Thursday, January 21, 2010
Approaching “Expert Opinion” with Skepticism (Original)
by Jonathan Barth
Several years ago I heard a lecture delivered by one of my favorite historians at the time, Howard Zinn. Although I have increasingly differed with Zinn over the last couple years in respect to his particular interpretation of American history, I distinctively remember him warning his audience to always “beware of so-called ‘experts’”.
For all the disagreements I may now have with some of his ideas, Zinn was correct. “Expert opinion,” in fact, possesses an exceptionally dismal and even horrifying track record. It was the so-called “experts” who vehemently defended absolute monarchies and violations of individual liberty prior to the Enlightenment. Expert opinion fully-approved of and advocated the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans beginning in the sixteenth century. Expert opinion – including “expert scientists” – insisted on eugenics and scientific-racism at the turn of twentieth century. So-called experts also insisted that it was absolutely necessary for the United States to imprison over one-hundred-thousand innocent Japanese-Americans during the Second World War.
Our current crop of “expert opinion” likewise has a highly questionable track record. Expert opinion was used in order to get our country into war in Iraq, pass the Patriot Act, and expand the size and power of our already-large federal government. Experts today in 2010 insist upon such programs as cap-and-trade, heavy government-involvement in health care, the spending of hundreds of billions of dollars to prevent “global warming,” the expansion of the Patriot Act, global government, and the further erosion of our individual liberties. Expert opinion told us that we needed to give the Banks and Wall Street a massive unprecedented bailout, or else the entire world would collapse. Expert opinion tells us that we have no business knowing what goes on behind closed-doors at the Federal Reserve, and that we should have no worries about the Fed’s doubling of the supply of paper money over the course of the last year.
But for whatever reason, the Academic Establishment – while acknowledging the extreme faults of expert opinion in previous generations – consistently adheres to the blind faith that our current crop of contemporary experts has somehow (for the first time in history) gotten it right. That to question expert opinion in our own time is not only faulty, but borderline crazy. That if you doubt self-proclaimed expert opinion on anything from global warming to the Federal Reserve, you may even be (*gasp*) a “conspiracy theorist.” The latter attack, of course, is nothing more than a fallacious argument that philosophers and logicians call the ad hominem – or, the practice of assailing the individual rather than the specific argument that the individual is presenting. The Academic Establishment has shown to this day that it is not afraid to stoop to the level of ad hominem attacks, particularly when approached by sound, libertarian arguments that cut right through the traditional paradigm of left versus right.
History has consistently proven that most expert opinion is flawed and deceptive. The intellectual heroes that history remembers – John Locke, Isaac Newton, Galileo, Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, Adam Smith, Ron Paul, Thomas Paine, and others – are not the ones who blindly adhered to the opinion of experts in their own time. They rejected expert opinion and produced their own ideas, facing much criticism, ridicule, and even censorship as a result. Many of them achieved more fame after their deaths than they ever had in their lifetimes. But their names live on forever because of the courage they displayed against the Establishment. As for the other 98% of academics – well, history forgets most of them as quickly as they leave.