Julia Galef and Matt Yglesias on bioethics and "ethics expertise"

by RobBensinger6 min read30th Mar 20213 comments

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Julia GalefMoral philosophy
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I recently collected excerpts from 33 random bioethics papers from 2014–2020, plus 10 papers from 2000, in the hope of getting a better picture of what the field is like, how healthy it is, and what its social effects may be.

One of the conversations that prompted me to look into this was Julia Galef's Feb. 3, 2021 interview of Matt Yglesias. The exchange is interesting in its own right, so I've copied it below. The relevant discussion pivots from the Iraq War to COVID-19:


Julia: Well, not to bring it back to metacognitive updates, but I was wondering whether there's an update in here about trusting expertise.

Because with the mistakes that public health communicators have made -- in communicating whether masks work, and how big of a deal COVID was going to be -- there've been a series of debates this year about whether people should just “trust experts,” on a topic that they aren't an expert in. And a lot of people have pointed out that the failure of the public health establishment kind of undercuts that “trust the experts” policy.

So do you think there's a similar thing that should be said about the Iraq War? Where the, not politicians, but the “experts” in the intelligence community really fucked up, so should that update us away from “Trust experts in general”?

Or is it kind of an exception, for some reason? 

Matt: It's hard for me to know what the alternative to trusting experts is exactly --

Julia: I mean, it's like having a higher prior on… If you're pretty confident that war is really bad, and should be avoided unless absolutely necessary, then if you have lower trust in the intelligence community, it should mean you should need a really, really compelling case, with strong evidence, before you go with their recommendation.

Matt: Yeah, I think in both foreign policy and public health that… particularly thinking after the pandemic, which has shook me in a variety of ways, is: I feel like I need to be raising the bar for what is the actual subject matter, that the subject matter expert is an expert in?

A lot of what we get is adjacent expertise. So somebody who studies viruses, and maybe knows a lot about the protein structure of viruses, will opine about masks, right? And you’ve got to ask yourself, "Do they have subject matter expertise in this mask thing? Whose expertise do we need here?"

Because one thing that I think clearly came out of the whole masks controversy is that public health experts underrated how easy it would be to get cloth masks in everybody's hands. It didn't occur to them as a solution to the PPE shortages that we could just get everybody a cloth mask.

And that's because they're not experts in textile manufacturing. And it's no shame on them for not being experts in textile manufacturing. But they were thinking about, “Will masks give people a false sense of security?” Which is a psychology question. They were thinking about “Can we substitute away from surgical masks?” Which is a textile supply chain question. They were thinking about “Well, what are the antiviral properties of cloth masks?” Which again is a textile question. That's not a public health -- it's obviously relevant to public health, but it's a material science question.

They didn't have expertise in those areas, and were in fact just on a par with me, or anybody else, right? But they had the, sometimes, arrogance that comes with believing you're being asked about your area of expertise.

And so I'm really trying… it's like, if somebody has published research on the immune response of vaccines, I don't think it's a great idea for me to question them on that, like what do I know? I can read, I can try to do work, but I don't know. They are experts.

But what are you an expert in? Because there is so much social psychology, individual psychology, economics, right? This COVID pandemic is such a big problem, that I don't think anybody has actually done deep scholarly work in all the relevant areas. So it's like the hour of the foxes, right? Rather than the hedgehogs. Because it's such an interdisciplinary problem.

Julia: Right. Yeah. Probably one of the worst offenders, in my opinion, was the debate over vaccine distribution, and who should get a vaccine first.

Matt: Oh my god…

Julia: You know where I’m going with this!

And there were a number of bioethicists -- or just bioethicist fanboys, I guess -- who got really angry at anyone questioning the draft recommendations for vaccine distribution from the CDC, and said, "Stay in your lane, you're not an expert."

We're not even talking here about, like, virus transmissibility. We're just talking about, what is a fair and reasonable way to prioritize different people over each other?

And it's horrifying to me that we can have some people who think they're the only ones qualified to have opinions about that. 

Matt: I would like to know more, this is on my to-do list…

Julia: What do you mean?

Matt: Like, what is the field of bioethics? I don't understand how that's a purported domain of expertise. Because I've clashed with bioethics Twitter, on both this vaccine distribution thing and on human challenge trials for vaccines.

And honestly I say this as a… I was a philosophy major in college. The number of people who have tenure track jobs doing normative ethics in philosophy departments is tiny, because the world does not… It's an interesting subject matter, but it's not... The world needs a lot of engineers. The world doesn't need a lot of "Experts in normative ethics." Because people have their own opinions.

And, I don't know, the ethics experts just disagree about the big picture, obvious controversies. The trolley problem, et cetera. I was blown away, on the human challenge trials, that Christine Korsgaard, my former professor -- I think the leading Kantian deontological thinker -- she had her name on the 1Day Sooner challenge trials thing. And then there's these, I don't know who, being like, "Well, that's not good ethics."

And I'm like, "Well, according to whom?" Right? Obviously in consequentialist terms, it’s good ethics. I happened to know the top expert in Kantian ethics, she thinks that's a good idea. So, who the fuck are you?

Julia: Even by their own standards of who is allowed to have opinions, they should be taking that seriously.

Matt: Right. But then I feel weird about it. It's like, okay, she's not a high priest of Kantianism. People are allowed to disagree with her. But then it's like, "What is this subject area?"

Whereas if somebody wants to tell me they have expertise about spike proteins? You absolutely do.

I know, I guess, what a spike protein is, because we've talked about this enough on Twitter. But I've never used an electron microscope. I don't think I could correctly define a virus.

There's a lot of stuff that experts know that's relevant to this pandemic, but then like… “I'm an expert in right and wrong”? That doesn't sound like a real thing to me.

Julia: I agree.

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3 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 3:39 PM
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I think a key point is that bioethics usually involves applying particular moral theories, which is not that interesting an exercise from a philosophical point of view. That's why the best philosophers are often drawn to higher level theoretical questions such as about the truth of otherwise of consequentialism or rights-based theories or whether and how we should respond to moral uncertainty. Consequently, the true ethics experts (if they really exist) are not likely to be studying bioethics. as they say in the podcast it is also weird that bioethics has this special status as a field with a distinct set of experts who get to veto public policy. In most areas of public policy, the economists get to decide what happens (subject to political constraints), and the outcomes are usually much better!

Dang, now I am really interested in listening to that podcast.

Recommended! :)