Wednesday, October 28, 2009

When Is It OK to Ignore Experts?

Here are two more possible responses to my argument for humility:
  • Perhaps there is a set of widespread cognitive biases that leads to a bevy of experts willing to defend an obviously untenable theory. All the expert proponents are making the same logical mistake, which can be traced back to the same psychological impediment that many of us unfortunately share.
Bryan Caplan, in fact, seems to endorse something like this in his dismissal of utilitarianism. However, I worry about accusing others of bias on complicated matters. Bias blindspot is one big worry: we tend to see others as more biased than we are. Are we sure it's our opponents, and not ourselves, who are the biased ones, particularly when our opponents are experts and we are not?

And then there's the worry of straw-manning: how confident can you be that all utilitarians fail to realize this one mistake that you are accusing them of making? It's more reasonable to assume that sophisticated utilitarians recognize and (at least attempt to) avoid whatever mistake you think they're making. If a criticism is easy enough for a non-expert to see, it's probably easy enough for an expert to see (and deal with).
  • Perhaps we can dismiss some experts because there are non-rational forces at work that explain their allegiance to a theory. Maybe there are practical reasons (books on theory x sell well; there's a lot of funding opportunities for advanced study in theory x), or cultural/institutional reasons (a society has a tradition of raising their children under theory x; a prestigious department has a long history of theory x training).
I'm sympathetic to this kind of reason to dismiss some experts. However, this is simply a separate--and more sophisticated--argument. It goes beyond the "look-at-how-wrong-the-theory-is!" style dismissals. (For instance, in the specific case of Caplan's rejection of utilitarianism, he doesn't offer any such non-rational reason.)

Furthermore, it's difficult to show that non-rational forces uniquely impact one theory regarding a given issue. If such non-rational forces apply equally to Kantians and virtue ethicists as they do to utilitarians, then we cannot dismiss utilitarianism in favor of these other theories. For instance, the objection, "They're getting paid to say it's more complicated than it really is! Their livelihood as a pro philosopher depends on desimplifying the obvious!" applies equally well to all ethicists.

Anyway, if someone were to offer this argument, she wouldn't be baffled as to why there were so many advocates of the crazy theory. She'd remain upset, of course, but would at least understand why this happened.

So here's an added moral: If you are baffled as to why a seemingly crazy theory is semi-popular among experts, you should look to blame yourself ("I don't know enough about it!") before you blame the experts ("They're all stupid!").

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What's A Philosophy Expert Look Like?

Let me consider two possible responses to my argument for humility:
  • Maybe there's no such thing as an "expert" in philosophy. Philosophers specialize in sitting and thinking. We can all do that! Sure, philosophers do it more than non-philosophers, but that doesn't make their conclusions more likely to be correct than ours.
But in the cases I'm considering, the expertise isn't about one's profession. Rather, it's about how much time and effort one has spent on the particular issue at hand. Pro ethicists have simply spent more time researching and thinking about utilitarianism than Bryan Caplan.

Sure, maybe there is no specific methodology unique to philosophers. Perhaps it's something we can all do. So Caplan could become an expert on this issue if he devoted the time to it. It's just that he hasn't yet. That's relevant.
  • Perhaps we can ignore so-called "experts" in philosophy. Philosophers of ethics are just really, really sucky when it comes to figuring out the answers It may just be that their methodology sucks. Sitting and thinking doesn't get them closer to the right answer at all.
But if the experts are hopeless, that makes us even more hopeless! As non-experts, aren't we in a worse (or at least equally bad) position to figure it out than the experts? This response, if true, supports a more radical kind of humility. There'd be a whole range of issues that we all suck at understanding, so we should suspend judgment on all of it.

(By the way, this point, along with most of the argument in these past few posts, comes from Bryan Frances.)

To avoid this, you'd have to make the case that expertise in philosophy, unlike expertise in other disciplines, actually worsens your epistemic position.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Ignoring Experts

Here's a common story: someone claims that a particular theory is wacky. "How could anyone be a fan of that theory?" the critic opines. "Look at all the devastating criticisms it has!" Building steam, the critic adds, "After all, these are simple objections, the kind discussed in an intro class! Hell, I'm no expert, and I'm fully aware of them! I've never heard a successful response to any of these objections. So why does the theory still persist?" (Of course, the only reason the critic would discuss such a theory is because there are experts who believe it.)

I think such critics are displaying hubris and shodding reasoning.

To explain why, I'll use a concrete example. In a blog post about utilitarianism, GMU economist Bryan Caplan recently wrote, "I am frankly mystified by the enduring popularity of a moral theory subject to so many simple but devastating counter-examples." He then offers a guess as to why utilitarians cling to their mistaken theory (they have a distorted view of alternative ethical theories). Silly utilitarians!

Now, I don't know whether utilitarianism is correct. That's not my beef here. I want to argue that Caplan needs to be a bit more humble.

Allow me to get all epistemic renegade on Caplan:
  • Many ethicists are utilitarians. (It is not, as far as I can tell, a tiny minority among professional philosophers of ethics. Caplan himself concedes that utilitarianism is enduringly popular.)
  • Surely, these ethicists are aware of these simple counter-examples.
  • Yet these ethicists have not abandoned utilitarianism.
  • So surely, these ethicists believe they have sophisticated responses to these simple counter-examples (along with positive evidence for utilitarianism).
  • Caplan most likely is not aware of many of these sophisticated responses.
  • Surely, the pro ethicists who aren't utilitarians are aware of the sophisticated responses to these simple counter-examples. After all, part of what it is to be a pro ethicist is to be up on the current debates, so they will have read the sophisticated responses from the utilitarians.
  • The non-utilitarian pro ethicists would probably not accept these simple counter-examples alone as enough evidence to disprove utilitarianism. Even if they have super-sophisticated counter-responses to the utilitarians, they probably recognize the initial force of at least some of the utilitarians' responses.
  • All these ethicists are more well-versed in the subject of ethics than Bryan Caplan. (They're experts on this issue, and Caplan, an economist, is probably not.)
Again, for all I know, these ethicists are completely wrong. Still, it seems clear that these philosophers are in a better epistemic position to judge the merits of utilitarianism than Bryan Caplan. And while the criticisms appear devastating to us non-experts, they clearly aren't viewed that way among the experts themselves--otherwise, most experts would agree that utilitarianism is wrong!

In other words, Caplan's evidence against utilitarianism most likely isn't good enough to show that the theory is wrong. The meta-evidence undercuts the simple evidence. Caplan should realize this. So why isn't Caplan deferring to their expertise?

Well, "defer" is probably the wrong word choice. I don't mean he should become a utilitarian. After all, there are a lot of non-utilitarian pro ethicists, too, so switching teams seems too drastic. But he should own his ignorance here, and lower his degree of credence (or perhaps suspend judgment altogether) that utilitarianism is the wrong theory of ethics.

Anyway, the moral: when there are "simple, devastating" criticisms of a theory, yet experts still believe that theory, then those simple criticisms are probably not as devastating as we non-experts think they are.