The Triage of Truth: Do Not Take Expert Opinion Lying Down, by Julian Baggini

Brain illustration from The Principles and Practice of Medicine…’ by W Osler, 1904, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The thirst for knowledge is one of humankind’s noblest appetites. Our desire to sate it, however, sometimes leads us to imbibe falsehoods bottled as truth. The so-called Information Age is too often a Misinformation Age.

There is so much that we don’t know that giving up on experts would be to overreach our own competency. However, not everyone who claims to be an expert is one, so when we are not experts ourselves, we can decide who counts as an expert only with the help of the opinions of other experts. In other words, we have to choose which experts to trust in order to decide which experts to trust.

Jean-Paul Sartre captured the unavoidable responsibility this places on us when he wrote in Existentialism and Humanism (1945): ‘If you seek counsel – from a priest, for example – you have selected that priest; and at bottom you already knew, more or less, what he would advise.’

The pessimistic interpretation of this is that the appeal to expertise is therefore a charade. Psychologists have repeatedly demonstrated the power of motivated thinking and confirmation bias. People cherry-pick the authorities who support what they already believe. If majority opinion is on their side, they will cite the quantity of evidence behind them. If the majority is against them, they will cite the quality of evidence behind them, pointing out that truth is not a democracy. Authorities are not used to guide us towards the truth but to justify what we already believe the truth to be.

If we are sincerely interested in the truth, however, we can use expert opinion more objectively without either giving up our rational autonomy or giving in to our preconceptions. I’ve developed a simple three-step heuristic I’ve dubbed ‘The Triage of Truth’ which can give us a way of deciding whom to listen to about how the world is. The original meaning of triage is to sort according to quality and the term is most familiar today in the medical context of determining the urgency of treatment required. It’s not infallible; it’s not an alternative to thinking for yourself; but it should at least prevent us making some avoidable mistakes. The triage asks three questions:

  •  Are there any experts in this field?
  •  Which kind of expert in this area should I choose?
  •  Which particular expert is worth listening to here?

In many cases there is no simple yes or no answer. Economic forecasting, for example, admits of only very limited mastery. If you are not religious, on the other hand, then no theologian or priest can be an expert on God’s will.

If there is genuine expertise to be had, the second stage is to ask what kind of expert is trustworthy in that domain, to the degree that the domain allows of expertise at all. In health, for example, there are doctors with standard medical training but also herbalists, homeopaths, chiropractors, reiki healers. If we have good reason to dismiss any of these modalities then we can dismiss any particular practitioner without needing to give them a personal assessment.

Once we have decided that there are groups of experts in a domain, the third stage of triage is to ask which particular ones to trust. In some cases, this is easy enough. Any qualified dentist should be good enough, and we might not have the luxury of picking and choosing anyway. When it comes to builders, however, some are clearly more professional than others.

The trickiest situations are where the domain admits significant differences of opinion. In medicine, for example, there is plenty of genuine expertise but the incomplete state of nutritional science, for example, means that we have to take much advice with a pinch of salt, including that on how big this pinch should be.

This triage is an iterative process in which shifts of opinion at one level lead to shifts at others. Our beliefs form complex holistic webs in which parts support each other. For example, we cannot decide in a vacuum whether there is any expertise to be had in any given domain. We will inevitably take into account the views of experts we already trust. Every new judgment feeds back, altering the next one.

Perhaps the most important principle to apply throughout the triage is the 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume’s maxim: ‘A wise man … proportions his belief to the evidence.’ Trust in experts always has to be proportionate. If my electrician warns me that touching a wire will electrocute me, I have no reason to doubt her. Any economic forecast, however, should be seen as indicating a probability at best, an educated guest at worst.

Proportionality also means granting only as much authority as is within an expert’s field. When an eminent scientist opines on ethics, for example, she is exceeding her professional scope. The same might be true of a philosopher talking about economics, so be cautious about some of what I have written, too.

This triage gives us a procedure but no algorithm. It does not dispense with the need to make judgments, it simply provides a framework to help us do so. To properly follow Immanuel Kant’s Enlightenment injunction ‘Sapere aude’ (Dare to know), we have to rely on both our own judgment and the judgment of others. We should not confuse thinking for ourselves with thinking by ourselves. Taking expert opinion seriously is not passing the buck. No one can make up your mind for you, unless you make up your mind to let them.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Julian Baggini is a writer and founding editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine. His latest book is A Short History of Truth (2017). (Bio credit: Aeon)

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On Being Part of Something Bigger Than Oneself

Sometimes, I’m carried away by the awesome realization that I’m part of so many things that are larger than myself. In fact, I feel quite mystical at these times.

I’m part of a particular family; part of many communities of friends and of people who share passions and common goals; part of a cultural group; part of the whole human family. I love and am loved in return. I cooperate with my husband, with my family and friends with my coworkers, with the people I interact with everyday, be it in everyday life, in romance, in play; in conversation, in sharing meals, in commerce, in navigating traffic, and in other countless ways. I share in the business of life and in the struggle to survive, which for human beings necessitates this high level of cooperation, because with our relatively weak teeth, slow gait, blunt ‘claws’, big clumsy bodies, and expensive brains, we are much more vulnerable, as individuals, than most other animals to predation and hunger. So I share in this great community of empathy, some to a greater or a lesser degree, and we all do what we can to be good and decent people, at least much of the time.

I’m part of the history of human thought, part of the rich legacy of human curiosity and wonder over the millennia, whose love of learning and of doing our bit more to expand human understanding makes us, as Carl Sagan so beautifully put it, ‘..a way for the universe to know itself.’ And every one of us who takes part of this quest to understand the world get as far as we do only because those before us passed down what they learned and what they invented so we can build on it. No one human being can, on their own, invent languages to create and organize ideas, observe the full vastness of the universe, and form the myriad theories that make up the incredible body of knowledge we can access and enjoy today. But millions of human minds, sharing in this knowledge quest, have achieved a level of understanding that our ancestors could never have dreamed of, and our descendants will do the same. When we think about it, each of our individual minds is filled with the words and ideas created by others, which we rearrange and build on to create our own, which we then pass along. In this sense, it’s hard to tell where our own minds end and others’ begin; we all share in one human stream of consciousness, millennia-old, from which we draw, and into which we contribute, constantly, all of our lives. This is one sense in which we’re immortal.

I’m also a part of the great creative outpouring of humanity. We all participate in this, some as the makers, some as the enjoyers, most of us as both, to some degree or another. I am inspired by the beautiful, interesting, innovative, and curious things others create, which inspires me to create things I think are beautiful as well. I dance to music others make, some of us make our own, and some of us sing along and pass the songs on to our friends and to the next generation. I cry and laugh and smile and immerse myself as I read the stories and hear the jokes and watch the movies that our fantastically, restlessly, endlessly creative species never stops coming up with.

Finally, I’m part of the great workings of the universe, of the great process of evolution, where all the stuff I’m made of was forged in stars and crafted into what eventually became me, by the myriad forces that arranged every molecule in my body, in new formulations in each successive environment through the ages. Every bit of me used to be something else, and I’m intimately related to every single other thing in the universe; every human being, every plant, every insect, every thing that lives and moves is my cousin.

I often hear people expressing discontent, that they’re searching for something that’s missing, that they want to be part of something bigger than themselves. So we join cults, buy self-help books, immerse ourselves in various ‘spiritualities’ and ‘philosophies’, even immolate ourselves and destroy each other for the sake of some extremist ideology, in restless pursuit of that quest. It’s all too easy, in day to day life, to forget the all the amazing, myriad ‘something bigger”s that all of us are a part of just by virtue of existing. 

I’m now in a happy time in my life when I’ve learned to recognize and appreciate this fact more than ever before. These days, I have other ways to more fully participate in these ‘something bigger”s. I have an insatiable hunger for reading and learning in the last few years to a greater degree than any other time in my life, and since I left the stifling religion of my childhood, I’ve found the entire range of ideas available for my consideration, and the whole of humanity and of all living things is my spiritual community. I’ve taken a job in a new field so I’m learning something new every day, I’ve taken up writing and spending more time creating and developing my art, and trying to be more prudent with making and spending money so I can help out my family and travel more. We all have our own ways.

Being a part of something bigger is the simplest thing there is. It’s realizing it that’s the hard part.

Sources, Influences, Shout-Outs, and all that Good Stuff

As I write these essays for publication in my own blog, I find that it’s liberating not to have to cite my sources in the same formal, painstaking way I would have to if I were writing a student paper or a formal scholarly work. I know that every single thought I have (and this is true not only for myself, but every thinker out there) is almost entirely possible because of other thinkers that came before me, and those who share their thoughts every single day. In this way, it’s actually impossible to really cite all my sources and properly thank all who influence and inspire me, so developing and writing down my thoughts without the added effort of laboriously disentangling those sources which I can consciously identify and those which I can’t remember helps this whole process flow much more freely.

But I also feel a sense of great indebtedness to all those thinkers out there who make the world such a fascinating place. I get to learn and think because, collectively, the human race is so generous when it comes to sharing their thoughts, purposefully altruistic (think Thomas Jefferson: “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me”or otherwise. This great pool of human consciousness, the sum of human thought up to now, in fact, is central to my own concept of transcendence, that ‘mystical’ state of reaching for and belonging to something larger and greater than myself (a topic for another essay that I’ve been plotting for some time). When I’m in the throes of figuring something out, I’m often conscious of the fact that that so many parts of the puzzle have already been worked out by others, and I’ve only gotten to where I’m at because of them. While I’ll continue to link to and quote sources as I write, I probably won’t be thorough about it in this informal setting, so this list serves as a catch-all to what I’ve missed.

So here’s my informal, unscholarly list of my sources and influences, of shout-outs to all of you wonderfully curious, intelligent, creative, witty, and thoughtful creatures out there without whom I couldn’t think much of anything at all, let along write about it. This will be an open-ended blog post, and I’ll add to it as I’m inspired, but it’s in no way exhaustive. It can’t be, because, like everyone, most of the things I ‘know’ I don’t know how I know, because I don’t remember who I learned it from.

In no particular order:

– All human beings who have contributed to the sum of human knowledge and creative thought
– My dad, John Cools, for patiently answering my endless questions throughout childhood and beyond
– My husband Bryan, my lover, best friend, and constant conversational partner
– John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (excerpts)
Randy Newman
– John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, The Subjection of Woman, and excerpts from Utilitarianism and other works
– John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Two Treatises of Government (well, the second one) and excerpts from other works
– Ernestine Rose: feminist, atheist, socialist, Polish, Jew, human rights crusader, incredible in every way
– Montaigne, Essays
– My uncle, Timothy Harrod, for his willingness to regularly engage in honest, no-holds-barred, but respectful and friendly debate (he was my confirmation sponsor – you Catholics know what that is – and he’s been kindly trying to re-convert me and save my soul for years)
– My uncle Mark Cools, for similar reasons, while letting me stay at his house for free when I attended college
The philosophy department and other instructors at Sacramento State University, especially Gregory Mayes, Lynne Fox, Thomas Pyne, Bradley Dowden, Russell DiSilvestro, and Clifford Anderson
– David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, excerpts from various other works

– Daniel Dennett, Breaking the SpellIntuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, lectures, interviews, and essays
– Susan Jacoby: Freethinkers and The Age of American Unreason

– Eric Gerlach
– Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate, lectures and essays
– Michael Sandel, Justice and What Money Can’t Buy
Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind
– Elizabeth Cady Stanton, fierce feminist and freethinker

– Clay Jenkinson, scholar and podcaster of the Thomas Jefferson Hour
– The various authors of the Bible
Shakespeare
– Leonard Cohen
– Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories
– Robert Ingersoll, 44 Lectures
M. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage and The Moon and Sixpence
– Carol Tavris, Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me, interviews and lectures
– Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and countless other stories, essays, and quotes
– Neil DeGrasse Tyson, essays, interviews, and lectures
– Bertrand Russell, History of Philosophy and various other works
– Townes Van Zandt
– Gabriel Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude 
– The wonderful student heathens at Sac State
– Cervantes, Don Quixote
Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great, debates, lectures, and interviews
– Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel
Jennifer Michael Hecht, Doubt: A History, interviews 
– Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man (excerpts; one day I intend to read them all the way through)
– Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor’s Tale, interviews, lectures, and essays
– My friend Tracy Runyon, with whom I’ve had so many depthy and exciting discussions