By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Associate Professor, Wallace E. Boston School of Business
In a free society such as ours, citizens should be permitted to have any opinions they want. But the quality of those opinions is not without consequence.
In this sense, our ideas and views are much like voting, gun ownership or congregation. Yes, these rights are enshrined in our Constitution, and we hold them as sacred. But they’re also really impactful to our society, so there is an impetus to exercise them responsibly.
About a year ago, I wrote about the importance of both recognizing when you do not know what you’re talking about and respecting the expertise of those who do in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the zeitgeist of American discourse seems to have only worsened since that time – and not just on topics related to COVID-19 and public health.
It seems that, in nearly all conversations that should compel critical thinking, people are feeling more and more emboldened to spout misinformed ideas without any social consequence. The stark absence of introspection and humility is what is most alarming about these exchanges.
Trafficking in Uniformed Statements Based on No Scientific Research
I recently found myself in an argument with a friend over the subject of psychological gender fluidity, and this example will serve to illustrate. Out of respect for my friend, I won’t share any of his personally identifiable details.
But for the sake of the story, let’s say that he is a licensed plumber. He does not possess any education or work experience that would confer an in-depth knowledge of human psychology or gender dynamics.
My friend is politically conservative and the argument we had was over a somewhat incoherent combination of scientific research and public policy. Essentially, my friend argued that there are two genders – male and female – and that’s it.
Furthermore, he said, people should be free to “feel” however they want, but society should not acknowledge psychological gender fluidity because it would be harmful, especially to young children. To that extent, no one and no other arguments would convince him otherwise, because that’s just how he saw the situation.
I’d be willing to bet you know someone like my plumber friend in 2021.
I began with an attempt to understand, in good faith, the source of my friend’s views. I asked about the research he had done and how he had formed the basis of his opinions.
His reply, unsurprisingly, was that it was not borne from any research but was the mere product of “common sense.” He then counter-challenged me and demanded that I prove to him my opposing assertions.
I responded with the disclaimer that everyone should give when stepping out of their areas of expertise, and that is to acknowledge that I am not an authority on the subject of gender fluidity. However, I am currently completing a bachelor’s degree in psychology, so conversations about psychological dynamics and gender are something that I frequently encounter in my studies.
So what I did offer were references to research from people who are proven experts in the field. This research is scientifically guided, Institutional Review Board-regulated and peer-reviewed inquiry which shows strong evidence that, although there are generally two anatomical genders, psychological gender is not necessarily so clear-cut.
To the contrary, gender identity can often be far more fluid, which leads to circumstances like gender dysphoria. In other words, the topic of psychological gender is very nuanced and complex, as most things tend to be under the most intense examinations. To support my points, I shared research and discussion from experts at the National Institutes of Health, the Cleveland Clinic and Harvard University.
What I got in response was simultaneously disappointing and entirely predictable. My friend had two main objections.
The first objection was that some so-called scientists have been shown to be misguided, corrupt and/or politically motivated, so scientific research in its entirety is worthless (i.e., science is imperfect so it must be completely discounted). His other objection was that the science on this topic can’t be right because the public policy implications would be untenable for him (i.e., gender dysphoria can’t be acknowledged because then we’d have to have the transgender bathroom debate and other difficult discussions in earnest).
These counter arguments are obvious confabulations, distractions and logical fallacies, for reasons more voluminous than I have words to cover in this article. But for the sake of our discussion, I want to shine a light on the startling laziness and arrogance that should immediately disqualify any view that is taken by someone who clearly lacks the educational or experience-based footing to take it.
Making My Friend Understand the Dangers of Expressing Uninformed Statements
Consider your own area of expertise. Everyone is knowledgeable about something.
What does expertise mean for you? It might come from your career, a hobby, a sport or something else entirely. Now, imagine that someone who knows nothing about your area of expertise engages you in debate about it and challenges everything you know without any foundation.
In the case of my friend, I offered a plumbing analogy for him that I suspect resonated more strongly than he was willing to admit to in real time. When we reached an impasse on the gender dysphoria front, I changed subjects to talk about a home improvement project I was working on at the time. I subtly turned the conversation to plumbing and I told him that as far as I’m concerned there are only two kinds of plumbing pipes – PVC and copper – and anything else is nonsense.
Without detecting my angle, my friend retorted that I was wrong. He then went on to “school” me about the difference between PVC and CPVC pipe and their different applications.
My friend also explained how there are uses for black iron pipe and corrugated stainless steel tubing, such as for natural gas purposes. Then there is galvanized pipe for weather resistance in outdoor applications. According to him, there are all kinds of different plumbing materials, and they are…wait for it…nuanced and complex.
I couldn’t resist; I replied that his explanation was all part of a “plumber political narrative” to get people to spend more money on plumbing services. I also told him that plumbers make mistakes all the time, so his thoughts on the matter of plumbing materials couldn’t be trusted.
Finally, I argued, if there are so many different kinds of plumbing tubes and pipes, construction and home renovation would become way too complicated and cumbersome, so he must be wrong by virtue of practicality.
Never mind that I’m not a plumber and have no credibility with which to speak on the matter. No, I said, there are just two types of pipe – PVC and copper. And no bigheaded, so-called “plumber” was going to tell me otherwise.
My point landed like an atomic bomb, and his silence betrayed the fact that he’d understood it…even if there was no acknowledgement.
We All Have Some Expertise, but We Need to Recognize When We Step Beyond It
We can each claim to be an expert in something. We all have some opinions that have merit and are worth sharing.
However, most of us would find a person who has no expertise in our area challenging us without any basis to be lazy and arrogant. Why? Because we earned our places at our respective tables through study, practice, experience and hard work.
But this is also why it’s so important that we each recognize our own expertise – or lack of it – when we’re trying to sit down at the wrong table. Part of being an expert in anything is recognizing when and where you’re not an expert.
No matter how steadfastly you commit yourself to studying and absorbing knowledge, there will always be many more areas of ignorance than learnedness. So it is incumbent upon each of us, for the sake of intelligent public discourse as well as the maintenance of our own dignity and integrity, that we stay in our respective intellectual lanes and remain humble about that which we have no reasonable expectation of knowing. As I’ve argued before, true expertise matters and we must respect it or face the consequences.