Expert Opinion, Part II

Numerous letters have crossed my path in response to my correspondence regarding “Should We Trust Expert Opinion?”

https://www.lewrockwell.com/lrc-blog/728351/

Several of them are very informative. The one by Robert Wenzel (I don’t keep him anonymous since he published this on his own blog) is nothing less than excellent.

Wenzel, Robert.

https://www.economicpolicyjournal.com/2019/10/given-division-of-labor-should-we.html

Here are a few others of these reactions, several of which are also keenly insightful:

Letter 1:

From: S

Sent: Tuesday, October 29, 2019 3:28 PM

To: wblock@loyno.edu

Subject: Shall We Trust Expert Opinion

Professor Block,

I know you receive many emails so I expect no response.  Regarding your blog post at “https://www.lewrockwell.com/lrc-blog/728351/“, respectfully, I believe you and your friend only disagree because you are not accounting for a key causal factor — government interference.

Essentially, as you are no doubt aware, the government provides for cartels or quasi-cartels on production/supply, or subsidizes industries thereby crowding out competition.  This distorts the “marketplace” for truthful ideas, allowing failed ideas to be sustained.  This would apply to most universities.

In other words, bad ideas in medicine or regarding climate change, for example, are sustained by government money and enfranchisement (arguendo); without it, there would be greater public challenge and bad ideas would be less enduring.  All of the errors your friend identifies are related to these types of controlled industries (e.g. medicine).

Once you account for government enfranchisement in certain industries, you can accurately state your opinion – generally speaking, the experts will be more reliable than the non-experts.  But where the State spreads its tendrils, you should be on a higher alert for error, even as a layman.  This doesn’t mean you will know what is right, but it does mean you can more safely assume they have it wrong.

Relatively free industries of course may have error, but as you correctly state, it’s hard to really know when that is the case unless you become an expert in a limited way.

Regards, S

Dear S:

I kick myself for not initially seeing government involvement as part of the problem, and I thank you for setting me straight on this point. Yes, indeed, the state apparatus wends its evil super-octopus hands into areas about which most libertarians, including me, are unaware.

Best regards,

Walter

Letter 2

From: R

Sent: Tuesday, October 29, 2019 3:15 PM

To: ‘Walter Block’ <wblock@loyno.edu>

Subject: Boettke

If I could clarify what my focus is, it’s not so much on the experts and many of them are quite brilliant it is the systems that generate the experts are in some cases broken.   You yourself made that point in one of the online arguments with Boettke.

Markets and the division of labor only work when there is private ownership and profit and loss.  The areas where the experts are the most wrong are the areas with the most socialism: academia, foreign policy, medicine.

re: Boettke, he did say in one interview that he meets or hears from non-economists who are well read in AD and have very specific opinions on controversies within the field (maybe FRB?).  He said that non-economists should not have their own opinion on a controversial matter in the field, that it’s up to the real economists to figure out those issues. R

Dear R:

Good point. Thanks for sharing.

Best regards,

Walter

Letter 3

From: L

Sent: Tuesday, October 29, 2019 4:56 AM

To: wblock@loyno.edu

Subject: Trusting the experts, the third road

Dear Professor Block,

With great interest I read the series of your correspondence regarding expert opinion. This is a subject that has troubled me a lot, so I would like to take the chance to test my conclusions.

In the broader sense, the reliance on experts is an economic activity. By choosing to trust the opinion of X, I enter a game where I bet on the future outcome of today’s action of “buying” into the one option vs another. Therefore, it can be approached in a game-theoretical way.

Let’s take for example vaccines. I have no expertise there. But I would need to make a decision. So we have expert opinion that says “it’s safe” and contrary opinion that says “not safe”. How to decide?

My answer is, well, let’s see what the game is.

* I have the ability and time to check history and see what the difference before and after mass vaccination is.

* I have the ability and time to look for statistics about cases where vaccination went wrong.

And so, I put that down, make a rough estimation of the probabilities for each case and reach a conclusion of what the best “buy” is.

Note how I did not become an expert. I just empirically tried to make sense of the validity of each position based on the previous outcomes. This is basically like betting on the markets.

So the idea is that expert opinion is a guide but not necessary the conclusion. Most – if not all – of the decisions we need to take seem to be amiable to this approach. Especially in this age of vast and cheaply accessible information. My parents could not do this even if they wanted to. But now? And in the future? The expert is no longer an authority per se, but a means of transmitting the necessary information for us to figure out the decision game.

That said, it depends on the seriousness of the decision. I will not go and investigate the game for driving the car. I will just assume that the car is safe, mostly because my experience has already been so.

I will not go and investigate the game of wearing putting on sun lotion. It’s cheap enough and takes negligible effort.

I will not go and investigate the game of what’s the best way to preserve species X in Africa, because I do not really care. I can accept the expert opinion on that without issue.

In conclusion:

* The default position would be to accept expert opinion for things that don’t matter much, because it costs to do otherwise. One can always reevaluate if the matter happens to become personally important in the future.

* If something matters a lot, personal research is required and the cost required to investigate the game is worth it. This does not mean becoming an expert, but evaluating the expert suggestions based on the validity of their previous predictions.

Thank you for your time, L

Dear L:

You make excellent points.

However, in my view, “evaluating the expert suggestions based on the validity of their previous predictions” takes quite a bit of expertise in and of itself. I wouldn’t trust myself to do so for numerous questions. To do this is to rely on my own expert opinion, and, for most issues, I just don’t have it. I’m having enough of a challenge to try to become an expert in (Austrian) economics and libertarian theory. I just don’t have the time, or the interest, in becoming even a semi expert in hundreds of other disciplines.

Best regards,

Walter

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3:22 am on October 31, 2019