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Analysis > Monday, 7 February 2011 18:29:28 EST

The Limits Of Expertise

Keywords: epistemology, historical, video, aliens, ancient alien theory

I've mused before about how to think about expertise.  The experts are more likely to have their facts straight, so when an expert gives you a fact you should certainly take it seriously.  But even when people have all their facts straight, they can still be wrong in their conclusions.  That's why I don't have a problem with people questioning the experts.  Even if you're wrong, I believe there's a benefit to bringing up these kind of challenges.  It's just when people aren't willing to listen to the rebuttals and understand what's being said that things get out of hand.

I just came across a perfect example about how expert, in-depth knowledge of a subject, is no guarantee that your conclusions are in any way valid.  I've transcribed a quote from Michael Heisser, who actually gave a very good speech debunking the claims of ancient alien theorist Zechariah Sitchin.  Sitchin makes claims to be an expert on ancient languages and to have made some incredible translations.  Heisser, who actually is an expert in ancient languages, shows quite clearly that Sitchin is just full of it.  But that doesn't mean that Heisser doesn't have poorly thought out ideas about the subject himself, as shown by the following quote from the question and answer segment:

This is where I think that researchers in the field of what we call "ancient mysteries" have done a great service to people who are entertaining this subject: correlations between Genesis and this ancient near eastern material.  It defies logic to say that this is a direct literary borrowing, because the same stories: creation, flood, and sons of god - devine/human hybridization - are everywhere. 

It's not just the ancient near east.  You have the native americans, you have the mesoamericans, you have the aborigines... I mean, what are we supposed to believe, that the Summerians wrote it down and passed it around?  Or that it was just passed around by every successive writer?  That's absurd!  What it is, is a common, collective recollection of an event in the remote past that all peoples... and if you take the Babel incident seriously, whatever happened there, if all peoples come from this central event and then dispersed, they are going to remember their heritage and either pass it down orally until it finally gets written, or by whatever means.  There's a reason why,  all across the globe, you have a collective.. and this is Joseph Campbell kind of stuff... you have a collective recollection of something that happened and the similarities are undeniable.

Yeah, there's a lot of differences, but the similarities are undeniable.  And they're global.  So to posit that the guy from Sumer punches it into the clay with his stylus and then hands it off, or somebody discovers it and goes "Oh my god I've got to write this down!" and then hopefully somebody will see this and write it down for their people across oceans... that's just absurd.  But if it's a collective recollection of a common event, that would account for why you have it everywhere.  It's ubiquitous.

It's not like he's got his facts wrong, he's absolutely correct that cultures from all over the world share stories with some surface similarities.  So where does he go wrong?  Well, for starters, his whole argument is a huge false dichotomy.  Either the ancient Sumerians came up with the stories and passed them around to everybody, or they must have their roots in commonly remembered events.

Heisser knows that all the humans alive today are related way back in our past to a small group of people, and he thinks that these stories relate to this time period.  That's fine with me, I'm perfectly willing to accept that this is where those stories may have come from.  But why do they have to be indicative of an actual remembered event?  Why couldn't they just be stories and myths told by this ancient group of people that were so popular that they've been passed down throughout the generations, all details except for the most interesting ones changing over time?

We know that us humans love to make up fictional stories.  What reason is there to believe that these must be real life events rather than fictional ones?  Just because you don't believe the stories could have originated in Sumer doesn't mean that they have to be real.  That's a huge non-sequitur. 

So while I'm geeking out playing "Name That Logical Fallacy", we've got a false dichotomy and a non-sequitur... anything else?  Well, there's one more that I see: argument from personal incredulity.  He can't think of another logical explanation, so of course he's incredulous that there is any other way to explain it.

It doesn't take an expert to see the flaws in his reasoning, just somebody who's familiar with logic and critical thinking.  Heisser's expertise has allowed him to reject Sitchin's ideas because he knows that they're counter-factual.  But he's still just as capable of constructing a fallacious argument in his area of expertise when it fits with all the available facts.

It's for reasons like this that we have to be careful of arguments from authority.  We've got to take the time to think things through ourselves and figure out if there's any questions that we should be asking.  It means that we have to give up the self certainty that comes with just parroting what others tell us, and that can be a little scary.  But I think that the world could do with a lot less self certainty.

If you're interested, here's the video of the lecture by Mr. Heisser:


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