Expertise, Rebecca Watson, and why skeptics should care

Ed Clint critiqued a recent speech concerning evolutionary psychology which was presented by Rebecca Watson at a skeptic conference. Jonathan MS Pearce, another Skeptic Ink Network writer, has also weighed in.

I won’t discuss the content of Watson’s speech in this post, but rather will articulate why expertise – proficiency in a field demonstrated by effective communication and an advanced, accurate, and clear understanding – should be of concern for skeptics, conference organizers, and conference attendees. I will argue that conference organizers should not invite persons to speak about topics in which persons have little or no expertise because doing so deals a great disservice to skepticism and the skeptical community.

Rebecca Watson lacks expertise in evolutionary psychology. She lacks proper qualifications to speak about the subject and, at best, has a lay understanding. Not only is Rebecca Watson unqualified to speak about evolutionary psychology, but it is also the case that she – and others considering speaking about a topic at a conference in which they lack expertise – should feel a moral obligation to refrain from speaking about a topic in which she is a non-expert.

Persons who want to ‘spread the skeptical message’ or otherwise be communicators to those interested in skepticism – especially when considering the medium, a conference, in which the communication is transmitted – should refrain from transmitting information, if they are a non-expert, to an audience who similarly lacks expertise in the field for several reasons.

As a non-expert, you’re likely to not properly understand what you are talking about. A non-expert will have a rudimentary understanding of the field and lack the proper education, training, and whatever else comes with – for example – years of research backed by a proven track record, academic qualifications, prior evidence of expertise within the field, and much more. A novice, or a person with a lay understanding, will likely make errors that would otherwise not be made by experts because of incompetency; while the expert would understand, the non-expert may blunder and not even know it.

There’s a reason — for example — why secular groups and conference organizers invite me to speak about Establishment Clause violations, secular activism, being an atheist activist at religious colleges, podcasting, and similar topics at various events. I have the required expertise to speak about these topics and my ‘track record’ demonstrates this. I won’t dare attempt to speak about topics like cosmology or evolution, to select just two topics, at a conference. While I have a lay understanding about these topics and irrespective of what conference organizers desire, I would not, because of my lack of expertise, deliver a suitable presentation at a conference.

As skeptics, we should be aware of our own limitations and strive to be effective communicators with competency – ability to do something proficiently – in mind. Being concerned about justified true beliefs, skeptics ought not risk spreading false information (or presenting with a rudimentary understanding) to a captive audience who often has the impression that a person speaking at a conference, because they are invited by conference organizers, is properly qualified to speak.

As a person presenting information at a conference, one has, as it seems, a moral obligation to be an effective communicator of information, one who is a reliable holder of truth (at least in this case, in regard to the topic being presented). The conference speaker is not just relaying information in a casual setting among friends in which expectations for knowledge and competency are low, but rather has a captive audience and is expected to be an effective communicator.

Conference organizers who invite non-experts to speak about a topic which requires expertise do a tremendous disservice to conference attendees, the conference in question, the skeptic community, and skepticism itself. Speakers who speak about a topic which requires expertise while lacking expertise similarly are behaving in a poor fashion. We, as skeptics, ought to set a standard and model the epistemic behaviors we want to see in others – a care for justified true belief and appeals to experts for reliable information. As the skeptical community continues to grow, more speakers, experts in their respective fields, are available to speak at conferences and will happily do so without requiring large sums of money. Think about the alternatives.

Thanks to Barbara Drescher for inspiring this post. Read her take on expertise here.