Bertrand Russell and expert opinion

March 28, 2011 • 12:41 pm

by Greg Mayer

Jerry has posted a few times (here, here, and here) about a paper in Nature by Nowak, Tarnita and Wilson which claims that kin selection is a concept of little or no value. Several critiques of this paper are now in press in Nature, including one by Abbot et al., of which Jerry is a coauthor, along with 136 others. In mentioning his paper here at WEIT, Jerry wrote

The list of authors and their institutions, which occupies two pages of the three-page letter, reads like a Who’s Who of social evolution.  It’s telling that nearly every major figure in the field lined up against Nowak et al.

WEIT reader Dr. I. Needtob Athe commented on this that

I’m confident that you’re on the right side of this dispute, but still, that argument is uncomfortably reminiscent of an infamous book titled “Hundert Autoren gegen Einstein” (Hundred authors against Einstein) [1931.]

The commenter implies that the number of people supporting a proposition is not an argument in its favor, which logically, of course, it isn’t. It’s the well-known logical fallacy of argumentum ad populum. As Jerry rightly pointed out, that doesn’t mean the proposition is wrong, either (which commenters humorously denoted the argumetum contra populum or argumentum nonpopulum).

The more interesting issue to my mind though is that there is a pragmatics, as well as a logic, of argument. Most of what we hold to be well supported propositions are based not on arguments or evidence directly examined by us, but are based on evidence or experience of others.

I’ve never been to London. If pressed, though, I could put together a pretty good case for its existence. Much of my case would depend upon the use of expert or reliable sources. While logically such arguments do not compel assent, they are nonetheless valuable, and provide a pragmatic guide to assessing claims.  Bertrand Russell, I think, got the pragmatics of assessing expert opinion right in Let the People Think (1941):

(1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; (2) thet when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and (3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment.

Bertrand Russell from Wikipedia.

Note that Russell advises us on how to apportion our doubt, rather than our belief– a pragmatics of skepticism, rather than belief.

We must also ask who is an expert. Maria Reichenbach, in an introduction to her husband, Hans Reichenbach‘s, The Theory of Relativity and A Priori Knowledge (U. Cal Press, 1965), writes of 100 Autoren gegen Einstein this way:

In contrast to philosophers sympathetic to Einstein’s ideas were philosophers of the more speculative bend who tried to refute his theory. A collection of articles pretending to disprove the theory of relativity is entitled  100 Autoren gegen Einstein. The tenor and content of these “contributions” sound unbelievable if not intentionally funny from our present viewpoint.

So, the hundred authors are not physicists, but mostly philosophers. But expertise in one area does not necessarily translate into expertise in all (think William Shockley).

The take home message then is not that Jerry and 136 other evolutionary biologists are right by virtue of their numbers; but rather that the fact that (nearly) all experts agree means that we cannot hold the contrary view  (that of Nowak et al.) to be certain.


Abbot, P. et al. 2011. Inclusive fitness theory and eusociality. Nature 471: in press. (abstract only)

Nowak, M. A., C. E. Tarnita and E. O. Wilson.  2010.  The evolution of eusociality.  Nature 466: 1057-1062. (abstract only)

34 thoughts on “Bertrand Russell and expert opinion

  1. (1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain;

    Unfortunately, in today’s multi-media’d environment, this is a weak statement and it gets torn apart by the obfuscators and spin-Meisters.

    1. Yes. The ‘present both sides’ position or ‘equal time’ provisions confirm this. What passes for “expert” in the media now primarily consists of someone who recently wrote a book (i.e. to promote it) on a subject rather than actual expertise. There a many, many crappy books out there!

      1. Unfortunately, I have to agree.

        Journalists seldom give proper weight to the credibility of experts. Once the ITV News showed a film by Ben “Bad Science” Goldacre on the vaccination/autism issue, where he clearly stated that the scientific evidence overwhelmingly showed no causal link. After the film, the newsreader said (something like), “And that was a personal view from Dr. Goldacre.”


      2. “Science: A Challenge to TV Orthodoxy”

        Royal Television Society Huw Wheldon Memorial Lecture
        01 December 2010 BBC2

        “Professor Brian Cox uses this year’s Huw Wheldon Memorial Lecture to address the main challenges in bringing science to television. He tackles the risks in simplifying science for a television audience, the perils of abandoning fact in the name of the importance of making science on television intellectually and emotionally engaging.” [my emphasis]

        (I hope I remembered the Ben Goldacre story correctly!)

        1. Oops! *the perils of abandoning fact in the name of balance and the importance…

          Although, the erroneous version would also be a grave concern…

  2. I think it’s a little more subtle than all that… 136 or whatever evo-biologists sharing the opinion doesn’t prove it’s a majority (see also, various petitions in favor of ID), and even then, the majority can on rare occasion turn out to be dead wrong (see also, continental drift)…. but the general point, I think, is valid: When a large number of people with expertise in the proper field (no philosophers on relativity, or engineeers on evolution, please) all hold the same opinion, it becomes problematic for a non-expert to argue against it.

  3. There’s also the matter of the basis for the claims made by both sides.

    If those hundred co-authors questioning Einstein had pointed to a version of the Michelson-Morley experiment that gave results contrary to what the results actually were, one would have been wise to give them some consideration.

    However, in both that case and the one on kin selection, the evidential results are in line with the orthodox position. In order to take either Relativity or kin selection as debunked, the opponents would have to demonstrate phenomena that do not fit the accepted model or that are a better fit for a simpler model; as best I’m aware, such is not the case.

    Of course neither model is perfect, but the limits of both are well-known; more to the point, the challengers aren’t proposing any way to deal with the parts of the universe that lie outside the scope of the models.



    1. I have to respectfully disagree with the overall vibe of this discussion. If you look at the historical context, Nowak et al. are likely reacting to the grandiose claims of kin selection theorists, despite the fact that the central parameter (usually called something like “genetical relatedness”) can mean completely different things depending on the decade and study. The most correct formulations require far more information than kinship (and, in fact, are all about phenotypes, NOT genotypes necessarily), yet researchers continue to insist that “genetical kin selection” is the key to altruism. And Nowak et al. aren’t goofballs, and they’re not the first (and won’t be the last) to raise questions of this nature.
      And also, Nowak et al. DID offer solutions to the problems they raised with kin selection. The fairly involved supplementary material was intended to show that it is possible to recover the right results with none of the restrictive conditions required to continue using inclusive fitness models.
      Abbot et al. does have a lot of impressive names, but then, kin selection is the dominant paradigm right now. There were a lot of big names missing from that list, and a lot of “who?”s present.

  4. Greg Mayer, I think you hit the nail squarely on the proverbial head. Half the battle is won once you are able to identify which of the various experts are in truth experts in the relevant area.

    Unfortunately most non experts get their “expert” opinions from experts selected by the press and, well, Jimbo said it pretty well above.

    As far as getting the average non expert to understand that science is about degrees of certainty and not True/False or Yes/No, well that is a seriously steep slope to climb. That is much too messy and difficult compared to a simple easy absolute answer that requires no explanation and no understanding. Most of the “experts” who like to have their opinions sought by the press have serious issues with that themselves. For a perfect example witness the Rabbis that Professor Coyne has been posting about lately. And they are experts. Just ask them. Or their flock, followers, children, whatever they call themselves.

    Many people like to say that it all comes down to education, and I largely agree with that, but. I think there is more to it. Basic mind set, or attitude seems to me to be a big part of it. I think that is where a religious upbringing does the most damage. In the very early years of life, instilling a basic mind set, or attitude that often stays with a person for the rest of their life.

  5. Nice summary Greg. I AM in London, or what I was told is London!
    I have no idea how to prove it – though I could buy you a warm beer if you ever come here!

  6. Yes, Dr. Coyne pointed out that argumentum ad populum doesn’t mean the proposition is wrong, and yes, he RIGHTLY pointed that out, but he also UNNECESSARILY pointed it out because, in an attempt to ward off just such a misunderstanding, I was very careful to preface my comment with “I’m confident that you’re on the right side of this dispute.”

    You see, the main thrust of my comment wasn’t about whether Dr. Coyne’s position is right or wrong, which is a matter I’m not qualified to judge. It was about whether his argument was weak or strong. I would have been hesitant to offer such an argument for the reason I stated.

    At any rate, I’m genuinely thrilled that a comment of mine on this blog was noticed and that it sparked a potentially interesting discussion. This really makes my day!

    Dr. I. Needtob Athe, founder of Atheism

  7. I wonder how many of the 137 co-authors of the reply to Nowak et al really understand the mathematics of the models of inclusive fitness that are under dispute?

    I think Nowak et al needlessly caused a problem by not being clear about what they were attacking. My impression is that when they say “inclusive fitness” they are talking about a particular mathematical model of inclusive fitness, and not the “concept” of inclusive fitness, which is almost tautological. Nowak et al are criticising the standard mathematical model of inclusive fitness, which they claim (correctly in my opinion) is not all it’s cracked up to be.

    I think the two sides are talking past each other.

    1. I think that was intentional. In his talks about it and in his book he goes further in his attacks against kin selection and inclusive fitness. He’s been very clear that he is attacking inclusive fitness as a whole and believes the whole concept of natural selection is flawed. The response focussed on the published paper which is more sensible than what Nowak has been saying and what we can take as his real thoughts on the subject.

      1. That was my feeling as well. He used the technical aspects of the mathematics as a springboard to challenge the entire concept.

        No, I don’t think the two sides are talking past one another. I think Nowak, et al, are using a mathematical model to deconstruct a useful and well-established part of evolutionary theory. I think it’s quite intentional on their part.

      2. Martin Nowak “…believes the whole concept of natural selection is flawed?” That’s quite an accusation to level against one of the most prolific scientists in the field. The vast majority of his work is not controversial in any way, and he is universally credited for making a number of major advances in evolutionary theory, including the evolution of cooperation, of HIV, of cancer, and of language.

        I challenge you to find one piece of evidence for this accusation.

        And Nowak does believe in kin selection. On page 110 of SuperCooperators: “Kin selection is still a mechanism for the evolution of cooperation, as long as it is properly defined.”

        The attack was on (a) an overly broad definition of kin selection, (b) the problematic mathematics (inclusive fitness theory) used to justify it, and (c) an over-reliance on using kin selection/inclusive fitness arguments to explain natural phenomena, rather than using explicit mathematical models.

        1. While Nowak is certainly extremely prolific, that by itself is not evidence of his influence nor of any lasting imprint of his work. His work has also certainly been high profile as much of it is published in the top journals, but this again is evidence that Nowak’s work is more important, influential, or correct that the work of many others in the field.

          Whether Nowak ultimately believes in kin selection or not is not what’s relevant in this debate. Nowak and his coauthors had 6 pages in Nature for an “Analysis” article (, which is published “only occasionally” to make their case. If in those 6 pages, Nowak and colleagues leave the reader the impression that they wholly reject kin selection (since its defining feature “is the concept of inclusive fitness”, Nowak et al. Nature 2010 p. 1057) when they meant something more nuanced, I have little sympathy since very few authors are afforded the opportunity to freely state their views in a such a high profile journal.

  8. So simple and yet so brilliant! Don’t focus on whom to trust more, but rather whom to DOUBT more. That Russell is quite clever.

  9. Dr. Coyne, regarding “expert opinion,” I congenially offer the below for your consideration:

    This is from the March 28, 2011 Raleigh News and Observer. Professor Bart Ehrman of UNC-CH is getting chewed on a bit for being “arrogant” in his lecturing and newest book.

    Apparently he’s not presenting a sufficiently milquetoast demeanor in his lecturing and writing – not sufficiently “accommodationist.” He is alleged to have violated the apparent right of certain folks to not have their delicate religious sensibilities offended.

    They also question his bona fides as an “expert,” and there’s a fair amount of online harrumphing that the taxpayers of North Carolina should not be paying the salary of someone who offends their religion.

    Another example of the necessity of tenure so as to safeguard free inquiry.

  10. The Hundred Authors Against Einstein claimed the theory of relativity was wrong. Einstein correctly pointed out that one would do if he could point out a logical error or a contradicting observation.

    Whereas one is enough to refute a theory, many is good for confirmation. This controversy is about confirming the theory of kinship selection. Many is good.

  11. My impression was that the Abbott et al. paper doesn’t really add anything to the situation beyond an explicit argumentum ad populum. If we are convinced by expert opinion, we should be convinced by the extensive research literature on inclusive fitness (a small portion of which is cited by Abbott et al.), not by an opinion paper that points out that there are lots of people with a particular viewpoint.

    In other words, we should find the results from scientists doing science convincing. We shouldn’t find the results from scientists offering fallacious reasoning convincing.

  12. I *have* been to London, and can therefore state that it does not in fact exist.

    I’ve been to London, but I’ve never been to me.

  13. Surely we are missing something. The 130+ authors were by definition those opposed to the idea forwarded by Nowak et al.. No one, at least that I am aware of, has canvased the whole community to ask their collective opinion, although I’m aware of some supportive voices immediately post publication. And no one will submit a correspondence to Nature after a paper is published saying “I can find no fault with the authors’ logic and thus agree with them”, as Nature would never publish such a correspondence. For all we know there may be a large number of “experts” who agree with Nowak et al. Where then the force of the 130+?

  14. I can see lots of evidence for London. Lots of people on facebook claiming to live there, photographs from satellites, and so on.

    Sure it could all be a conspiracy, I could be Truman, but the chances of it existing are much higher.

  15. Just a general comment, expertise applies differently to judgments of theoretical interpretation and judgments of plausibility.

    In addition to the domain-relevance of the experts in question, also consider that perhaps the plausibility judgments of a majority of experts in a given field regarding a speculation is a different matter than their consensus on a point of logical consistency with existing theory.

    I very strongly trust a majority of experts in a domain to tell me whether a particular interpretation of given theory is consistent with the dominant framework and currently best theories in their shared domain of expertise. In fact I neccessarily rely on them.

    My trust weakens somewhat (though I certainly don’t discount them) when they line up against a questionable speculation based on its apparent plausibility rather than logical consistency with existing theory or interpretation of large amounts of domain-relevant evidence.

    Not that their plausibility judgments are irrelevant, but I can’t neccessarily distinguish them in some cases from reactance against a new and somewhat odd theory, if they are truly plausibility judgments.

  16. I wanted to post this earlier, but did not get around to it, and now it is a separate post. Anyway, I just wanted to point out that in an interview in Discover, the January/February 2011 issue (The Year in Science issue), E.O. Wilson himself refers to the One Hundred Scientists Against Einstein pamphlet, when asked about the controversy of the Nowak et al. paper, and how the bulk of scientific opinion is against them.

  17. I actually don’t think Mr. (Dr?) Mayer hit the nail very much on the head. Or at least not in the way I would have liked.

    Asserting “that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain” does nothing to explain why that is the case, or why we should find the testimony of experts to be convincing or even relevant to deciding a matter.

    Because it is convincing – is it not? – to say that evolution has a wealth of evidence to support it, and by the way, basically every scientist with a relevant degree agrees on this point. If I as a non-expert were to evaluate the evidence for evolution for myself and say “yes this seems to support evolution,” I would find it very encouraging (and rightly so!) that virtually all experts agree with me.

    The point I’m trying to make here is that most “appeals to the majority” are not actually appeals to the majority. Remember, the more data a theory explains, the better. That virtually all experts agree that evolution is a fact is data that requires an explanation, just like “the only indigenous Australian placentals are bats and rodents” is data that requires an explanation. ToE being true explains BOTH of these, because if ToE were a well-supported theory, and the experts know their stuff, then you would expect them to agree that ToE is true.

    This, it seems to me, is why we find it intuitively convincing when large numbers of people agree on something (and there isn’t another obvious reason why they should). It isn’t a logical fallacy to cite such agreement as evidence; it’s only a fallacy to cite it as proof.

    In my opinion, calling this “pragmatics” as opposed to “logic” just confuses the matter. This is logic, pure and simple. It’s Ockham’s razor. Every fact about the world has some kind of explanation. The theories that explain the most data are the best ones. That’s why Russel was right.

  18. Someone wrote a book about the meaningless importance of Darwin (disturbed by his importance, wanted just to diminish it?).
    Strange indeed what people think of doing and really are capable of doing without judgement.
    Others, a priest and a judge for instance, wrote a book about evolution too.
    It must be indeed very important books for psychology, I ´ve no doubt about that…

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