Getting the best of you.
Getting the best of you.
Illustration for article titled Why It Is the Fundamental Duty of an Expert to Explain in Terms the Audience Understands

The Problem

There is a fundamental problem in talking with an expert. They know a lot more than you do, even if they are incorrect. However, sometimes they are correct even if they seem very wrong because you need a deeper level of knowledge to understand why something is correct or incorrect. It makes communication much more difficult.


Example of an Expert Who I Think Is Incorrect

I have been through this many times talking with experts. A time that is easy to explain is a criminal defense attorney explaining why affirmative consent based laws on rape were wrong. He said such laws shifted the burden of proof onto the defense. He gave an explanation of why that must have involved having some level of legal knowledge because, based strictly on what he said, it did not follow. The state where he practiced had laws based on force, threats, coercsion, incapacitation, etc. I was sure he was wrong. I live in Texas and its sexual assault law is based on an absence of consent (or specific situations where consent is not considered legally possible). There was no epidemic of defense attorneys being forced to prove there was consent. I was sure he was either (1) wrong or (2) simplifying the issue to the point he was wrong. However, I would never hold my ground in an argument about criminal defense with an experienced criminal defense attorney. It would be like him arguing an issue about genetics or psychopharmacology with me.

Dealing With the Simplistic But Wrong Argument

Other times there have been people who were not stupid but were fooled by seemingly convincing arguments. The recent attempts to push through fetal pain bills is a good example. Nobody who understands anything, even minimal, about the neuroscience of pain will argue there is any evidence that a fetus can feel pain. However, there is a simplistic argument that goes like this:

1. Fetuses are known to respond to painful stimuli by recoiling, and they can learn to avoid painful stimuli.


2. Nociception is often described as physiological pain responses, although the Wikipedia article has been edited to make it clear that is not correct. Fetuses are known to have a variety of nociceptive signals.

Sounds like a tight argument, right? But it is not. Nociception is not pain. I had to shut the person arguing down by telling him:

(1) Spinally transected (spinal cord completely severed) rats who are incapable of feeling anything below the neck will respond to and learn to avoid painful stimuli the same way even though it is literally physically impossible for them to feel any of it.


(2) When you type your nociceptors are firing like crazy sending signals to your brain, but you feel no pain. In fact, nearly any touch or movement causes nociceptors to fire. You only feel pain if you have some chronic pain disorder which interferes with your body’s ability to distinguish painful nociception v. ignored nociception.

I am not sure if he agreed, but that shut him up about pain and he tried to argue other pro-life talking points instead.


Always Explain, Even If You Hate Doing So

This is not an easy task. There are genuine experts out there dedicated to misleading the public. There are professional liars who spend a lot of time and effort crafting talking points and convincing sounding arguments usually based on omissions of facts. There is a saying of uncertain origin “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” The only thing necessary for the triumph of liars is for experts to fail to explain in terms enough people understand.

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