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Crafty contrarians and wily watchdogs – donning the mantle of shrewdness

December 24, 2013
Are you shrewd enough to pick a red flag purely by gut feeling?          

How to recognise this tactic

This is an attitude adopted by a person – and it’s usually an older male – who has achieved success within his profession. This person feels entitled to make pronouncements about areas in which he has no competence. He believes he has developed a knack for making good judgements based on ‘intuition’ or ‘gut feeling’ and you are expected to respect his opinions because of his reputation for astuteness. His opinions are often at odds with the accepted science.

True experts, it is said, know when they don’t know. However, nonexperts (whether or not they think they are) certainly do not know when they don’t know. Subjective confidence is therefore an unreliable indication of the validity of intuitive judgments and decisions.

Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein, American psychologists, 2009


Why do people use this tactic?

People who become experts in a particular profession develop the skill of quickly making good judgements within that field, often on seemingly little evidence. This skill is the result of extensive practice within the field. Unfortunately, many of them mistakenly believe that this skill transfers to other fields in which they have no expertise. They believe they are streetwise, with a “sixth sense” that warns them when things aren’t right. This, they feel, gives them the ability to sniff out fakers and dubious proposals, and to hone in on the essential truths in any argument.

This trait seems to be particularly evident among those who have been successful politicians, businessmen, academics, journalists, clergy and notably, radio shock-jocks, but scientists are not immune. Sometimes, it’s almost a case of hubris –  overconfident pride and arrogance.

What’s wrong with this tactic

Intuitive judgements are notoriously patchy in their success rate. They are prone to a whole range of cognitive biases. And needless to say, expertise in science is not easy to come by. Non-experts make elementary mistakes because of their ignorance of current research. They make judgements based on ‘common sense‘ or simplistic recollections of scientific concepts retrieved from their school days. To cover their scientific ignorance, they cherry pick and appeal to inappropriate authority figures, get sucked in by conspiracy theories and red herrings. They try to turn scientific arguments into economic, political or ethical tussles. Very few red flag tactics are off limits.

What to do when confronted by this tactic

Don’t allow yourself to be overawed by the status or prestige of the perpetrator. Ask what the currently accepted scientific position on the issue is. If their position is different, or they insist that there is no scientific consensus, ask what their supporting evidence is. Don’t accept non-scientific arguments, red herrings, conspiracy theories, rooster syndrome, cherry-picking, shifting the burden of proof or any other indications of science red flags. Remember that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence

Variations and related tactics

This stance is similar to the appeal to authority. However, when that tactic is used, the selected authority is usually a third party. In adopting the mantle of shrewdness, the perpetrator puts himself up as a kind of generic authority.


  • The most embarrassing episode involving the mantle of shrewdness started with an editorial in the New York Times on 13 January 1920. The previous day, the newspaper had published a front-page story about Robert Goddard‘s plans for a rocket which could reach the moon. The editorial poured scorn on his ideas:

(A)fter the rocket quits our air and really starts on its longer journey, its flight would be neither accelerated nor maintained by the explosion of the charges it then might have left. To claim that it would be is to deny a fundamental law of dynamics …

That Professor Goddard, with his “chair” in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action and reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react—to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.

Of course, it was Goddard who was correct, and the editorial writer, with his recourse to a misunderstanding of high school physics, who was deluded. The New York Times printed a “correction” on 17 July 1969, the day after Apollo 11 was launched.

Before giving the address, Howard, who was a lawyer and has no scientific training, told reporters, in classical mantle of shrewdness mode:

I don’t completely dismiss the more dire warnings but I instinctively feel that some of the claims are exaggerated.

The particular twists of South African history and the will of the great majority of our people, freely expressed, have placed me in the situation in which I carry the title of President of the Republic of South Africa. …

As I listened and heard the whole story told about our own country, it seemed to me that we could not blame everything on a single virus.

Mbeki insisted the disease was the result of poverty, exaggerated the side-effects of anti-retroviral drugs, and accused those advocating treatment of racism. Hundreds of thousands of people died as a result of the South African government’s inappropriate response to the epidemic.

  • Here’s a quote from climate contrarian Steve McIntyre, showing how his mantle of shrewdness led him to embark on a campaign against the Hockey Stick and one of its creators, climate scientist Michael Mann.

I have spent most of my career in the mineral exploration business. I studied mathematics and statistics at university and I have a lot of experience in handling data and in the requirements of public disclosure. One of the things that struck me last year when the Kyoto Treaty became a big political issue in Canada, when I read the disclosure documents by the U.N., was what seemed to me to be highly promotional presentations, and highly promotional graphics – and this is from somebody who spends his career in financing speculative mineral explorations. In terms of having something where I have an expert opinion, I have pretty good qualifications to recognize promotions.

Related articles

Trusting the experts

Business wheels out big guns in war with science, The Canberra Times.

Corporate Australia in denial over climate change, former coal exec Ian Dunlop says, ABC News.

McCright, A. M., & Dunlap, R. E. (2011). Cool dudes: The denial of climate change among conservative white males in the United States. Global Environmental Change, 21, 1163–1172.(paywall)

Confident white males – and other profiles of denialism, by Anne Manne at The Monthly.

The climate change generation gap by Dana Nuccitelli at Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.


You can add to the list of examples by leaving a comment.

The Kahneman and Klein quote is from Conditions for Intuitive ExpertiseAmerican Psychologist Vol. 64, No. 6, 515–526 (DOI: 10.1037/a0016755).

The Gut feeling cartoon is from Electricity Week.
Steve McIntyre’s quote is from The IPCC, the “Hockey Stick” Curve, and the Illusion of Experience,page 6.

This is one of ScienceOrNot’s Science red flags. See them all here .         
  1. hmmm… my gut instinct is tell me… never mind… 😉

  2. 2012 and all that permalink

    * William Dembski using his background in mathematics to attempt to disprove evolution.
    * Any number of economists who believe themselves experts on climate science
    * “Mommy instinct” telling you that your kid doesn’t need a vaccine

    There’s three to start 🙂

  3. ‘Amen’ 🙂

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