Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Belief In The Ignorance Of Experts


Whenever I see the term "expert", I think of Richard Feynman's (Feynman is a brilliant Nobel Prize winner in Physics) National Science Teachers speech in 1966: 

We have many studies in teaching, for example, in which people make observations, make lists, do statistics, and so on, but these do not thereby become established science, established knowledge. They are merely an imitative form of science analogous to the South Sea Islanders’ airfields–radio towers, etc., made out of wood. The islanders expect a great airplane to arrive. They even build wooden airplanes of the same shape as they see in the foreigners’ airfields around them, but strangely enough, their wood planes do not fly. The result of this pseudoscientific imitation is to produce experts, which many of you are. [But] you teachers, who are really teaching children at the bottom of the heap, can maybe doubt the experts. As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.

The linked talks about a tweet by Paul Graham which states: 

If you think you don't trust scientists, you're mistaken. You trust scientists in a million different ways every time you step on a plane, or for that matter turn on your tap or open a can of beans. The fact that you're unaware of this doesn't mean it's not so.

Well, no. You "trust" engineers, and all the people in the chain that built and tested the many thousands if the components in the aircraft, the mental health and competence of the pilots, ATC, other pilots,  the people that produced the fuel ... a nearly infinite chain of trust. Or, basically you are taking a "leap", that isn't really "faith", because most have not thought about any of this. Nor should you really, because a life that can actually be lived is based on all sorts of unconscious assumptions. 

It would be very good however if many more people were aware that we ALL live by faith, all the time. If more people realized that, we would likely be somewhat kinder to others. 

"Science" is a method. a tool - it makes hypotheses and tests them. Very few of the people in that long chain were "scientists", they were "experts" in some sort of discipline generally blindly following the "rules" (standard procedures") of that discipline.  

In this world, the "experts" are imperfect and often fail. The passengers on the 737 Max trusted the chain of "experts", and the chain failed. The list of "expert failures" is endless ... in these times it often starts with the Titanic. My favorite example is Trofim Lysenko whose "expertise" combined with political ideology resulted in millions of deaths. 

Do the "experts" creating and pushing the new mRNA vaccine know what they are doing? We certainly hope and pray that they do. We DO know that pushing a new technology to millions of people has significant risk. In software, we say "never take the first release". Even in cars, many people want to wait a bit on a new model, because there is a good deal of evidence there will be one or more "recalls", some of which may be significantly dangerous. 

The real world is often harsher to the new technology than the theories, early testing, and politics hoped it would be. 

So before you "trust the science", be aware that what you are trusting is the bureaucratic system that decided on operation "Warp Speed", and decided that they HAD to roll out the vaccine quickly. Fortunately there were only 7 people on the Challenger when it "had to launch" on the cold morning of January 28, 1986.  

Interestingly, Feynman was the person that discovered the technical cause of the Challenger Disaster. 

The root cause was believing in "experts" (rather than understanding their ignorance), and the application of those beliefs by a bureaucracy to the launch decision. 

1 comment:

  1. The expert engineers in the company which produced the boosters warned their management of the risks. The inexpert bureaucrats ignited the warnings.