Tuesday, 14 June 2022

Expert Shopping: What is it? Why should we worry about it?

This post is by Gabriele Contessa. Gabriele is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. His research interests lie at the intersection of social epistemology, philosophy of science, and political philosophy. He is currently working on a book in which he develops and defends a social approach to public trust in science.

Gabriele Contessa

When it comes to specialized knowledge, most of us depend on experts. If we’re trying to figure out what’s wrong with our car, we take it to a mechanic, when we are sick, we go to a doctor, and, when it’s time to file our taxes, we hire a tax accountant. But how can we choose which experts to trust without either becoming experts ourselves or falling prey to quacks, shams, or other pseudo-experts? The standard answer is that, when selecting experts, we should carefully consider the evidence for and against their trustworthiness. This might include examining the expert’s credentials, inquiring about their reputation, checking their track record, and, when in doubt, getting a second opinion.

This standard answer, however, makes two crucial assumptions. The first is that we typically choose our own experts; the second is that, when we do, we typically try to choose the most credible ones. However, it is unclear how often both assumptions hold in real-world situations. A particularly interesting set of cases in which one of these assumptions does not hold is when we engage in expert shopping. In general, expert shopping occurs whenever we select a supposed expert because they tell us what we want to hear irrespectively of any evidence that bears on their credibility or on the correctness of their opinions. 

The most familiar kind of expert shopping is what elsewhere I have called cynical expert shopping. A standard example of cynical expert shopping is the defense lawyer who selects an expert witness not because he has reason to believe that her testimony will be true but because he believes her testimony might contribute to instil doubt in the mind of the jurors.

However, while cynical expert shoppers show no interest in the correctness of the expert’s opinion, not all expert shoppers display a comparable disregard for the truth. Unlike cynical expert shoppers, wishful expert shoppers are typically not disinterested in the correctness of expert’s opinion, but they are still willing to disregard the evidence that bears on the expert’s credibility or the correctness of their opinions. A standard case of wishful expert shopping is that of the cancer patients who forgo mainstream medical treatment on the advice of a quack who claims to be able to treat cancer without side effects.

While it might be tempting to dismiss wishful expert shopping as a marginal phenomenon due to individual gullibility, I believe that this assessment underestimates both the extent and the seriousness of problem. I suspect that, in fact, we all engage in wishful expert shopping more often than we would like to admit. This seems to be particularly true when it comes to controversial policy matters, when each side of the debate tends to rely on its “own” experts and tends to regard the experts on the other side as quacks or shills. 

This situation is made even worse by the fact that we often do not even shop for experts ourselves, but, instead, we rely on what elsewhere I have called assisted expert shopping. That is, we let people or organizations we trust (including news organizations, think tanks, politicians, or political parties) engage in expert shopping on our behalf.

Citizens of liberal democracies must rely on experts to form warranted opinions on many policy-relevant issues and to assess the effectiveness of the policy proposals of political candidates and parties. If, as I suggested, expert shopping is a widespread phenomenon in the political arena, then this undermines the possibility of the sort of healthy public debate about policy on which the proper functioning of liberal democracies depends. Far from being a marginal phenomenon caused by individual gullibility, expert shopping, thus, has the potential to undermine the very foundations of liberal democracy.

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