Opinion: To think or not to think? Should you really think for yourself or should you trust the experts?

It seems to make logical sense to outsource some of our thinking on various topics to those experts that, in many cases, have devoted their entire lives to acquiring wisdom on the subject at hand.


Written by Michael Beshai

Thinking for yourself is often touted as a virtue, but is it always appropriate? After all, in the grand scheme of things, there’s a boundless universe of knowledge which can theoretically be acquired, and we ourselves each possess but a thin sliver of all that is knowable. The more facts and data we have to assist us in our decision making, the better our decision making capabilities can be. Therefore, it seems to make logical sense to outsource some of our thinking on various topics to those experts that, in many cases, have devoted their entire lives to acquiring wisdom on the subject at hand.

For instance, I trust my mechanic knows more about cars than I do, so I let them make decisions about how to fix my car. Similarly, I trust that the years of education and experience my doctor has undergone has made them more knowledgeable on the topic of the human body and health than I, so I may follow their medical recommendations.

And yet, while we can relinquish our decisions to someone else, we cannot avoid our responsibility for the outcomes of those decisions. I may allow the mechanic to make the choices around how to repair my vehicle, but ultimately I’m the one who has to drive my car and live with the outcome of the repairs afterwards. If the wrong decisions are made and the job is not done right, I bare the cost. Similarly, with my health, my doctor can make lifestyle recommendations and offer prescriptions, but I must live with the health consequences of those decisions if I choose to follow them. Sure, I could seek restitution from the mechanic or doctor if justified, maybe sue them, but I could never undo what happened. Therefore, at the very least, it seems unavoidable that it’ll always be necessary for us to decide who to trust.

We have the wisdom of a world of experts available to us at our fingertips at any time through the internet. Often, they hold contradictory views. Many may not be so wise. How then do we know who to trust? Should our default position be to listen to those in positions of authority?

The assumption with taking that position would seem to be that those in authority have obtained their status through meritocracy and by their virtues and righteousness. However, we know corruption is abound in the world, North America and Europe being no exceptions, and politics, which runs its tentacles through nearly all facets of life, can be a dirty game.

Your mainstream media is controlled by a select number of conglomerates and tends to have a political bias characterized as being left leaning. They also often get government subsidies, such as in the case of the Canadian CBC. How likely are they to be impartial on topics involving the government if the government is paying their bills?

Academia is not impartial either. They’re largely subsidized by the government as well, through student loans and grants, and they tend to have similar political leanings characterized as leftist. That’s not to mention other problems within academia, such as The Replication Crisis.

Even your healthcare is largely paid for by the government, especially if you live in places like Canada, the United Kingdom, or Australia.

One does not bite the hand that feeds them. Expecting the experts that hold positions of authority to be paragons of impartiality, self awareness, and virtue, and not to reflect any sort of political bias in their decision making, whether conscious or unconscious, doesn’t seem reasonable. That’s not to automatically discredit the authorities, but it’s something to keep in mind.

For better or worse, there are people seeking to appear as experts to manipulate you all the time. A company trying to sell you something is probably claiming expertise in solving a particular problem. Even when you try to research a topic online, depending on your choice of search engine, whether Google, or Yahoo, etc., you will be provided with the results that those search engines want you to see at the top. Apart from sponsored listings, there is reason to believe the results can be manipulated to push or suppress certain viewpoints or topics. The algorithms behind the ranking of search results on the various platforms are far from clear. An entire industry exists to try and understand and manipulate these algorithms for benefit (SEO Optimization). At the very least, a savvy researcher should be aware that the display of results they’re seeing on one search engine or another may not be completely impartial.

No one will probably ever have your best interest in mind better than you do, because generally speaking, nobody will have to deal with the consequences of the choices you’re responsible for as much as you. Even if they did, it’s unlikely that they would understand your needs and desires as well as you do, which is important when it comes to making decisions.

Also, experts are wrong a lot of the time. A scientific consensus doesn’t mean that the science is settled. The truth is not settled by democratic vote. Every so often the science textbooks must be rewritten. For decades, experts said that smoking was not unhealthy. Experts once recommended blood letting and using leeches to cure disease. Experts identified people as witches and burned them at the stake. This should not discredit the methodology of science, but encourage you to hold some skepticism about the advice you receive from so called experts. Ultimately, since you can’t relinquish responsibility for the consequences of your decisions, it’s up to you to make the right ones, or at the very least, to choose the people that make them for you.

To pick the right people to trust, and even be able to evaluate ideas for yourself, it’s necessary to know how to think critically, logically, and scientifically. You may not be an expert in all fields, but if you train yourself how to think, you’ll be able to evaluate the information people present you with for yourself on some level none the less. Logic is universal and is not bound by discipline. It may help, but you don’t need to have a degree, or even any field specific training, to be able to spot a logical inconsistency and contradiction in someone’s argument. In fact, years of formal schooling can indoctrinate someone so deeply in a particular way of thought that they become blind to obvious or simple truths. This is why children, who are not as acculturated as adults, are so often able to communicate the truth about things that we adults cannot see, or willfully avoid. Field specific knowledge can be invaluable, but the lack of it does not necessarily preclude you from making a logical choice, especially when it comes to evaluating the general logical consistency of a proposed idea or an expert’s trustworthiness.

Something to think about the next time someone tells you to “trust the experts.”

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An avid researcher with a passion for life and writing about health.