Garry Reed combined a professional technical writing career and a passion for all things libertarian to become The Libertarian Opinionizer.
Commentary From Your Libertarian Opinionizer
An article in Smithsonian Magazine attempts to tell us “Why Experts are Almost Always Wrong” when it comes to predicting future events. But a transcript from the PBS News Hour warns us about “The problem with thinking you know more than the experts” in times of trouble and stress.
If both of these are true, or often true, or even sometimes true, what do we do and who should we believe? How do we determine who or what to believe or not believe?
Maybe we should be skeptical of both the experts and the know-it-alls. In fact, as Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine Dr. Michael Shermer puts it in his How I Became a Libertarian profile section of his own website (so all-encompassing it’s practically a book in itself), “hey, we should be skeptical of the skeptics, or else we’re not true skeptics, right?”
Shermer’s latest of many books, Giving the Devil His Due, is billed as “a full-throated defense of free speech and open inquiry in politics, science, and culture.” His starting point for everyone from experts to know-it-alls to everyone in between ought to be the open-minded method of scientific inquiry.
Foxes and Hedgehogs
But first, why are experts almost always wrong? “A lot of experts,” the Smithsonian article says, “really have no idea what they’re talking about.” Experts, we’re told, fall into two “cognitive styles” called foxes and hedgehogs.
Foxes know “One Big Thing.” They are genuine experts in their specific field but that expertise necessarily narrows their focus and increases confidence. But this singular focus also “blurs dissenting views until they are no longer visible, thereby transforming data collection into bias confirmation and morphing self-deception into self-assurance.”
Assurance, unfortunately, often turns into arrogance. These experts come to think of themselves as experts in predicting events outside of their own fields as well, and that’s when they go off the rails. Their arrogance is further inflated by the fact that experts are rarely called out for being wrong.
Hedgehogs by contrast are “thinkers who know many small things” about many different issues in many different fields. They are the “jack of all trades and master of none.” Hedgehogs are—here’s that word again—skeptical of “grand schemes” and “settled science.”
They know that in science as in virtually every other field of human endeavor that all factual knowledge is seldom if ever settled.
Libertarians, like all other people, fall into both categories. It explains why there is so much healthy infighting within the libertarian movement. Libertarian foxes insist on being absolutely unquestioningly right about their own worldviews while libertarian hedgehogs reject the absolutism and keep their minds open to all the possibilities of what a free voluntary society could be. The best libertarians are, of course, neither foxes nor hedgehogs but porcupines.
The Know-Nothing Know-It-Alls
But that leads to the PBS article that asks why so many people think they know more than the experts. The problem is the opposite of course, that those with a little information think they have all the knowledge they need to make definitive decisions on any and every topic.
“Increasingly,” says Tom Nichols, author of The Death of Expertise, “laypeople don't care about expert views. Instead, many Americans have become insufferable know-it-alls, locked in constant conflict with each other, while knowing almost nothing about the subject they are debating.” Many think they’re not just smart but smarter than the experts.
How did this happen? Because, he says, the majority of people get their “facts” from Alexa on their smartphones and tablets, from the “facts” they learned from K thru graduate school where they were told repeatedly how “special” they are, from the mainstream news media who authoritatively tell them what to think, from trolls and memes and opinions disguised as facts throughout nearly all forms of social media.
Eventually their “facts” become no more than bias confirmation; we search out and uncritically accept information that confirms what we’ve already decided is true.
The “Neither” World
But we don’t live in an exclusively binary world, where everything comes down to “either-or.” The vast majority of people are neither experts nor know-nothings. These are the ‘Neithers,” These are the “Competents,” these are the rational people who have the self-awareness to keep their minds open, question everything and think logically for themselves.
For example a person doesn’t have to be an expert on every single feature of Microsoft Word or any other desktop publishing platform to create a professionally written, organized, structured, formatted and lucid paper, essay, article or even an entire book; a person need only know how to use the specific features required to produce that document and nothing more.
This selective rationality applies to virtually every endeavor in our lives; skepticism teaches us to take from our existence in the real world that which works, recognize what doesn’t work, and apply the result to our lives.
It’s this freedom of thought, Shermer explains in a March 2021 video interview, that is so important for human progress.
“Human progress comes from solving problems …. there are far more things to go wrong than right … there are far more things to be disordered than ordered … wood rots and metal rusts and bodies run down … poverty is the normal state of things; prosperity is the hard thing to explain … that requires the understanding of the cause of things, and that is the realm of science and reason …”
If we cannot be experts then at least let us be Homo sapiens, “the wise human.”
The Skeptical Skeptics Society
All of which circles back around to Michael Shermer and his skepticism. Shermer became a libertarian because he began questioning everything he encountered. Raised by non-religious fiscally conservative and socially liberal parents he entered college as an evangelical Christian but discovered psychology and economics, absorbed Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy before digging deep into free market economics and “the secular values of the Enlightenment.” He then ventured into writing and publishing before soaking up the works of Mises, Bastiat, Hayek, Friedman and many others.
Shermer founded the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine in 1992. In the age of speech codes, rabid race-baiting, victim/safe space/cancel culture and big media deplatforming his latest of 16 books, Giving the Devil his Due: Reflections of a Scientific Humanist offers a cure to today’s madness: free speech.
Any good libertarian skeptic knows that free speech is the best way to drive out bad ideas, propaganda, fake news, censorship and manipulated media bias. Libertarians more than most seem to grasp the principle that anything that becomes politicized ceases to be about that thing and becomes all about the politics. This goes equally for nearly everyone’s belief system whether it’s political, philosophical, cultural, religious, social or whatever.
In a 2013 Open Reason article titled “Michael Shermer asks, What Is Skepticism, Anyway?” Shermer answers his own question by offering this definition:
Skepticism is the rigorous application of science and reason to test the validity of any and all claims.
In the same article however he also said “Skepticism is not ‘seek and ye shall find,’ but ‘seek and keep an open mind.’” If he has lived faithfully by that observation he may have redefined his definition several times over the years since then.
But if not changing his definition then at least he never tires of elaborating on the importance of skepticism. Why is skepticism important we may wonder? Because without it, we are slaves to our beliefs. As he has said elsewhere:
“The Believing Brain sends us two important messages: We're not the rational and objective creatures that we like to think we are, and if we hope to acquire knowledge—true, justified belief—we need to value skepticism much more than we do.”
Giving the Devil His Due is a collection of 27 essays written over some 15 years on a wide range of subjects, making it the perfect introduction to those who have yet to open their minds to the skeptical world of Michael Shermer.
As David Aaronovitch wrote in his Sunday Times review Shermer, in his service to skepticism, is always ready to debate “even with the devil himself, hence the book’s title” His arguments with others are lacking in rancor since “It’s not the person he’s objecting to, it’s their errors, whether of science or logic.”
“Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.”―Michael Shermer Quotes
And that’s why it’s better to be skeptical than just smart.
References and Links
The Skeptical Libertarian “is a project to promote science, secularism, and skeptical inquiry in the libertarian movement.” The Facebook page also states “We believe in basing conclusions on logic and hard evidence, not on speculation and wild assumptions.”
Libertarian Skeptics Network is a Libertarian Party orientated Facebook page with over 800 followers that bills itself as “a caucus for skeptics in the Libertarian Party.” Virtually every current political issues is presented, challenged and debated on this site.
The Logical Libertarian is Gary Nolan’s personal website. On the subject of skepticism he says, “Although my writings are largely political, the other subject I’m passionate about is science and skepticism—the value of logical thought cannot be overstated.”
Coindesk: “Crypto Is the Libertarian Cheat Code in the Final Battle Over State Coercion.” Anti-statist Libertarians eagerly embrace cryptocurrency because “libertarian skepticism extends beyond the state to the massive corporations that rely on it to persist.”