So about three weeks ago, I had a long and fruitless debate – and I use that word loosely, since it was mostly create a straw-man, place straw-man squarely on the person you disagree with, and then pile on – with a number of individuals on Twitter about the Habsburg Empire. The debate began innocuously enough as I pointed out that the statement that the Habsburg Empire was Benevolent and should therefore never have dissolved was similar to saying that the Colonials should never have left the British Empire. The immediate reaction was within reason though wrong, basically arguing that I was comparing two dissimilar things, Apples to Tomatoes. And while I was comparing two different empires with their own set of foibles and follies, the fact that we were comparing empires which were both for the most part relatively benevolent did not make them dissimilar. Now, if we had continued in this manner, we might actually have had a debate. Instead, as I pointed out above, one of the “debaters” decided to throw in a straw-man, which everyone else then pounced on as the actual debate. He decided that since I had stated that most nationalities within the Empire wanted self-determination, it was appropriate to point out what had happened once they had achieved that self-determination, and because of that it was correct that they had not been self-determining to that point. When I disagreed, he basically decided that I had said that the Habsburg Empire was like the Fascists and/or Bolsheviks, when I had said no such thing. Then he decided I must be a Bolshevik because I disagreed with his conclusion.
And so the “debate” continued in that vein i.e. do you know how the Jews were treated under the Habsburg Empire versus how they were treated under the Fascists; in retrospect, Hungarians preferred the Habsburg Empire to what came after, etc., etc. The prevailing tweets being that I must somehow be an idiot since I didn’t see clearly that most Pols, Czechs, Hungarians, etc. wanted to be part of the Empire. Never mind that Poland, which had saved Austria from the Ottomans, was partitioned amongst the Prussians, Russians, and Habsburgs, or that the Hungarian uprising of 1848 had had to be put down with the help of Czar Nicholas I of Russia because the Hungarians were winning, or even the constant pressing by the Czechs for their national claims. No, the Habsburg Empire was benevolent and so everyone was living in Happy LaLa Unicorn land, save for a few rogue elements.
Now, what does that have to do with experts, you might be asking. Let me say here that I have read this particular “debater’s” writing and often find it to be interesting, if nothing else – and I’m sure he doesn’t give a damn about my opinion anyway. But on more than one occasion, I have seen him resort to the tactic of stating “I have a PhD, I’ve written books; what have you done” as the argument as to why he’s correct and you’re wrong; as if this were some sort of dick-swinging contest to see whose was bigger. In other words, he’s resorted to basically saying he’s an expert and as such his opinion carries more weight. And when one points out that that doesn’t actually mean that he is correct, he just repeats it. It’s not an argument so much as it is a mantra.
And then the rest of the crew comes and piles on, presenting such wonderful evidence as this by Tom Nichols: http://thefederalist.com/2014/01/17/the-death-of-expertise/. Which proves that Tom Nichols can string a bunch of sentences together and can condescend like the best of them. He’s an expert, don’t you know. And he goes into laborious detail about how there are just so many stupid people out there who just don’t understand what their betters are telling them.
Don’t get me wrong: there are some valid points in that post. The issue isn’t that he doesn’t make any valid points; the issue is that he acts like he’s the only person who’s ever thought of them and that he somehow has a lock on knowledge. It is this idea that somehow being Tom Nichols or someone who agrees with Tom Nichols gives you a lock on knowledge greater than everyone else that is downright insulting. It is the same position that other “experts” debate you from. It is a narrow-minded orthodoxy.
That’s not to say that there are no experts. There are doctors, engineers, scientists; hard science people who are experts. Yes, they make mistakes; yes, they behave like human beings and get peevish and stubborn and wild-eyed. But in the end, they are swayed by facts and evidence. And really, most good scientists are trying to prove themselves wrong. They are trying to make their theory fail, to see if it holds up to scrutiny, to see if it has merit. Not so with the “foreign policy experts.” No; they come up with the theory, then fit the evidence to that theory. We have seen it time and time again. And yet, those same Foreign Policy experts are called on to tell us what we should do, even though they were wrong the last time and the time before that. You get rewarded for being wrong.
And they are usually wrong. We’re not talking some of the time wrong; we’re not even talking slightly wrong. No, we’re talking coin flip wrong. You are as likely to get a right answer from picking heads or tails as you are talking to an expert. Don’t believe me; believe Philip Tetlock http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_E._Tetlock. He studied experts for twenty years and found that they were no better than a coin flip. What’s worse is no one holds them accountable for when they screw the pooch.
When they’re wrong, they’re rarely held accountable, and they rarely admit it, either. They insist that they were just off on timing, or blindsided by an improbable event, or almost right, or wrong for the right reasons. They have the same repertoire of self-justifications that everyone has, and are no more inclined than anyone else to revise their beliefs about the way the world works, or ought to work, just because they made a mistake.
And while Nichols tells us about how his work is peer reviewed, he ignores the huge elephant in the room that he is writing for an audience that already agrees with him or comes at the problem with the same biases and prejudices he does. Again, there are study after study that show that peer review is NOT the be all and end all that Nichols would have you believe they are. The one thing we can say with certainty about any of this, is that some of it will be wrong.
So the problem is that these “experts” argue that their expertise should never be questioned. Naturally, if you are unwilling to argue against them based on proving your credentials, that means that you don’t have any and so therefore how dare you question their position. How dare you ask them to stoop down to your level and actually explain where their position comes from, how they came to their conclusion, and why you should accept it as correct. After all, you’re not an “expert.” You’re beneath their contempt since you’ve brought into question their conclusions without trying to use your credentials as a means of crushing any debate.
Look, there are loonys out there who believe crazy things. No one is arguing there are not. And no, this isn’t arguing that your brain surgeon shouldn’t be an accredited physician. But just because your brain surgeon has been doing lobotomies for twenty years, that doesn’t mean the lobotomy is the only means of treatment for your illness. And just because you wrote a book about something, and yes, did the research, doesn’t mean that every bit of your conclusion is the only one that’s right. So if you are an “expert,” it might do to get off your high horse and put your conclusions to the question. Because even Einstein wasn’t right all the time.