The problem with experts

Among my New Year’s Eve companions was a bow-tied academic sociologist specialising in game theory.

The fun we had.

He told me about his use of the Monty Hall problem with his students. You probably know it but (from wikipedia):

Suppose you’re on a game show, and you’re given the choice of three doors: Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats. You pick a door, say No. 1, and the host, who knows what’s behind the doors, opens another door, say No. 3, which has a goat. He then says to you, “Do you want to pick door No. 2?” Is it to your advantage to switch your choice?

The answer, for those who don’t know the problem, is that by switching you double your chances of winning the car. And you can prove it mathematically.

When Marilyn vos Savant, who originally publicised the problem, gave that answer she was beseiged by thousands of readers – almost a thousand with PhDs – telling her she was wrong. Professor Bow Tie’s own experience mimicked this: so powerfully counter-intuitive is the answer that, even after giving the proof, he was routinely challenged by students after class.

“What do you say to them,” I asked, “How do you address this conflict between the instinctive and scientific minds?”

“I send them away to do an experiment using playing cards and checking the result.”

I didn’t find this terribly useful. I was, as you will by now have gathered, interested in what insights he might have into how we should engage with those who no longer trust experts and their facts.

But I was grateful for the question.

I don’t write, especially, to defend experts. Their misplaced confidence in the regulation of our banking system may have imperilled the achievements of the Enlightenment more than what Jonathan Swift described as the “free thinking” of:

the worst part of the Soldiery made up of Pages, younger brothers of obscure Families, and others of desperate Fortunes; or else among idle Town Fops; and now and then a drunken ‘Squire of the Country.

But facts are blameless – and cannot be thrown out with the bathwater. And liberal society must, if it is to survive, wrestle with the question how to engage with a population that has so lost faith in the establishment that it will buy from those it suspects to be selling it snake oil.

I went back to Swift because, in 1721, he posed the same dilemma as that I put to Professor Bow Tie:

Reasoning well never make a man correct an ill Opinion, which by reasoning he never acquired (sic.).

And I wondered what he had offered as a solution. And what he said was this:

If you could once convince the Town or Country profligate, by Topicks drawn from the View of their own Quiet, Reputation, Health and Advantage, their Infidelity would soon drop off: This I confess is no easy Task, because it is almost in a literal Sense, to fight with Beasts.

Much that is right – and wrong – with Swift generally is to be found in these quotes. And we can learn from both.

If we speak to those who no longer believe in the establishment as “Beasts,” we do a number of disservices: to ourselves – we become beasts; to those we address – who deserve respect and courtesy; and to the cause for which we argue – which we undermine.

But there is insight too.

What much of liberal society has forgotten – sometimes even lost interest in – is meeting people where they are. Engaging very directly with people’s fears and their aspirations. This doesn’t mean throwing out the facts. It doesn’t mean accepting propositions that we know to be wrong or self-defeating. It doesn’t mean negating our own values. But it does mean accepting the limits of what we know. Recognising that the facts establish there to be profound limits to what the scientific mind can know. Accepting that there is value, too, in the instinctive mind. With grace and dignity. And, with the legitimacy this brings, pressing what we do know.

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