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

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: 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.

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.

3) Tell the truth as you see it in your professional judgment, even if you have to tell your employers, clients, or those in power things they don’t want to hear.

4) Recognize the human propensity to rationalize: you will be tempted to believe what your employers or those in power want to hear you say.

5) Consider the effects of your statements on those who are not your employers or clients. Especially if they are likely to be put at risk by the application of your knowledge and most especially if they are likely to be put at risk without their knowledge or consent.

6) Know your own ethical limits. Try to avoid positions where you might not be able to obey the above principles because you are susceptible to the temptations of the position or too afraid of the possible costs of following them.

Hardwig says that The ethics of expertise is not a one-way street and that we need to think much more about the ethics of the recipient of all kinds of professional services — about the ethics of the patient, the person retaining a lawyer … about the ethics of the company or government agency hiring an engineer or chemist, a firm to do an accounting audit or environmental impact statement. The ethics of the recipient of expert opinion is also an important part of a complete professional ethics. 

That last point struck home, for we who use experts have to be careful about our own motives. We need to recognise, Hardwig says, that agreement with your values, desires, policies, plans, or hunches is not a qualification for an expert. Selecting an expert whom you think will likely support your position is an epistemic vice, a form of rationalization. Selecting an expert because you know she will support your position is a form of deliberate deception (or of self-deception) and hence an ethical vice.

I have to stop, though there’s so much more. But consider what we see in the world around us. How much of Hardwig’s proposed Ethics of Expertise do we encounter? My GP satisfies those maxims, and I have been his patient for 35 years. But in the world of financial advice? In that of ‘climate change’, I would argue, you do not find a great deal. I do not trust some of the experts there, because I find that on my experience with them so far that they do not deserve that trust.

And governments everywhere have failed to examine their own positions when they seek the opinion of experts. It is a truism of government that you do not appoint a commission of inquiry unless you know what its report will be. There has been no disinterested inquiry into ‘climate change’, only a weak resort to what the academies say, or the 97% of experts. Ethical it is not, on either side.

I came across this magnificent essay through Judith Curry, and you can read her excellent reflections on it here.

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • aert driessen says:

    An excellent essay Don and bouquets also for Hardwig and Curry for their insight and clear thinking. A proverbial elephant in the room of my mind grew with each paragraph until, at the last, you alluded to it. Where does this leave the professional politician and our system of party politics? I am definitely a glass half full sort of person in everything except politics. Perhaps the flip side of the Ethics coin is that maxim that states that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

  • David says:

    Don I quite liked John Hardwig’s essay too. To paraphrase, “Be good and do all that is right.”

    As for JC’s running commentary, I thought it was quite pretentious! The whole point of Hardwig’s essay is to invite scientists to remain humble, engage in some self-reflection in the way they communicate their results to others, not to commence some point scoring exercise against other schools of academic thought.

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