Expert Opinion and the Need for Critical Thinking

I watched a nice little video from Ted.com, about the need for people to continue to be critical even in the face of expert opinions.

I, on the whole, agree with her, but I have several issues/points of thought that occurred to me while watching the video.

First, the video:

The main point of the talk is the fact that, today, the lay person has the illusion that experts are certain about what they’re claiming. The example she gives is of a study where people were scanned in an MRI machine and were told expert opinions. The results, supposedly, show that the ‘independent’ part of our brains shut off when we listen to expert opinions (It’s unfortunate that she didn’t say the name of the group who did that study, because I’d be interested in reading up on it). That study reminds me of a similar study I read, where they didn’t use fMRI scans, but they looked at how people interpret results from studies that use fMRI scans. The study (here; it’s free!) showed sample paragraphs of statements or conclusions from scientific studies, some of them obviously ridiculous and untrue. These were divided into two types: paragraphs with and without sentences like “brain scans show…”. The study further had three test groups to read the paragraphs: neuroscientists/psychologists, other academic people, and lay people. The study concluded that academic and lay people were significantly more likely to believe ridiculous things if the statement says something like “brain scans show…”. That is, people give way too much credit to fMRI (or PET or SPECT) studies, which is amusing to me since this is the field I work in.

Anyways, Noreena goes on to cite examples of when experts are wrong (doctor’s misdiagnose: 4/10), pointing out that they are still human, and can become ingrained in terms of thinking within a well accepted paradigm, or giving in to societal norms (homosexuals were ‘crazy’ up until the 80s). Another good example she uses is when studies are funded by the companies who have vested interests in the results (pharmaceutical and food companies).

In the end she concludes by saying that we shouldn’t throw critical thinking to the wind when an expert opinion is heard, and that expertise should become democratized.

As I said before, for the most part I completely agree with her. The only problems I see is that a lot of people are already very critical of expert opinion, to the point where they go too far and almost decide to believe the opposite of whatever experts are saying. This is probably not true, that is, I hardly believe anyone out there just automatically decides to believe the opposite of what they hear experts saying. More likely, what I’ve seen people do (probably myself included), is decide to believe experts if they are saying what I already suspect, and decide that the experts are full of baloney if they say something contrary to what I suspect.

My case in point is that I know far too many people who believe:

  • in God
  • that homeopathy (aside from the attention people get from homeopaths) actually does anything aside from give people hope
  • that vaccines don’t do anything
  • that autism is caused by vaccines
  • that 9/11 was an inside job
  • that the U.S. never landed on the moon
  • that global warming has nothing to do with human influence

Some of those are certainly complex issues, and require a lot of reading/scrutinizing/critical thinking. My problem is not that people could give credible thought to these issues (I think they all deserve credible thought and attention), my problem is that I don’t think people are using enough critical thinking in relation to these issues, and in seeing this video, they may think “exactly, I don’t need experts, I know in my heart what’s true”.

I’ve often times told people that I believe more scientists need to read more philosophy, and more philosophers need to read more science. But, on a whole, I don’t think people are reading enough philosophy. More to the point, I think our culture needs more critical thinking. For example, I was recently roped into volunteering with ‘Let’s Talk Science‘, an organization that tries to get kids of all ages more interested in science. I didn’t really care too much for this program, because my problem isn’t that there aren’t enough people interested in science, but that there aren’t enough people interested in critical thinking. I guess it doesn’t have the same ring to it: ‘Let’s Talk Critical Thinking’. (actually, to go on with that point, there aren’t enough ‘Let’s Talk Universal Human Welfare’ or ‘Let’s Talk Critical Media Awareness’…but that’s a whole other can of nuts)

Anyways, it was a good video, check it out.

Next week I should be posting about the history of the scientific method…and so should be able to add more to topic (what is true, etc.)

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About dontdontoperate

28 year old originally from Barrie, Ontario, Canada. H.B.Sc. from UofT with a major in chemistry and a double minor in philosophy and math. M.Sc. from UofT in physiology and neuroscience. Finished my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at McMaster in the fall of 2013.
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