Why People Are Confused About What Experts Really Think

Feb 12, 2016

Photo credit: Gérard DuBois

By Derek J. Koehler

Given the complexities of the modern world, we all have to rely on expert opinion. Are G.M.O. foods safe? Is global warming real? Should children be vaccinated for measles? We don’t have the time or the training to adjudicate these questions ourselves. We defer to the professionals.

And to find out what the experts think, we typically rely on the news media. This creates a challenge for journalists: There are many issues on which a large majority of experts agree but a small number hold a dissenting view. Is it possible to give voice to experts on both sides — standard journalistic practice — without distorting the public’s perception of the level of disagreement?

This can be hard to do. Indeed, critics argue that journalists too often generate “false balance,” creating an impression of disagreement when there is, in fact, a high level of consensus. One solution, adopted by news organizations such as the BBC, is “weight of evidence” reporting, in which the presentation of conflicting views is supplemented by an indication of where the bulk of expert opinion lies.

But whether this is effective is a psychological question on which there has been little research. So recently, I conducted two experiments to find out; they are described in a forthcoming article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. Both studies suggest that “weight of evidence” reporting is an imperfect remedy. It turns out that hearing from experts on both sides of an issue distorts our perception of consensus — even when we have all the information we need to correct that misperception.


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9 comments on “Why People Are Confused About What Experts Really Think

  • Fair and balanced reporting is like giving equal time to the stork theory of reproduction then saying it is shared only by a minority of experts. Experts do not support it. Kooks do.



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  • @OP – So recently, I conducted two experiments to find out; they are described in a forthcoming article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. Both studies suggest that “weight of evidence” reporting is an imperfect remedy. It turns out that hearing from experts on both sides of an issue distorts our perception of consensus — even when we have all the information we need to correct that misperception.

    Even where there is an attempt at evaluating the “weight of evidence” it is unlikely that non-specialists will get it even approximately right!
    This is of course much better than the reckless false balance or perverse “nutter-bias” of some media outlets. so all too often the priorities are based on the volume of the shouting – and nutter cliques frequently shout loudest and most persistently! Vested interests shout even louder – with substantial funding to promote and add plausibility their campaigns of wilful lies!



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  • What explains this cognitive glitch? One possibility is that when we are presented with comments from experts on either side of an issue, we produce a mental representation of the disagreement that takes the form of one person on either side, which somehow contaminates our impression of the distribution of opinions in the larger population of experts. Another possibility is that we may just have difficulty discounting the weight of a plausible argument, even when we know it comes from an expert whose opinion is held by only a small fraction of his or her peers. It’s also possible that the mere presence of conflict (in the form of contradictory expert comments) triggers a general sense of uncertainty in our minds, which in turn colors our perceptions of the accuracy of current expert understanding of an issue.

    And another possibility is that some of us only hear what we want to hear.



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  • First problem.

    And to find out what the experts think, we typically rely on the news media

    Lazy. One should seek out the first hand science and form an opinion based on that. The media should be nothing more than an alert that some issue requires your attention. But nobody will do that. We live in an amphetamine word of media which only allows us to spend seconds on each subject and comment in less that 140 characters. You cannot inform yourself if you subscribe to the Farcebook / Twitter world.

    And yet we must be responsible citizens of planet earth. We must inform ourselves. We vote and therefore each individual is responsible if we undergo a mass extinction event due to global warming and personal ignorance. Again. We won’t. I’ve flogged this dead horse long enough on other threads but…. Our evolutionary make up that made us such successful hunter gatherer nomads contains the seeds of our extinction. And to flog another favourite dead horse, Bertrand Russell’s observation could the the epithet of humanity.

    “Most people would rather die that think. And most people will.



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  • You know on major issues like climate change, vaccination, GMO foods it really does behoove us to actually take the time to read up on some of the issues, even to the extent of reading the odd peer review journal article. For those less literate or not familiar with the way these are written (and I don’t understand half of what I read in journal articles, you need some expertise) then popular science articles are a good start. I think the real problem here is people seem now to be wearing their ignorance as a badge of honor. They vote for people who appear as idiotic and ignorant as they are. They listen to boastful buffoons and morons because they are just like me. We should aspire at least to improve our intelligence and knowledge as much as we can, and on a handful of important issues it isn’t too much to ask of 50% of the population to take a little time to read, listen to or watch a little science.

    I blame Transactional Analysis: Warm Fuzzies, Cold Pricklies (not to mention sticky temprids). Ruined a generation! You’re okay and I’m okay too. No you are not bloody okay! Many of you are a bunch of bloody idiots. Try to think! Try to learn! Be ever so slightly ashamed of your ignorance, not so much that you shut down and don’t try but just enough that you aspire to understand a bit more. Said tongue in cheek of course but with a little of truth I think.



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  • I wonder if there’s a bit of a gamblers fallacy here too.

    taking 2 opinions that oppose each other creates a nice binary bet, the numbers of experts who hold each position creates the odds. Longer odds mean bigger rewards so if you’re not the sort to invest intellect into understanding the merits of each argument, you can take an irrational position and reap the intellectual benefits if you’re right.

    It’s a bit like choosing between going out for a job and going out for a scratch card



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  • There is also public confusion about who the experts are!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-35603167

    .A teenager charged with operating a fake medical practice in the US state of Florida has said he was just trying to help people through alternative medicine.

    Malachi Love-Robinson, 18, was arrested after examining and providing medical advice to an undercover police officer.

    The website of the New Birth New Life Medical Center describes him as a “well rounded professional”.
    Mr Love-Robinson has denied that he posed as a medical doctor and said he only used the title because he had obtained a PhD online.

    In a brief media conference on Wednesday evening, he said he was “deeply saddened and a little disrespected” by the accusations and asked for privacy.

    Mr Love-Robinson has since insisted in media interviews that he has certifications to practice alternative medicine, including naturopathy.

    Scans of certificates from the American Alternative Medical Association and American Association of Drugless Practitioners had previously been posted to his Facebook page, which now appears to have been taken down.

    But the state of Florida no longer offers naturopathy licenses and only licensed doctors are allowed to offer such services in the state.

    The Palm Beach County sheriff’s office says Mr Love-Robinson examined an 86-year-old in December who suffered from severe stomach pain.

    He allegedly diagnosed her with arthritis and sold her vitamins, receiving more than $3,000 (£2,090) for a series of home visits.

    .Mr Love-Robinson said he expects to be cleared of all charges.



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