Sunday, October 12, 2008

When Experts are 180 Degrees Wrong

Elizabeth Thomas's Harmless People (1959) argued that hunter-gatherers were, well, harmless. Rouseau's dovelike natives, living in social harmony, individual freedom, cooperation, and absence of warfare. But, of course it was a crock. In Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt's Myth of Aggression-Free Hunter-Gatherer Society (1974) started the re-write, and now, with Heeley's War Before Civilization, we know that per capita homicide rates for natives is much higher than for civilizations. Oh well.

It's funny that for decades, the experts can get it 180 degrees wrong on their field of expertise. I remember a sexuality professor arguing that all people are inherently bi-sexual to a significant degree. I thought, this may be her preference, but most of us are pretty hard wired towards a particular gender, and if she was a sex expert, she should know that. Obviously, she was projecting her vision of a societal nirvana, guilt-free sex with everyone. The list of such inanities is really quite long. Most nutritionists believed that a diet rich in fat is a major contributor to obesity, a finding now trumped by the initially derided Atkin’s claim that carbohydrates are more fat inducing; the American Medical Association declared that steroids had no affect on athletic performance; or finally that in the 1970s psychologists thought young delinquents had too little self-esteem, and now they think they have too much.

The sad fact is that experts are often more wrong on facts in their field than the average person. They are able to create a highly scientific rationale for their belief, and deflect criticism from 'conventional wisdom' because most people with mere common sense do not follow the academic protocol of the field that sets the standard for accepted expert opinion.

False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often long endure; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, as every one takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness.

Charles Darwin

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