Since I started Citizendium, which invites experts to be “village elders wandering the bazaar” of an otherwise egalitarian wiki, and am well-known for criticizing Wikipedia’s often-hostile stance toward experts, I am sometimes held up as an example of someone who places too much trust in experts.

In fact, I have quite a bit less trust in experts than most people have.  When I learn that something that strikes me as, at least, capable of being reasonably doubted is the overwhelming majority opinion of experts, I become very suspicious.  Moreover, this has long been my attitude–not just recently, but since before Citizendium, or Wikipedia for that matter.  Let me explain why, and remove the puzzlement these claims must provoke.

First, however, let me explain why I respect and honor experts.  If they really are experts, and not just “the most knowledgeable person in the room” on a subject, it is because they have so goddamn much knowledge about their subject.  Even if I disagree with an expert’s views on controversial issues, I stand in awe when it is clear that they can explain and evidently understand so much.  Knowledge per se is deeply important to me, and not just correct memorized information, which computers can ape, but deep understanding.  It is extremely satisfying to have demystified something that was previously puzzling, or to have come to a more complex understanding of something that seemed simple, though I earlier did not understand it and it was not simple.  A person has my respect who has grasped much of what is, to me, still mysterious and complex about a subject.

Still, my respect only goes so far, because I am aware of a certain problem with expertise and especially with the social nature of contemporary research.  People are sheep–even very smart people, trained in critical thinking.  When there is a “consensus” or “broad agreement” in many fields, it becomes politically difficult to express disagreement.  If you do, you seem to announce yourself as having some serious personal flaw: stupidity, ignorance of your own field, not being current on the literature, possessing poor judgment, or being ideologically motivated, dishonest, or unbalanced.  This is true not just in obviously controversial or politically-charged debates, it is also true about completely abstract, apolitical stuff that no one outside of a discipline gives a rat’s patoot about.

Thus, due to the lemming-like conformity among many researchers, academic agreement tends to feed on itself.  An attitude becomes the only one worth expressing, even if, on the more objective merits of the evidence itself, such confidence is not warranted at all.  Such biases can swing 180 degrees in one generation (think of behaviorism in psychology).

I don’t know enough about intellectual history to say for sure, but I suspect things weren’t always quite as bad as they are now.  I suspect that academic conformity has been growing at least since I was in college myself, anyway.  There have been intellectual trends or “schools of thought” for millennia, of course, and when scholarship was dominated by the Church and religion–in medieval times and to a lesser extent until the 20th century–certain points of doctrine were held with easily as much dogmatism as one can find anywhere in academe today.  But in the last century, some causes of academic conformity have certainly grown more powerful: academic success is gauged based on how much one has published and in high-ranking journals, while researchers are expected to build upon the work of other researchers.  There is, therefore, an economic incentive to “play it safe” and march in lockstep with some particular view of the subject.  This situation has become even more dire both due to the extreme competition for jobs in academe and research, and due to the literal politicization of some fields (i.e., the devotion of whole disciplines to political goals).

This problem has become so pronounced that I find it is impossible really to evaluate the state of knowledge in a new field until I have come to grips with the leading biases of researchers–how professional conformity or political dogma might be giving an aura of certainty or consensus to views that ought, in fact, to be controversial and vigorously discussed.

I could cite several instances of unwarranted confidence in academic dogma from the fields of philosophy, psychology, and education, but frankly, I don’t want to offend anyone.  Academics, of course, don’t like to be called sheep or dogmatists.  Besides, I think my point will be more effective if I let people supply their own examples, because you might disagree with mine.  Care to discuss some in comments?

Let me conclude with a prediction.  Contrary to some, the Internet is not going to limit the prerogatives of experts; they have important roles to play in society, and we cannot function at our best without our most knowledgeable people in those roles.  But one of the more interesting and often delightful aspects of the Internet is that it provides a platform for people with nonstandard views.  It will also–it does not yet, but it will–provide a way to quickly compare current views with views from the past.  These two comparison points, nonstandard and historical opinion, were not so readily available in the past as they are or will be.  The easy availability of these dissenting views will make it increasingly obvious just how dogmatic academe has been.  Indeed, this has already started, and is one reason why experts and academics as a group have taken some hits to their credibility online.  Finally, I observe that, for all the ovine nature of researchers, youth often loves to smash idols, and new “education 2.0,” degree-by-examinationbadge, and other schemes might make such nonconformist idol-smashing a better career option.  I suspect we will see a crop of younger researchers making careers on the newly-viable fringes of academe by pointing out just how ridiculously overblown certain academic dogmas really are–and students eager to save on tuition and get a broader perspective will flock to tutorials with such independent scholars.