Experts vs Relativism

Trying to make sense of what constitutes the opinions and expertise we listen to.

In the larger search for guidance, justification, or confirmation, we tend to weigh different opinions – especially expert opinions – based on how they relate to our trust “weighting” of them, by association. That being said, there are two, drastically different, models of weighted opinions: experts, or everybody (which can be understood through the concept of “universal relativism”).

What constitutes an expert – education vs experience?

Experts, with expert opinions, are the preferred mechanism of conferred knowledge in academia. Departing from the trappings of academia for a moment, it can also be asserted that extensive experience also can produce an expert. I personally prefer the latter to the former. Anecdotally, my father (who is a physician, but not a GP), used to tell me that his functional medical knowledge came primarily from his internship and residency, rather than having been conferred during medical school.

I have referred to the self-taught school of learning as the “Good Will Hunting school of education”, referencing the Will Hunting character’s iconic line about education:

You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got (sic) for $1.50 in late charges at the library.

The role of seasoned educators in higher education should not be undervalued, nor should all skill-sets or educational concepts be learned exclusively or primarily through experience rather than through a traditional learning environment.

A distinction could be said to be made between hard and soft sciences (and which was pointed out by my good friend and colleague Chris), in that soft sciences are generally predicated on observations and theories which are not primarily verifiable (for the most part). Hard sciences have the benefit of verifiable and reproducible results, which allow them to be absorbed without a particular mentor. Soft sciences rely heavily on particular ideologies which, although they can be absorbed strictly through self-guided research, lend themselves to educational institution ideologues and their inherent personal biases.

Why “almost universal relativism”?

Relativism, being the point of view that there is no absolute truth or validity, is generally framed around the idea of “moral relativism” – having to do with ethics. I use the phrase “universal relativism”, possibly incorrectly, to describe a more intellectual form of relativism; the idea that we all have equally valid opinions, with equal truth and validity behind them.

I personally abhor this point of view, because it’s pretty easily dismissed unless a purely metaphysical vantage point is taken. Put in a more easily digestible way: Universal relativism only works if the world is only seen as a construct of our individual imaginations and views. If something cannot be perceived, does that mean that it does not exist? Possibly, according to that particular mode of thinking.

As far as disproving the idea that all theories and vantage points have equal validity behind them, take the example of the makeup of The Moon. If someone had the view that it was made of green cheese, it would not, in any way, affect the actual makeup of the moon, nor would it possess the same absolute validity which could be assessed through observation and analysis of the physical evidence showing the actual makeup. That’s a simple, albeit silly, example of a viewpoint which is not as equally true or valid as another.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

What sort of a write-up would this be if I didn’t at least mention the Dunning-Kruger Effect?

We’re bad at self-assessment. It’s a cognitive bias that has the backing of some scientific studies to show that, to varying degrees, we tend to either under or over estimate our skill levels, as well as the skill levels of those around us. This would, predictably, create issues in identifying and trusting the opinions of those who would theoretically be more skilled than we are.

Why we can’t have it both ways (a paradox)

Universal relativism and a system of experts are mutually impossible. They simply cannot co-exist within a person’s framework for judging expertise. This can be logically broken down like this:

  1. Relativism believes that everyone’s opinions and observations have equal weight.
  2. A system of experts believes that certain people have acquired a superior skill set or knowledge base than those around them.
  3. Opinions and observations hold the same essential position as learned skills and knowledge, using the patterns established by relativism. (The Dunning-Kruger Effect would indicate that those with a certain belief in their own knowledge and skill will tend to over-estimate them against other people.)
  4. A hierarchy of expertise cannot, therefore, exist in a system where everyone’s opinions and truths are considered equally valid.

Confirmation bias, or why we want to have it both ways

Another, potentially more insidious, bias is confirmation bias. It’s an innate tendency we all share to favor information which confirms our own opinions, truths, et cetera – and it’s one of the reasons why relativism (or, at least, some subsets of it) are exceptionally popular. It means that we’re always right, all the time. Even if someone else is actually right, we’re still right, because our own opinions and truths would hold the same value as theirs.

But wait – we also like appealing to experts. There’s a logical fallacy called appeal to authority, which involves using a position of expertise or authority to disprove or dismiss someone else’s opinions and truths. For this authority to exist, we have to sanction, in some small way, a system of experts. We will however tend to ignore them when they disagree with our conclusions.

Or, to pervert an old idiomatic proverb, we want to have our cake and eat it too.


There has to be some take-away from all of this ; how else are we to learn if we’re so distinctly predisposed to be terrible at accepting new points of view, or even judging the validity of those hierarchies of experts out there?

I tend towards the idea of a repeatable, independently verifiable methodology – although, that tends to fall apart outside of the hard sciences.

I suppose that, if you’re driven to universal relativism, stay there. Don’t accept hierarchies of experts, and continue to assume that everyone’s opinions are equally valid. If you believe in hierarchies of experts, make sure you take a step back and attempt to objectively examine the schools of thinking of which you are an acolyte.

There isn’t an absolute truth for everything, and we’re not very good at being objective – but with a little bit of work, we can try to see a little more of the other sides of problems, and perhaps bring ourselves a little needed perspective.