My four-year-old daughter sprained her ankle while playing in the school yard.
My wife walked over: “Let’s go home and RICE it.” On the way to the car, we bumped into a friend: “You should RICE it.” We parked the car and our neighbor saw us: “RICE is the way to go.” Next day we called her doctor: “Use RICE.”
The RICE method was first introduced by Dr. Gabe Mirkin in his 1978 book Sportsmedicine. In it he claims that a combination of Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation speeds recovery.
The thing is, after years of study, it turns out that claim is false. RICE doesn’t speed recovery and may actually slow it down: the inflammation that ice reduces is part of how the body heals itself. Years later, in 2015, Dr. Mirkin himself rejected RICE.
Despite the evidence, and Dr. Mirkin’s own rejection of the method, people continue to use and recommend RICE: not just people like you and me, but even experts–doctors whom we trust to know what’s best for our health.
The RICE method’s failure raises an important question: When and how should you trust the expert opinions?
We obviously need to rely on experts in some cases. If you want to understand what is wrong with your car, you need to consult a mechanic. If you want to understand your taxes, you need to consult an accountant. If you want to understand about the COVID 19 pandemic, you need to start with a virologist. But even experts can be wrong. Anybody can have false beliefs, and experts are no different.
How, then, should we make use of expert opinion?
Let’s be more specific: suppose you’re a free thinker who’s committed to knowing and understanding what’s true. How should you make use of expert opinion?
What Is an Expert?
An expert is someone who becomes knowledgeable in a specific area by studying that area extensively, or they have experience and training in it. But however they’ve arrived at their knowledge, they know more than non-experts. Experts in a subject can make claims that are more likely to be true than novices since they have spent significant time understanding and knowing that subject.
Experts are familiar with the best available information in the domain, the established facts, and the methods to evaluate claims in their field of expertise. For example, an expert mechanic has up-to-date information on various makes and models of cars, and he knows how to diagnose problems and fix them.
Our world is complex so we can never be an expert in every area. When it comes to gaining knowledge or forming beliefs in an area, we look for an expert’s opinion because they can show enough evidence and reasoning to help us understand why or how a claim is true.
When we don’t have enough information on a certain subject or claim, instead of fabricating claims or flipping a coin to decide what to believe, we turn to experts for guidance. They are more reliable sources of information that can help us know and understand what’s true in their area of expertise.
For example, a trial judge would allow an expert witness to give a testimony in a criminal case. Expert testimony could use experts in many ways–fingerprint analysis, DNA or a firearm examiner.
The expert knowledge is limited by their own area of expertise. For example, if you need to understand heart health, you start with a scientist with speciality in cardiology. They would have scientific evidence based on medical records to back up their claims. But if you want to understand mental health, a scientist in cardiology will be limited in their knowledge on this subject. It is near impossible to find an expert with speciality in two domains. In our complex world, no one is an expert in everything.
Also, expert knowledge is limited by the methodology experts use to know about the world. Knowledge requires truth: knowing what’s true depends on having the right kinds of methodology for figuring out how the world is. If the methodology that experts in a given domain use to figure out how the world is are flawed, then the knowledge that experts in that domain have is less reliable.
Here’s an example: for millennia, astronomers used only their eyes to know about the stars and planets. It appeared to their eyes that the stars and planets orbited the earth, so they assumed that this was true. Ptolemy’s system of astronomy was based on this assumption. That assumption, however, was false, so the knowledge that astronomers had about the stars and planets was limited in its reliability.
There are many areas of expertise like that–areas in which the experts don’t have reliable methodology for knowing and understanding what’s true. As a result, their expertise is limited in its reliability.
How Free Thinkers Use Expert Opinion
So what does a free thinker make of all this? The free thinker takes the word of experts as a starting point for gaining knowledge and understanding about a domain, but the free thinker takes the experts’ words only for what they’re worth.
The experts know a lot about their domain, so a free thinker can rely on their books, lectures, and google scholar to read published research as a starting point for knowing about that domain. But a free thinker is always aware of the limitations of expert knowledge.
In some cases like health care, criminal cases and science, the experts’ words are worth more than in other domains because in some domains experts have more reliable methodology for knowing and understanding what’s true.
Ultimately, it’s the strength of the evidence that backs up the experts’ claims that guides the free thinker’s approach, not the experts themselves.
Experts are a reliable starting point to collect evidence on a new claim. When we start looking for experts, we are looking for people who are trained and have experience in their domains.
When you are looking for evidence from experts, you will run into 1 of 2 scenarios.
Scenario #1: Experts largely agree on a claim.
If most of the experts agree on a claim, a free thinker is better off by accepting the expert consensus. It is much easier to examine the evidence from experts than collecting evidence on your own. And expert opinion gives better evidence than simply flipping a coin.
For example, most climate scientists agree that the climate is changing rapidly, and they have solid evidence to back up their claim. In this case, a free thinker is better off accepting expert consensus rather than trying to research the subject on their own from scratch, or simply making guesses about it. The free thinker simply recognizes that their acceptance of the claim is only good as the evidence given by the experts, and is subject to revision if better evidence comes to light.
Scenario #2: Experts are divided about a claim.
If the experts disagree amongst themselves, the free thinker lacks decisive evidence to accept or reject the claim, and continues to withhold judgement.
For example, experts disagree about what to do to slow or stop the climate from changing. You may hear competing proposals like these: we need to invest more in renewable energy, stop deforesting the amazon, become vegetarian, regulate the fishing industry, eliminate the plastic use, speed up the innovation to battle climate change, and on and on. Since experts disagree over what to do about climate change, you don’t have decisive evidence one way or the other. The reasonable thing to do, then, is to withhold judgement.
A free thinker now has a choice:
(A) A free thinker can wait for experts to come to an agreement.
(B) The free thinker can start a systematic review of the evidence that the experts have for endorsing their various views.
It is not always feasible to rely on the experts or wait for them to reach a consensus. So a free thinker can choose to examine the evidence on their own.
After examining the evidence, if there is enough evidence to accept a claim, then the free thinker can believe it. If there is enough evidence to reject the claim, then the free thinker can disbelieve it.
Either way, the free thinker is free to change their stance on the claim as more evidence appears. In fact, the free thinker is committed to changing their stance on the claim if new evidence appears that contradicts the stance they currently have.
How a Free Thinker Applies the Approach
Let’s go back to the RICE example. What does a free thinker say about this?
For over 35 years, Dr. Mirkin gave lectures about the benefits of RICE without sufficient studies. Dr. Mirkin recognized that he was wrong and corrected his claim. But it’s been over five years since he renounced the RICE method, and health care providers still keep prescribing the method for injury.
When it comes to something high stake like health care, people tend to follow what they’ve heard before–whether from experts or other people. People don’t know where the RICE method originated and the conclusions supported by the research.
People are not using expert opinion the way they should; in particular, they’re not using it as a starting point for forming opinions that are subject to revision as they continue their journey through the evidence. They’re instead starting with expert opinion, and stopping there.
In the end the free thinker’s decision-making is based on evidence not experts. The free thinker realizes that expert opinion is only as good as the evidence the experts have. Experts are only guides to truth; they don’t guarantee the truth itself. But that’s what free thinkers are most interested in: knowing and understanding what’s true, not merely knowing and understanding what experts think about what’s true.
Experts Are Free Thinker Allies
If you look at the history of science, all notable discoveries were made by experts like Aristotle, Newton, and Einstein. A free thinker collects evidence from experts and uses them as allies and their opinions as starting points on a journey of discovering what’s true.