February 24, 2016

On the Ethics of Expert Advocacy Consulting

Attention conservation notice: A ponderous elaboration of an acerbic line by Upton Sinclair. Written so long ago I've honestly forgotten what incident provoked it, then left to gather dust and re-discovered by accident.

A common defense of experts consulting for sometimes nefarious characters in legal cases is that the money isn't corrupting, if the expert happens to agree with the position anyway already. So, for instance, if someone with relevant expertise has doubts about the link between cigarette smoking and cancer, or between fossil-fuel burning and global warming, what harm does it do if they accept money from Philip Morris or Exxon, to defray advocating this? By assumption, they're not lying about their expert opinion.

The problem with this excuse is that it pretends people never change their ideas. When we deal with each other as more-or-less honest people — when we treat what others say as communications rather than as manipulations — we do assume that those we're listening to are telling us things more-or-less as they see them. But we are also assuming that if the way they saw things changed, what they said would track that change. If they encountered new evidence, or even just new arguments, they would respond to them, they would evaluate them, and if they found them persuasive, they would not only change their minds, they would admit that they had done so. (Cf.) We know that can be galling for anyone to admit that they were wrong, but that's part of what we're asking for when we trust experts.

And now the problem with the on-going paid advocacy relationship becomes obvious. It adds material injury to emotional insult as a reason not to admit that one has changed one's mind. The human animal being what it is, this becomes a reason not to change one's mind --- to ignore, or to explain away, new evidence and new argument.

Sometimes the new evidence is ambiguous, the new argument has real weaknesses, and then this desire not to be persuaded by it can perform a real intellectual function, with each side sharpening each other. (You could call this "the cunning of reason" if you wanted to be really pretentious.) But how is the non-expert to know whether your objections are really sound, or whether you are desperately BS-ing to preserve your retainer? Maybe they could figure it out, with a lot of work, but they would be right to be suspicious.

Learned Folly

Posted at February 24, 2016 00:26 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth