A Philosopher's Blog

Picking between Experts

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on January 29, 2014
A logic diagram proposed for WP OR to handle a...

A logic diagram proposed for WP OR to handle a situation where two equal experts disagree. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One fairly common way to argue is the argument from authority. While people rarely follow the “strict” form of the argument, the basic idea is to infer that a claim is true based on the allegation that the person making the claim is an expert. For example, someone might claim that second hand smoke does not cause cancer because Michael Crichton claimed that it does not. As another example, someone might claim that astral projection/travel is real because Michael Crichton claims it does occur. Given that people often disagree, it is also quite common to find that alleged experts disagree with each other. For example, there are medical experts who claim that second hand smoke does cause cancer.

If you are an expert in the field in question, you can endeavor to pick between the other experts by using your own expertise. For example, a medical doctor who is trying to decide whether to believe that second hand smoke causes cancer can examine the literature and perhaps even conduct her own studies. Being an expert, a person is presumably qualified to make an informed pick. The obvious problem is, of course, that experts themselves pick different experts to accept as being correct.

The problem is even greater when it comes to non-experts who are trying to pick between experts. Being non-experts, they lack the expertise to make authoritative picks between the actual experts based on their own knowledge of the fields. This raises the rather important concern of how to pick between experts when you are not an expert.

Not surprisingly, people tend to pick based on fallacious reasoning. One common approach is to pick an expert based on the fact that she agrees with what you already believe. That is, to infer that the expert is right because you believe what she says. This is rather obviously not good reasoning: to infer that something is true simply because I believe it gets things backwards. It should be first established that a claim is probably true, then it should be believed (with appropriate reservations).

Another common approach is to believe an expert because he makes a claim that you really want to be true. For example, a smoker might elect to believe an expert who claims second hand smoke does not cause cancer because he does not want to believe that he might be increasing the risk that his children will get cancer by his smoking around them. This sort of “reasoning” is the classic fallacy of wishful thinking. Obviously enough, wishing that something is true (or false) does not prove that the claim is true (or false).

People also pick their expert based on qualities they perceive as positive but that are, in fact, irrelevant to the person’s actually credibility. Factors such as height, gender, appearance, age, personality, religion, political party, wealth, friendliness, backstory, courage, and so on can influence people emotionally, but are not actually relevant to assessing a person’s expertise.  For example, a person might be very likeable, but not know a thing about what they are talking about.

Fortunately, there are some straightforward standards for picking and believing an expert. They are as follows.


1. The person has sufficient expertise in the subject matter in question.

Claims made by a person who lacks the needed degree of expertise to make a reliable claim will, obviously, not be well supported. In contrast, claims made by a person with the needed degree of expertise will be supported by the person’s reliability in the area. One rather obvious challenge here is being able to judge that a person has sufficient expertise. In general, the question is whether or not a person has the relevant qualities and these are assessed in terms of such factors as education, experience, reputation, accomplishments and positions.


2. The claim being made by the person is within her area(s) of expertise.

If a person makes a claim about some subject outside of his area(s) of expertise, then the person is not an expert in that context. Hence, the claim in question is not backed by the required degree of expertise and is not reliable. People often mistake expertise in one area (acting, for example) for expertise in another area (politics, for example).


3. The claims made by the expert are consistent with the views of the majority of qualified experts in the field.

This is perhaps the most important factor. As a general rule, a claim that is held as correct by the majority of qualified experts in the field is the most plausible claim. The basic idea is that the majority of experts are more likely to be right than those who disagree with the majority.

It is important to keep in mind that no field has complete agreement, so some degree of dispute is acceptable. How much is acceptable is, of course, a matter of serious debate.

It is also important to be aware that the majority could turn out to be wrong. That said, the reason it is still reasonable for non-experts to go with the majority opinion is that non-experts are, by definition, not experts. After all, if I am not an expert in a field, I would be hard pressed to justify picking the expert I happen to like or agree with against the view of the majority of experts.


4. The person in question is not significantly biased.

This is also a rather important standard. Experts, being people, are vulnerable to biases and prejudices. If there is evidence that a person is biased in some manner that would affect the reliability of her claims, then the person’s credibility as an authority is reduced. This is because there would be reason to believe that the expert might not be making a claim because he has carefully considered it using his expertise. Rather, there would be reason to believe that the claim is being made because of the expert’s bias or prejudice. A biased expert can still be making claims that are true—however, the person’s bias lowers her credibility.

It is important to remember that no person is completely objective. At the very least, a person will be favorable towards her own views (otherwise she would probably not hold them). Because of this, some degree of bias must be accepted, provided that the bias is not significant. What counts as a significant degree of bias is open to dispute and can vary a great deal from case to case. For example, many people would probably suspect that researchers who receive funding from pharmaceutical companies might be biased while others might claim that the money would not sway them if the drugs proved to be ineffective or harmful.

Disagreement over bias can itself be a very significant dispute. For example, those who doubt that climate change is real often assert that the experts in question are biased in some manner that causes them to say untrue things about the climate. Questioning an expert based on potential bias is a legitimate approach—provided that there is adequate evidence of bias that would be strong enough to unduly influence the expert. One way to look for bias is to consider whether the expert is interested or disinterested. Or, more metaphorically, to consider whether they have “skin in the game” and stand to gain (or suffer a loss) from a claim being accepted as true. Merely disagreeing with an expert is, obviously, not proof that an expert is biased. Vague accusations that the expert has “liberal” or “conservative” views also do not count as adequate evidence. What is needed is actual evidence of bias. Anything else is most likely a mere ad homimen attack.

These standards are clearly not infallible. However, they do provide a good general guide to logically picking an expert. Certainly more logical than just picking the one who says things one likes.


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10 Years Later

Posted in Business, Environment, Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 11, 2011
Sanjay Gupta

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Today is the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attack. It is, obviously enough, fitting to look back on that terrible day and reflect upon it and its ramifications.

One matter that is of special importance is the fact that the 9/11 responders seem to be suffering from an unusual high level of health complications. Given that they were exposed to burning materials and various other hazards, this is hardly shocking. What is, however, rather shocking is the fact that it took congress nearly a decade to work out a health care bill for the first responders. What is rather disturbing is that Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican, said he would block the bill. He gave two reasons. First, he wanted it to be funded through spending cuts. Second, he claimed that the bill had not gone through the proper committee process. His second reason was also backed by fellow Republican Mike Enzi.

In regards to the first reason, it struck me as rather sad that after Republicans had “wrapped” themselves in 9/11 and spent billions on “homeland security” and two wars, a major Republican would do such a thing. While I do understand the need to be fiscally responsible, suddenly finding this fiscal faith when it comes to the 9/11 responders seems rather morally questionable. Surely those people earned the right by their sacrifices. To support this, one needs merely to turn to the speeches in which the Republicans spoke of 9/11 and the heroism of the first responders.

In regards to the second reason, Coburn actually missed the committee meeting in question (and he was a member of the committee). Hence, his complaint was spurious.  While following due process is important (although it was often bypassed in the name of national security), it seems rather petty and mean of him to have used such a point to try to delay or block the bill.

While the bill eventually passed, there were some significant changes. First, the money allocated to the bill was reduced. Apparently the new found sense of fiscal responsibility arrived to late to prevent the massive spending under Bush but just in time to cut back spending on health care for the first responders (who had been praised as great heroes by the very folks who insisted on cutting the budget). Second, the Victims Compensation Fund was set to close significantly earlier and  various other limitations were set.

Coburn justified his actions  (after acknowledging the heroism of the first responders) by claiming that they prevented the bill from “robbing future generations of opportunity.” On the one hand, Coburn does have a point: spending should be carefully reviewed to ensure that the need is legitimate and that the cost will not be too burdensome. Oddly enough, this rather laudable principle seems to be generally overlooked in other cases. In regards to spending on the war on terror, there seems to have been little concern paid to determining whether the spending would be effective (generally not) and whether or not it would burden future generations (definitely so). The main justification given for funding the war on terror is that doing so saves lives. However, terrorism is rather unlikely cause of death for Americans. Except, of course, for the 9/11 responders who became sick because of their exposure to a devil’s cocktail of toxins. There is a certain irony in a congress that funds x-ray machines for full body scans to “protect” us against the minute chance that someone will try to smuggle a bomb on a flight in his underwear (again) yet balks at medical care for people who are, in fact, in danger from the actions of terrorists. Of course, helping the first responders does not, in general, funnel money to the folks who help fund the re-election of politicians.

A final point of concern is that the bill leaves out coverage of cancer. While we went to war in Iraq without checking the facts, folks in congress claimed that a causal link had not been established between the exposure on 9/11 and the cancers that are appearing in the responders. After all, if these people did not get their cancer from 9/11, then there would be no reason for the taxpayers to foot the bill for their care.

One obvious response is that even if the cancer was not caused by their exposure during the 9/11 events, these people should simply be given the benefit of the doubt. After all, treating sick or dying people who put their lives on the line for others hardly seems to be a waste of money. If arguments are needed for how important this event was and how great these people are, one can merely look at what the Republicans said about them, at least prior to the debate over the bill.

A second reply is that it seems reasonable to believe that being exposed to that devil’s cocktail of toxins that arose from the wreckage could very well cause cancer. There is also the fact that the 9/11 responders seem to suffer from cancer at a higher than expected rate. Of course, given that our understanding of cancer is limited, there are grounds for “cancer skepticism” (which has been fueled by the tobacco and other industries). I suspect that one reason that congress has been reluctant to provide coverage for cancer in this case is that doing so would seem to admit that the various chemicals and toxins the responders were exposed to do cause cancer. This would, obviously enough, present various liability problems and could also be used in backing up stronger regulations regarding pollutants. This sort of result would not, of course, please the corporations who donate so lavishly to re-election funds. Then again, perhaps it is just about saving money by not paying for cancer treatments.

A third reply is that there does seem to be a causal link. Sanjay Gupta has been investigating this and reports what he has learned in “Terror in the Dust.” If such a link has been established, then the 9/11 responders should receive coverage for cancer. After all, this would show that at least some of their cancers were caused by the events of 9/11 and that would seem to warrant the state picking up the  tab. At the very least, the Republicans owe them for years of using them for political purposes (the Democrats too, only to a lesser extent).

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Ethics of Newt

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 13, 2010
Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the House. November ...
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While I am careful to distinguish between a person and her claims, I do tend to collect stories of inconsistencies. Not surprisingly, many of these tales involve politicians-they tend to be masters of saying one thing and doing the opposite.This is truly a bipartisan trait, but my current focus is on Newt Gingrich.

While Newt is well known for pushing traditional family values, his own behavior does not exactly match his professed values. He famously proposed to Marianne, who is now is second ex-wife,  while his first wife was hospitalized for cancer treatment. Newt later divorced Marianne and is now married to his third wife.

Marianne Gingrich recently revealed some things about Newt, including providing a rather interesting quote. According to Marianne, Newt  said “It doesn’t matter what I do.  People need to hear what I have to say.  There is no one else who can say what I say.  It doesn’t matter what I live.”

While to profess a set of values and violate them does seem an act of hypocrisy, Newt is correct to point out that it does not matter what he does. This assumes, of course, that Newt is asserting that his behavior is not relevant to the truth of his claims. If so, he is quite right. To infer that a person’s claim is false because his actions are inconsistent with the claim is to commit the ad hominem tu quoque (more popularly known as the “you, too” fallacy. For example, when I was in grade school one of the teachers told us that smoking was unhealthy and showed us (before lunch) those classic pictures of healthy lungs and a smoker’s lungs. After class ended, she ran to the teacher’s room and chain smoked as many cigarettes as she could before the next class. As I recall, another kid said (in effect) that she must be wrong because she smoked. However, she was obviously right. She merely failed to act on her own very good advice.

In another sense, Newt is also right. To be specific, he seems to be quite correct that how he actually lives seems to have little impact on those who believe what he says. While Newt is not unique in this ability, it does seem rather uncommon. It is certainly an interesting phenomenon when someone can act in ways that seem to clearly violate their own professed principles and still be regarded as a moral leader. Perhaps those who believe in him simply refuse to believe that he has actually done such things. Or perhaps they agree that people need to hear what he has to say and hence it does not matter what he does. Or, the more cynical might claim, perhaps those who heed his words are also hypocritical.

Of course, Newt is also wrong. It does matter what he does. It certainly mattered to his first wife and his second wife. Also, it should matter to him. While a person can speak of what is right and still act contrary to that, it is a man’s actions and not his words that make him the man he is. While a man’s words can be true and yet contrary to his actions, a man who consistently does wrong would surely become corrupted and have his moral judgment impaired. As such, one would be justified in being suspicious of any moral judgments issued by such a person.

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Mammogram Confusion

Posted in Ethics, Medicine/Health, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 17, 2009
Woman undergoing a mammogram of the right breast

Image via Wikipedia

Up until recently, women have been advised to start getting mammograms at age 40 and to also engage in regular self-examination. However, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recently decided that women under 50 should no longer receive routine screenings.

While the Task Force presented a fairly clear statement, there seems to be some confusion about this matter. This is due, in part, to the fact that other experts have been rather critical of the new guidelines.

Some might also suspect that folks in the media have contributed to this confusion, perhaps knowing that such controversy is a way to gain a larger audience.

In any case, it seems important to sort things out a bit.

First, the Task Force did recommend that women 40-49 should no longer get mammograms as a matter of routine. However, this does not mean that women in that age range should not get mammograms-rather, they should consult their doctors and assess the risks and benefits of being screened.

Second, the reason for this change seems to be based on new utilitarian considerations about existing data rather than significant new findings (although some might dispute this). As such, much of the dispute is not about the effectiveness of mammograms but whether or not the benefits outweigh the risks.

It is generally agreed that about 15% of women aged 40-49 have breast cancer detected via mammography. The Task Force members are aware of this, but note that the harms outweigh the benefits of making screening routine. One harm is that such routine testing generates a significant number of false positives thus leading to anxiety and unnecessary medical procedures, such as biopsies. Another harm is that the testing is not itself risk free, due to the fact that it generates radiation that is, ironically, capable of causing cancer. There is, of course, also the matter of cost of such tests.

Others, such as Dr. Otis Brawley of the American Cancer Society, use basically the same factual data but come to a different conclusion.  Dr. Brawley asserts that “with its new recommendations, the [task force] is essentially telling women that mammography at age 40 to 49 saves lives; just not enough of them.” Not surprisingly, the American Cancer Society is sticking with the previous guidelines. The reason is, obviously enough, based on their assessment of the costs and benefits based on their values. On their view, the benefits of routine screenings outweigh the harms and hence they support this practice.

Thus, the dispute is not primarily one of fact but of value. The Task Force and its critics generally agree on the facts, but they disagree in their assessment in regards to whether such routine testing is worthwhile in terms of their weighing of the risks and benefits.

Since non-experts turn to experts for answers, the fact that the experts disagree means that the rest of us are somewhat at a loss when deciding what to do. After all, if the experts disagree, then a non-expert has little basis on which to decide which expert is most likely to be right.

In this situation, the facts seems to be that mammograms can be effective in detecting breast cancer in women under 50, but that there are legitimate concerns about the possible risks. As such, the best advice seems to be what both sides suggest: consult your doctor in this matter and hope that s/he is able to provide an effective and reasonable recommendation.

One last matter worth considering is what effect this will have on insurance coverage for mammograms.  Since insurance companies use the Task Force’s guidelines there is some concern that mammograms for women under 50 might no longer be covered. After all, the insurance companies can point to these guidelines when denying coverage-thus having an easy and seemingly reasonable way out of paying.

Those inclined to being suspicious might wonder about the timing of this change. After all, the insurance companies have been involved in all the deal making about health care reform and one might suspect that such a change in guidelines might be connected to politics. Then again, it might just be a matter of coincidence.

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What Happened to Divine Healing?

Posted in Religion by Michael LaBossiere on October 11, 2009

A wide variety of healing powers have been attributed to religious figures. Most famously, Jesus was supposed to be able to heal people. Less famously, various saints and holy people were said to have the power to heal. Even religious relics were supposed to have healing powers.

Today, some folks still believe in this sort of divine healing. However, there seems to be no evidence that anyone today has this sort of ability either individually or collectively via prayer. Interestingly, it has been subject to scientific testing (see, for example, my essay on powerless prayer in my book) and has always been found to be lacking. In some cases, the folks who claim such power are sincerely mistaken. In other cases, they are con artists and charlatans. In any case, there seems to not even a single properly investigated and documented case of divine healing.

While people do attribute healing and recovery to divine sources, these recoveries and healings always fall well within what is to be expected without any divine intervention. Also, as noted above, evidence of a divine power at work is always lacking. For example, a person might allege that her recovery from cancer was the result of divine healing. Laying aside the obvious problem of why God would allow her to get cancer if He is so concerned about her health, people recover from cancer spontaneously without there being any attempt at divine healing. Without any solid evidence of divine action, it is most logical to regard such claims as mistaken. After all, the fact that a person believes that she was magically healed hardly counts as proof.

Naturally, given the alleged volume of divine healing in the past, I wonder why it does not occur now. One possible explanation is that divine healing has never occurred and this is why it is not occurring now.

Another possible explanation is that no one alive today has the necessary traits to be a divine healer (or to be healed by divine healing). In other words, perhaps we are all too corrupt or lacking in faith to have those magical powers. Of course, this would seem to be inconsistent with God’s love and His mercy. After all, a doctor does not refuse to heal the sick or injured simply because she thinks they lack moral purity. Surely a loving God would not just stop dispensing healing powers and hence there should still be such divine healing going on. However, there is no evidence of this.

Perhaps it is happening in secret and only to a select few people who also keep silent. Obviously, when I had my quadriceps tendon torn apart, no one came forward to magically heal me, but perhaps that is because I write blog posts like these. If this is the case, then God’s love (and the love of these folks) must be very selective indeed-and that seems inconsistent with being a loving and good God.

I am open to evidence for divine healing and would be happy to assist a divine healer in setting up a controlled experiment to establish that s/he has such powers.

On a lighter note, I think it would be great if divine healing was real. After all, in D&D and WoW I often play classes that can do such healing (in the game) and find that incredibly useful. Like most gamers, I have often thought it would be great if that worked in real life (I think the same about fireball, but that is another story). It would have been very useful when I tore my tendon-a quick lay on hands and I would have avoided all those bills and down time.

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