Over at the First Things blog, Steven M. Barr has written a post about science, crackpots and experts. The upshot is that every academic discipline attracts crackpots. This presents a problem for the layman, for how is he to distinguish the genuine expert from the merely apparently expert? Barr puts the question this way:
When is one to trust the experts and when is one to trust one’s own instincts? It may be the central problem of our times.
Barr's answer to the question is that he trusts scientific experts, but rejects experts in the humanities. The sciences generally weed out crackpots because the crackpots can't acquire the necessary technical skills before their lack of judgment becomes apparent. Also, the empirical foundation of the sciences weeds out crackpots, for the test of whether anyone has created a perpetual motion machine or performed cold fusion is whether he can offer a repeatable experiment that supports his claim, an experiment that may be performed by other, skeptical scientists. The humanities, however, are not based on such falsifiable experiments and so it is difficult to distinguish experts from crackpots with respect to them. Barr prefers to "rely more on my own judgment as far as human realities go"; that is, on his "instincts."
What we have here is the tacit modern assumption that the only genuine knowledge available to us is knowledge in the form of the empirical sciences. Beyond that, there isn't really a basis from which to determine the true from the false, the truly expert from the merely crackpot. So on all those "human realities" like the nature of the beautiful or the best way to raise children, we must fall back on our "instincts." This is another form of the modern denial of the possibility of philosophy as it is classically understood. For the Socratic origin of philosophy consists precisely in the question asked by Barr: How does one distinguish the true expert from the false?
Before I discuss the manner in which Socrates answered this question, I would like to point out a few difficulties with Barr's solution. These difficulties will help us to see the depth of the Socratic solution. The difficulties are:
1. Scientists are genuinely expert in their own field and are able to distinguish the true from the false with respect to it. But in what, precisely, is a particular scientific field delimited? The limits of science is not itself a scientific question but rather a philosophical one. So when a scientist like Carl Sagan, for example, declaims not only on planetery astronomy, but also on nuclear warfare, history, environmental and theological issues, how do we know when he is acting as a true expert rather than merely an apparent one? It is possible for a man to be a genuine expert on one topic and a crackpot on another. Since this is a human question, we must (in Barr's opinion) rely on our instincts, so our ability to distinguish the scientific expert from the crackpot ends up being a matter of instinct as well.
2. Barr presumes that his instincts provide a superior way of judging human issues than reliance on experts. But what makes him think this is so? If there is little or no way to distinguish the true expert from the crackpot in the humanities, how does he know that his own human instincts are not crackpot? Obviously they will not seem to him crackpot, but then the academic crackpot's instincts don't seem crackpot to him either.
Let us now examine how Socrates addressed the question of experts. In the Apology, Socrates is told that the oracle at Delphi pronounced that there is none wiser than Socrates. Socrates is surprised at this, for he knows that he possesses no wisdom great or small. He resolves to prove the oracle wrong by finding someone wiser than himself. Among the candidates he interviews in his quest are the craftsmen, the resident experts of his day. And Socrates finds that they are genuinely wise in their chosen profession; but he finds something else as well. Because they are wise in their particular specialty, the craftsmen are led to believe that they are wiser in many other areas as well. Their genuine knowledge is "obscured" by the things they think they know but they do not. Socrates concludes that he is in a better state than the craftsmen: He does not have their particular knowledge, but neither does he falsely think that he knows things when he does not.
How is Socrates able to determine that the experts don't know things that they claim they do? He finds out through the famous Socratic cross-examination. Socrates generally proves two things in his cross-examinations. The first is that the expert's views are not consistent with each other. The second is that the expert's views contradict one or more elements of common experience that both Socrates and the expert accept. The key to the Socratic method is that Socrates questions a person. Abstract knowledge is a fiction. Like flute-playing without a flute-player, there is no knowing without a knower. This holds for scientific knowledge as well as any other kind of knowledge. So when a scientist proclaims knowledge, we are perfectly justified in demanding an account of how he knows what he claims to know. "Scientific consensus" is a cop-out; it only means that he knows because other scientists claim to know. By holding a scientific expert's feet to the fire in this respect, it is generally not difficult to find out what he really knows and what he doesn't. This is the answer to the first difficulty I pointed out in Barr's position.
The second key aspect of the Socratic method is its basis in common experience. "Instincts" are purely individual and subjective. My instincts may differ from yours, which is why crackpots are usually lonely and their views eccentric. There is no community of crackpots, or at least not any that lasts very long before they drink the Kool-Aid. "Common experience" consists of individual reality as it is universalized through rational dialog. The likelihood that Socrates and his partner in dialog will be crackpots in just the same way is small, and becomes smaller as the dialog is continued over time and with a variety of partners. Participants in the dialog constitute a check on the crackpottery of everyone else. This is why Descartes missed the point when he said that every opinion, no matter how outlandish, has been held by some philosopher at some time. Descartes thought this reason to dismiss the tradition of philosophy as hopeless and to embark on his individual quest for certainty. But of course crackpot ideas have been held by philosophers; the point is that the philosophical tradition eventually recognizes crackpot ideas as such, dismisses them, and learns from their mistakes. Aristotle is still the model of the true philosopher. He does not start philosophizing from his own crackpot ideas (his "instincts"), but from a review of the philosophical tradition, i.e. the ideas that have survived the rational scrutiny of many intelligent minds before him. Aristotle advances the tradition by criticizing it in its own terms and, at times, adding his own novel contributions. Which of Aristotle's contributions are genuinely sound and which are crackpot is something the philosophical tradition will ultimately determine. But Aristotle's grounding in the philosophical tradition makes it a good bet that his personal contributions will be sound rather than crackpot.
And that is how the second difficulty of Barr's position is resolved. We should not rely on our untutored instincts, because we are likely to be as idiosyncratic as anyone else. We should recognize the transcendent authority of classical philosophy and ground our thinking in the philosophical tradition, where we will learn how to tell the true expert from the false in any field whatever, be it the sciences or the humanities.