The Expert’s Right to Disagree

The Experts Right to Disagree

I’m going to paraphrase and tell the proceeding anecdote imprecisely, however hopefully well enough to get the idea across. If you want to check my sources to get the correct story, you will need to watch the 1993 film ‘Wittgenstein’ directed by Derek Jarman.

If you want to discover the truth behind the anecdote, you will need to do some historical research.

And if you want to get to the reality…you will need to begin, buy or borrow a time-travel machine, and journey to the 20th century to the incident in question, so you can listen as a fly on the wall.

* * *

Ludwig (the Wittgenstein) oversees a lecture/seminar/class. He asks a student why it seems more natural for people to believe the sun travels around the earth, instead of the other way around, to which the student replies:

“Because it looks that way, obviously”.

“And how would it look if - the earth went around the sun?” Wittgenstein inquires.

The student stops, thinks, smiles broadly and says:

“Oh. I see what you mean.”

* * *

The criteria from which we draw some of our basic ‘factual’ assumptions could easily lead us to a contrary outlook.

Of course the earth travels around the sun…

(I only say ‘of course’ because I’ve been told it is absurd to assert the contrary.)

All our direct sense experience shows the sun moving across the sky and returning daily, which I would intuit to be the main cause of the (mostly archaic) geocentric point of view.

A substantial number of educational establishments defend the heliocentric (sun-centred) model of the solar system…but so what? There once was a paradigm shifting U-turn on that very premise. 

One day we’ll be told human beings landed on Earth millennia ago after a galactic light year trek as martian DNA surfing on an asteroid.

Where the arguments for generally accepted beliefs can be broken down and shown to be equally supportive of alternative positions, ‘common knowledge’ is just as fragile as conspiracy theory. 

If the force of a statement consists in the argument beneath it, but there are multiple conclusions which might be drawn from the same reasoning, either the propositions upon which the argument is based can be questioned, or the logic can to be analysed to find out where the discrepancies lie.

That the earth circles the sun is accepted as common knowledge, but it is ridiculous to assert a geocentric (earth-centred) position rather for the reason that it is at a difficult-to-digest distance from the ‘educated’ stance of academic authorities, than that it is an unreasonable point of view in itself. In other words, to reject the heliocentric model is to distance yourself in general from received opinions on all sorts of other scientific ‘facts’ about the world…e.g. do you then agree with other ‘absurd’ theories…such as the geocentric model?

Or the flat earth?

Or the faking of the moon landing?

Or that the earth is merely thousands of years old?

This is perhaps what should incline us towards ‘general knowledge’ as against ‘conspiracy theory’…not flaws in the reasoning, but the implications for our world view.

I could attack the physical sciences at their very foundations…say science is fundamentally flawed as a discipline…but then I would have to throw mathematics, mechanics, electronics, medicine etc., all out the window (in theory).

On the other hand, there is nothing ridiculous about scrutinising the validity of the claim that the earth revolves around the sun. Without the concept of a solid argument by the beholder, the evidence might just as well support another stance. The force of my opinion that the earth moves around the sun, if you really tested me to the limit, finally teeters on having read it or heard it somewhere enough times. Not that there aren’t strong arguments for it; not that they’re not describable; not that I believe otherwise. Simply that somewhere down the line in defence of my position I would have to confess that it’s ‘what I’ve been told’.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and yet…

The ‘experts’ seem to disagree on most things. Name your subject…

History - what were the origins of this, that or the other incident? - Contentious, I think you’ll find, even at the ‘top level’ of academia. I say that, not because I am at the ‘top level’, or know anyone at the ‘top level’…but if there is such a thing as the ‘top level’, the point of view on what is significant in terms of historical factual information could swing one way or another according to the ideological bent of the historian in question.

Politics is rife with conflicting views - I don’t think there is much to argue about there. The way we talk about facts and experts, you’d think there must be someone, somewhere who knows the truth of the matter. But when you think about it just for a short while and consider the disagreements there are between prime ministers and presidents, suddenly it seems unlikely anyone really knows. In politics the truth has to be relevant…so even if you lay your hands on one of those rare ‘facts of the matter’…who is to say it has any significance whatsoever in the actual debate you are having? Ask the experts…but who are the experts?

Cartography? It might look straightforward on the face of it…but it depends on where you go, what the map looks like, I presume. Territory is somewhat a question of who you believe, and where they came from, is it not? 

Chemistry. Essentially - a chemical reaction is a specific process of one variety or another, but which ones are tested, which are considered pertinent to progress in the field, is subjectively determined in league with intention. Whoever is in charge is the authority on what is important in practice. You’d think you could ask a chemist what is the correct chemical to use…but in reality you always have to say “okay, but for what purpose?” They might have expert knowledge about the processes…but which is the best way to do it? When was the last time you needed an expert chemist to help you decide something? And would you necessarily agree with their opinion?

Art and design - is it a good or a bad picture of a house with a garden? - So far as the ‘ultimate truth’ of the matter goes, you can forget about it. For some, a photographic likeness is the pinnacle of success. For others it’s an abstract impression. Inspiration is key. Which is the better piece of artwork is arguable on different grounds…but whose design is more significant? The experts can’t build an argument on certain foundations. Hence, once again, the orthodox position might be at the front door…but the signposts could quite reasonably lead you up the garden path.

Mathematics might be an exception…surely an answer is either correct or incorrect…but where it is a relatively minor aspect of the situation, the value inherent in what is right mathematically reduces, (even to zero).

The climate of debate about the truth of global warming is heated. You can tell me it’s obvious global warming is real…but proponents either way tend to refer to the opinion of the ‘experts’ in the final reckoning. A whole rainforest’s worth of paper and signatures might be a weight of evidence. Waving it in somebody’s face, especially if they can’t understand it - I don’t think that counts as proof.

In practice, you can only dispute the logic to determine who is being unreasonable. There is no argument in straightforward fact-hurling (in spite of employment of memory skills in referencing and quotation). 

Yet we respect the term, indeed regularly refer to the authority vested in, the ‘experts’ as a source of validation for what is ‘patently’ the correct position to maintain.

There’s nothing new under the sun though, whatever angle you take, and surely some experts agree with one another…and also happen to be correct.

So is there safety in numbers then? Not necessarily. The verdict is always open to re-examination - there’s a more authoritative expert, or knowledge accumulates until the language describing the facts is revisable, open to other interpretations or variant in the light of new evidence or understanding.

As far as the authority of any individual expert goes, you might think you know where people stand on scientific matters, but travel in the time machine from Wittgenstein over to the 17th century and tell the astronomer Galileo Galilei:

“Your research puts the sun at the centre of the heavens.”

He might be right to disagree.




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