What is Expertise? Some Things It is Not.

Here is a statement by a sociologist, Tom Nichols:

I am (or at least think I am) an expert. Not on everything, but in a particular area of human knowledge, specifically social science and public policy. When I say something on those subjects, I expect that my opinion holds more weight than that of most other people.

I never thought those were particularly controversial statements.


But democracy, as I wrote in an essay about C.S. Lewis and the Snowden affair, denotes a system of government, not an actual state of equality. It means that we enjoy equal rights versus the government, and in relation to each other. Having equal rights does not mean having equal talents, equal abilities, or equal knowledge. It assuredly does not mean that “everyone’s opinion about anything is as good as anyone else’s.” And yet, this is now enshrined as the credo of a fair number of people despite being obvious nonsense.

The Death Of Expertise
By Tom Nichols
January 17, 2014

I do not think Tom Nichols would find CSL too supporting to his case.

In That Hideous Strength there is a real expert in a real field of science - chemistry or physics or sth - who finds out that the male hero or rather antihero Mark Studdock is a sociologist. One of these modern pseudosciences.

He gives the guy a fair scolding to pretending to expertise in such an area.

Now, IF your speciality:

a) has a medieval pedigree


b) gives you expert know-how in construction or handling of machinery such as electronics, chemical processes, combustion motors, computers ....

THEN you have a case to call yourself a specialist. Insofar as you keep within the specialty.

But if you are an expert in Eugenics, and your specialty is choosing whom to sterilise, an expert in Psychiatry and your specialty is choosing whom to lobotomise, and expert in Psychology and your specialty is choosing whom to consider immature despite his being physically apt for marriage and not a patient of Down's syndrome, an expert in Economics and your specialty is choosing whom to put our of work, out of business, out of a loan lease before bankruptcy, out of house or home, or on larger levels like public policy your specialty is choosing what categories of society to hurt next, well, then your specialty does merit a refusal of obeissance. Then your expert status does merit the rebuke of any little ignoramus who is concerned with what you are doing to them. That is NOT like saying a boy of four (who has no chemists or chemistry books at hand) could correct a chemist on the formula of caffeine.

But also when we go to exact sciences, there is another matter. Some fields within each science are legitimately part of the expertise. If a computer specialist tells me what gates he uses (and-gate, exclusive or-gate, etc.) I would be stupid in trying to correct him, since I know next to nothing about the technology of the computers, beyond using html (where I am by now pretty expert), and knowing what kind of things admins can do to people lending their computers (where I have been a sometime victim of harrassment and spying). But if he goes on to tell me that this is also how brains work (basically, with differences of detail not yet figured out by neurologists) and that this is why we can think, no, then I must insist that the computer never actually understands what it is dealing with. I must insist on the difference between a mathematician using an abacus and the total lack of observable conscience in the abacus itself, and conclude that computer science is dealing with the abacus side, not the mathematician side of that usage.

And even within each expertise, legitimately defined, not trespassing on philosophy without telling so, I can and should cry out against obvious tomfoolery. I have never claimed that π is a rational number. I have claimed it is not an "irrational number" because it is not a number at all. It is in fact better named a non-numeric ratio. A ratio between quantities that are not numbers. The ratio of two troops can never be π - if one has 100 men, then having 314 in the other would make the ratio less than π and having 315 in it would make it greater than π. The ratio must always be of items usually one to one, and therefore measured, not counted. Hence my preference for the terminology "non-numeric ratio" even over the classical one "irrational ratio" and much more so over the modernist one of "irrational number". Numbers are about countables.

I was seeing an astrophysician (not his work, but his studies) in a forum being treated as a dumbhead by a long time maths teacher. The reason was the maths teacher thought the trigonometry of the parallax of α Centauri works equally well as a measure of distance if earth is immobile. The astrophysician knew of course that this was trigonometrically not the case. You can roughly speaking say that if the top of a v is covered by a line the size of a hyphen, then the v is a lower case v, but if you know instead that the line covering it is the size of an underscore, it must be an uppercase V. The claim now is that if a line of the size of an underscore is under the angle of a v or a V, the fact it is itself the size of an underscore tells you the line on top of the v must be so as well and therefore it must be an uppercase V. But you can just as well put a lower case v and have its angle touching the underscore. The Geometry is NOT the same.

The math teacher was not really complaining, if he had really understood the case, of trigonometry not being understood. He was complaining of himself and Rick DeLano (by now my ex-friend on FB) not being treated as rabbis by younger and less known / less teaching folks. And that is about the reason that our just now quoted Tom has to complain of the "death of expertise" as well.

Of course, if I have stated some things can be contradicted even by non-experts, I am thereby also stating they can be contradicted by non-experts in that field, by experts in another one. As CSL also did in the essay Fernseeds and Elephants./HGL

Update, Sunday:

A man was asked to forward this. He did so but added a question:

"I do have a question though, if we agreed with HGL, would he then become our Pastor/Rabbi"

Of course not. Not any more than CSL / Jack Lewis, JRRT, GKC, Hilaire Belloc are mine.

What I was saying was that certain someones are complaining about not being treated as rabbis when they are requiring one agrees with them and ignoring very good and simple geometric refutations [see above, and diagram in link*] of what they are saying* and barging in and exacting that one deal with their argument one has already refuted before them again and again. At least in cases when that is not a question of arguing for one's own freedom, and I am not Rick DeLano's social worker or shrink or something.

I am rather complaining, not of not being treated as a pastor or rabbi, but of being treated as someone who needs to learn to listen to his pastor or rabbi because he is not one himself.

Hans Georg Lundahl
Bpi, Georges Pompidou

* hglwrites : Geo vs Helio
May 29, 2012

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