Is Deference to Experts a Virtue?

A Socratic Dialogue by Harry Keith


Gaz – Proud member of EDL and part time goldfish farmer.

Roger Birdseed – Conspiracy theorist and author of “Australia: Why it Doesn’t Exist”

Socrates – An Athenian philosopher, getting on a bit. 


Socrates and Roger Birdseed sit on the sofa, watching telly. Their flatmate, Gaz, is upstairs on the upper floor of their Slough townhouse.

R: Why do you always insist we watch the news, Socrates? It’s always filled with such drivel.

S: Well Roger, much as I could while away the hours quite happily in your company, I do occasionally like to learn about the outside world; reason alone is a fantastic tool of enquiry, I’m sure you’ll agree, but one must also see what the experts say.

R: But it’s so full of lies! It’s all government controlled, you know. And besides, most of the presenters are probably lizards. I see the way you’re looking at me; I guess I’ll humour you: alright then, do you think deference to experts is a virtue?

S: A fantastically astute question, Roger Birdseed, and one I was almost afraid you wouldn’t ask. Well then, I shall start as I usually do: what do you think? You are undoubtedly wiser than myself in these matters, as I am confident I know nothing.

R: Well, I know how conversations always go with you Socrates, but if you want my opinion, I think the whole deference thing is a load of bollocks. Name me one politician and tell me you can trust every word they say; they go on about Iraq being a good idea, about how they never went to lockdown parties, 350 million a week to the NHS and all that. And that’s without even mentioning the lizards.

S: The lizards?

R: Yes, most of them are lizards. You only really notice it with Mark Zuckerberg and the Queen, cause they’re both immortal, only the second one died, probably assassinated by Diana who is actually an alien you know. 

S: But politicians are not experts, surely you cannot mean that the scientists have gotten it wrong as well?

R: Scientists get it wrong all the time. Scientists used to cure fever with leeches. Scientists used to tell you to use diesel because it was more efficient. Even leaded petrol! And that’s even if you still believe in the moon landings, which were obviously fake.

S: I see. So what do you think deference to experts really is?

R: I think, in the best cases, it’s the blind leading the blind. In the worst, the evil leading the blind. It is no virtue to be a sheep.

S: I find your position most interesting, Roger.

R: I know what that means, that means you don’t agree with me.

S: Well, I wonder if we might delve into this issue a little deeper. I want you to consider this: say you were out hiking, let us say by Loch Ness, searching for that monster you speak so much about. You go a little up the path; you know you must cross a stream a few miles ahead. By the time you get there, it would take too much time to get back to your car, but this is no problem. There’s a nice pub just beyond it, where you are going to spend the night. 

R: I’m following you so far.

S: Well, you walk a little up the path, when a hiker coming in the other direction stops you, and tells you the bridge over the stream is down. I wonder, what would you do?

R: I’m sure you’re about to tell me, Socrates.

S: Well, would you not listen to the hiker, believe her, and go back to your car? After all, you have no reason to believe that she’s lying, and if you go along to check for yourself it will be too late to get back to your nice warm car.

R: I agree.

S: So surely, the virtuous person would believe the expert in this matter, namely the hiker, and turn round? Surely it follows that deference to experts is a virtue?

R: I wouldn’t say that, Socrates.

S: Well then, Roger Birdseed, do tell me what you think. I don’t pretend to have knowledge of this matter.

R: Well you can’t exactly call this hiker an “expert” in the way we mean. I am talking about politicians, scientists, public intellectuals. People whose careers rely on telling the right story.

S: And you don’t think we should listen to these experts?

R: No. We should make a decision for ourselves.

S: I wonder, Roger, if there are any people who share your views on, say, the moon landings.

R: Well yes, I got them from the book I’m reading, by Brian “The Washing Machine” Eggnog.

S: A most erudite fellow.

R: Exactly. Well, I don’t blindly follow him either, before you say what I know you’re going to say. I hear them both, and listen to who I think is right. And it’s not always the experts.

S: I wonder, Roger, what an expert actually is?

R: Well, I suppose in this case, it would be Brian Eggnog. 

S: So, you think that Brian Eggnog is the expert in this matter?

R: I suppose so.

S: And you think that it is virtuous to listen to him in this matter?

R: I certainly do.

S: So wouldn’t it follow, that in this matter, you think it is a virtue to listen to experts?

R: This is why we make you pay double rent, Socrates.

S: I’m merely pursuing the truth. If my flatmates do not like that, then it is to my sorrow.

R: Gaz! You’d better talk some sense into S-dog here.

G: One sec, I’m just grabbing some beers from the fridge. Watching the England game?

S: Certainly I will; I once scored the winning goal for Greece in the Olympic final you know.[1]

R: While we’re waiting Socrates, can I ask why you always wear that toga? It’s the middle of January!

S: It’s not a toga my friend, just a towel. I am attempting as far as I can to always, at all times be in a state of just emerging from a bath. Life is so much easier this way.

R: Doesn’t it get a little bit cold?

S: The downstairs ventilation is a little strong I’ll admit, but one can’t complain. But hush now, here comes Gaz.

G: Alright? I’ve got you a couple of cold ones. 

S: Not for me thanks. I once had a good friend called Diogenes who spent an awful lot of time in an empty wine pot. I fear the fumes got to the poor fellow; he began to insult passers by and masturbate into the town square. I think I had better avoid beer for the time being.

G: Suit yourself, I’m having one. INGERLUND! INGERLUND!

S: I see, you are professing your support for England. Why are you doing this, over, say, support for Greece? Or even our utopian home city of Slough, hub of all intellectual brilliance.

G: ‘Cause England’s best. People don’t have pride any more, do they? People don’t have trust in this country. I wish people would just shut up and listen to the experts.

S: What a coincidence, you know Roger Birdseed and I were just talking about deference to experts. What do you think, is it a virtue?

G: ‘Course it’s a virtue. Don’t believe these lefty tossers who’ll try and make you hate who you are. The tories know what they’re talking about. 

S: If you were prime minister, what do you think you’d do?

G: Invade France. 

S: I see, and you think people should listen to you?

G: Nah, probably not. But look, the Tories are in, we should listen to them. And listen to facts and logic, not all this hippie nonsense. 

S: Ah, I take it you’ve been listening to Mr. Peterson again?

G: Jordan Peterson is a proper expert, right, and we should all listen to him. All these lefties, right, they’re all just illogical.

S: I wonder, Gaz, why you think Jordan Peterson is an expert?

G: Well, cause he tells the truth.

S: And how do you know what the truth is?

G: Well, cause I listen to the experts.

S: And Jordan Peterson is one of these experts?

G: Yeah.

S: So you listen to Jordan Peterson because Jordan Peterson tells you that Jordan Peterson is telling the truth?

G: Is he like this every fucking day?

R: I’m afraid so.

S: So in the highly unlikely case that Jordan Peterson was not in fact telling the whole truth, you would have no way of telling this was the case? Because you base your idea of truth entirely on the experts, you have no way of telling when the experts are wrong.

G: I suppose so.

R: So, like I said at the beginning, deference to experts can’t be a virtue!

S: Not exactly. Want to hear what I think?

R: I’m sure you’re going to tell us, Socrates.

S: Well since you insist, I think that deference to experts is a virtue. But like all virtues, we can’t have an excess of it, nor a deficiency. Would you say that somebody that runs headfirst into an enemy army, getting killed immediately is a particularly virtuous person?

R: Not at all.

S: But do you think someone who, when the enemy is sighted, turns and runs a mile in the opposite direction, leaving his friends to die is a virtuous person?

G: No, he’s a bloody coward.

S: Just so; you see, these people both have an imbalance of the virtue of courage. One has too much, one has too little. And so I say it is with the virtue of deference to experts. One cannot have too much, one cannot have too little.

R: That seems like a cop-out.

S: Perhaps, but does that make it wrong? As an old Scottish friend of mine once said, the wise man proportions his beliefs to the evidence. Perhaps I shall speak to him again, he might give us a few clues on what a balance of this virtue looks like. But should you believe me? Am I authentic? That’s another matter entirely.


S: What?

G: Sorry, I wasn’t listening. We just scored.

S: I’m going to make a cup of tea. 

[1] Source:

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