I’ve always made it a point to remind people that expertise is low-level evidence. Plenty of folks with advanced scientific training hold blatantly untrue, anti-science views. The notion that who you are is sufficient to prove what you claim true is known as the Appeal to Authority fallacy. Being an expert (especially a self-proclaimed one) doesn’t mean your claims should be accepted without further evidence.
However, it is also false that all opinions are equally likely to be true and that expertise carries no evidentiary weight at all. Surgeons do surgery and pilots fly airplanes better than people without training in those fields, and legitimate experts with recognized credentials are more likely to have credible opinions and information about subjects within their area of expertise.
The trick is to balance the excessive respect for expertise that leads to uncritical acceptance of claims contrary to evidence with the illusion that one can make judgements about absolutely anything that are just as sound as people who truly are experts in those subjects. The appeal to authority problem comes up most frequently here, with vets or others in medicine making false claims and expecting them to be accepted without evidence beyond their word. However, in my daily life as a practicing vet, the more common problem I see is the belief that expertise is irrelevant and anyone’s opinion is as likely to be true as that of someone with formal training and experience in medicine.
Just last month, I saw a client who became very angry, and quite abusive, when I refused to prescribe a drug she wanted for her cat. When I tried to explain why the drug was not going to help her pet, and was more likely to do harm than good, she kept saying “That’s just your opinion” and “I read on the internet that he needs that drug.” Though I’ve run into this before, I still found this woman’s faith in the advice of anonymous strangers and random web site above the actual veterinarian who was seeing her and her cat pretty stunning.
Fortunately, just this week I ran across two lovely comments on this problem which I thought I would share. The first is a coffee cup I dearly hope someone will get me for Christmas.
The second is the latest offering from Veterinary Chanteuse Extraordinaire Kelsey Beth Carpenter: