Re Nichols: Times the Experts were Wrong, pt 2

Welcome back. In preparation for our review of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, I have made a list of “times the experts were wrong.” Professor Nichols, if you ever happen to read this, I hope it give you some insight into where we, the common people, are coming from. If you don’t happen to read it, it still gives me a baseline before reading your book. (Please see part 1 for a discussion of relevant definitions.)

Part 2: Law, Academia, and Science

Legal Testimony

If you’ve had any contact with the court system, you’re probably familiar with the use of “expert testimony.” Often both sides of a case bring in their own experts who give their expert testimony on the case–by necessity, contradictory testimony. For example, one expert in a patent case may testify that his microscopy data shows one thing, while a second testifies that in fact a proper analysis of his microscopy data actually shows the opposite. The jury is then asked to decide which expert’s analysis is correct.

If it sounds suspicious that both sides in a court case can find an “expert” to testify that their side is correct, that’s because it is. Take, for example, the government’s expert testimony in the trial of Mr. Carlos Simon-Timmerman, [note: link takes you to AVN, a site of questionable work-friendliness] accused of possessing child pornography:

“When trial started,” said Ramos-Vega, “the government presented the Lupe DVD and a few other images from the other DVDs that the government understood were also of child pornography.  The government presented the testimony of a Special Agent of Immigration and Customs Enforcement that deals with child pornography and child exploitation cases.  She testified that Lupe was ‘definitely’ under 18. The government then presented the testimony of a pediatrician who testified that she was 100 percent sure that Lupe was underage.”

The experts, ladies and gents.

After the prosecution rested its case, it was Ramos-Vega’s turn to present witnesses.

The first witness we called was Lupe,” he said. “She took the stand and despite being very nervous testified so well and explained to the ladies and gentlemen of the jury that she was 19 years old when she performed in the videos for littlelupe.com.  She also allowed us to present into evidence copies of her documents showing her date of birth.”

So the Customs Special Agent and the pediatrician were both LYING UNDER OATH about the age of a porn star in order to put an innocent man in prison. There were multiple ways they could have confirmed Lupe’s age (such as checking with her official porn star information on file in the US, because apparently that’s an official thing that exists for exactly this purpose,) or contacting Lupe herself like Mr. Simon-Timmerman’s lawyer did.

Unfortunately, this is hardly the first time trial “experts” have lied:

The Washington Post published a story so horrifying this weekend that it would stop your breath: “The Justice Department and FBI have formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000.”

“Of 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far.” …

Santae Tribble served 28 years for a murder based on FBI testimony about a single strand of hair. He was exonerated in 2012. It was later revealed that one of the hairs presented at trial came from a dog.

Professor Nichols, you want to know, I assume, why we plebes are so distrustful of experts like you. Put yourself, for a moment, in the feet of an ordinary person accused of a crime. You don’t have a forensics lab. Your budget for expert witnesses is pretty limited. Your lawyer is likely a public defender.

Do you trust that these experts are always right, even though they are often hired by people who have a lot more money than you do? Do you think there is no way these experts could be biased toward the people paying them, or that the side with more money to throw at experts and its own labs could produce more evidence favorable to itself than the other?

Now let’s expand our scope: how do you think ordinary people think about climate scientists, medical drug studies, or military intelligence? Unlike drug companies, we commoners don’t get to hire our own experts. Do you think Proctor and Gamble never produces research that is biased toward its own interests? Of course; that’s why researchers have to disclose any money they’ve received from drug companies.

From the poor man’s perspective, it looks like all research is funded by rich men, and none by poor men. It is sensible to worry, therefore, that the results of this research are inherently biased toward those who already have plenty of status and wealth.

The destruction of expertise: “Studies” Departments

Here is a paper published in a real, peer-reviewed academic journal:

Towards a truer multicultural science education: how whiteness impacts science education, by Paul T. Le, (doctoral candidate from the Department of Integrative and Systems Biology at the University of Colorado) and Cheryl Matias, (associate professor at the School of Education and Human Development, University of Colorado) (h/t Real Peer Review):

The hope for multicultural, culturally competent, and diverse perspectives in science education falls short if theoretical considerations of whiteness are not entertained. [Entertained by whom?] Since whiteness is characterized [by whom?] as a hegemonic racial dominance that has become so natural it is almost invisible, this paper identifies how whiteness operates in science education such that [awkward; “to such an extent that”] it falls short of its goal for cultural diversity. [“Cultural diversity” is not one of science education’s goals] Because literature in science education [Which literature? Do you mean textbooks?] has yet to fully entertain whiteness ideology, this paper offers one of the first theoretical postulations [of what?]. Drawing from the fields of education, legal studies, and sociology, [but not science?] this paper employs critical whiteness studies as both a theoretical lens and an analytic tool to re-interpret how whiteness might impact science education. Doing so allows the field to reconsider benign, routine, or normative practices and protocol that may influence how future scientists of Color experience the field. In sum, we seek to have the field consider the theoretical frames of whiteness and how it [use “whiteness” here instead of “it” because there is no singular object for “it” to refer to in this sentence] might influence how we engage in science education such that [“to such an extent that”] our hope for diversity never fully materializes.

Apologies for the red pen; you might think that someone at the “School of Education” could write a grammatical sentence and the people publishing peer-reviewed journals would employ competent editors, but apparently not.

If these are “experts,” then expertise is dead with a stake through its heart.

But the paper goes on!

The resounding belief that science is universal and objective hides the reality that whiteness has shaped the scientific paradigm.

See, you only think gravity pulls objects toward the earth at a rate of 9.8 m/second^2 because you’re white. When black people drop objects off the Leaning Tower of Pisa, they fall 10m/s^2. Science textbooks and educators only teaching the white rate and refusing to teach the black rate is why no black nation has successfully launched a man into space.

Our current discourse believes that science and how we approach experimentation and constructing scientific explanations is unbiased, and on the surface, it may seem justified (Kelly 2014). However, this way of knowing science in the absence of other ways of knowing only furthers whiteness an White supremacy through power and control of science knowledge. As a result, our students of Color are victims of deculturization, and their own worldviews are invalidated, such as described by Ladson-Bilings (1998a).

For example, some Aboriginal people in Australia believe that cancer is caused by curses cast by other people or a spiritual punishment for some misdeed the sufferer committed. Teaching them that cancer is caused by mutated cells that have begun reproducing out of control and can’t be caused by a curse is thus destroying a part of their culture. Since all cultures are equally valuable, we must teach that the Aboriginal theory of cancer-curses and the white theory of failed cellular apoptosis are equally true.

Or Le and Matias are full of shit. Le doesn’t have his PhD, yet, so he isn’t an official expert, but Matias is a professor with a CV full of published, peer-reviewed articles on similar themes.

You might say I’ve cherry-picked a particularly bad article, but give me 10 minutes and I’ll get you 100 more that are just as bad. Here’s one on “the construction of race in contemporary PE curriculum policy.”

Every single degree awarded paper published on such garbage degrades the entire concept of “experts.” Sure, Nichols is a professor–and so is Matias. As far as our official system for determining expertise, Nichols, Matias, and Stephen Hawing are all “experts.”

And this matters, because the opinions of garbage experts get cited in places like the NY Times, and then picked up by other journalists and commentators as though they were some kind of valid proof backing up their points. Take this case, “Extensive Data Shows Punishing Reach of Racism for Black Boys:

Black boys raised in America, even in the wealthiest families and living in some of the most well-to-do neighborhoods, still earn less in adulthood than white boys with similar backgrounds, according to a sweeping new study that traced the lives of millions of children.

White boys who grow up rich are likely to remain that way. Black boys raised at the top, however, are more likely to become poor than to stay wealthy in their own adult households.

(Oh, look, someone discovered regression to the mean.)

What happens when blue check twitter reports on this piece?

    1. You don’t need an “expert” to tell you that black men might get discriminated against.
    2. How do you become an “expert” in anti-racism? Do you have to pass the implicit bias test? Get a degree in anti-racist studies?
    3. Do you think, for whatever reason, that a guy who gets paid to do anti-racist research might come up with “racism” as an answer to almost any question posed?
    4. “The guy who gets paid to say that racism is the answer said the answer is racism” does not actually prove that racism is the answer, but it is being presented like it does.
    5. Blue check has failed to mention any obvious counters, like:
      a. Mysteriously, this “racism” only affects black men and not black women (this is why we’ve had a black female president but not a black male one, right?)
      b. Regression to the mean is a thing and we can measure it (shortly: The further you are from average for your group on any measure [height, intelligence, income, number of Daleks collected, etc.,] the more likely your kids are to be closer to average than you are. [This is why the kids of Nobel prize winners, while pretty smart on average, are much less likely to win Nobels than their parents.] Since on average blacks make a lot less money than whites, any wealthy black family is significantly further from the average black income than a white family with the same amount of money is from the average white income. Therefore at any high income level, we expect black kids to regress harder toward the black mean than white kids raised at the same level. La Griffe du Lion [a statistics expert] has an article that goes into much more depth and math on regression to the mean and its relevance.)
      c. Crime rates. Black men commit more crime than black women or white men, and not only does prison time cut into employment, but most employers don’t want to employ people who’ve committed a crime. This makes it easier for black women to get jobs and build up wealth than black men. (The article itself does mention that “The sons of black families from the top 1 percent had about the same chance of being incarcerated on a given day as the sons of white families earning $36,000,” but yeah, it’s probably just totally irrational discrimination keeping black men out of jobs.)

“Experts” like this get used to trot a simple, narrative-supporting line that the paper wants to make rather than give any real or uncomfortable analysis of a complex issue. It’s dishonest reporting and contributes to the notion that “expert” doesn’t mean all that much.

Source

Leaded Gas:

Tetraethyllead (aka lead) was added to automobile fuels beginning in the 1920s to raise fuel economy–that is, more miles per gallon. For half a century, automobiles belched brain-damaging lead into the atmosphere, until the Clean Air Act in the 70s forced gas companies to cut back.

Here’s a good article discussing the leaded gas and crime correlation.

Plenty of people knew lead is poisonous–we’ve known that since at least the time of the Romans–so how did it end up in our gas? Well, those nice scientists over at the auto manufacturers reassured us that lead in gasoline was perfectly safe, and then got themselves on a government panel intended to evaluate the safety of leaded gas and came to the same conclusion. Wired has a thorough history:

But fearing that such [anti-leaded gas] measures would spread, … the manufacturing companies demanded that the federal government take over the investigation and develop its own regulations. U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, a Republican and small-government conservative, moved rapidly in favor of the business interests.

… In May 1925, the U.S. Surgeon General called a national tetraethyl lead conference, to be followed by the formation of an investigative task force to study the problem. That same year, Midgley [the inventor of leaded gas] published his first health analysis of TEL, which acknowledged  a minor health risk at most, insisting that the use of lead compounds,”compared with other chemical industries it is neither grave nor inescapable.”

It was obvious in advance that he’d basically written the conclusion of the federal task force. That panel only included selected industry scientists like Midgely. It had no place for Alexander Gettler or Charles Norris [scientists critical of leaded gas] or, in fact, anyone from any city where sales of the gas had been banned, or any agency involved in the producing that first critical analysis of tetraethyl lead.

In January 1926, the public health service released its report which concluded that there was “no danger” posed by adding TEL to gasoline…”no reason to prohibit the sale of leaded gasoline” as long as workers were well protected during the manufacturing process.

The task force did look briefly at risks associated with every day exposure by drivers, automobile attendants, gas station operators, and found that it was minimal. The researchers had indeed found lead residues in dusty corners of garages. In addition,  all the drivers tested showed trace amounts of lead in their blood. But a low level of lead could be tolerated, the scientists announced. After all, none of the test subjects showed the extreme behaviors and breakdowns associated with places like the looney gas building. And the worker problem could be handled with some protective gear.

I’m not sure how many people were killed globally by leaded gas, but Wired notes:

It was some fifty years later – in 1986 – that the United States formally banned lead as a gasoline additive. By that time, according to some estimates, so much lead had been deposited into soils, streets, building surfaces, that an estimated 68 million children would register toxic levels of lead absorption and some 5,000 American adults would die annually of lead-induced heart disease.

The UN estimates that the elimination of lead in gas and paint has added 2.4 trillion, annually, the global economy.

Leaded gas is a good example of a case where many experts did know it was poisonous (as did many non-experts,) but this wasn’t the story the public heard.

Pluto

Yes, this one is silly, but I have relatives who keep bringing it up. “Scientists used to say there are 9 planets, but now they say there are only 8! Scientists change what they think all the time!”

Congratulations, astronomers, they think you lost Pluto. Every single time I try to discuss science with these people, they bring up Pluto. Scientific consensus is meaningless in a world where planets just disappear. “Whoops! We miscounted!”

(No one ever really questioned Pluto’s planetary status before it was changed, but a few die-hards refuse to accept the new designation.)

Scientists weren’t actually wrong about Pluto (“planet” is just a category scientists made up and that they decided to redefine to make it more useful,) but the matter confused people and it seemed like scientific consensus was arbitrary and could change unexpectedly.

Unfortunately, normal people who don’t have close contact with science or scientists often struggle to understand exactly what science is and how it advances. They rely, sporadically, on intermediaries like The History Chanel or pop science journalists to explain it to them, and these guys like to run headlines like “5 things Albert Einstein got Totally Wrong” (haha that Albert, what a dummy, amirite?)

So when you question why people distrust experts like you, Professor Nichols, consider whether the other “experts” they’ve encountered have been trustworthy or even correct, or if they’ve been liars and shills.

11 thoughts on “Re Nichols: Times the Experts were Wrong, pt 2

  1. A fine summary, Mrs. X, and of course you could go on, and on, and on. And of course, one could also add that Russia “experts” like Nichols also totally missed the impending collapse of the USSR, and also totally screwed up our relationship with post-Soviet Russia, thus leading to the rise of Putin. In addition to which, had we listened to this guy, our troops would probably be dying en masse in Syria right now. This guy has no shame.

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  2. Regarding racism as a cause, has anyone asked the experts how they go about ruling out other possible causes, rigorously?

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    • There are experiments, for example, where resumes that are identical except for the job applicant’s name are sent to potential employers, and the ones with stereotypically white names get more responses than the ones with stereotypically black names, suggesting that employers are discriminating against black applicants.

      This is not a bad experimental design, though it doesn’t address whether employers might have previous experience with employees that gives them good reason to discount certain applications; nor does it account for the fact that in the real world, applications aren’t identical. Experiments where they take real applications and black out the names show the opposite effect–minorities do worse when employers don’t see their names, suggesting that employers are discriminating in favor of black applicants.

      Then there is the recent data that when you control for parental SES, black women tend to do as well as white female peers, but black men don’t, suggesting the problem has less to do with racism (which presumably would affect both black men and women) and more to do with some male-specific factor, like aggression/likelihood of having a criminal record.

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      • I’d say this is merely suggestive rather than conclusive. But what appears to be overall lacking is a solid methodology for how to make sure the results are correct. Whether researchers in this field desire their findings to be water tight or not is another question (since, e.g., it could mean a lot of work has to be discarded).

        Other fields take greater pains to get things right, for instance double blind studies in medicine, or experimental physics. Yet it seems the potential to be fooled or get things wrong is greater in sociology, even though the findings can be quite incendiary.

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  3. Of course, a lot of otherwise intelligent informed people (who actually are mostly informed about science rather than Science!(tm) and have a reasonable grasp of statistics, etc.) will still try to explain away why those examples aren’t really reasons people should distrust experts, except of course for the experts they themselves know are just paid shills…

    I know a lot about a lot, but I recognize that much of the time I just have to trust people who know more about a particular subject, but what bothers me are the really educated people who don’t recognize that they can’t expect less educated people with less innate intelligence to investigate claims like they’re professional skeptics… (Though, of course, those professional skeptics are only valued when they come to left-friendly conclusions, and it gets awkward with things like GMOs when the actual science people and the Science! enthusiasts differ… And I can’t blame regular people trying to figure one way or another…)

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    • I remember a case where a friend on FB linked to an article about something health-and-nutrition related, I looked at the article and automatically responded “Wow what a piece of shit garbage article” and hurt her feelings because she had actually though tit was good. I was like “Look at the emotional language they use and sources–their only source actually links to an internet forum, and its source links to another internet forum!” She wasn’t dumb, (just about average) but what was obvious to me simply wasn’t to her.

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