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The ethics of expertise: in financial and medical advice, climate and everything

By Don Aitkin - posted Friday, 15 May 2015


One of the most enjoyable things about the Internet is the chance discovery of images and text that you would never have seen, had it not been for a link that led you to this, where you found a link that led you to that, and now to something else. The activity itself  is called ‘surfing the net’, but it is the discoveries that come from it which make the activity worthwhile. When I do it I’m not just passing time, but searching for new knowledge.

The essay I found, by John Hardwig, published in 1994, is called ‘Towards an Ethics of Expertise’;  you can read it here. I ought to have come across it when it was published, because I was then deeply involved in what should count for professional expertise, and the ethics of being a professional, because my university was in essence a series of professional schools, rather than an older university with big arts and science faculties, the professional schools tacked on. And I wrote on the same subject at about that time, though I can’t find a copy.

To read the essay now is to be taken back twenty years. I could have written the following: 

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Most professions rest on the expertise of their members. Professionals are professionals primarily because they know more than most of us about something of importance to our society or to many members of it. Professionals are given power, respect, prestige, and above-average incomes. If professionals are worthy of this status, it is largely because of their special knowledge and the way they use it. And if professionals have special rights and responsibilities, it is also primarily because of the social positions they occupy due to their presumed expertise.

And, while I would not have written what follows in its particular detail (especially the reference to global warming), I share the attitude it conveys.

I find myself believing all sorts of things for which I do not possess evidence: that acid rain and global warming are things to worry about; that my house will not be safe unless it is rewired; that we have no sure way to dispose of high-level nuclear waste; that my irregular heartbeat is premature ventricular contraction and hence nothing to worry about; that my son’s failure to do well in school is a sign of insecurity and hence is something to worry about; that mass media and increasing mastery of the techniques of persuasion threaten democracy; that money in my retirement account is safely invested so that it will be there when I retire.

And I wholly accord with what he writes next (my emphasis in bold):

The list of things I believe without having the evidence for them could be extended indefinitely. And I am finite. I might be able to gather the evidence necessary to support one of these beliefs. But I could not gather the evidence that supports all of them. Too much is known; the evidence is too extensive; much of it is available only to those with special aptitudes and skills honed over years of study and practice. And I lack the competence, the skills, the sheer intellectual capacity, as well as the time. Usually, I lack the ability to critically evaluate the merits of evidence presented to me. Often I can not even understand it. Thus, if any of the beliefs I have just mentioned is a rational belief, it is not because I possess the evidence to justify it. It is because I believe, with good reason, that others possess the necessary evidence.

This is such good stuff, and he writes so simply and unpretentiously. I do recommend reading the whole essay, but I must cut to the point of it all — that we need an ethics of expertise. We need to trust those whom we regard as ‘professionals’ in the true sense (and what follows now is DA, not Hardwig) because they are knowledgeable, they know their limitations, and they will act in a disinterested and altruistic way in the use of their knowledge. Hardwig takes us through the kinds of assumptions that are involved here, and does so carefully and well. I found myself nodding in agreement many times.

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I cannot properly summarise the essay in the space available to me, and move quickly to some ‘maxims’ which Hardwig lays out for the expert. I am brutally curtailing them.

1) Admit when you don’t know, when you’re guessing, and when your opinion is only a reasonable estimate.

2) Tell the truth as you see it in your professional judgment, but don’t give the impression that you speak for the community of experts when you do not.

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This article was first published on Don Aitkin.



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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, published in 2015, is Turning Point, the second novel in The Hogarth Trilogy.

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