Using Expert Knowledge


I feel that technology and expertise are the basic building blocks of society. I am typing this out on a computer and trust that the computer was made well and does (mostly) what I expect it to do. If I am overly sick or need medical help I go to a medical doctor. And in general I try to make thing built on science and reproducible knowledge the center of my life. I don’t know how interesting a topic this is going to be - maybe this is common knowledge - but since I do not have good insight into what everyone else thinks I am going to talk about it.

Many good things that I enjoy are a result of technology built upon science which is built upon logic and reason. A short list includes electricity, indoor plumbing, computers, cars, the internet, modern medicine, modern food supply, etc. But technology is not inherently good; it is the people who wield technology that make it good or bad, but as a whole I think technology has done more good for my life than harm.

That being said, I think we, as individuals, have to make a lot of decisions given specifics set of facts or circumstances. For example during the latest pandemic, COVID-19, I had to make a lot of decisions about the best way to balance risk and safety: when to wear a mask, when to travel by plane, how often to get an immunity booster, etc. There is not always a clear answer that applies to everyone. For people who live with old people (or other at-risk groups), it would make sense for them to be more conservative with these decisions in favor of safety than for someone who only lived with young or otherwise healthy people. Everyone needs to review the facts and logically apply it to their own lives; and for this, I think emotion comes much more into play. There is not always a one-size-fits-all answer for everything.

And before I go on, over the last few years there is a growing movement to not trust experts and to “do your own research.” Overall, as a moment, this does seem pretty dumb. I won’t harp on it too much but I would generally trust a group of disease experts over random groups of people on the topic of COVID-19. I would argue that you shouldn’t blindly trust anyone, you should be a little suspicious of all news and make sure you are getting the facts from a variety of sources. But assuming you are getting advice and facts from people dedicated to logic and reason, it makes sense to benefit from their knowledge and expertise and use that information in building your life plan. I am partial to the comedian and podcaster Dan Cummins and I do really like this video about this topic:

So, as facts come your way, which ones do you take and use in making decisions? How do you know which facts to trust if there are a bunch of conflicting ones? Which news sources to trust? How to align your emotions with the facts? Answering these questions led to this blog entry and I will do my best to lay out my thought process.

Let’s take a really simple example: it is recommended not to give kids under the age of one raw honey because there is a small chance they could get a bacterial infection. This was something I read on a few reputable websites and so Sneha (my wife) and I made the decision not to give our son honey until after he turned one. Our decision was based on all these scientists who did this research and shared their findings with the world, and we took their advice to make our own lives better. This is a super great use of science and a very low-risk decision since it is such a small cost to us to prevent our infant from eating honey.

Another example is when we made our decision to buy a safe car. The US government does crash test studies with our tax dollars, and took our car model and put it in a bunch of crashes and recorded the outcomes. This is not a perfect simulation, but it does give me some confidence that if we got into a car crash, my family would be as safe as they could be under those circumstances. Again, I took the results of controlled, repeated test crashes, and used it to make a decision that bought me peace of mind. A relatively easy decision to make, in my opinion, especially since it was one with high stakes.

There are some facts that I would be more wary of trusting. A good examples is anecdotes or some news headlines, an example being: ‘There was a mugging today in San Francisco, it is such an unsafe city.’ While it may be true that a mugging in San Francisco happened today, I would not take that an extrapolate it to it being an unsafe city. San Francisco has a lot of people in it and per capita it is pretty safe as far as violent crime goes: I think places with high populations get this same type of rough treatment, in a small town with 100 people a single murder is a huge deal but in a large city with 1 million people a single murder is a bit more expected, I think the per capita numbers are really important when defining safety. That being said I think that San Francisco has more property crime than average but to me that feels different than being unsafe.

So with all of that kind of laid out, I think that we, consumers of information, need to try to follow stricter guidelines before believing something to be true and, once we accept it, using it in good ways to improve our lives. For the first part, we should try to have a variety of reputable news sources and don’t trust “studies” with small sample sizes, misleading headlines, or anecdotes. And for the latter part, rely on battle tested, well reproduced results to better your life. Use well-tested vaccines, drive safer and more efficient cars, use better materials in your house, raise your kids in a safe way, etc. Science, technology, and expertise are great, take advantage!