What Makes An Expert Trustworthy?

We appear to be in a time of populist exasperation with experts on a wide variety of topics. Immune to this trend (pun intended) seem to be medical doctors. On one level this makes a lot of sense. Only a fool would question a doctor’s knowledge on an upcoming surgery, and there are a lot of fields of medicine where advice is backed up by empirically significant findings. But in many cases, doctors don’t know why the pills we take are helpful, they barely outperform control groups with placebos, and the long-term side effects are simply unknown. In short, the theories doctors in these situations employ have predictive powers that are certainly no better than that of an economist looking at a complex labor market policy. Why do we remain so trusting of medical doctors in these situations, then, while we are generally skeptical of experts in economics and policy fields?

I can think of a couple explanations for this. The first is that in the hard sciences, debates about the efficacy of drugs and techniques take place mostly in journals and conferences, while policy debates are played out with gusto every night in news rooms.  The media likes to paint a picture of uniform scientific advancement, as opposed to the zero-sum game of partisan politics. This masks the considerable diversity of opinion and the lively debate among leading researchers. Another reason may be that we do not have the same kind of preconceptions of what works and what doesn’t for medicine as we do for political questions. Most of us don’t have experience isolating strains of bacteria or running trials, though we have worked before and have our own definitions of what is “fair”.  A more cynical hypothesis is that we don’t like to dwell very long on illness and death, and thus we defer to medical authorities without much thought. Or maybe the prestige earned from sound advice on some issues where doctors do have a degree of positive knowledge “spills over” into other fields. In this way, doctors are able to subsidize their reputation in a more uncertain field through affiliations with doctors that perform more basic medicine that is proven to be efficacious. My guess is that it is some combination of all of the above, perhaps weighting the beginning of the list more heavily in terms of importance.

-dp

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~ by danplechaty on February 11, 2010.

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