Trust experts or those who tell a good story?

Science is a way of knowing – it’s a rigorous process that ideally winnows away the possible options until the best answer remains for the present time. It’s the most reliable way of knowing because of how strict scientific testing is. It’s not perfect (because it’s done by humans, obviously, who will certainly make some mistakes), but it’s the best method we have. Consider the other options – intuition, imagination, revelation, tradition, personal observation. These can give us the illusion of knowledge but they are not as reliable to others and the pitfalls of using those methods abound.

When a body of experts, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control, or committees assembled by the National Research Council, evaluates all the published research and then issues recommendations based on the evidence they found, YOU OUGHT TO LISTEN CLOSELY. They probably know what the scoop is better than anyone. [Hall, H.,  Skeptical Inquirer, Nov/Dec 2014]

Expert_david tweet

There are those who will blatantly challenge the scientific (or appropriate discipline’s) consensus because they hold strong personal views that conflict with it. For example, you hear actors, and now politicians, talking about vaccine safety.

It’s exceptionally clear that vaccines are one of THE most effective public health measures devised. EVER. They have been well tested and administered to millions and millions of people with great benefit and extremely rare cases of serious complications. The benefit HUGELY outweighs the small risk. Yet, TV celebrities and maverick activists tell their audiences that vaccines are dangerous. Do they know better than a committee of medical professionals who have seen all the data? Those denying the medical consensus give the public something worse than no information if they give out misleading information.

Would you take medical advice from a plumber or an accountant? It makes no sense to do so. It also makes no sense to rank the advice of non-experts over experts especially regarding health concerns.

As with everything in life, there are exceptions to the general rules of thumb. There are MANY “experts” in particular fields who make poor judgments and use their expertise as a means of bolstering their influence. There are even wrong-headed professionals in each particular field who challenge the consensus opinion.  Those who challenge evidence-based consensus ought to propose an alternative that is superior to the existing status. But, it almost never is superior. So, it fails to change minds and the majority continues to follow the consensus view. We see examples of this in conspiracy theories or alternatives to scientific concepts such as evolution or AIDS-HIV denialism or in historical studies about art, artifacts or literature. Fringe ideas are weirdly fascinating but they just do not stand up to critical evaluation.

97% of scientists subscribe to human-induced global warming. But the public percentage is much lower. It’s very difficult to convince 97% of scientists of ANYTHING so that’s saying something. The public may have many reasons to reject this conclusion based on their personal values that have nothing to do with the science or evidence presented.

Check out: Americans Believe in Science, Just Not Its Findings – The Atlantic.

One way of evaluating a consensus is to look at the opposite opinion and see who is supporting it. What sorts of values do they have? Are they qualified to go against those who have spent careers studying the subject? How long has the consensus stood up to scrutiny? One example is the vehement few who INSIST that William Shakespeare didn’t write his own plays! It’s good drama, but it is a terrible argument. But this anti-Shakespeare group is really invested in their opinion to the point where no amount of evidence will likely convince them to give it up.

William Shakespeare. Yes, he really was that talented.

William Shakespeare. Yes, he really was that talented.

Check out: False Balance and the Shakespeare Authorship “Debate”.

The evidence in favor of Shakespeare’s authorship and the lack of evidence for anyone else’s primary authorship is so compelling that the question isn’t even really a question worth considering. 

Scientific and academic majority opinion on their respective subjects is valuable. Researchers want their field to advance. They have checked the work, examined the options inside and out, and reached the same conclusion. It may not be lock-tight, but it’s far more reliable than any outsiders conclusion. If something new is discovered that has actual merit to change opinions, the majority opinion will follow. Play the safe odds. Consult the consensus of qualified experts and listen to what they say.

Addition: This new study shows that readers may be overly influenced by anonymous commenters on websites that undermine the scientific consensus.

Check out: What’s the Harm in Vaccine Denial? 

Anti-vaccine spokesperson Jenny McCarthy

Anti-vaccine spokesperson Jenny McCarthy

Should you accept the opinion of this woman about vaccines, which is contrary to scientific opinion, when her most famous accomplishment is posing as a model?

Former Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann

Former Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann

How about this one who publicly told one person’s biased story that has no basis in medical facts in order to promote her own personal agenda?

Neither are experts in health and their words can result in parents not getting their children vaccinated.

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7 thoughts on “Trust experts or those who tell a good story?

  1. Authorship Skeptic says:

    In general, you are right about science, but you are very wrong about the Shakespeare Authorship Question because you probably haven’t looked into both sides of the issue. That’s something else people should do occasionally — check out evidence themselves. We can’t always do that, and deferring to experts make sense when we can’t. But even experts are sometimes wrong. They also sometimes have conflicts of interest, as is the case with the main advocate for Shakespeare orthodoxy, the Birthplace Trust in Stratford.

    Anyone who would really like to know why so many eminent people, including five U.S. Supreme Court justices and many of our greatest writers, thinkers, statesmen and actors, have expressed doubt that William of Stratford wrote the works ascribed to him should read the “Declaration of Reasonable Doubt About the Identity of William Shakespeare.” The Declaration has been signed by over 3,100 people — over 1,200 with advanced degrees and more than 500 college/university faculty members. It can be read and signed at the website of the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition at: http://doubtaboutwill.org.

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    • idoubtit says:

      I see you are the Chairman of that group which is just a nonprofit to advocate for doubt. I don’t see anything there that would be good evidence for denouncing Shakespeare as author. I don’t see any literary scholars on your list of signatories. If this claim had merit, we certainly should see them pointing it out and publishing respectable peer reviewed reports on it. Why don’t we see that? Instead, we see a fringe group making a dramatic, fairly poorly supported claim. You bolstered the point of this post.

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  2. Authorship Skeptic says:

    Dear Ms. Hill,

    Judging from the number of comments on this blog, you’re a fine one to be saying anyone is part of a fringe group.:-) The Declaration of Reasonable Doubt (http://doubtaboutwill.org/declaration) contains a great deal of information that calls the author’s identity into doubt. If it didn’t, orthodox Shakespeare scholars would ignore it, and they’ve done anything but. Columbia University English professor James Shapiro was actually rather complimentary in “Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?” (p. 218-19). Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust edited the book “Shakespeare Beyond Doubt: Evidence, Argument, Controversy,” including an entire chapter on the Declaration. Neither of these books even attempted a point-by-point rebuttal (nor has any other Stratfordian), and Wells has changed his position and admitted that many authorship doubters are very intelligent, accomplished, reasonable people. Apparently you have not kept up with him.

    It’s clear that the Declaration has had a huge impact, or the Birthplace Trust wouldn’t have bothered to write a book titled “Shakespeare Beyond Doubt” (SBD), — their first book on the Authorship Question. The title makes it clear that they were targeting the Declaration. One doesn’t get twenty-two English professors to help write a book attacking something if there is nothing to it. The problem is that the evidence and arguments described in the Declaration are compelling, and they have held up under scrutiny after over seven years. In fact, much new information and many new arguments have turned up that strengthen it. We are the ones who are making progress, while the orthodox are stuck or losing ground.

    A month after SBD appeared, Alexander Waugh and I published a competing book titled “Shakespeare Beyond Doubt? — Exposing an Industry in Denial” (SBD?). They come up together at Amazon.com, so it is easy to compare their reviews, ratings and sales ranks. Judging from all of these, ours is the better book. If you believe in studying both sides of an issue before making up your mind, then read both these books and see for yourself.

    You say you don’t see any literary scholars on our list of signatories. This is not correct. We keep a separate list of self-identified “current or former college or university faculty members,” who have signed (https://doubtaboutwill.org/signatories/field), and the largest single category is those who said their field was “English Literature.” That section of the list begins on page 2, right after those in “Education.” Over 1,200 people with advanced degrees have signed the Declaration, including 539 current or former “academics,” as we call them. Again, the largest single category — 99, or 18% — is those in English Literature. Theatre Arts is also well-represented, with 69 signers — 13% of all “academic” signatories. Many of these academics have published on the SAQ, including in peer-reviewed journals.
    I’ll be happy to list some if you like. Signers also include outstanding scholars in other relevant fields. A few examples:

    Robin Fox, University Professor of Social Theory, Rutgers University; Author, “Shakespeare’s Education” (Laugwitz Verlag, 2012)

    Felicia Hardison Londré, Curators’ Professor of Theatre, University of Missouri-Kansas City; Dean, College of Fellows of the American Theatre

    Luke Prodromou, MA, Shakespeare Institute, Birmingham; PhD, Applied Linguistics, U. of Nottingham; author of 20+ books; co-author of award-winning “Dealing with Difficulties.”

    Don Rubin, Professor of Theatre Studies and Former Chair, Department of Theatre, York University, Toronto; Editor, World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre

    Dean Keith Simonton, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, University of California at Davis; Francis Galton Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Study of Creativity; author of 153 articles, 12 books, incl. “Origins of Genius,” editor, “Handbook of Genius”

    Peter A. Sturrock, Emeritus Professor of Applied Physics, Stanford University; Author of “AKA Shakespeare: A Scientific Approach to the Authorship Question”

    Richard Waugaman, M.D., Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Faculty Expert on Shakespeare for Media Contacts, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

    I want to make it clear, however, that in listing the names and qualifications of signatories we are NOT “arguing from authority.” We have never said that anyone should doubt that Shakspere wrote the works just because many prominent, credible people are doubters. All we’re saying is that it’s worth going to the trouble to look at the evidence for this issue. This is necessary because orthodox Shakespeare scholars, and especially those at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon, have created a false stereotype of who authorship doubters are to stigmatize and suppress the issue. So it is first necessary to debunk the stereotype before anyone will realize that the evidence is worth looking into.

    If anything, when it comes to real scientists, which is what your blog post above seems to be about, I think you’ll find that those who have actually studied the Authorship Question tend to agree with us. As a scientist myself, I am sympathetic to what you are trying to do, but I get the impression you really haven’t looked into the SAC very deeply. Perhaps you could tell me the titles of a few recent books you’ve read from the doubter point of view?

    Thanks.

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    • Authorship Skeptic says:

      Well, Ms. Hill? I’m waiting. As I said, “Perhaps you could tell me the titles of a few recent books you’ve read from the doubter point of view?” Or shall I conclude that you haven’t read any, as I strongly suspect, and so you don’t really know what you’re talking about?

      Also, how does it feel to have been totally wrong when you wrote “I don’t see any literary scholars on your list of signatories.” Are you up to admitting you were wrong about that?

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      • idoubtit says:

        It’s a waste of my time to argue with trolls that ignore the preponderance of evidence and comment to make trouble.

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  3. TimBo says:

    While I have no particular interest in whether Shakespeare wrote his plays or someone else, I do think that since you raised the argument, “I don’t see any literary scholars on your list of signatories. If this claim had merit, we certainly should see them pointing it out and publishing respectable peer reviewed reports on it.” and he took the time to point out the scholarly signatories, though not the peer reviewed articles (do literary scholars even HAVE peer reviewed scholarly journals?), I think you should rebut his argument, or admit you made a poor comparison, particularly since “readers may be overly influenced by anonymous commenters on websites that undermine the scientific consensus”.

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    • idoubtit says:

      Yes, any good research field has peer reviewed scholarly journals. There is no reason why I should have to rebut every fringe theory. We’d be here all day. The onus is on the person making the extraordinary claim to provide ample evidence to show that HIS idea is better than the existing one he is claiming should be replaced. That has CERTAINLY not been done for these Shakespeare claims.

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