The Illusion of Expertise

Table of Contents:

You’re talking to someone about a topic that has piqued your interest lately, and you’re trying to share your thoughts on it and expecting your interlocutor to share some interest and also have a few thoughts on it. Let’s also consider that as you are sharing your thoughts some of them touch on “hard” subjects like mathematics, physics or some areas of philosophy (metaphysics, say) and after you finish the friend starts saying a few things but he prefaces by saying: “I’m not an expert in math, physics or philosophy.” As someone who hears this so very often in conversations and also having used this before, I’ve been trying to figure out why we’ve gotten to the point that we need to make sure we are or aren’t “experts” in something before we start a conversation, and what are the ramifications surrounding it.

The Problem of Hyperspecialization : Tunnel Vision

So, why do we go back to the idea of “experts” all the time? One of the reasons for this is that we consider the fields of knowledge to be exclusive to each other. This happens a lot in academia than other places. If you have a house with a garden, you just start taking care of it and pick up the “skills” of gardening. You don’t have to associate or compare yourself with the idea of an “expertise” in gardening to do that. And when someone comes to your house and they see a beautiful garden, they’ll more likely think you take care of your garden a lot than think you are trying to develop a side hustle of being the best gardener in the city.

The idea is that people wouldn’t like to think that the persona certain things from you have created, has other things in it that are deemed inherently “incompatible”. We have a lot of these, such as being a researcher in the hard sciences and also being religious or being super good with computers and being a novelist or poet, there’s something “weird” about this. The tunnel vision of hyperspecialization has been so badly inflitrated across fields and different aspects of what we do, that it really surprises people how or why you’d do that. If you are really good at something, you somehow have a persona that should fit with a certain criteria, and we’ve also taken this to the level of considering what “hobbies” you might want to have.

St. Paul : The Tentmaking Apostle

An example from history would be, let’s say, St. Paul. Without googling or referring to any sources, who do you think he was? What was his profession? What was his life like? What was he doing on a daily basis? Writing books/monographs for the church? Preaching to people? If we were to bring Paul into the 21st century, what would his resumé look like? Do you think he’d get a decent job if any? The “official” profession of Paul was: tentmaking, He inherited this as a family business from his family and continued it with some friends. That’s what he did for a living, amidst everything else he did in writing, preaching and the things that posterity has glorified him for.

Do you see what’s interesting here? How come we never got to hear much about his tentmaking skills? I mean unless you are really interested in paying attention to Paul or his life, you probably wouldn’t care about this short line in his wiki or if you cared to pick up something related to the history of lives of apostles. The point nonetheless stands: his “official profession” was not something posterity (specifically under today’s capitalistic predicament) would like to associate him with. We cared more about what he did when he was not doing his professional work.

At least this should be enough to convince you that what gets “valued” from you isn’t always straightforward, nor is your “work” in a certain field always relevant to that itself. You can be the best tentmaker that ever existed in your locality and no one will ever know about it but they might remember more about the grace with which you handled guests in a holiday. Isn’t that a skill too? Does that mean you should be on the road to be working in a hotel and provide hospitality? Maybe yes, most likely not. We’ll get back to this idea of what’s “valued” in a bit. Let’s take another example, one that I’ve always admired.

The Case for Feyerabend : “Anything Goes”

If you’re someone who either lived during the 70s-80s and saw the chaos between philosophy and science, or maybe you’re just a student who took a Philosophy of Science class, you very likely have come across the name Paul Feyerabend. And if you have come across his name, you probably either low-key despise him, maybe admire him a bit or maybe you don’t care enough about philosophers of science altogether.

Anyhow, I believe, both Feyerabend’s philosophy and the way he lived his life are a persistent counterexample to all forms of hyperspecialization-ism. Even though most people today know him as a philosopher (ahem ahem, who “destroyed science” whatever that means) he always liked to think of himself as rather an entertainer whose foci of interests always fiddled around. He writes this in his autobiography, Killing Time, describing his initial experiences with literature and books:

“Altogether, my interests were rather unfocused (they still are). A book, a film, a theatrical performance, or a causal remark could move me in any direction.”

And indeed this didn’t disappear from Feyerabend’s personality at all, to the end he was always exploring and bringing paradigms from fields that others would rather be liked to have some form of gate-keeping. He didn’t shy away from holding himself to “alternative medicine” approaches like acupuncture, homoeopathy, or ancient Chinese approaches and also confessed being personally helped by them. He, unlike his fellow scientists or philosophers, was never a fan of drawing arbitrary lines that demarcated what’s “good” for “scientific” purposes and what’s not. This might sound very radical and maybe ridiculous but Feyerabend was a bit more careful about this than you might think. At its core his idea was that the so-called rationalists and scientific experts have created such a bubble of demarcation that they won’t even look at what’s beyond it, once they have discarded certain things in one way or another. And this isn’t too surprising, how many of us would just go on to say : “astrology is stupid”, without being careful about studying the history of astrology? Why? Well, just because we live in a specific mode of 21st century when reason has done its job of Enlightening us and the best of minds in science have thought alike about this subject: that astrology indeed is stupid. Maybe it is, maybe not, but is being aware and studying the history of astrology stupid? Certainly not. And the usual response to this is : “but that’s what anthropologists do.” Correct, but why shouldn’t we be knowledgeable in anthropology if we are going to critique a sophisticated area of human thought? Why shouldn’t we go all the way, if we are taking up the problem in the first place? And if unwilling to do so, why can’t we allow for our ignorance and astrology’s significance?

Philosophy, Physics and Philosophy of Science

It’s not surprising if a physicist reading this would just feel all of this is useless because, of course, one of the best physicists of the last century declared that “philosophy is dead”. This should make us question: how much of what we think/decide is so badly infiltrated because we’ve been trying to live under the shadow of expertise, that is dominated with discourses of a handful of experts?

But, do you see the circularity yet? Unlike your hypothetical friend that I introduced in the beginning, Hawking doesn’t really preface his declaration of philosophy’s death by something like : “I am not really an expert in philosophy.” He just simply didn’t think it was important enough for him to realize he might have missed a whole lot that’s in philosophy which is beyond his narrowed vision, what was more important for him is making sure his declaration was absolute regardless of how baseless it might be. If Hawking can decide to just blow up a field of human thought, why can’t we blow up one of the “hard sciences”? Well, what’s more important than “blowing up” is to show that, indeed, there’s a sort of view that’s inherent in such declarations that portrays science (here, physics) as a sort of “absolute” which is more “real” than something like philosophy.

What Feyerabend alluded to is this, how come we can talk whatever we want to eradicate one discourse in a multitude of discourses and imagine ourselves to have done a good job? I hope it was conveyed that the way some of us might discard astrology without knowing much (or anything) about it is not too different from how Hawking discarded philosophy. And this is clear if you read the original quote, which says:

“…but Philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics…”

Hawking & Milodinow, The Grand Design (2010)

And, to those who are faimiliar with philosophy, I don’t even need to reiterate how many terrible prejudices these sentences hold. D.C Scott summarized this nicely in his response:

A number of prejudices lie behind the Hawking/Mlodinow statement. Physical science is emphasized as the only means to verifiable ‘scientific knowledge’. Implicit is the need for experimental evidence for scientific theories. Moreover, a distinction is drawn between philosophical investigation and ‘hard’ science to the extend that philosophy is removed from consideration: it is “dead”. Evident in Hawking/Mlodinow is a form of positivism, particularly in the rejection of metaphysical considerations (surprise, surprise Cf. Vienna Circle).

Scott, C.D (2012), The Death of Philosophy : A Response to Stephen Hawking, p. 385

And Feyerabend noted exactly this several decades ago:

For is it not possible that science as we know it today, or a “search for the truth” in the style of traditional philosophy, will create a monster? Is it not possible that an objective approach that frowns upon personal connections between the entities examined will harm people, turn them into miserable, unfriendly, self-righteous mechanisms without charm or humor?

Paul Feyerabend, Against Method (1993)

Not sure about whether people will stop making jokes, but they certainly will not stop making jokes about the fields they don’t think have any worth (philosophy, astrology, etc.), and of course that’s self-righteous. This is what hyperspecialization-ism leads to, not only do you end up considering products of human thought exclusive to each other but you go a step forward and reduce a few them to absolutely nothing for the sake of propagating something else under the guise of it being “better” with respect to certain standards.

Feyerabend Contra Agassi : Why Listen to Experts?

Feyerabend is often classed with a few other thinkers who before and after him have tried to take a stab at science through philosophy. To name the most popular ones would be: Sir Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Imre Lakatos and Joseph Agassi. Feyerabend was influenced and had interactions with all of them, his best friend being Lakatos. When Feyerabend’s “magnum opus” Against Method was published in 1975 many reviews came in, and Feyerabend responded to some of them, but amidst these there’s a letter to Agassi that stands out as one of the best summaries of Feyerabend’s philosophy. He gives Agasssi four reasons why taxpayers would not be better advised to accept the judgment of experts, and yeah its a long quote but I think it pins down the problem really succinctly and if I had to bring a quote of Feyerabend that holds together the knots of thought that I have brainstormed in this piece, then its the following one:

First, experts have a vested interest in their own playpens, and so they will quite naturally argue that ’education’ is impossible without them (can you imagine an Oxford philosopher, or an elementary particle physicist arguing himself out of good money?)

Secondly, scientific experts hardly ever examine the alternatives that might come up in the discussion with the care they take for granted when a problem in their own field is at stake. They agonize over different scientific approaches to the problems of space and time but the idea that the Hopi Genesis might have to add something to cosmology is at once rejected out of hand. Here scientists and, for that matter, all rationalists act very much like the Roman Church acted before them : they denounce unusual and extraordinary views as Pagan superstitions, they deny them every right to make a contribution to the One True Religion. Given power, they will suppress Pagan ideas as a matter of course and replace them by their own “enlightened” philosophy.

Thirdly, the use of experts would be alright if they were only taken from the proper field. Scientists would laugh their heads off (or, to be more realistic: they would be very indignant) if one asked a faith healer and not a surgeon about the details of an operation: obviously the faith healer is the wrong person to ask. But they take it for granted that an astronomer and not a astrologist should be asked about the merits of astrology, or that a Western physician and not a student of the Nei Ching should decide about the fate of acupuncture. Now–and with this I come to the fourth point–such a procedure would be unobjectionable if the astronomer or the Western physician, could be assumed to know more about astrology, or acupuncture than the astrologist, or the traditional Chinese doctor. Unfortunately, this is only rarely the case. Ignorant and conceited people are permitted to condemn views of which they have only the foggiest notion and with arguments they would not tolerate for a second in their own field. Acupuncture, for example, was condemned not because anyone had examined it, but simply because some vague idea of it did not fit into the general ideology of medical science or, to call things by their proper name, because it was a ‘Pagan’ subject (the hope for financial rewards has in the mean time led to a considerable change of attitude, however).

Paul Feyerabend, Science in a Free Society, p.134-135

Work Profiles as Commodity : What Good Are Tunnels Anyway?

Though I wanted Feyerabend to be the central force of this piece, I nonetheless want to keep my promise and say a bit about the “value” of work that one does and what tunneling eventually leads to in the current market of skills. And for this I would borrow one of the basic insights that Marx introduced in Volume I of Das Kapital.

One of the many reasons why making fields exclusive to each other is profitable under late stage capitalism is that this exclusivity allows for curating profiles that act as commodities. Prof. Hans has done some informative videos digging deeper into this notion of profilicity, but the general idea of this is we’ve come to a place where what really matters is how your profiles compare to the rest of the field, and relative to that your “work skills” would be evaluated. But, how come this commodity becomes a problem?

This is where Marx comes in. In the 4th section of chapter 1, titled “The Fetishism of the Commodity and Its Secret”, Marx breaks the naïve idea of commodity and shows how its quite a packed box of metaphysical and other components.

“A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.”

Karl Marx, Das Kapital (I)

Similarly a “skill” that you get valued for, is never just a skill, it is part of a chain of metaphysical subtleties. The tentmaking of St. Paul isn’t just that, it is looked at from specific orientations depending upon the predicament its relative to. Back in his days, it probably wasn’t surprising to be a tentmaker and having the skills he did but in current times being trained in physics doesn’t really assume any importance for any skill in philosophy, it doesn’t really even think of relevance to philosophy. And that gets turned into hyperspecialization-ism, and once you’ve excluded it you can turn the commodity of philosophy compared to the commodity of physics. And, of course, considering the situations due to physics and science at large, the commodity of physics turns out to be more valuable, so much so that the commodity of philosophy can sometimes be non-existent.

And Feyerabend echoes the same idea that Marx’s commodity fetishism points to:

“A liberal-rational democracy cannot contain a Hopi culture in the full sense of the word. It cannot contain a black culture in the full sense of the word. It cannot contain these cultures only as secondary grafts on a basic structure that is constituted by an unholy alliance between science, rationalism, and capitalism. This is how a small gang of of so-called ‘humanitarians’ has succeeded in shaping society in their image and in weeding out almost all earlier forms of life. […] What remains in the end behind all the humanitarian verbiage is the white man’s assumption of his own intellectual superiority. It is this high handed procedure, this inhumane suppression of views one does not like, this use of ’education’ as a cub of beating people into submission which has prompted my contempt for science, rationalism, and all the pretty phrases that go with it (‘search for truth’; ‘intellectual honesty’ etc. etc.” intellectual honesty, my foot!)…"

Paul Feyerabend, Science in a Free Society, p.136

This ‘humanitarian’ appraoch is not just another example of commodity but its a continous factory of ‘intellectual commodities’, but that altogether is a different debate, albeit not unrelated.

Conclusion : So, Let’s Just Be Anarchists? Maybe Not!

And you might think I am just randomly putting some Marxist speculations into the realm of science, and that is just unfair. But that is exactly the problem, why can’t we talk about the subjects as commodities in the market of fields and jobs, why should we exclude critiques of political philosophy to something like physics or science? This again is another form of hyperspecialization-ism that justifies itself, if we take Feyerabend’s philosophy to heart, not only political philosophy which is already something inherited in academia but also things like astrology can give us insight into science. And the lesson of “anything goes” isn’t that you should start believing in astrology and throw away physics, it is more that you should take whatever you can from places without gatekeeping for arbitrary political reasons. This also doesn’t mean Feyerabend is for political anarchism, he clarifies it in the same letter to Agassi:

“I do not say that epistemology should become anarchic, or that philosophy of science should become anarchic. I say that both disciplines should receive anarchism as a medicine. Epistemology is sick, it must be cured, and the medicine is anarchy.

And he continues:

“I intend to discuss the role of anarchism in epistemology and philosophy of science, I am not too enthusiastic about political anarchism.”

Paul Feyerabend, Science in a Free Society, p.127

And this is important, because this saves us from misinterpreting Feyerabend’s claim by putting it on the camp of political anarchists. That’s not to say you can’t have both influence each other, they perfectly can, but they aren’t the same.

Thus we don’t have to be full-on anarchists to accept the fact that indeed human thought can influence us on multiple levels, across multiple fields, cultivate different skills and be valued across multiple domains in different ways. And dropping the illusion of expertise is not to say that one shouldn’t strive to be good at something, but rather to not hold it exclusive self-righteously about the ways one can excel at it. That you can be good at something and have zero idea idea about something else, that things you might consider incompatible can hold much for you, that to be a good researcher one shouldn’t consider hyperspecialization as the ultimate goal in the pursuit of knowledge but rather to consider the openness that human thought can give ground to, that doing research is more than curating a profile in the market of commodities. And then hyperspecialization is no longer a problem but a powerful tool, it becomes a trip down one deep rabbit hole that introduces you to a whole labyrinth of rabbit holes.

And only then would we start appreciating the giants that existed before us, to appreciate not only the commodities that we’ve created out of them but how they cultivated a disposition that allowed for the inherent multitude of human thought whether that’s from a Goethe, Mill, Feyerabend or my favorite rockstar philosopher.

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