If you care about being correct more often, here’s a handy rule of thumb:
Figure out which groups of people have spent their lives studying the issue you want an answer to. If there is a significant majority who believe conclusion X, then make conclusion X your default answer unless you have very strong evidence to believe otherwise.
Put even more simply: “When you want the right answer, find out who the experts are and believe what they believe.”
People already do this with topics they have no emotional investment in. When physicists say they discovered the Higgs’ Boson, I take it at face value. However, when it comes to accepted theories global warming, economics, evolution, nutrition and psychology people are full of skepticism and pet theories.
When it Hurts to Think for Yourself
We strive to teach people to think for themselves and mock people who accept answers simply because of authority. While this policy has good intentions, it has some serious problems.
First, many subjects are enormously complicated and time consuming to fully understand. Yes, we can chastise people for not making themselves fully informed, but this is a wasted effort. The amount of knowledge in the world greatly exceeds what the average person can or is willing to consume. Advising people to “think for themselves” on every topic is a recipe for shallow observations.
Second, this is the kind of advice that is applied selectively. We all, subconsciously, accept the value of expertise. I cede to Stephen Hawking when he tells me something about black holes. However, we tend to use the “think for yourself” justification to ignore equally informed opinions in sensitive topics. Selective skepticism can be more dangerous than outright gullibility, because at least the latter won’t get biased results.
My advice isn’t to cede your thinking ability, merely that the default position for all beliefs should be the majority view of experts of that field. Only once you’ve done a comparable amount of research and study on the question as those experts, does skepticism bear fruits.
Who are the Experts?
People have varying answers to this question. Some people would argue that only scientists fit that bill, and within them, only the hard sciences where millions of repeated experiments have proved theorems to incredible accuracy.
This kind of thinking is too strict. While it’s true that physics has more rigorous standards for evidence than economics, that doesn’t mean your opinion about economics is equally valid as the body of work of thousands of people spending, collectively, millions of hours investigating such problems.
What we really want is a group of people who (a) have studied the topic in question more than most other groups and (b) don’t have significant biases or incentives to distort information.
Academia fits this bill pretty well for most topics. The problem with other sources of information, is that they often study the issues in question less or they have larger incentives to distort. Writers like me are a weaker source of expertise for that very reason: I’m paid by how many books and courses I can sell, and how many people want to read my work, not directly on how truthful it is. While I still trust and listen to other writers, if they make a claim that is obviously out of line with more authoritative sources, I side with professional researchers.
There are domains of knowledge which academia doesn’t cover, or doesn’t treat as an important concern. In those cases, I’d look at people who have studied the topic for considerable time and don’t have considerable incentives to distort. Writers, professionals and role models can fill these gaps.
What if the Experts are Wrong?
The experts are often wrong. However, they’re wrong a lot less than the average person. And, unless you’ve studied the topic for a comparable length of time as the typical expert, they’re wrong about it less often than you are.
The justification for trusting a group of experts needn’t be based on their infallibility. It only needs to assume that they are, on average, more reliable in their judgement than you are.
Some people might suggest that this would have compelled trusting alchemists for their model of chemistry in the middle ages. To which I would say yes. The alchemists were definitely mistaken. However, the point isn’t that they were wrong, but that had you lived along side them, your pet theory of chemistry would probably have been even worse.
Fallibility of a source of information doesn’t logically permit you to believe whatever you feel like.
Majority, Not Outlier Viewpoints
When I say that you should believe what experts believe, I don’t mean you should believe what one expert happens believes. With millions of PhDs, it’s never very hard to find one person who has non-standard views. What you should be looking for are areas where most people within that field agree. If 99 people with PhDs in math believe 2+2=4, you can safely ignore the one guy who thinks it equals five.
A big problem with reading articles and books on topics, is that they tend to come from a single author. However, because popularity and controversy are positively correlated, this tends to overrepresent quacks in the space of easily accessible ideas.
A better place to start is to look at more neutral sources to get your ideas. Textbooks, classes and even Wikipedia pages, are all more likely to tell you what the majority of a profession think, instead of the one random outlier.
Don’t Teach the Controversy
If a debate exists between sizeable fractions of a group of experts, it is worth understanding both sides of the debate. However, more often the case is that a debate consists of a handful of outlier experts against a more or less consensus viewpoint.
Like the “think for yourself” heuristic, people are quick to point out the controversy if they dislike the majority viewpoint. Don’t like what biology has to say about evolution? Well it’s only a theory. Don’t like what climatologists have to say about global warming? Well the jury’s still out. Don’t like what economists have to say about price controls? Hey, there’s some people who disagree!
If a viewpoint is uncontroversial within the selected class of experts who study the problem full-time, but controversial outside of it, you can trust it’s the people on the outside who are wrong.
How to Figure Out What Experts Think
Unfortunately, this is often the more difficult part. Expert opinions tend to come to us filtered through journalists, television personalities and authors. Some of these people do a good job at translating, but there is a considerably higher incentive to distort than within academia.
Sometimes this incentive to distort comes from creating false controversy. Making a subject seem more controversial is an easy way to grab more news coverage for an idea.
Sometimes the incentive is to simplify needlessly. A quick, recitable slogan may be easier to pitch than reality even if it doesn’t fit the facts.
Sometimes the incentive is to lean on the expertise of others for credibility, but then to say whatever you feel like. You can trust that any self-help book that uses the word “quantum” is of this sort.
Finding out what experts actually think about issues can be tricky. My advice:
- Read more textbooks and take more courses
- Read the Wikipedia articles on a topic (or on a book, if it’s famous) to see whether the book/ideas you’re reading are biased in any way.
- Read what other experts have to say about the books you read
- When you can, look at surveys like this  to get better statistical analysis of what are indeed the majority viewpoints.
Lining Up Your Beliefs With Other Experts
Thinking what experts think sounds like a cop-out. Unfortunately, it’s not. It’s a lot of work to line up your beliefs with what experts think. You have to go out and read what they say about different topics, and if you want to have more robust opinions, you have to study a little bit about why they say it.
Thinking for yourself, by contrast, is the easy way out. It gives you the freedom to selectively apply skepticism to any answer that makes you feel uncomfortable, all with the easy justification that you’re an intelligent, rational person.
Thinking for yourself certainly beats thinking by popularity, but that’s hardly the only alternative. For almost any possible question, there’s probably a group of people who have thought deeply about all the possibilities and tried to determine which fares the best on the balance of evidence. Making these your default answers goes a long way to making you smarter and more effective.