is try not to tell someone they are arrogant or egotistical for actually knowing more than you about something. Chances are they worked very, very hard for that knowledge. You may have worked hard for other things, and other knowledge, and that’s great, but it’s often not relevant to the discussion.
(*since last September, being overwhelmed and frustrated simply involves watching what the current Australian government is doing. Goodbye World Heritage Tasmanian rainforests! Yes, go dump mining spoil on the Great Barrier Reef! Hey, sign that horrendous Trans-Pacific Partnership! Fuck over asylum-seeking refugees who have already suffered enough as much as possible! Oh, and in terms of state governments – sure, let’s cull sharks. THAT MAKES SENSE)