An Oath For Experts: First Principle

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.

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26 Responses to An Oath For Experts: First Principle

  1. Miles S says:

    The Guardian piece seemed pretty positive about Diamond, I thought. Is he seriously off base?

  2. Withywindle says:

    By way of comparison:

    Perhaps it would be simpler not to claim being an expert or an authority in the first place.

  3. Brad DeLong says:

    I would correct “Yanomani” if I were you…

    And when your first, last, and only example of an “expert” committing malpractice–“sell[ing] their services to the highest bidder, with little sense of professional dedication or ethics”–is Jared Diamond, I am going to conclude that you have lost your mind, and that haters gotta hate…


    Brad DeLong

  4. Whoops on the spelling, composing an example quickly in between classes. Fixed. Thanks.

    I will need to expand on the nature of the problem I see, Brad, since it does make it look as if I’m saying every expert who neglects to set out the ‘shape of the debate’ is motivated by greed. It’s not that in many cases. But it is a consequence of what I would call an “entrepreneurial” strategy of expertise–basically, to hype your own brand at the expense of others. Diamond I think is arguably doing that in this and other cases; some of his harshest critics could be said to be doing the same in some cases. I think that’s what we have to avoid as much as a doctor should try to avoid the impression that they are recommending a treatment because they’re being compensated for that recommendation by a corporate beneficiary.

    The problem here in part is that what sells in the public sphere is a memorable, simplified line of argument or interpretation. This in and of itself is not a bad thing at all. Academics often insist to their detriment that things have gotta be complicated or they’re not worth talking about. Life may be complicated, but our method of speaking about it doesn’t always have to be. However, someone who is good at simplifying their own line of argument generally could be equally good at offering a cogent, memorable summary of some of the countering arguments.

    So let’s take this particular argument that Diamond is involved in at the moment. (Brad appears to have a short memory about my views of Diamond’s work, which he should recall are not “haters gotta hate”.)

    Diamond’s new book offers a synthesis of a common line of argument in sociobiological and evolutionary psychological writing that pre-agricultural human beings and their small-scale societies were marked by strong masculine violence that was rooted in human biology and cognition, and that one of the transformations brought by the evolution of the state in early agricultural societies was the increasing regulation of violence, leading to less and less interpersonal or everyday aggression over time. Diamond follows the common strategy among many of these scholars of using modern studies of hunter-gathering societies as one powerful kind of evidence for these claims. Ok so far?

    What I think Diamond or other clear-speaking, articulate folks who want to offer this interpretation should be doing when they’re speaking to this question in public is quickly summarize several important objections:

    1) That many of the studies which interpret these societies as more predisposed to male violence and small-scale warfare are profoundly contested by other anthropologists who have field experience in the same regions or with the same peoples. Either those experts saw something different in their own observations or they think there’s a problem with assuming that modern hunter-gatherers are “pristine”, unchanging survivals of an earlier era. At least in Southern and Equatorial Africa, there’s some evidence that autochthonous hunter-gatherers were driven into marginal or remote environments by migrations of Bantu-speaking agriculturalists and that they did not go quietly–e.g., that ‘violence’ has as much of a dynamic historical role in their societies as any others in the 20th Century.

    2) Moreover, some experts would argue that groups or other evidence that doesn’t fit the paradigm are ignored or overlooked in the evo-psych/sociobiological interpretation.

    3) That some experts think it’s very difficult to tell whether the hunter-gatherer societies which existed in the 20th Century are representative of the ‘average’ or ‘typical’ pre-Neolithic society.

    4) That it’s very hard to define ‘violence’ in a clear, universal, transhistorical way that includes a drunken brawl but excludes a football game, that includes a raid for brides but excludes a raid for cattle, that sees ritualized warfare with low casualty rates as the same ‘type’ of thing as World War I, that sees a blood feud as violence but a shooting of a suspect by police as not-violence, and so on.

    Honestly, I don’t think these are terribly complicated points to make. I think that anyone who is trying to help the public understand the underlying questions here (for example, “are human beings, especially male ones, predisposed to violence, and has that changed over time”) owes it to that public to lay out the field of debate at every opportunity, in a way that’s generous to the full range of arguments and interpretations. I chose the example of Diamond because it’s in the news, but also because I think he’s not using his ability to be clear and articulate in this fully realized fashion–he summarizes what he prefers, situates it as a “reasonable middle”, and then caricatures or ignores everything else.

    That’s what we have to overcome–it is, in the crudest terms, one of the reasons that our collective “market value” is falling, because contemporary publics get a sense that we’re just in it for ourselves, just selling something (a policy, a book, a tenure file, a consultancy). We don’t have to be disinterested, but our distinctive public value should turn in part on our ability to teach. Which I think requires an ability to survey the landscape before we settle into to our preferred patch of it.

  5. Jed Harris says:

    Sad to see the discussion focus on Diamond when there are so many other better examples. See Gelman’s post about expert witnessing. Why focus on Diamond who is at best a marginal and debatable case? So many other examples in economics, pharmaceuticals, tobacco, consumer products, and on and on are so much clearer and more obviously harmful.

    I like the proposed rule — though it will need to have the wording tuned up. I think most people would find it sensible and be able to judge whether a given expert met the standard when challenged. In contrast the criteria in Rule 702 cited by Withywindle can only be applied using judgement by other experts in the same field…

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah. Diamond was a bad example. Expert witnessing is one of the things I had in mind, definitely. I do think this also applies when you’re being a “talking head” in public but it’s a looser or more customary kind of obligation in my view at that point.

  7. Withywindle says:

    Simplifying, I think the legal rule has a science framework; your rule has a humanities framework–“competing schools of interpretation” fits more easily into history than into the chemistry.

    But consider also that many people want the Expert to be the Voice of God–the more self-assured may be the more successful. The fault lies in ourselves, as usual, as much as in the experts.

  8. The self-assurance can still come from the way you guide a listener through the landscape of evidence and interpretation. I’m much happier taking the advice of a doctor if that doctor is conversant with some of the principal countering arguments or evidence against that advice. That’s what makes that person a masterful figure for me, that’s what creates the possibility of trust.

    I don’t think I’m alone in that. There *are* experts who perform this role beautifully, and some of them are scientists. What I’m proposing is no less than saying: that’s what you’re supposed to do, folks–follow that lead.

  9. Withywindle says:

    You aren’t alone, but neither are you universal. I would go so far as to say you have a minority taste. Consider, at any rate, the opposing taste as you craft your proposals.

  10. Matt_L says:

    I don’t think that Diamond was a particularly bad example. I do think that he tends not to lay out the debates or situate himself in those debates in a clear manner. He was better about this in _Guns, Germs and Steel_, but his later book Collapse was an exercise in geographic determinism without an acknowledgement of other perspectives.

  11. I think I’m right to say he’s an example of someone who isn’t living up to this principle, yes, but there are clearer cases and those are better for helping people to decide whether the principle itself is sound. Diamond, as I’m learning once again, is a red flag to some people and *criticism of Diamond* is a red flag to other people.

  12. Jerry Hamrick says:

    Why not an oath for students along the lines of the Athenian Oath of the Ephebes?

    “I will not disgrace the sacred arms, nor will I desert my comrade in arms wherever I may be stationed. And I will fight in defense of the sacred and the secular, and I will hand on my fatherland not less, but greater and better, as far as is in my own power and together with all my comrades, and I will pay thoughtful heed to whoever may be in authority over me, and to the established laws and to whatever laws may be established in the future. And if anyone overthrows them, I will not permit it as far as is in my own power and together with all my comrades, and I will honor our ancestral traditions as sacred.”

    Each year they could write their own class oath and take it in student assembly.

    I started to watch Diamond’s book talk on BookTV the other day, but I just couldn’t sit through it. I’ll go back and try again.

    Richard Attenborough was on Public TV showing various old films. One of them was about the Birds of Paradise in New Guinea. It was all in black and white. Anyhow they left one village and traveled up out of a valley whereupon the villagers who were helping them carry their gear stopped. They said that they would not cross the border. At that time a group of angry men from another tribe came screaming down a hillside toward the group. But they stopped and said that such a display was necessary in order to make sure that everybody knew that they were not weak. Thereupon friendly talks broke out and Attenborough’s expedition proceeded and got some nice shots.

  13. Jerry Hamrick says:

    Isn’t Brad De Long an economist or something like that? But no matter if he is or if he isn’t, aren’t economists notorious for selling their reputations to political parties? If I am wrong, then I apologize, but I think I remember that Brad De Long is often engaged in attacking economists who differ with him on the causes and fixes for our current economic predicament.

    In the case of many economists, Herr Burke, I think some sort of professional standards are warranted. I wince when I hear the terms,” conservative economist and conservative pollster.” Makes no sense to me. Science is science I always say.

  14. Jerry Hamrick says:

    Diamond’s goal of steering some sort of middle ground makes little sense to me. We have much too much of that in this world. What is the middle ground position on global warming?

  15. Douglas Knight says:

    Shouldn’t you demonstrate this principle by explaining the most prominent critique of your principle? or, say, the most prominent critique of your application of it to Diamond?

    but a shooting of a suspect by police as not-violence

    I don’t know how you use the word “violence,” but the Feds count hundreds of homicides by police officers each year.

  16. Douglas:

    That’s a clever point, though I think one of the things I’m trying to hone in on here is less an individual’s ability to generate arguments and counter-arguments simply by exploring a concept and more an expert’s ability to talk about actually-existing things that other experts have said about an established point-of-view.

    However, others have certainly suggested that experts should be able to offer a dispassionate summary of existing views (as per the discussion of expert witnessing above). So here goes:

    1. Dispassion or disinterestedness is not possible: all expertise is always-already interested. This principle calls back to an old positivistic or Enlightenment (or Platonic) view of the expert as objective or otherwise superior in his or her devotion to rationality, a view that we should learn to abandon once and for all.

    2. Dispassion or disinterestedness is not desirable: knowledge is born from passion and antagonistic engagement. Forcing experts to pretend to think in a way that is alien to the conditions of their work is a perverse and fruitless exercise. (This point would particularly reflect the sensibility of intellectuals and experts who actively seek out or start arguments and disputes for the pleasure of it, and who argue that this spectacle is what the public is also seeking.)

    3. The point of expertise is to drive towards truth and accuracy: why should an expert tell people about views and findings that he thinks are less true or less accurate? That just leads to false equivalency where a biologist is forced to give equal time to creationism.

    4. When people are seeking expert advice or analysis, they’re not looking to be more and more bewildered and confused. Ordinary people can’t sort between all those options: they’re asking us to help them do that by telling them what the right thing to do is.

  17. Withywindle says:

    When people are seeking expert advice or analysis, they’re not looking to be more and more bewildered and confused.

    That’s what love is for.

  18. Brad DeLong says:

    Re: “Yeah. Diamond was a bad example.”

    But Diamond was your only example…

    Time to use the [strike] tag on your paragraph 5, perhaps?

  19. Brad DeLong says:

    Re: “Diamond, as I’m learning once again, is a red flag to some people and *criticism of Diamond* is a red flag to other people.”

    Let me strongly, strongly reject that characterization of what I wrote–unless you want to add “really stupid” to the front of “criticism of Diamond”.

    If you want to attack expert witnesses and people seeking high office who betray the academy to serve their political masters, use expert witness and PSHOWBTATSTPM as examples–not Jared Diamond, who is neither. Criticize Diamond for what he is and does, not what he isn’t and does not do…

  20. CarlD says:

    You’re talking about an ethic. It’s basically about getting it right. So although dispassion may not be possible and our passions may both demonstrably and productively motivate our practice, the ethic is to get it right anyway – in a way that has some chance of being credible or even persuasive to people who don’t share our passions, otherwise we’re just pols masquerading as scholars. So no, I really don’t think the hard critique of Weber’s science-as-a-vocation argument and its masculinist/orientalist ilk works very well if we’re trying to distinguish credible expertise from personal or movement polemic, and I think at this point the no-such-thing-as-objectivity move is lazy and question-begging.

  21. CarlD says:

    One more thing. Knowledge is also born of curiosity. I usually agree with you so much it’s boring, but this one’s a mess so far.

  22. Timothy Burke says:

    I think we agree again, yes? Above in the comments I was trying to trot out the ways that other experts might critique this principle, but I do think expert credibility turns on the attempt to be provisionally dispassionate–to put into check for one moment your own commitments, to give an honest accounting of what is known and thought about a subject. I don’t think you have to STAY that way throughout your work as an expert–we are not Vulcans. But you have to be capable of it at that first moment that someone is seeking your sage opinion.

  23. CarlD says:

    Dang, I see that now. My bad. May I just suggest then a rewording of “2. Dispassion or disinterestedness is not desirable: knowledge is born from passion and antagonistic engagement.” If the problem is a confluence of incredulities towards the metanarratives of fact, what I imagine you’re talking about is swinging the pendulum back a bit toward at least a momentary suspension / bracketing of interest – a kind of epistemological republican virtue or general will, perhaps. For the same reason I think the focus on antagonism is misleading or even pernicious. It’s analogous to saying that we’re only motivated by competition, and I don’t think we want to give in to that particular flattening.

  24. CarlD says:

    Aah, I’m still not clear on the rhetoric of that list. A thousand apologies if you’re ventriloquizing, not programming. My points still stand, with a different target.

  25. Timothy Burke says:

    Ventriloquizing. Douglas pointed out that if I actually believe in this principle, then I should be able on the spot to generate some reasons why it’s a bad idea. So I did.

  26. Carl says:

    Scales removed. Sight clearing. Thank you for your patience.

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