What are experts for?


It is by no mistake that philosophers from Plato to Hume to Adam Smith have advocated a division of labor as a driving force of society and its economy. The more specialized one’s labor, the more advanced the resulting product. As people gain expertise in their distinct fields, the more they are able to advance those fields. This is as true for labor as it is for science (in general; there is a lot to be said for multi- and cross-disciplinary approaches and out of the box thinking that specialization usually dampens. But on the whole,  it is undoubtedly more advantageous to specialize in a field than not). Scientific experts are people society relies on to advance knowledge and establish facts; they are the people we go to when we need answers.

Here is why we need experts: Bret Stephens is a journalist and  Wall Street Journal columnist whose training is, supposedly, in journalism and maybe economics (Wikipedia, which never lies, says he attended the London School of Economics). In his column today, Bret Stephens writes about global warming. Entitled “The Great Global Warming Fizzle,” the article compares climate change science to a religion – and a dying one too – whose adherents are “spectacularly unattractive people” and whose “claims are often non-falsifiable, hence the convenience of the term ‘climate change’ when thermometers don’t oblige the expected trend lines.”

Now if Bret Stephens were an environmental scientist with proper training, his criticism of climate science would be worth hearing. But just as we don’t take physics advice from members of the Taliban (Sam Harris’s favorite example), we shouldn’t take climate change advice from Bret Stephens. Has he seen the data in question? Would he know how to interpret it? Would he draw the same conclusion if money and government intervention were not factors? The worry is that he is not fulfilling his role of journalist, in which he is expected to provide fair interpretations of the science and policy to the public, who are not experts. Instead of facts, we get an opinion piece on something Bret Stephens has no expertise in.

Here’s the dilemma for those who care – is it better to ignore the vocal people who don’t know what they’re talking about or to correct them and spread the correct message? The latter would be a far more active and constructive choice, but it should have to be a proactive message instead of reactive as in this post.