Is Your Expert Really an Expert? The Problem of Inappropriate Expertise and Name-Dropping in the Fitness Industry

Posted on 26 Sep 2013 13:36

I've been making a lot of statements about expertise and experts lately. There are a couple of reasons for this. For one, critical thinking and skepticism has become as popular as frozen Margaritas in Mexican restaurants, and just as bland and weak. Usually, these excited new thinkers invoke science. One of the secrets, it seems, to being scientific, is to go on and on about how you should be wary of experts and go around refuting them.

So first I'm going to recommend a book that I really like and which helps a bit with this problem of expertise. Also, however, it is a great textbook on critical thinking and "argumentation." One of the problems with most books and essays on critical thinking is that they are written in a language that many of us would call obfuscation. They are full of incomprehensible jargon. It is ironic that so much writing about critical thinking is written in the same way people write bullshit. This book, though, which is essentially a textbook, is written in an informal style that is easy to follow. There is no BS jargon to hide behind in it and it is one of my favorite books on the subject. Written by George W. Rainbolt and Sandra L. Dwyer of the University of Georgia, it's called Critical Thinking: The Art of Argument

First, Determine the Appropriateness of the Expert

Anyway, as I was saying, many people think critical thinking and science are the same thing and that to be scientific you have to go around dismantling the views of experts, or dismissing them. Sometimes, however, rather than to dismantle the arguments of an expert, you may want to determine a couple of things about him or her. One of the most important, and overlooked, is the appropriateness of the expert in discussing or making claims about a domain. That is, this person may be an expert, but is his or her expertise really specific to the domain being discussed? Are they hiding behind credentials or relying on the fact that many lay people see any degree as proof of expertise? Often, an expert in some field may make a public comment about another field that he or she has no intention of misrepresenting themselves about, but another person will cite them as an expert. I might make some public comment about swimming, even though I know next to nothing about it, and another person might say "Eric Troy, a strength training expert, has this to say about swimming…" Yet, in reality, I make no claims to working with swimmers for strength, and specialize happily in maximum strength training.


art-of-argument.jpg

One potential sign of a bullshit artist is the use of high-brow language,
obscure jargon, and complicated language to express ideas while
showing an inability to render these ideas in plain language. Why,
then, are so many books and articles on critical thinking
written in just this way? This is why I like Critical Thinking: The Art of Argument.
None of that BS.

art-of-argument.jpg

One potential sign of a bullshit artist is the use of high-brow language, obscure jargon, and complicated language to express ideas while showing an inability to render these ideas in plain language. Why, then, are so many books and articles on critical thinking written in just this way? This is why I like Critical Thinking: The Art of Argument. None of that BS.



We see inappropriate experts on TV all the time. Have you ever wondered why you should listen to a sports athlete about what shampoo to use? Is Shaquille O'Neal really an expert on pain? Should I really listen to Henry Winkler about mortgages? And why in the world should I care what kind of underwear Micheal Jordan wears? Similarly, why do people endlessly discuss what Morgan Freeman says about science on the show "Through the Wormhole" as if the actor himself is an expert on science, without even realizing that he is the host of the show, not its writer?

The vaccine debate is still at large. Bill Gates is pro-vaccine and Genny McCarthy is anti-vaccine. Both have been quoted and referred to on the matter. Neither is an authority by any stretch of the imagination. Senator John McCain and our own President Obama suspect that vaccines may be at the root of the "autism epidemic" and that the preservative thimerosal may be the problem. Obama stated that the autism rate is "skyrocketing." Is the president an expert on autism? Are his experts even experts? Do any of these people know what the diagnostic criteria is for autism? Questioning the expertise of these people may lead us to explore autism a bit more beyond just the word.

Arnold Schwarzenegger has been extensively quoted, not only because he is such an icon in the bodybuilding world, and also an action movie star, but because one president saw fit to put him "in charge of fitness" for the country. This is what Arnold had to say about a sedentary lifestyle:

"The human body was never designed for a sedentary lifestyle. It was made to hunt saber-toothed tigers and walk forty miles a day."

I don't know about you, but I'm pretty sure Arnold is not an expert in human evolution and would have no clue as to whether we were designed to walk 40 miles a day, let alone hunt saber tooth tigers.

But these could be considered obvious examples. Let's say someone died and a theory was put forth that a toxic insecticide was the cause. Let's say that this theory is put forth by an expert in toxic waste. Credible, no? No. An expert in toxic waste would not necessarily have any true expertise in toxicology. The news show 60 Minutes went under fire from actual toxicologists for using an inappropriate expert on toxic waste, UN scientist Dr Ron McDowall, to investigate the death of Sarah Carter, who became ill in a hotel in Chiang Mai, Thailand. McDowall said that the way the girl died and her symptoms "fit perfectly" with chlorpyrifos poisoning. Three New Zealand toxicologists called foul, saying that the investigation was shoddy and there was no real reason to think that the insecticide was the cause of death, since the hotel guest would have had to be dripping in the stuff, and only trace amounts, left over from fumigation, were found.

Expert witnesses in court cases often bring up questions of inappropriateness. Sometimes, the expert might have a degree in the right area, but still be inappropriate. Consider a person with a medical degree who, instead of going into medical practice, goes straight from medical school to being a hired expert witness, in order to make lucrative paychecks for stating his "expert" opinion in court cases. It might be possible to have his testimony thrown out by examining his income! However, you could also argue that even in a case that calls for a medical expert, a "doctor" who has never actually practiced medicine is inappropriate to call on as a medical expert.

Do you know who one of the most overused inappropriate experts is? Albert Einstein. Throughout his life, he was asked questions about stuff he knew nothing in particular about by people assuming his genius for physics should extend to every other field and subject. He also had many definite opinions about social and political problems, which held more weight than was necessarily due.

The So-Called Appeal to Authority

I'd like to avoid this, since I am so sick of the playing croquet with fallacies game and pretending it's thinking, but since informal fallacies are all the rage, I may as well name the fallacy of bringing up inappropriate experts or authorities. It's usually misused, by the way. Most often, it is called an appeal to authority. An appeal to authority is not a fallacy, unless it is a misused appeal to authority (in other words a fallacious appeal to authority or a questionable authority). It also is sometimes called Argumentum ad verecundiam, but this is not necessarily the same thing. Argumentum ad verecundiam, in Latin, means something like "argument from reverence." An easy example of this fallacy is when someone tells you that you are wrong simply because their expert authority is more respected and famous.

So, no, it is not wrong to bring up an expert in a field to support an argument. Wouldn't bringing up Einstein in a physics discussion be appropriate? But bringing up Einstein in a lawn care discussion would NOT be appropriate, nor even would it be appropriate to cite Einstein concerning politics and social issues, even though he had definite opinions about both. An appeal to authority may be perfectly legitimate, however, in other cases.

However, many of the claims of appeal to authority used in online discussions are nothing more than an attempt by an opponent to quickly dispense with an argument by saying "you broke the rules by bringing up an expert." Most of the time, the person trying to cloud the issue by his claim of fallacy, has no expertise or even basic knowledge with which to evaluate the cited claims of the authority. How many times have you heard someone asking for data and methods from a study as if they themselves could evaluate it and planned to set up their own experiment to see if they could replicate the results? As if they have a lab and a bunch of grad students to work for them. I have noticed a similar attempt to dismiss the claims of authority by people who have obviously never heard of said authority, except for the quick Googling they do to try to BS their way out of the conundrum. So be aware that when you try to dismiss someone's claims by dismissing their authority, you are implying that you are qualified to evaluate the work of that expert. You are in danger of misrepresenting yourself. A great example of this kind of misrepresentation is the Lenski affair.

How Do We View Expertise?

Regardless, the first thing you should check when an expert is cited, is the appropriateness of that expert to the field being discussed. Now, in strength training, there are lots of experts cited which may be deemed inappropriate. The problem is in how we view expertise. For instance, a person might be an expert in the neural control of strength, and be extremely knowledgeable about certain aspects of muscular recruitment, but they may have no direct knowledge in the field of strength and conditioning. So, this scientist expert may be just the person to cite about an obscure detail of muscular recruitment, but a bad person to cite about how to get to a 500lbs deadlift since this person has never actually worked with heavy weights, let alone have experience in training people to lift maximum weights. Expertise can be extremely specific. At the same time, this person, even though he has little direct experience, might have enough general knowledge to be deemed a general fitness expert, or general expert in resistance training, so even then, he would be a more appropriate expert to cite than a guy in a lab with no actual strength training expertise (on real people with real results).

You may often be asked "who are you to say my expert isn't appropriate?" Well, if not you, then whom? This question is its own fallacy because in any discussion bringing up the claims of experts, it is important to evaluate the appropriateness of the expert. So the answer to the question "who are you to question my expert" is that you are the person they are arguing with, so you are the person who must respond to not only what that expert says, but whether they are actually experts in the domain being discussed! That doesn't mean that you can, only that the onus is yours, if you have the knowledge to evaluate the situation.

Be a Hater, It's Better Than Being Duped

In the wider fitness, bodybuilding, and strength training world, when we question the appropriateness of experts, we are often labeled haters. Yet, name-dropping is THE number one way to gain credibility. Often, books are released and the "support" of certain well-known people in the fitness industry is mentioned to bolster the credibility of the book, yet these experts could rightly be deemed inappropriate. To mention the appropriateness of these authority figures makes us subject to being named bitter at best, and a hater, at worst. This is how the fitness industry works, folks!

Strength training is about increasing maximum strength, an aspect of human performance. A performance expert is a person who not only has vast knowledge of human performance, but actually does something about performance with actual human beings. Sprinting is a type of performance. A sprinting coach should be an expert on sprinting. What about a biomechanics professor? The professor might be able to evaluate the mechanical forces of sprinting, etc. and this information may be used by the sprinting coach, who is not an expert in biomechanics. However, just because there is data from the domain of biomechanics that illuminates training for sprint does not mean that a biomechanics professor is necessarily qualified to be a sprinting coach. I know this seems obvious but I assure you that many discussions and arguments have made it clear to me that this must be stated clearly and it is not obvious. So, expertise has a lot to do with intention. A sprinting coach intends to help you improve your sprinting. A biomechanics professor intends to study biomechanics. He may hope that his studies extend into the world of actual human performance but he may not be directly, at the time of his studies, involved in improving the performance of sprinters.

Be Wary of "Experiments" by Non-Scientists

Now let's say the sprinting coach does an experiment using his sprinters in which he claims to have uncovered some truth about the biomechanics of sprinting which he puts up on YouTube. In an argument about sprinting mechanics, your opponent brings up this sprinting coach in regards to his experiment and repeats some claim he made about biomechanics. You would be absolutely justified in asserting that the coach was not an expert in biomechanics and that it is very unlikely that he knows how to set up biomechanical experiments, once you had researched the guy and found that he has no education or experience in the area and has never published any studies, etc.

Expertise is Often about Trust

Again, the fallacy of Appeal to Authority is often misidentified. What you'll find, is that most of the informal fallacies are often misidentified. You see, when it comes to experts, one of the criterion for being an expert is that we trust that the statements made by this person are reasonable to be used as premises in that specific field. And if another expert makes statements that are similar, it is even more reasonable to use them as a source for premises. The problem is how we determine their reliability. Credentials, awards, publications, known biases, hidden biases, etc. all come into play. And not everybody who is an expert has a degree.

However, no matter how justified you are for citing an expert, remember that your opponent (for lack of a better word) has every right to examine and dismantle the statements of your expert. So if you are only willing to regurgitate that which you've read from people you consider authorities, without actually applying critical thinking to it, be ready to have your ass handed to you in an argument.

Widespread Debate Often Makes Citing Experts Futile

The way we most often see a true appeal to authority, is when an expert is brought up in regards to an area that is highly disputed. When there is a debate where many experts are making many completely different claims and counter-claims, then we can all cite an expert to support our claims so using experts would be completely futile. In these instances, an appeal to authority becomes a fallacy. Many people will dishonestly try to promote the claims of an expert as being the last word in an argument while ignoring various other expert's opinions. So, what you'll find, and I know that many people will want to dispute this, is that when we cite experts, it is usually not a lone wolf making a single isolated and unusual claim. The claim should be generally supported by the body of knowledge and it will tend to be generally agreed upon. If it is not generally agreed upon, then you are left with actually discussing the issue at hand in-depth. Of course, there is always some debate about anything. There are no concrete guidelines, we have to use our best judgement about how much debate is acceptable.

You may have encountered such a scenario as this one: Some guy on the internet claims that vitamin C cures colds. You respond that your doctor told you that this is not true, vitamin C will not cure a cold, but may sometimes shorten the duration of a cold to an insignificant degree, if you take vitamin C regularly (prophylactically) rather than therapeutically at the onset of a cold. The original claimant accuses you of an appeal to authority, a fallacy. But you have committed no fallacy, because it is perfectly reasonable to cite a trusted doctor's opinion about colds! Much more so than an anonymous person on the internet. Here, the claimant is wrong to dismiss your authority, and should instead have to respond to the actual statements (according to you) the doctor made. But here is the important thing, and it should help clear up some of the confusion about fallacies in general. Just because an appeal to authority is not always wrong, does not make it a great argument! In the end, you are saying something is true just because someone else claims it. You have to work harder than that. Just because the person is an expert does not make it true, you must still respond directly to the arguments being made, and the evidence for and against them. What you'll find is that quoting experts, in many cases, is absolutely mandatory.

Remember, also, that the intention of the arguer in using an authority's statement is important. Sometimes, people say very cool sounding and eloquent things and you quote them just because this person said it better than anybody else. If they were not a reliable expert in the field, you could still say that they explained it well, or said it well. You just couldn't rely on them exclusively to support your argument.

Nevertheless, it is critical that you understand that accepting the claims of an expert or the "facts" they give you, without question, is not critical thinking. That is, critical thinking is not about finding the facts and avoiding the lies.


This page created 26 Sep 2013 13:36
Last updated 18 Jul 2016 01:28

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