February 23, 2008

Forming opinions as a non-expert

An issue that has interested me for some time is the following. On many issues, from the economy, to the environment, from foreign policy, to scienctific research there are highly intelligent, highly informed experts who disagree. How do I form opinions on subjects in which there is stark disagreement between experts? Do I read all their books? Where will the time come from? Often the arguments will be of a subtlety and complexity that is impossible for someone without a very thorough understanding of the subject matter to grasp. Equally there will be times when I am intellectually outgunned. The experts whose opinions differ are simplky smarter than I am.

From buying a home to purchasing stock to planning for the future intelligent decision making is impossible without at some point deferring to authority. The difference between an open society and a totalitarian one is that in an open society there are many- a market place- of authorities. The question is how do I from my position of relative ignorance and stupidity decide which authority to defer to? My only choices seem to be an evaluation of the expert and/or the opinion of other experts about the same claim.

Some ideas...
The popularity of the claim. On the whole, ideas which enjoy popular support in their field are probably true more often than those which enjoy less support. But how often is this the case. To what degree should the popularity of a claim bias us toward accepting its truth?

The personal desirability of a claim: Do I or the expert have a personal stake in whether the claim is true or not? If there is a lot of incentive to believe that a claim is true, wishful thinking may bias us in this direction.

The popularity of the expert. How much extra weight should be given to the opinions of an expert who enjoys a high standing and reputation in his field?

The age of the expert. What difference does the age of an individual play in evaluating the probabilistic likelihood that a given claim is correct? I have no idea but it is something I intend to research and think about in the future.

Evidence of flexibility of thought: Has the expert shown an ability to change his mind in the past on other issues.? To me an individual whose track record shows little change in his opinions over a lengthy timeframe must have ALL his claims viewed with an extra dose of caution.

The personal attractiveness of the expert. Given our preference for the beautiful the articulate and the charismatic, it seems to me that many opinions expressed by experts strong in such qualities are probably overpriced in the ideas market. Should we consciously discount the probability that the claims of charismatic experts are true? If so by how much?

All of us already factor a lot of this stuff in when making gut level judgements about whether something is true or not....
But I think it important to think about this stuff explictly rather than implictly. In evaluating experts intuitively our evolutionary biases are likely to impair our judgemnt considerably. We will be overly swayed by the experts personal charisma for example.

No comments: