On Trusting Experts

In 2019, I had a lot of friends who encouraged people to "trust the experts." A common criticism they made was to denigrate people who had "done their research," which was usually maligned to be something like watching three hours of ideologically motivated YouTube videos. The basic idea was that "Karen" and her having "done her research" was no match for an expert's years of study and advanced degree.

2020, of course, put an end to that sort of argument, at least as far as I've observed. No need to rehash the details here. The so-called "experts" gave befuddling and contradictory advice on managing the COVID-19 crisis, and then shut down the country for a year or more while the global economy ground to a halt. It was a disaster. Importantly, many of these same friends I had stopped criticizing people for "doing their research" and instead started criticizing people for "trusting the experts." 

These friends of mine were always on the side of what I would consider to be "the truth." That is, when the experts were largely correct, so were my friends; when the experts were largely incorrect, my friends were great sources of better information. But on the moral issue of advising people to trust experts, they flip-flopped.

As for me, I never criticized people for "doing their own research," because that's precisely what I believe everyone should do. No one should ever take for granted the idea that the experts probably know what they're doing. One should always verify information; and the more controversial or the more widespread the impact of that information, the more important it is to verify it. This kind of attitude comes easy to a type 1 diabetic, because we diabetics often know more about our condition than most of the doctors in our communities. We certainly know more about our own bodies than the "experts." We are used to "doing our own research" and arriving at life-saving conclusions to better manage our lives and our blood sugar.

Today, many people (say, about half the country) still insist on "trusting the experts" or "following the science" or whatever the canard happens to be. This morning, I thought about a hypothetical scenario that might help them understand the value and importance of skepticism.

Imagine you're a woman who has recently gone to her doctor to get a prescription for birth control, for the first time. You fill the prescription and start taking the pill. Very soon, you notice that your body feels very different. In fact, it feels awful. You're really uncomfortable all the time and you're struggling to just be normal. So, you go back to your doctor. He tells you that this is a common set of symptoms and that many women take time to adjust to the birth control pill. He advises you to stick with it. So, you do.

But months go by, and your discomfort doesn't let up even a little bit. Every time you think about going back to the doctor, you remember what he said. Some days you figure that you probably just need a little more time to adjust. Other days, you shrug and figure that even if there is some kind of underlying problem here, going back to the doctor is pointless, since he'll probably just tell you the same thing again, anyway.

One day, you come across a website or an internet forum of some kind, where many women describe symptoms a lot like yours, and many of them insist that the problem went away when they switched to a different kind of birth control pill. You know it's not real medical advice, but the women all seem very emphatic, so you figure, what will it hurt to try a different pill?

You make an appointment with a new doctor, you tell her that you want to try a new birth control pill. She shrugs and says sure, you can try it. She writes you a new prescription, which you fill. You make the switch and, sure enough, your symptoms let up a bit, and then a lot, and then after a few weeks, you feel completely normal again. You're back to your old self.

If you've ever been through something like this - or know someone who has - then chances are, you already understand the value of being skeptical of "the experts." You have gained some familiarity with internet research and you have an informed opinion of which other patients to listen to, and which to take with a grain of salt. You have developed a more nuanced understanding of which kinds of risks are worth taking, and which are not.

In doing so, you have equipped yourself with the tools required to verify the information that the nation's "experts" are giving you, and you have come to a point where you feel confident in the kind of research you are willing and able to do on your own time. There should be more people like you in the world, and fewer people out there who blindly trust "experts" just because they're "experts."

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