Month: April 2016

How important are the opinions of experts in the search for knowledge?

 

Fredrick Sanger—a British biochemist, who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry twice—once expounded that the pursuit of unprecedented knowledge is “like a voyage of discovery into unknown lands, seeking not for new territory but for new knowledge.” In the search for new knowledge in vast fields, individuals naturally feel lost and overwhelmed by countless intricate links between different topics. They are unsure of as to where or how to begin, and desperately need guidance. Hence, they rely on those, whom society regards as ‘experts’; experts are individuals, who are very knowledgable about their fields of specialty.

In such exploration for knowledge, experts’ wisdom can serve to function as a very effective tool. Before an individual begins to search for unexplored parts of a field, he or she can request advices from the experts on possible beginning points; after carefully discussing and planning with different specialists, the individual can initially begin from myriad starting points and gradually narrow down possibilities by considering potential, risk and points of interest through logical and emotional reasoning. Moreover, during the search, the person can frequently check with the experts to confirm whether the search’s direction is not going off tangent. In the competition for new insights into different fields among people worldwide, time is of essence, and experts’ collaboration can prevent attempts or researches that could very likely be futile. Hence, the presence of expert’s guidance is necessary to a certain extent for an amateur in the the pursuit of unprecedented knowledge.

 

Nevertheless, experts are still humans. They can be subjective and reluctant to accept new discoveries that challenge their knowledge. Due to their conservative nature with the conventional knowledge, experts are prone to being parochial and hindering a subject’s growth in terms of information. Hence, before blindly following the expert’s advice, we need to question the extent of how useful the opinion of expert can be in the field he or she is pursuing knowledge in. From my personal experience and understanding of different fields’ development over tim, the essence of questioning the experts’ opinions is especially evident in history, mathematics and natural science.

 

“Those who not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” As the eminent words of George Santayana, a philosopher, have insinuated, history is crucial to our growth, because it often guides us away from making same mistakes that our predecessors had made. History is accumulation of knowledge that historians have helped humanity to collect over an extremely long period of time; with available evidences, historians have mainly utilised deductive intuition and logical reasoning to stick numerous tiny fragments into one reasonable timeline. If it were not for historians, we would not have established such solid understanding of the world’s timeline that we possess now.

 

However, there were instances when historians’ subjectivism hindered our pursuit of knowledge, and our blind faith in their statements were also to be blamed. This is unequivocally illustrated in the case of Dead Sea scrolls. The Dead Sea scrolls, which were discovered between 1947 and 1956 in eleven caves in and around the Wadi Qumran, consist of 825-872 Biblical documents that contained texts from the Hebrew Bible. Hence of prominent religious and historical significant that were written by AD 100. Unlike Nag Hammadi Scrolls that were discovered in Egypt before the Dead Sea Scrolls and made public within 10 years, Dead Sea scrolls were released to public knowledge after 45 years. This stark contrast was mainly caused by the Catholic Scroll Research Team; when it examined the scroll’s contents and found that they contrasted the currently existing Catholic teaching, the team regarded them as dangerous and determined that the scrolls should not shared with the world. Consequently, 40% of the Scrolls were not shared publicly until 1980’s, when the pressure mounted significantly on the team. As the Catholic team’s action has illustrated, even experts are prone to subjectivism. They accept what agrees with their personal values and beliefs and repudiates discoveries that reflect the otherwise.

 

Similarly, scientists can often become myopic, as they cling onto conventional knowledge, refusing to accept changes in informations they had assimilated a long time ago. Such attitude can be impeding to those who are pursuing unprecedented knowledge, which might not necessarily be linked to the experts’ conventional knowledge. As a result, depending on their characteristics, the experts could be inflexible with changes and unintentionally contribute to delay in the growth of scientific knowledge. For example, since Newton’s time, the passage of time was assumed to be same everywhere in the universe.

However, Einstein suggested the otherwise in his special and general theory of relativity. His theory stated that events that occur at the same time for one observer could occur at different times for another, since space and time were interwoven into a single continuum known as space-time. Despite Einstein’s logical explanations and evidences to his contemporary scientists, they were reluctant to acknowledge his theory and kept focusing on his inability to validate his theory; back then, there was no instrument that could measure space-time, so the warping could not actually be confirmed. However, in our modern society, we all understand that Einstein’s theory was valid, thanks to our advanced technology that could detect several space-warping phenomena. The relativity theory has contributed significantly to the developments of nuclear plants, supernovas, lights, electromagnets and other subjects. As the contemporary scientists’ reluctance has proven, even experts cannot easily accept new concepts that significantly contrast their learnings, which could be potentially beneficial to our community in the long-run. Hence, experts’ opinions might become hindrances instead of useful tips to those with dynamic perception in the pursuit of knowledge and possibly our society as well .

 

In the case of mathematics, subjectivism is not necessarily an obstacle to the pursuit of knowledge. Richard Feynman once stated, “Mathematics is a language plus reasoning”; as Richard insinuated, unlike how scientists might be able to perform unfair scientific experiments or produce fake results and go unnoticed for some time, professional mathematicians cannot do the same, as mathematics is a language of pure reasoning; it is sanitised of any personal bias or value. Therefore, an individual can safely rely on the accuracy of experts’ opinions in the field of mathematics. In fact, it would be beneficial to do so, as the person would need to grasp through understandings of the formulas that currently exist to pursue and formulate new equations. Experts are, no doubt, the best resources for the exploration of new areas in mathematics

 

However, mathematicians, just like historians and scientists, do have their own flaws—some tend to accept certain principles without any mathematical evidence, because they appear to be intuitively obvious. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that noticing flaws in normal or accepted knowledge in our lives is the most important but challenging part in the pursuit of new knowledge. An appropriate paradigm would be Euclid’s unproven 5th postulate (parallel line postulate). Euclid’s Fifth Postulate—“if a straight line intersects one of two parallels, it will intersect the other” —was generally accepted true by everyone because it was intuitive. However, David Hilbert questioned its validity and developed non-euclidian geometry, which proved to be crucial piece of tool for Einstein’s General Relativity. Nevertheless, initially, many experts impugned and ridiculed David’s non-euclidian geometry, which did not match their intuitive reasoning. As the past mathematicians’ attitude towards David’s theory has shown, even experts in the field of mathematics can occasionally overlook certain areas, because their intuitions make them obvious and completed. Therefore, while considering experts’ opinions are essential, it is also important to question the crux and minute details of their teachings and have your own opinion at the same time.

 

Indubitably, during our pursuit of new knowledge, experts’ opinions are very valuable. They could offer us insights into their specialised fields and possibly starting points for our explorations. Moreover, the experts could share most time-efficient and productive methodologies from their personal experiences. However, this certainly does not mean that we should blindly believe in the experts’ opinions. As the paradigms of history, natural science and mathematics above have demonstrated, experts are still humans; they are prone to subjectivism, mistakes and ignorance of some areas to a certain extent. Therefore, throughout the pursuit of knowledge, the individual must possess intellectually curiosity for pre-established and unexplored areas of knowledge, maintaining a reasonable balance between experts’ opinions and also that of himself or herself.

 

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