Many of us breathed a sigh of relief seeing Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, standing beside President Biden as the latter announced his COVID-19 strategy – a symbol that expertise has been restored as the bedrock of the U.S. pandemic policy.

However, nearly four in 10 Americans say they definitely or probably will not get a coronavirus vaccine – a statistic that underscores the widespread lack of trust in experts in our society.

As tempting as it might be to trust our intuitions or friends on such matters, if the goal is to make the best decisions for ourselves and our families – especially regarding complex, technical matters where the stakes are high – we must rely on legitimate experts. Ignoring expertise almost always dooms our decision-making to failure.

There are two problems with trusting solely in one’s own powers of reasoning or that of one’s friends: the exploding amount and complexity of information available on any given topic and quirks in the way the human mind works.

Our discoveries about the world grow exponentially by the day. This means that the best available understanding of a given issue will be limited to those with deep expertise in that area, and none of us can possibly have sufficient specialized knowledge beyond a few areas at most.

In fact, even the most independent-minded of us routinely rely on experts without thinking much of it. If our car engine is making a funny noise, we consult an auto mechanic rather than a dentist, and vice versa if we have a toothache.

But because of the way our minds function, we are often quick to question or dismiss experts when their conclusions contradict our existing beliefs, are counterintuitive, are opposed by our friends or ideological circles or when they point to actions that seem burdensome. Psychologists have documented how human thinking is subject to these kinds of biases. Just as there are quirks in our visual systems revealed by optical illusions, our minds operate in ways that often distort our reasoning. For example, we naturally filter information so that we pay attention to data that support our pre-existing beliefs and ignore data that don’t.

Expert consensus, by definition, avoids these pitfalls by emerging from a process of competitive push-and-pull among knowledgeable specialists in an open marketplace of ideas. This process is intentionally designed to address our natural human reasoning biases.

Similarly, we must be wary of conclusions derived from mere tribal affiliations. Humans naturally form groups based on perceived similarities, and we overvalue our own group’s beliefs. For example, studies have shown that we tend to believe an idea more if we are told it derives from our own political party. But a conclusion is not necessarily more likely to be correct merely because it comes from a teammate than a rival.

Once we appreciate the necessity of expertise, the challenge becomes figuring out which experts to trust. Since we will rarely have the deep, specialized knowledge to compare competing claims ourselves by directly evaluating the evidence, we have no choice but to rely on signs that distinguish true experts from pretenders.

Legitimate experts are more likely to hold relevant credentials recognized by established institutions. They tend to limit their focus to a small number of domains. They typically qualify their conclusions with a nod to context and what is not yet known. In academic areas, they have a record of peer-reviewed publications. They don’t make dramatic claims of special or secret knowledge available only to themselves. Those merely posing as experts tend to show the opposite attributes.

Acknowledging the importance of expert consensus doesn’t mean we can outsource our own critical thinking altogether. Rather, we must learn to read the signs that distinguish legitimate experts and then integrate their input in the context of our own value judgements to arrive at the best possible decisions. But in complex, high-stakes matters, our decision-making will work best if it is built on a foundation of expertise, even when it is inconsistent with our intuitions or the opinions of our friends.

Medical experts agree that COVID vaccines are safe and effective. The health and prosperity of our families, friends and communities depend on our trusting these experts.


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