Tag Archives: experts

Looking for experts

Anyone can go online and claim to be an expert. How do you tell who has an informed opinion and who is likely to be unreliable? As an expert in this field, I have made a list… 

Obviously I’m not an expert, but I have thought about this a lot. I read widely, which gives me a sense of how real experts present their information compared to fakes. Studying how language is used to get stuff done was intrinsic to my degree, and my marketing work, and remains vital for my writing.

So there’s my first example – I’m trying to give you some supporting evidence of my qualifications to talk on this subject. You can Google me and verify at least some of that. Also if you look me up you won’t find industry professionals saying things about how rubbish and unqualified I am. Yes, great thinkers are often misunderstood by their peers at the time, but being rubbished is not proof of being a great thinker, caution is advised!

An expert will tell you how they came by their information. They will provide links, or things you can easily look up. They will talk about data, percentages, and interpretations. They’ll quote source material so you could find it if you wanted to. There are no secret texts. There will be enough information that you could get in there and examine the basis of their argument to see if it holds up. A fake expert will make assertions about studies, data, evidence etc but won’t point you to it so you have no way of forming an opinion about their conclusions.

Experts are often cautious. They will say things like ‘the evidence suggests’ or ‘the probability is’. They’ll give you a percentage risk, or tell you how many people in a study responded in a certain way. There may be precise figures, but the interpretation will likely be more cautious, and they will tend to flag up flaws in the proceedings or reasons to be wary of the data. Science doesn’t tend to deliver 100% certainty – in fact it assumes that a 2% error margin is likely. Fake experts talk in certainties and proof. They make strong claims for what the evidence means, and they may not let you see the evidence. Their assertions will not be backed up by relevant and available data, because they are fake.

The more certain someone is, the less trustworthy they are. This is as true with Pagan and Spiritual folk as it is with conspiracy theorists. Your mileage may vary – so if a Pagan is talking about things that will definitely always work, definitely transform your life, and so forth, be cautious. The person who can acknowledge that complexity exists and outcomes can be probable but not certain, is wiser and more responsible than the person who thinks their thing is perfect for everyone.

The other thing to watch out for is your own bias. If someone is saying what you want to hear, you will automatically be more willing to believe them. We’re all vulnerable to that one, and it pays to be alert to it. We’re going to be persuaded by the things we wish to be persuaded by. Sometimes that’s harmless. Sometimes it puts us in considerable danger or makes us oblivious to toxic things we’re participating in. The hardest person to question is yourself, and your own motives.

Believe in truth

This is the next instalment in my series of blogs where I pick up ideas about fighting fascism from Molly Scott Cato.

This is a tricky one in the current environment – believe in truth. With so many sources offering opinions as facts, rubbishing experts, buying ‘experts’ to promote their agenda, offering counter facts that aren’t true – it’s not easy to pick out the truth from the lies, or from the confusion.

Believing in truth is a belief position. Previously we looked at asking for evidence – which is about establishing what the truth is most likely to be. This is a different, and more philosophical process. It asks us to get over post-modernism, and step away from the idea that truth is always subjective, partial, contextual. Sometimes these ideas are useful and relevant, but they are also easily manipulated to serve a right wing agenda.

Belief itself is a state that is easily manipulated. We also all know that data can be innocently misunderstood, experts can be wrong because they haven’t seen all the data yet, and so forth. The very best information we can get falls short of the truth.

One of the things that abusers do – it’s called gaslighting – is to provide the victim with conflicting information with the intention of driving them mad. Right now in British politics, Jeremy Corbyn is being presented by the media as weak and ineffectual, but also as a powerful leader with dangerous ideas. Migrants apparently come over here to simultaneously take all our jobs while scrounging off our benefits system – we’ve seen a lot of that one. The EU is simultaneously totally evil, but should kindly find a solution to our brexit problems. Clearly both cannot be true. People with terminal illness are declared fit for work. When you’re thinking about truth, this is an area to pay particular attention to.

A person who is interested in truth will be open to new information. They won’t however, swing back and forth between conflicting ideas and at every turn expect you to believe the idea they’re putting forth. Taking a step back and trying to look at the overall pattern will give you a better sense of what you are dealing with.

In face of constant gaslighting, it may be a better bet to pick a view and stick to it, just so that you can function and keep moving. In face of gaslighting, it’s not enough to believe in your truth – you will need to remind yourself of it and revisit the evidence so that the misinformation does not undermine you. Given the scale of the gaslighting, you will also need to share that evidence with other people who will likely also be struggling to navigate and stay sane.

Even if you’re not sure what the truth is, if you believe in the idea that there is truth, and the evidence (somewhere!) to make it clear, then you have some resilience against the madness people feel when they are given conflicting information and told that it is all true.

When there aren’t two sides to a story

Suggesting that there are always two sides to a story may sound entirely reasonable, but I think it’s a notion that could stand some scrutiny. That the Flat Earth Society persists in stating that the world is flat, does not mean that they have an argument worth listening to. When the science is all on one side, and unsupported opinion dominates on the other, we are not looking at a two sided story, we’re looking at fact and fantasy. This is very much the case with climate change, where there is a consensus amongst the vast majority of scientists, and yet the other side of the story – a tiny minority – is given a platform to speak.

We live in an era that doesn’t discriminate between evidence based information, and opinion. It doesn’t help that the opinion side of any story will usually claim that there would be evidence to support their version if only the evidence side did their job properly. If the ‘facts’ are skewed by biased researchers, of course we shouldn’t trust them. The way that the tobacco industry successfully hid the dangers of smoking for so long is a case in point about how asserted ‘facts’ can turn out to be nothing more than marketing.

So, how do you tell if you’re seeing something reliable and evidence-based, or something that’s been paid for? Actual science tends to be wary of asserting facts. It offers theories that are open to change as new things are learned. Science tends to deal in probabilities, not certainties, so proper science can sound a bit cautious, even when its 97% sure about things. People working based on opinion tend to sound a lot more confident, which in turn can seem far more persuasive.

If you’re looking at something evidence led, there may be uncertainty over how best to interpret the data. You may get more than one possible interpretation. You may get questions raised about whatever hasn’t properly been studied. If someone asserts that they know what the data would look like if only someone did the proper research, there’s every reason to be wary.

When considering whether there could be two sides to a story, we have to consider the reliability of our sources. This is not an easy process, and the less education you have, the harder it can be to assess what might be reliable. You can end up mistrusting all authority and so called ‘experts’ if you’ve got no means of telling which ones are being as fair as they can be, and which ones are playing you for their own ends. That mistrust can then be played on by people who do not want you listening to good information, and people who want opinions to be as important as evidence. When those of us who have the privilege of better education and sharper thinking skills denigrate people who are more easily persuaded by less rational things, we feed into this. Denigrate a person and they have no reason to trust you.

Not all opinions have equal weight, either. The opinions of people who want more than their fair share and who want to hurt and harm others do not deserve to be accepted as valid. The opinions of people who are known to lie and manipulate for their own ends, do not deserve to be taken as seriously as the opinions of someone who has always acted well. People who have done the wrong thing, or who wish to exploit others, will say whatever they think it takes to get them what they want. It is in their interests to persuade you that there were two sides to this story all along. The apparently less tolerant person who won’t accept there could be two sides isn’t always the bad guy.

People who are working with evidence can and will show you their evidence. It takes more work on our part than listening to a sound bite. People who have no evidence will ask you to accept that they know best. They may offer that which is clearly too good to be true. They will assert that their evidence exists and that only prejudice keeps the data from being properly collected. They will be more likely to rubbish their opponent than tackle the details of the argument.

Sometimes there aren’t two sides to a story. Sometimes there is no debate to be had, and nothing worthy of being explored. Sometimes there is evidence on one side, and noise on the other. If you aren’t sure who to trust, ask who will benefit and in what ways, should you believe them.

Experts in a Post-Truth era

I hate the very notion of post-truth, but as we live in times when politicians, journalists and big business feel no qualms about lying to us, and paying for apparent experts to support their twisted views, it isn’t easy to know who to trust. When you come to a subject for the first time (any subject, Druidry included) it’s hard to figure out if the person you’re dealing with is an expert or a charlatan.

Here are some pointers for deciding whether an expert is worth your time.

The most useful experts out there want to help people understand. They’ll use accessible language, explain the evidence and point to the sources so the non-expert has a fighting chance of keeping up. The good expert will let you form your own opinion as much as they can, and may present the case rather than presenting the conclusion.

The other sort of expert may be more interested in dazzling you with how brilliant they are. They will use jargon, allude to things they don’t explain, or explain things by reference to their own status as professional and expert. In some situations this can be quite bullying. The more arrogant expert will tell you to trust them and that they know best – they might indeed be an expert, but they aren’t the ideal human to work with so it’s best to move on if you can.

Untrustworthy experts will take great leaps of logic and won’t explain them. Migrants come here, we’re short of beds in our hospitals therefore there must be health tourism = is an example of such leaps. Correlations do not prove causalities, and this can be used to hide actual underlying causes – financial cuts being the culprit in this case. Challenge the leap, and you’ll hear that they are the expert and you don’t know what you’re talking about. The person who refuses to give you enough information to make an informed contribution is not on your side.

The untrustworthy expert will use emotive language to back up their case – anyone who doesn’t agree with me is an idiot. Only a total moron would think this… And so forth. That’s neither argument nor evidence, but it does make it tough arguing with them.

The expert who is worthy your time will likely talk about the arguments that challenge their theory. They won’t pretend there’s no other interpretation available. They can recognise the limits of their theory and the limits of their own knowledge. Most of the time, hard, definite facts are rare, and we deal with probability and statistics. A good expert will use that kind of term, rather than talking about simple, uncomplicated truth. This is often why we don’t collectively like real experts – they don’t have any easy answers for us, while the other sort do.