Most of us rely on experts—electricians, plumbers, car mechanics, doctors, dentists—to solve the practical problems that occur in our daily lives: the material world we live in is too complex to avoid them. But when it comes to intellectual questions regarding science, law and public policy, should we rely on authority figures and established institutions, or should we do our own research?A growing number of people have become suspicious of traditional sources of information like government, academia and the media. And not without reason. In the US, for example, the top universities set the trends for research and publication and recruit their students disproportionately from the social elite—often they are children of alumni. Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, Penn and Brown draw more students from households in the top 1% of income than from the entire bottom 60%. Knowledge, wealth and influence have thus become concentrated in an increasingly isolated group Thomas Piketty has called the “Brahmin Left.”
More and more of our information flows through fewer and fewer channels, and the guardians of these channels seem to be increasingly hostile to unorthodox opinions. James Damore was fired from Google in 2017 after circulating a memo challenging the company’s efforts to achieve gender parity on the basis that the different numbers of men and women in computer programming had a biological rather than social explanation (women, on average, prefer other occupations), while large social media platforms have suppressed posts that do not conform to expert opinions on Covid-19 vaccination and the outcome of the 2020 American presidential election.
There have also been some unforgivable failures of expertise and authority. In 2014, it emerged that 1,400 minors had been sexually assaulted in Rotherham by grooming gangs of men, largely of Pakistani heritage. Reports from investigators appointed by Rotherham Council and the British government found that the South Yorkshire Police, the city council, and the agencies entrusted with protecting children often prioritised protecting their own reputations, avoiding accusations of racism and creating an insincere impression of community harmony over actually doing their jobs.
And, of course, expert opinion can change as the evidence changes. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) first said that masks were unnecessary for people who weren’t unwell, then recommended cloth masks, then said masks were unnecessary for the vaccinated and finally recommended that vaccinated people continue to wear masks. The CDC acted correctly in updating their position as we learned more about Covid-19, but it’s easy to understand how people have come to question if the current advice is right, particularly as the CDC’s updates do not acknowledge how or why the previous advice was incorrect.
But it can be a short hop from reasonable scepticism of official sources to the uncritical acceptance of misinformation from completely unreliable ones. Misinformation on the 2020 presidential election led people to attack the US Capitol in January 2021. Misinformation on Russia led to the bizarre coalition of far-left and far-right commentators who have either excused or even cheered on Vladimir Putin’s indefensible invasion of Ukraine. And most tragically, misinformation on vaccines has led to thousands of preventable deaths from Covid-19.
Doing Your Own Research
Doing your own research has its pitfalls.
First, unless you come to a complex field with a solid understanding of the basics, your research is unlikely to be particularly good. It is pointless, for example, to attempt to understand climatology without first studying the underlying physics and chemistry, or to come to a view on vaccines without a working knowledge of virology. Social media, however, is full of uniformed, confident amateurs.
Established knowledge can be disproven, of course. The history of science is full of superseded theories, including the steady state model of the universe, the Rutherford-Bohr model of the atom and Lamarckian evolution. Courts have made erroneous judgements. Academia is full of abandoned and disproven ideas. But experts are usually disproven by other experts, not by lone heterodox thinkers hanging out on Twitter.
Charles Darwin is the single most important figure in biology. He was also, on some key questions, simply wrong. He could see that traits were passed from parents to offspring but couldn’t explain why, so he came up with a complex idea called pangenesis. In his model, particles called gemmules spread from all parts of the body to the sex organs and create the blueprint for the next generation. We know now that there are no gemmules. The actual explanation involves DNA—but this was not discovered by a creationist YouTuber, but by a team of highly credentialed scientists at Cambridge.
The second problem is that our research is often influenced by our cognitive biases. We naturally seek out facts that support our opinions and gloss over, minimise or reject facts that challenge them. Experts have cognitive biases too, but they are subject to processes like peer review, explicitly designed to control for them and to minimise their effects.
Heterodox thinking is easily marred by cognitive biases. The Covid-19 vaccines could only have been manufactured and distributed so quickly and on such a global scale by large pharmaceutical corporations like Pfizer and Moderna. But left-wing anti-vaxxers often find it easier to believe that such vaccines are unsafe and inferior to so-called natural remedies than to accept that industrial capitalism can play a critical role in public health. Right-wing anti-vaxxers, in turn, find it easier to reach the same conclusion than to grapple with the difficult question of mandates. In theory, we should be able to distinguish between scientific and political questions. It is a perfectly consistent position to accept that vaccines work and yet oppose mandates. But it can be easier to oppose mandates if you don’t accept that vaccines work in the first place.
Climate change provides another example of bias at work. There is a consensus in the published science that the world is growing measurably warmer—as evidenced by temperature records and the retreat of glaciers and polar ice caps; that this warming is largely caused by human carbon emissions; and that the risks it poses include the increased frequency of extreme weather events, disruption to rainfall (which affects agriculture) and, over the long term, rising sea levels. Here too, we need to separate scientific questions from political ones. People of all political convictions—but especially conservatives and libertarians—tend to confuse the science of climate change with the politics of how to respond to it. It is easy to see why, as any public policy measure designed to reduce carbon emissions will require government intervention in the free market.
Over the summer of 2019–20, an area of south-eastern Australia the size of West Virginia was devastated by bushfires. These fires were not directly caused by climate change, although Australia’s most important scientific bodies, including the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology, believe that climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of bushfires. While the fires were still burning, a claim began circulating in conservative media that they had been started by arsonists. “Nearly 200 people have reportedly been arrested for starting disastrous fires in Australia,” announced PragerU in a video that Facebook has flagged as misinformation, “But for celebrities, ‘CLIMATE CHANGE’ is a more useful narrative.”
The claim is wrong on almost every point. It is true that New South Wales police took action against 183 people for fire-related offences in 2019. But these numbers include prosecutions for any action, deliberate or accidental, that creates a fire risk. Someone cautioned for throwing a cigarette butt out of a car window in a fire-prone area would be counted. Neither the Rural Fire Service in New South Wales nor the Country Fire Authority in Victoria have accepted the arson claim, and every subsequent review has found that the most dangerous fires were started by lightning strikes in remote areas. To my knowledge, none of the high-profile public figures who repeated the arson claim have made a public correction. And the episode illustrates a frequent challenge in dealing with these sorts of claims: researching and refuting them takes far more effort than hitting a like or retweet button.
Doing Heterodoxy Right
Does this mean that we should blindly trust people if they have enough letters after their names? Not at all. There are Young-Earth creationists with PhDs. The advantages of our civilisation come not from experts but from expertise: the collective body of knowledge built up over centuries through institutions with built-in checks and balances designed to compensate for the frailties of individual humans. Experts are often wrong, but the body of expertise is much less likely to be.
If our established body of knowledge were consistently wrong, you would not be reading this article, as the Internet wouldn’t exist, and you and I would probably be illiterate peasants living in huts. Since the Enlightenment, we have known more, lived longer and healthier lives, had better food and medicine and been less likely to die violent deaths. Whatever we’re doing seems to be working.
It is possible to be an independent and sceptical thinker without falling for snake oil, getting arrested for attacking the United States Capitol or ending up on a ventilator in an ICU. In fact, being an independent and sceptical thinker will make it less likely that you will suffer one of these fates. But you do need to remain aware of your own cognitive biases: remember that you will naturally be more credulous when you encounter sources that affirm your worldview and more sceptical of sources that contradict it.
Of course, not all sources are equal. Be sure to follow claims to their original sources before sharing them. If the claim is scientific, look for the original peer-reviewed study. If not, look for an authoritative data set or corroborated eyewitness reports, published by a reputable media outlet.
If most experts disagree with you, one of three things must be true: they are wrong; they are lying; they know something that you don’t. The first two are not impossible—as we saw with the Rotherham grooming gangs case—but they become increasingly unlikely as the body of knowledge and the number of institutions and individual experts grows. If, for example, you are going to argue that human activity is not causing measurable climate change, you must explain how all the world’s major scientific bodies could be wrong and why non-scientists on media outlets like Fox News would be better informed. Or, if you believe they are lying, explain how they can keep the truth suppressed. It’s a tall order.