Expert caution, amateur engagement

In an earlier post, I talked about whether it is appropriate to judge historical people using today’s standards. I was surprised that commenters were so opinionated on an issue of arguably little importance.

On the “anti” side, multiple people argued that to truly understand history, you shouldn’t be so judgmental about it. But the thing is, I am not a historian, so why should I act like one? I do not perform any original historical research. The only way I might ever teach history is by sharing stuff I learned from Wikipedia or news articles. If I were to withhold judgment on historical people, I would not learn more about history, I would learn less because I would be less engaged.

Let’s switch to talking about my area of expertise, physics. I am a professional physicist, and most of my readers merely have an amateur interest in it. We have different attitudes towards physics, as well we should.

Here the important difference is that physicists are more cautious. On the surface, this might not appear to be the case, since everywhere you can find physicists who will happily pronounce their opinions on physics, whereas most non-physicists don’t have anything to say about the matter. Indeed, I am not saying that physicists are less opinionated, I’m saying that physicists have a higher standard of evidence before they form opinions.

To see this, you simply need to ask physicists about a modern physics problem outside their expertise. For instance, ask me about string theory. I have little opinion on string theory. Ask me about cosmology. I have little opinion on whether the universe began with the Big Bang or began sooner. Now, you can find plenty of amateurs who have much stronger opinions on string theory or cosmology, but I’m quite sure that I actually understand the issues better than they do!

To a large extent, this is just an example of “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” As a professional, I know something about physics, and something about how much work is required to make an informed judgment. In the fields of cosmology and high energy physics, I am highly aware that I have not done the necessary work.

An amateur might read this, and decide that it’s best that they never have any views on physics at all. I would argue that this is incorrect. No, keep your opinions, please! It’s true that your opinions really have no value in the realm of academic discourse, but that does not mean they have no value period. The value comes from your engagement with the topic. If you have no opinions on physics whatsoever, that doesn’t make you more of a professional, it just means you don’t care.

There are, of course, a few ways in which lay people can have opinions that go beyond what is appropriate. For example, something has gone wrong when non-scientists have decided that the consensus is just bogus and the whole field should be defunded (a perpetual danger in climate science). We also get lots of cranks who clearly read a lot of popular physics, and have developed such strong opinions on the matter that they e-mail every physics grad student they can find to tell us about it. Cranks basically suffer from an excess of engagement.


Let’s bring it back to history. In grade school, I was the victim of a thoroughly depoliticized historical education. I found history to be the most boring subject and retained very little of it. Now could you imagine if we had some class discussions about whether the California missions were a good or bad thing? Now that might have held my interest and I might even remember what the things were.

It was much later that I learned how political history can be, and that’s when I actually began to retain some of it. It is precisely my ability to judge history that made the topic interesting to me. Taking away that judgment wouldn’t make me into a more objective historian, it would just kill my interest.

Plenty of readers may find that something else about history engages them. If so, good for you. I’m delighted when closer examination reveals which personal experiences are behind our differences of opinion.


  1. says

    @Crimson Clupeidae,
    Since I’ve read the Dunning-Kruger paper before, I’m not inclined to agree.

    In any case, I think I’m saying something substantially different, and even counter to the lessons of Dunning-Kruger (as popularly understood). Where Dunning-Kruger suggests that amateurs should be less confident in their opinions, here I am offering justifications for amateur opinions.

  2. cartomancer says

    It seems to me that if one’s only interest in history is as a source of moral problems to make judgments about then one isn’t really all that interested in history at all – one is interested in modern ethics.

    Which is fine of course if that’s your bag, but to an historian like myself that sounds as weird as it might sound to a physicist if someone said their only interest in physics was in making moral judgments about whether gravity was a good thing, or how awful the laws of thermodynamics were for humanity.

    The thing is that, unlike with physics, amateurs express strong opinions about history all the time. Usually strong opinions coloured entirely by their modern ethics, which distort and mangle the actual history. People don’t need to be encouraged to treat history this way – they do it all too frequently. They do, however, need to be encouraged to treat history on its own terms and learn to understand it rather than simply judging it. I am reminded of an episode of the BBC’s Question Time a few years back where a puffed-up Tory politician presumed to lecture one of the world’s most distinguished Classicists on pensions in the Roman Empire based on something he’d read in Edward Gibbon years ago (a two-century old account). Needless to say his understanding was coloured heavily by his own party’s policy on pensions.

  3. cartomancer says

    To put it another way, the matter of history is human events and human actors. Our natural, instinctive approach to that matter is an affective, judgmental, personal one. We tend to use our primate social instincts on matters of this sort – are these people worth dealing with? Are they members of our tribe? Do they have our best interests at heart? Such underlying approaches make us receptive to judgments based on something other than strength of evidence. We will defend the policies of a national icon like Stalin or Roosevelt, make light of the Crusades because they were in the name of our religion, or give Gandhi’s more regressive tendencies a free pass because of how we feel about his pacifistic ideals. We all do this – we can’t help doing it. We need to check such tendencies.

    As opposed to physics, where we tend to use our impersonal problem-solving instincts more. We don’t get attached to leptons or appalled by gamma rays or offended by entropy. We don’t have to unlearn and hold in check our desire to relate to the matter of physics in an unhelpful way. Well, okay, I suppose we have to unlearn a lot of what “common sense” might tell us to understand the more esoteric reaches of physics, but it’s not the same unlearning that has to be done with our instinctive social approach to history.

    Which is not to say that we can’t or shouldn’t engage with issues that history casts light on, or use the insights that history provides in debates about modern ethics. But our insights are only going to be as good as our understanding of the history in question. If we can’t step back and check whether what we’d really like history to be telling us is what history is actually telling us then we’re just using history as a prop in a loop of confirmation bias.

  4. says

    Yeah, good comments on the differences between history and physics.

    I find it interesting that as an example, you refer to people defending Roosevelt, while earlier as an example I had criticized both Roosevelts. I think the most common way to defend historical figures such as Roosevelt is by saying their actions were mitigated by their context. To me, this is really a way of saying, “Roosevelt did things that looked bad, but history is complicated, so I won’t let that affect my prior political view that Roosevelt was a great man.” So in a way, it’s taking a non-judgmental approach to history, so that we might preserve our prior prejudices. In contrast, my approach is more like “Roosevelt did things that looked bad, maybe he wasn’t as great as my political views suggest. Maybe this is mitigated by the historical context but it’s hard to see how.”

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    The value comes from your engagement with the topic.

    What value? To whom? How is uninformed “engagement” any sort of real engagement at all?

    If you have no opinions on physics whatsoever, that doesn’t make you more of a professional, it just means you don’t care.

    The fact that they care doesn’t mean shit if their opinions are uninformed.

    Some ‘opinions’/’facts’ I have heard, mostly on FtB, presented with confidence;

    Photons have zero kinetic energy because (1/2)mv² (if they’d used the other nonrelativistic expression (1/2)p²/m, they could have claimed it was ∞!)

    The universe is deterministic because photons experience no passage of time in their travels.

    Red light penetrates fog better than other visible wavelengths (a gross misunderstanding of Rayleigh scattering, I’d guess. And this was Neil deGrasse Tyson).

    I could go on. I would say that if someone cares about a subject, they should learn something about it before they pontificate. As Pope said;

    A little learning is a dangerous thing;
    drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
    there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
    and drinking largely sobers us again.

  6. says

    The alternative, where people simply don’t care about physics, is already the case in my own field, condensed matter. The grass is greener…

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