Excuses for Anti-Intellectualism

Somewhat belatedly, I’ve found this post by Jane Galt saying in a nutshell that halfwitted criticism of the Lancet study is acceptable because the experts are not always right.

It’s a reaction I get surprisingly frequently. And whenever I start to doubt myself, I imagine this conversation:

Executive: The new product is a failure. It may put the company out of business.Market researcher: No, you’re wrong. Our reasearch clearly shows that 90% of Americans prefer it to our old product, and our competitor.

Executive: But they aren’t buying it.

Market Researcher: Who the hell do you think you are to question my scientific credentials! I have an advanced degree in statistical methods! I have 20 years of experience!

Executive: I’m not questioning your scientific credentials. I’m just saying no one is buying it.

Market Researcher: We did multiple studies using the most up-to-date methodology! It was the largest market research study ever performed! All the experts in the field agree with me. America loves it!

Executive: Then why are they boycotting it?

Market Researcher: Bow before my expertise, mortal! NEW COKE IS THE BEST PRODUCT OF ALL TIME!

Actually, this example of an expert who gets things wrong is instructive, but not in the manner Jane thinks. The executive begins with the empirical observation that the new product is flopping. He can tell it’s flopping because he knows exactly how much of it warehouses are ordering and how much of it people are buying. Given that basis, he throws out the researcher’s theory because it contradicts the facts.

But what the executive doesn’t do is ignore the researcher because he contradicts his prejudices. The executive doesn’t say, “I can’t believe that the product is succeeding.” He doesn’t respond to the researcher based on a wrong understanding of basic statistics such as death rates.

Compare that to the conservatives who oppose the Lancet study. They don’t have solid data about Iraq’s death rate; they only have data of media reports of death rates, which are underestimates. They dismiss expert opinion not because they have better facts, but because they think their personal views trump evidence.

Saying that the experts can get things wrong is nearly trivial. Of course they get things wrong; everyone does. At times even entire systems of experts do. But these times are rare enough that without solid facts, you can’t ever conclude that your heterodox view is right. If you do that you’re not a brave writer defying conventional wisdom, but a creationist-style crank.

2 Responses to Excuses for Anti-Intellectualism

  1. gordo says:

    What gets me is how Galt seems to be claiming that the researchers just made assertions based on a set of assumptions, as if they hadn’t done any field work at all. And as you say, Galt’s response isn’t based on any data, so her position is completely unlike that of the exectutive.

    The easiest way to check the Lancet study for plausibility is the method suggested by Les Roberts: visit the graveyards in various sections of the country, and compare the number buried within the past 3 years to the number buried in the 3 years previous. If Roberts is anywhere close to correct, the more recent burials should outnumber the older burials at least 3 to 1.

    I suspect that the primary reason none of the skeptics is interested in funding such a study, which could be done quickly and cheaply, is that they’re afraid of inadvertently confirming Roberts’ work.

  2. SLC says:

    Of course, the outstanding example of executives ignoring expert opinion is presented by Bush and Rumsfeld who ignored the expert opinion of General Shinsaki that 300,000 troops would be required in Iraq and sent him on to early retirement. We now see the results of that decision unfolding every day in the news from Iraq.

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