Deferring to the experts

What’s at heart of being a philosopher rather than a sophist, of being a lover of wisdom rather than one who claims to be wise? It is the recognition of one’s own ignorance.

We shouldn’t claim to know, or assume we know, what we really don’t know. That’s what it comes down to.

Thus, far and away the easiest way to spot those who are furthest from philosophy is to see if they think they know more than the experts of a field.

It is impossible to seek wisdom if we think we already have it. Ignorance of our own ignorance is the greatest barrier to the quest for wisdom, and of course in itself it is the very opposite of wisdom.

All of that seems completely sensible and unobjectionable in itself, probably. Often, though, we try hard not to think about the consequences, what it would mean if this were true.

I used to think that deferring to the experts was just a cop-out, and it confused me when so many of the most highly educated people I knew, those for whom I had the greatest respect, would grow hesitant and reluctant when asked a question that might stray from their own area of expertise, would hasten to defer to the training of their colleagues.

What I realize now, though, is that this was precisely the sign of how well they were educated, and how well their education took. Perhaps they are not philosophers, but at the very least they are not entirely lacking in the quality that is most basic and most necessary in the constitution of the philosopher. That’s more than the vast vast majority of us can honestly claim.

Now, deferring to experts doesn’t mean claiming that they’re right. It’s not that simple. At most, it means allowing that they have the best chance of being closest to the truth, but really it doesn’t even have to be that much.

Deferring to experts only means recognizing that they are not as near to ignorance, in their field of expertise, as we are.

But even that small admission requires great humility, and more good sense than most of us are able to show.

This also relates to the value of the scholarly consensus. Scholarly consensus is experts weighing in on the conclusion of experts. For a person without knowledge to feel superior to and liberated from such consensus reveals a marvellous absence of self awareness, of recognition of one’s own ignorance.

An important clarification at this point. To say that those who refuse to defer to experts are far from philosophy, is not the equivalent of saying that those who do defer to experts are at all close to philosophy.

For instance, all of us love to lay claim to the pronouncements of the experts — when those experts happen to be in agreement with us, or saying something that we are delighted to hear. Those are the good experts, the ones who can stand up against the nefarious influences, who can ask the right questions and accept the obvious and undeniable truth when it presents itself. We all love to do that. The important and revealing question is, what do we do when we encounter expert consensus that doesn’t harmonize with what we want to accept as true.

So when someone rejects the view of experts as definitely false, on the grounds of their own meagre research and powers of reason, without any openness to being wrong, then that is a very good indication that they are about as far from philosophy as it is possible to be.

For me, this was one of the sad, but beneficial, outcomes of all the controversy around Covid. There were a number of people who I thought were closer to having philosophical souls, who turned out to be very far indeed even from the vaguest approximation of a philosophical starting point.

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