Experts vs. People

“Even when the EXPERTS all agree, they may well be mistaken.” – Bertrand Russell

The guy on the street is often wrong about general principles of his environment. In other words, when a non-expert pontificates about the weather, the human brain, or the government, he’s very likely to come off as Cliff Clavin.

Experts, on the other hand, are usually expert only about general nature of a specific study. Thus, a pediatric neurologist will know the usual treatment for a given childhood brain disorder. He applies this general knowledge of a very narrow field to each specific patient. Often, he’s wrong

For example, I know a young boy who has been seeing a peds neurologist for seven years. Each visit, the doctor assures the parents that the boys problems will go away soon. Sometimes the ‘cure’ is new a medication. Other times it’s a new combination of medications. Still others it’s the withholding of all medications. Then it’s more sleep. Then it’s less.

In one five month period, the child was prescribed five different medications, each resulting in worsening symptoms.

This particular doctor, though, is the number one expert in the St. Louis area. His knowledge of his area of expertness is unchallenged. But when he applies that knowledge to a specific case, he is often wrong.


‘An expert is a person who avoids the small errors while sweeping on to the grand fallacy.’ – Steven Weinberg

I don’t know. And it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that non-experts are usually right when dealing with specific cases, and experts are usually right when dealing with general trends and conditions. As Hegel said, we don’t need an engineer to tell us that our shoes are too tight. I would add that we do need an engineer to tell us if a shoe design is feasible.

Which brings us to the experts versus the people in the case of Terri Schiavo.

In this matter, there are two kinds of experts: doctors and lawyers. The doctors who review clinical data and charts on Terri Schiavo have concluded that she is medically in a persistent, vegatative state. The lawyers, who are paid, basically, to look over the these doctors' shoulders, have signed off. The logic of the doctors goes something like this:

Terri Schiavo displays certain symptoms and characteristics The books says that, under these circumstances, she will not get better Since she won’t get better, the books say she’s PVS

The lawyers, in turn, follow this logic

The doctors describe her condition as PVS The law allows next-of-kin to terminate support of a PVS Therefore, let her die

But the guy on the street doesn’t look to abstracts and statistics and probabilities. He looks at the facts at hand. His logic works like this:

The medical professionals who work every day with Terri Schiavo says she can respond, speak, eat, drink, and complain of pain While she may never get better, and while no one would wish such a life on anyone, her life is the one she has. Therefore, her life is a life that no husband, parent, or judge has the right to take away.

I keep getting e-mails and comments that I don’t understand PVS. Well, frankly, I know enough to know that this nurse’s testimony proves that Terri Schiavo fails to meet the state of Florida’s definition:

‘Her cognitive abilities including laughing, talking, letting you know she was in pain,’ Iyer told FOX News, adding that Terri Schiavo could say words like ‘mommy,’ ‘help me,’ ‘hi’ and ‘pain.’ She also said Schiavo had accurate reflexes on demand. Nurses also were able, at times, to feed Terri thickened liquids such as pudding and Jello with with a baby bottle.

I also know doctors. The opinions of a nurse or nurses aid mean very little to experts. Why? Because nurses aren’t their peers in the medical expert totem pole. (See quotes above.)

I know of a little, newborn boy who almost died of whooping cough. His mother begged the “experts” to do something. She sat around the clock at his bed observing that he would stop breathing for long periods, turning blue, and struggling like someone drowning.

The experts consulted the books, and the books said that doesn’t happen. They assured the mom that loving parents often see symptoms that they think are life threatening but they aren’t really happening. Carefully, in Al Gore sing-songy smiles, they explained how her mother’s love overrode her reason.

When an RN finally witnessed one of the episodes and called a code blue, the hospital and the doctors were embarrassed and scared. They stood to lose a lot of money in a huge malpractice suit for refusing to believe the testimony of the person who was most likely to know what was going on–not an “expert” but a “guy on the street.”

In the Schiavo case, as in so many cases, the experts seem simply to be wrong because they are too arrogant to consult a care giver. And the people who tell me I just don’t understand the emotions involved in PVS are so comfortable in their ignorance that they will not acknowledge the obvious.

Having said all that, I enjoin everyone to read the expert, brilliant, imaginative, and profound analysis of Professor Bainbridge. I’ve been waiting for a conservative to mirror my conflict on Congress vs. States, and he’s done just that.

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