I’ve been thinking for a while about trying to develop and push out some simple statements of principle that anyone claiming to be an expert or authority should follow, in the mode of the Hippocratic Oath. The reason I think we need something of the sort is that the value of highly trained individual experts is increasingly questioned on one hand because there are now alternatives, most notably crowdsourcing, and on the other because “experts” increasingly sell their services to the highest bidder, with little sense of professional dedication or ethics. I’ll be testing a few of my ideas along these lines over the course of the spring.
Let me put out a first suggestion:
An expert giving advice about a course of action must always be able to cogently and fairly discuss the most prominent critiques of that course of action and readily provide citations or pointers to such criticisms.
The goal here is simple: to establish a professional standard. You should not be able to claim to be an authority about a particular issue or approach if you are not conversant with the major objections to your recommended course of action. You should not force an audience to hunt down a critical assessment afterwards, or wait for an adversarial voice to forcibly intrude on the discussion. This responsibility goes beyond simply providing an assessment of the positive and negative attributes of an argument, interpretation or recommendation: the expert should be able to name the work of critics and generously summarize their arguments or analysis.
For one example: if you’re Jared Diamond being challenged in public about whether “tribal people” are all markedly prone to warfare compared to settled societies, you should be able to: a) give a fair summary of the long-running arguments between some cultural anthropologists and some sociobiologists/evolutionary anthropologists about societies like the Yanomami and b) talk dispassionately about how different scholars approach the characterization of hunter-gatherers in relationship to what we actually know about them past and present, and what the limitations of different approaches might be. That should be the first priority before defending a particular thesis, claim or recommendation.
For this reason, experts should always avoid being placed in situations where they are required to show strongly adversarial preference for a particular interpretation to the extent that they cannot even review or describe other schools of thought, just as judges must avoid conflict of interest.
Update: worth reading on into the comments here, as I try to set out more I what I mean in response to an objection from Brad DeLong. “Highest bidder” is a crude and exaggerated way to put it–what I’m concerned about is more the consequence of fashioning one’s expert advice or analysis in order to sell your own brand name, to push an almost-trademarked interpretation, rather than providing a road map for understanding an issue or problem.
Second Update: Diamond was a bad example. It’s going to distract from a discussion of the principle. I’ll try to write more about the issue I see in Diamond (and Pinker) in a separate entry.