Ephemeral Experts

This article about Icarus Interstellar’s attempts to generate excitement about interstellar travel inadvertently brought up something I think is a very serious unaddressed issue in space research, science in general, and elsewhere.

Specifically, the opening sentence:

“If humanity is serious about traveling to other star star systems in the foreseeable future, it needs to get the ball rolling now, say experts”

Who are these experts? What makes them experts? What are they even experts on? The article never says.

The concept of experts – those with knowledge of a subject that somehow transcends our own to dwell in a discretely different domain – is endemic to almost any subject.  Certainly, there are people who know more, perhaps much more than others about a subject. But drawing a line –the experts on one side looking down at the rest of us basking in their knowledge is both silly and dangerous:

  • Who decides who is an expert and who merely knows a lot? Is it relative or absolute? Mr. Smith may knows more about physics than anybody else in nowheresville, but compared to Stephen Hawking, he knows very little. Is he an expert?
  • Related to the above, amounts of knowledge are basically continuous, so any sort of “expert cut-off” is silly.
  • Separating out experts and giving their proclamations more weight leads to mental laziness – instead of doing their own research and forming their own thoughts, people can just defend a position with the argument that “the expert said so.”
  • Not only is deferring to experts lazy, but dangerous as well.  It is the danger always inherent to simply accepting something handed down by an authority figure.

I’m not arguing that one shouldn’t weight the opinions of someone more knowledgeable more highly, simply that there is no level of knowledge that makes their opinions discretely better.

Some related thoughts by David Friedman.

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