Belief in the Ignorance of Experts

It has been a bad couple of years for experts in the UK.

First the academics, polling companies and media talking heads called the 2015 general election wrongly. And then just a few months ago the academics, polling companies and media talking heads again called the EU Referendum vote wrongly.

To my knowledge, not a single social science department in the UK predicted either event remotely correctly. It invites the question ‘what are they for?’ And moreover, ‘why should students pay up to £9k/year plus living costs to receive a piece of paper from them?’

In the build up to the EU Referendum we were treated to a slew of  disaster stories including and up to the start of World War Three as a result of a Brexit vote. Our own chancellor (at the time), who ostensibly is supposed to look out for the economic interests of the nation’s citizens even promised a ‘punishment budget’ if the demos opted to Brexit. And now here we are a few months later with the most influential international bodies more or less carrying out a complete volte face on the issue.

Again, I find myself asking – ‘what are they for?’

Now if one were to draw a Venn Diagram of those who fantasised over post Brexit catastrophes and those who indulge in similar for climate doom I suspect a very interesting cross section would be revealed. I contend that this cross section would be even larger if considering the people who persist in asserting the sky is going to fall in both cases in spite of the complete lack of reason to suppose impending calamity thus far. In fact I will add it to my list of fun projects to get around to – a sentiment analysis of the great and the good’s twitter output with this narrow remit could be quite interesting.

Other quarters have raised doubts recently about the competence of experts that bear significantly on both of these issues.

Nassim Taleb (of Black Swan fame) penned a piece last month that really struck a chord with me. Named “The Intellectual Yet Idiot”, Taleb takes aim at the intelligentsia who, whilst having some specific domain expertise in one area, feel they can hold forth on all areas. It is also clear from his piece that Taleb wonders about the value of the domain expertise in many cases too, and with good reason. Postnormalism, Postmodernism and regressive approaches generally continue to infest the academy and divert it further away from its historical foundational commitments to scholarly inquiry and scientific integrity. A full accounting of which is chronicled by ‘Real Peer Review‘ (full disclosure – I am one of the contributors to this).

Taleb’s piece is well worth reading in full, however I wanted to highlight two passages that seemed particularly apposite:

“The IYI [Intellectual Yet Idiot] pathologizes others for doing things he doesn’t understand without ever realizing it is his understanding that may be limited. He thinks people should act according to their best interests and he knows their interests, particularly if they are “red necks” or English non-crisp-vowel class who voted for Brexit. When plebeians do something that makes sense to them, but not to him, the IYI uses the term “uneducated”. What we generally call participation in the political process, he calls by two distinct designations: “democracy” when it fits the IYI, and “populism” when the plebeians dare voting in a way that contradicts his preferences. While rich people believe in one tax dollar one vote, more humanistic ones in one man one vote, Monsanto in one lobbyist one vote, the IYI believes in one Ivy League degree one-vote, with some equivalence for foreign elite schools and PhDs as these are needed in the club.”

Taleb references Brexit as his primary example here. Does it sound just a teensy bit familiar for another domain, however?

The other passage that caught my eye is even more interesting:

“The IYI has a copy of the first hardback edition of The Black Swan on his shelves, but mistakes absence of evidence for evidence of absence. He believes that GMOs are “science”, that the “technology” is not different from conventional breeding as a result of his readiness to confuse science with scientism.”

If there was a better way to summarise the circle of most hysterical prognosticators of doom who inexplicably continue to have their irresponsible, ill-thought out and often utterly unscientific proclamations tannoyed uncritically through the media than that last sentence, I’ve yet to see it. They confuse science with scientism. Perfect. Encapsulation.

The groups Taleb takes aim at here also have a predilection for refusing to countenance anything that has not passed through the digestive innards of the infallible and mighty peer review system. The system that is actually so awful for ensuring quality and integrity that one can only really appreciate how awful it is once one has actually gone through the process – on either end. Even Nature acknowledges its fundamentally unscientific character.

There’s certainly no ignoring how awful a quality control system it is now it has met its nemesis in the computing world. I have wondered, ever since discovering the Post-Modern Essay Generator how long it would be before my bot-writing peers would be able to imitate typical peer review comments on papers under consideration. And it’s not just that the bots can write them, it’s that they consistently fool the – er – ‘experts’ in one in four cases. Yes, you know, those people we continue inexplicably relying on even when they refuse to express humility regarding the depths of their ignorance (or in particular in climate science, uncertainty). An expert in one domain is an expert in all, doncha know – or didn’t you get the memo from Brian Cox?

The overall decline of the academy, with climate science one of its most noxious metastasizing influences, has paralleled the appearance and elevation of, and genuflection before, the ‘rock star’ scientist. Far from scientific integrity and ponderous scholarly caveats, so much of the domain is now promoted through pure presentation and showmanship, as this fake TED talk demonstrates.

Many academics were worried about their careers post Brexit. They’re worrying entirely about the wrong thing. What they should be worried about is what happens when the general public has had enough of the broken covenant between academic and taxpayer. There are only so many times the supposed ‘experts’ can get it so utterly wrong whilst simultaneously being outed as shilling for one political cause or another. At the handful of ‘climate communication’ events I’ve attended a group of these bubble academics and activists hand-wring and remonstrate with one another and wonder why on earth the general public becomes ever more sceptical with each ridiculous screaming headline about how a trace gas is going to kill us all.

The fact is the term ‘expert’ is now being rapidly associated with numerous untrustworthy professions such as ‘politician’ and ‘used-car salesman’. And they have no one to blame other than themselves. Even academics who maintained integrity in their own work will be called to account – why oh why did you not call the snake-oil salesmen among you to account? When that question is finally asked by the general public in earnest it will be too late for you too.



  1. “considering the people who persist in asserting the sky is going to fall”

    More Clexit than Brexit: “Donald Trump is a ‘threat to the planet’, says world-leading climate change scientist”

    ‘We are facing a make-or-break election as far as climate change is concerned,’ says Professor Michael Mann, who produced the famous ‘hockey stick’ global temperature graph.”


  2. The concept that only the unintelligent voted for Brexit is a good example of bad research. It mistakes educational attainment for intelligence and that’s a flawed assumption. Are we to assume that the young person with their media studies degree is brighter than people without a degree from an earlier generation? Given that the person has run up massive debts to get a piece of paper that might mark them as a timewaster, I’m not sure that they match the basic intelligence of their grandparents who possibly left school with no qualifications at all. Everybody knows that there has been a massive drive to keep people in education longer. Tony Blair’s insane theory that the country could benefit from a much more highly educated population, without working out which degrees actually make a difference. The only difference between a waiter with a degree and one without is the former thinks he’s too good for the job.

    Now there probably was a greater number of more intelligent people voting for Remain but most of them were voting that way out of fear for their own prosperity than any real desire to stay in the EU. They certainly weren’t thinking of others. They voted for the status quo, which for them was pretty good.

    The four questions that I’ve never got a Remainer to answer are –

    How many immigrants are too many?
    Given that the EU takes over national sovereignty one small change at a time, what if any, would be a change too far and why would you react if you get there by seemingly harmless increments?
    We were supposed to get a veto on ever closer union but a future PM and cabinet could have torn it up, joined the Euro and merged the UK with an EU super state or at the very least made it almost impossible to stay out, especially if all the usual voices said that it would be economic suicide not to. Would that suit you?
    If you never make a stand, how would you stop these things coming to pass?

    There are a lot of good articles out there admitting that the experts have cocked up too many times recently to expect much respect. (as I was typing that I missed off the c and wrote ‘the experts have coked up too many times’. Well that’s probably true too for a lot of them.)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The famous Feynman quote is a favourite of climate sceptics of course.

    Richard used it in his series “Brexit and the ignorance of experts”, parts one and two, ending with the suggestion that there will be more in the series.


  4. TinyCO2

    “Are we to assume that the young person with their media studies degree is brighter than people without a degree from an earlier generation?”

    Certainly not, but I think Media Studies must be much harder than people think, since it’s done so badly.

    “The only difference between a waiter with a degree and one without is the former thinks he’s too good for the job.”

    .. and for that reason will probably do it badly. He’ll also lack the kind of class solidarity which might get him to down towels and militate for better wages and working conditions.

    Here in France, a recent study claimed that 10% of the homeless have a university degree. Which is great news for France, because we’ll probably have a good old-fashioned revolution while you in the UK are still faffing about wondering whether to vote for May or Corbyn.


  5. Danny, you might like this tweet I’ve just seen:

    The quote seems to be from Health and the Rise of Civilisation by anthropologist Mark N Cohen, published in 1989.
    What a great quote, perfectly encapsulating the unthinking echo chamber of academia.

    The link leads to a blog post on two topics where “there’s only one position considered acceptable” — (a) There are no genetic differences in things like behaviour and thought processes between races, it’s all a ‘social construct’, and (b) similarly for males and females. I think we could add a third topic to the list.


  6. Dennis –
    “More Clexit than Brexit:”

    Clexit! I like it! I hope you don’t mind if I steal it?

    And thanks for alerting me to the latest inanity from our favourite hockey team member. It’s hard to keep up with the sheer volume of bilge they produce sometimes.


  7. Tiny –
    ” It mistakes educational attainment for intelligence and that’s a flawed assumption.”

    I can’t tell you how much this phenomenon sickens me. I tired of teaching at University very quickly because, among other reasons, I quickly realised that anything between half and two thirds of the students should not be there. I felt very sorry for the talented and hard working last third.

    University qualifications have become so laughable now I even have doubts about the value of my having a PhD, especially as academia has become a place of strait-jacket ideological conformity and safe spaces for special snowflakes.

    These days when someone tells me they’re a graduate with the obvious expectation that is supposed to mean something to me, I immediately think of this:

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Paul –
    “Danny, you might like this tweet I’ve just seen:”

    – As Richard Bandler once said “When someone asked me what I think of the Mind/Body split, I said ‘I approve!’ and then went to find an axe”…. 🙂

    Funny that it brings up those topics. I was just reading this:

    “The sociological religion of no biological differences between the sexes”

    Liked by 1 person


    I tired of teaching at University very quickly because, among other reasons, I quickly realised that anything between half and two thirds of the students should not be there.

    Are you still teaching? I hope so, because universities desperately need people with your attitude.
    I taught at university for nearly 20 years and the situation was complicated by the fact that most of those who shouldn’t be there were native French, and most of those who were benefiting (or doing their best to benefit) were African or Chinese.

    Predicting what these twenty year olds will be doing in 30-40 years’ time is considerably easier than predicting the average global temperature to one tenth of a degree. That’s why I’m learning Mandarin.


  10. With climate change, there is no need for a belief in the ignorance of experts in order to question the prevailing consensus scientific viewpoint, because have . . . . drum roll . . . . a belief in the ignorance of the data!

    Thus, the climate models, constructed by experts, unleashed in all their majesty on mainframe, superfast, superhuman, supercomputers, now tell us that even the most recent, advanced observational datasets are not as good as what the models say the data should be.


  11. We have seen a perfect illustration of the IYI in the last few days over at “Practical Ethics“.
    Neil Levy “pathologizes others for doing things he doesn’t understand without ever realizing it is his understanding that may be limited” as Taleb puts it.

    A philosopher who appears to know almost nothing about either climate science or the social and psychological aspects of the climate debate blunders in, at the Nonversation and at his own blog, regurgitating all the myths, fairy stories and cliches that he’s read in the Guardian (deniers, experts, consensus, 97%…), and accepting them all without applying the slightest bit of scrutiny.

    Virtually everything he says is completely taken apart in the comments there by Geoff, Ben, me, Barry, Brandon and others. He has no answers to any of the points raised and after writing a few childish remarks and incoherent non-sequiturs (what’s that about rounding pi down to 3?) he throws in the towel after stubbornly restating his belief in experts and consensus.

    The worrying thing about this Professor at what is allegedly the world’s top university is not just that he hasn’t a clue what he’s talking about (Barry runs rings round him over the history of the use of the d word for example), but that he is incapable of debate. It’s as if he has no experience of having his fundamental beliefs and assumptions questioned.


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