Trust the Experts or the Internet?

As a parent and as a business owner, I interact with many professionals from a variety of fields, and I often hear them complain that online information sharing is threatening their professional credibility. For example, many doctors accuse their internet-savvy patients of “letting Google be their doctor” when their patients doubt the doctor’s advice or want to supplement it with online research. Other experts such as scientists and teachers also get offended when they encounter skepticism coming from the average people who are supposed to bow to the professional authority and take the expert’s word as a gospel.

I certainly have sympathy for such sentiments. Scientists and doctors spend lots of time, effort, and money to obtain their degrees, and the overwhelming majority of them are, without a doubt, very educated and smart people. Many of them have made significant contributions in their professional fields and deserve high praises. They get rightfully offended when their extensive knowledge is challenged by the commoners who lack the same credentials.

However, I admit being cautious and skeptical about blindly trusting people in positions of authority. It’s not because I pretend to know it all – I’m humble and honest enough to admit that I don’t. I respect professional expertise and the people who possess it, yet I see why some of the experts cannot be completely trusted:

Agenda and monetary gain

Experts often abuse their positions, status and access to information as a means to advance their agenda or to derive monetary gain. A doctor may insist on a certain medical procedure not because it’s truly beneficial for the patient but because the doctor profits from it, or because the doctor is under pressure to push for experimental treatments, or because performing the procedure serves the hospital’s interests such as improving their statistics or meeting arbitrary quotas or policies. Similarly, a scientist can falsely manipulate data just to advance in the ranks, to please his grant donors, or because he is pressured to uphold the mainstream agenda.

Follow the money: Experts use the razzle-dazzle of numbers, statistics and jargon to play on the public’s perception of scientific objectivity, but in reality, experts are human beings subject to the same temptations and biases as anyone else. Their ability to disguise these temptations in aura of “science” and “facts” gives them an illusory power and undue influence. Before blindly trusting a scientific study, check up on the agenda of those individuals or organizations who have sponsored or conducted that study. Before agreeing to a treatment, have the doctor disclose his revenue sources, look for second or third opinion, and read up on the subject.

Sticking to a dogma

Some experts get too comfortable with their knowledge and don’t want to hear ideas or opinions that challenge their views. They may truly believe that the established doctrine is true, or they are not curious enough to question what they have been taught in college. The problem with scientific research is that one’s preconceptions can be projected onto the data in order to confirm a pre-existent bias. The more complex an issue, the more one can insert his political or moral preferences into the data and the more one’s own subjective judgment can cloud his interpretation of data. Such unwillingness to consider new evidence may come from arrogance or from peer pressure, but the consequences of such biased distortion of data can be tragic: miscalculated risks, false predictions, or imposing a fundamentally wrong political doctrine or a public policy which can later result in environmental disasters, financial crisis, or losses of human health and life.

Know the difference between the truth and a mere hypothesis: Experts have to be humble and honest enough to admit that their knowledge is limited. No one can claim to know the absolute truth. We can only make assumptions based on our past experiences, but we cannot be sure that our assumptions will always work because we don’t have enough statistical evidence to predict long-term consequences.

Nothing can be held as 100% true if there is new credible counter-evidence. No matter how long-lasting and time-proven a theory may seem, we must always be willing to reconsider or readjust our views in light of new evidence that challenges our theory. A true expert must be honest, objective, and open-minded.

Making generalizations

Some experts tend to make broad generalizations from a limited set of data. They presume that if an experiment works for a specific sample, it must work for everybody. Again, personal arrogance, a pre-existent bias, or a pressure to comply with a predetermined conclusion may play a role here.

Expert generalizations are often misused by political advocates who lobby for a law or a public policy to force everyone to comply with the official opinion which is based on such a generalization – and this is where it gets dangerous. The world is very diverse, especially when it comes to the human population where each individual situation is unique, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach. For example, teachers may have observed that some children thrive in a school setting, but this is not a ground for enacting compulsory schooling laws that force every child to be educated within the school system. Similarly, if a drug or a treatment is beneficial for a selected group of patients, doctors are not justified to claim that this drug or treatment is the only correct method of cure for the entire population. A true expert must recognize the complexity of the world and avoid generalizations, especially in cases where it can carry long-term consequences on people’s lives.

Lack of critical and analytical thinking

Education teaches you many facts, but even the best school cannot teach you how to think critically, how to develop analytical skills, how to have an independent mind, and how to be curious. One doesn’t need to be an expert to possess these qualities, but a true expert certainly must have them. Memorizing a bunch of facts may make you knowledgeable, but it takes an open mind and an analytical talent to connect the dots, to seek out and include other facts, and to analyze causes and effects, thereby putting the full puzzle together. A true expert should not be narrowly focused on his field, he should always strive to widen his horizons to see the entire picture.

Why the internet?

Does it mean we should never trust any experts? Of course not. We should respect and honor those doctors and scientists who are honest, objective, and open-minded, and we should trust them to do their job. Surprising as it may be, for such trustworthy experts internet is a blessing.

Internet has opened streams of unprecedented information exchange. In the earlier times, smart people could only be heard within the walls of their universities or labs and not much farther. If their opinion was contrary to the mainstream, they would face difficulties publishing their work if they wanted to spread their views. Internet gave voice to such experts. Now their ideas can not only be heard but can really go viral without limits.

I don’t blindly trust the internet, but I can attest that not all online information is useless gossip or conspiracy theories. Internet now is full of high-quality, credible information published by many critically and independently thinking experts. Such information is widely accessible to everyone at virtually no cost, and this is why internet is a blessing for us all.

Let’s not trust these experts who tell us that we’re too stupid to understand and who think that the public is not in a position to offer opinion or criticism. Let’s trust those experts who are open-minded, who strive for objectivity and who sincerely search for truth. Let’s especially support those professionals whose independent thinking puts them at odds with the establishment and hurts their career. Many honest and open-minded teachers, doctors, scientists, and other experts go through sacrifices to do us a big favor: to present an alternative information and objective knowledge so we can make informed choices. And no, we are not too stupid – we can do it. We are all qualified to use our common sense to tell right from wrong, to make moral judgements, to educate ourselves by doing research, to evaluate different opinions, and to ultimately decide what’s best for us on our own.