When to Rely on Experts

Stephen Hawking is an amazing physicist. His incredible career spans theoretical work in black holes, quantum gravity, and the beginning of the universe. He wrote a popular physics book called A Brief History of Time, which sits on my bookshelf. Today, he currently works as the Director of Research at the Center for Theoretical Cosmology at the prestigious University of Cambridge. The dude is obviously incredibly smart and knows theoretical cosmology better than almost everyone in the world. But when he pontificates on technology, society, and politics, what are we to think?

Hawking’s arguments on economics, sociology, and their interaction with technology show a lack of expertise. As a professor of MIS, I have studied this interaction deeply and see the faults in his reasoning. For example, Hawking claims “The concerns underlying these votes about the economic consequences of globalisation and accelerating technological change are absolutely understandable. The automation of factories has already decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing, and the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining.” This is wrong on several points. First, globalization and technology change has led to increasing wealth and decreasing poverty around the world. Further, automation may lead to a loss in some jobs, but as economics shows, leads to overall growth in jobs because it frees resources for more advanced value-added activities.

Not to mention Hawking’s concern with income inequality, rather than being a problem, is actually a feature of our system as experts in philosophy have shown. That by no means suggests that crony-capitalism is good (which seems to be the main gripe). But free-market capitalism is an economic system which is profoundly moral and has historically resulted in the greatest improvement in wealth of everyone over the long-term. Hawking’s expertise in physics does not help him with these areas.

When to Rely on Experts

Which leads to my original question – what are we to think about experts pontificating in areas outside their expertise? My answer – use caution. Without the relevant knowledge of a topic, the discussion is likely filled with good talking points, but relies on assumptions and biases that are incorrect. Yet, we as novices in that area may not be able to catch those problems. A couple situations may give us confidence. First, does their expertise offer some special insight into a non-expertise topic? Sometimes, cross-discipline discussion can offer some surprise discovers, such as when Kahneman’s work in the psychology of judgment and decision-making earned him a Noble Prize in Economics. I would certainly listen to Kahneman’s discussion of economics considering how relevant judgment and decision-making are to microeconomics.

Second, does the expert show an expertise not in their primary area? Here, a much higher level of evidence is required. This is difficult to establish in a short article. I would want to see not only what they know, but how well they can critically think about alternatives within the field, or if they have discovered new knowledge within that field. Even if you agree with their conclusions, they may be using faulty reasoning or incomplete data to reach these conclusions.

The irony of this question is that Stephen Hawking recognizes the error in his own article. He calls himself an elite. What are elites? People that are superior in some manner or quality. In his case, he’s referring to his intelligence. The underlying assumption is that because of his intelligence as demonstrated in physics, we should listen to his ideas in other topics as well, even though he is not an expert. And yet he addresses the article as if he’s talking to other elites – to convince them that the rejection of Brexit in the UK and Clinton in the US ate not just pure populism. The underlying assumption is that elites should be more open-minded elites, but remain elites. It’s a new form of Plato’s philosopher kings.

At the end of the day, experts help us greatly learn, grow, and advance our lives. They are absolutely essential for a division of labor society. Yet, when experts start discussing things outside of their expertise, not only should they be careful, but we should be careful in listening to them. The reason why I own and love A Brief History of Time is because I know what Hawkings is an expert in physics and he did a masterful job writing about the topic. However, while writing about technology, society, and politics, Hawkings did not demonstrate his expertise and should be viewed skeptically. If you do so, you might find his discussion as flawed as I did.

About John Drake

John Drake is an associate professor at East Carolina University. While pursing his PhD in management information technology and innovation, John learned the art of high productivity through setting difficult goals to achieve unending success. John is a student of Objectivism, an advocate of Getting Things Done, a parent of three, a husband, a writer, a business owner, a web master, and an all around cool guy. His professional site is at http://professordrake.com