Links and Comments: Expertise, Dunning-Kruger, Tactics of Denialists

NPR’s Adam Frank on Why Expertise Matters, commenting in part about Tom Nichols new book The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters.

Frank quotes a couple key passages from Nichols:

Nichols is profoundly troubled by the willful “know-nothing-ism” he sees around him. Its principle cause, he argues, are the new mechanisms that shape our discussions (i.e. the Internet and social media). He writes:

“There was once a time when participation in public debate, even in the pages of the local newspaper, required submission of a letter or an article, and that submission had to be written intelligently, pass editorial review, and stand with the author’s name attached… Now, anyone can bum rush the comments section of any major publication. Sometimes, that results in a free-for-all that spurs better thinking. Most of the time, however, it means that anyone can post anything they want, under any anonymous cover, and never have to defend their views or get called out for being wrong.”

Nichols also points to excesses of partisanship in politics, the weakening of expectations in schools and, finally, to human nature. The last cause, he says, is particularly troubling. As he puts it:

“Its called the Dunning-Kruger effect, which says, in sum, that the dumber you are, the more confident you are that you’re not actually dumb. And when you get invested in being aggressively dumb…well, the last thing you want to encounter are experts who disagree with you, and so you dismiss them in order to maintain your unreasonably high opinion of yourself.”

Frank concludes,

More importantly, being a true expert means having a healthy dose of humility. If you have really studied something and really gone deep into how it works, then you should come away knowing how much you don’t know. In a sense, that is the real definition of an expert — knowing the limits of one’s own knowledge.


From New Scientist, Links and Comments: Expertise, Dunning-Kruger, Tactics of Denialists

“Denialism is inevitable whenever powerful financial, governmental, cultural or religious interests come into conflict with scientific reality.”

Six tactics used by those who would deny climate change, the efficacy of vaccines, or challenges to the policies of the Trump administration:

  • Allege that there’s a conspiracy. Claim that scientific consensus has arisen through collusion rather than the accumulation of evidence.
  • Use fake experts to support your story. “Denial always starts with a cadre of pseudo-experts with some credentials that create a facade of credibility,” says Seth Kalichman of the University of Connecticut.
  • Cherry-pick the evidence: trumpet whatever appears to support your case and ignore or rubbish the rest. Carry on trotting out supportive evidence even after it has been discredited.
  • Create impossible standards for your opponents. Claim that the existing evidence is not good enough and demand more. If your opponent comes up with evidence you have demanded, move the goalposts.
  • Use logical fallacies. Hitler opposed smoking, so anti-smoking measures are Nazi. Deliberately misrepresent the scientific consensus and then knock down your straw man.
  • Manufacture doubt. Falsely portray scientists as so divided that basing policy on their advice would be premature. Insist “both sides” must be heard and cry censorship when “dissenting” arguments or experts are rejected.
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