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The dangers (and odd consequences) of never questioning a scientific consensus – a reply to Chris Mooney


In a recent piece titled, This Is Why You Have No Business Challenging Scientific Experts, science journalist Chris Mooney argues that qualified scientists have a special kind of inside knowledge which laypeople will always lack, no matter how well-informed they may be. Hence when a consensus exists among scientists in a particular field, laypeople would be well-advised to trust the experts. The privileged knowledge possessed by qualified scientists is the topic of a new book, titled, Are We All Scientific Experts Now?, by Cardiff University scholar, Professor Harry Collins (pictured above right, courtesy of Alexei Kouprianov and Wikipedia), a founder of the field of “science studies”. Collins’s contention, as summarized by Mooney (pictured above left, courtesy of Harris Social Media and Wikipedia), is that ordinary citizens “simply don’t grasp how researchers work on a day-to-day basis, or what kind of shared knowledge exists within the group”:

That’s a case that Collins makes not only about the climate issue, but also to rebut vaccine deniers, HIV-AIDS skeptics, and all manner of scientific cranks and mavericks. All of them, he argues, are failing to understand what’s so important and powerful about a group of experts coming to a scientific consensus…

Read all the online stuff you want, Collins argues — or even read the professional scientific literature from the perspective of an outsider or amateur. You’ll absorb a lot of information, but you’ll still never have what he terms “interactional expertise“, which is the sort of expertise developed by getting to know a community of scientists intimately, and getting a feeling for what they think.

“If you get your information only from the journals, you can’t tell whether a paper is being taken seriously by the scientific community or not,” says Collins. “You cannot get a good picture of what is going on in science from the literature,” he continues. And of course, biased and ideological internet commentaries on that literature are more dangerous still.

Professor Collins has a legitimate point. In 2007, I completed a thesis on the topic of animal minds. In a nutshell, my thesis was about the simplest kind of mind that an animal could possibly have. During the course of my research, I had to wade through the vast amount of philosophical and scientific literature relating to animal consciousness. It wasn’t an easy task: the word “consciousness” is used in several different senses by philosophers, while neuroscientists tend to distinguish between primary and higher-order consciousness, with some proposing the existence of a third category, which they call affective consciousness. I wanted to know if there was scientific consensus regarding the neurological requirements for consciousness, and which animals satisfied these requirements. To my dismay, the various experts whom I contacted gave very different answers when I asked them what most neuroscientists believed about animal consciousness. I had better luck when I asked them what scientists believed the neurological requirements for consciousness were. Here, at last, I found a solid body of research, going back to the late 1920s, on the distinguishing neurological characteristics of conscious brain states, and the parts of the brain that had to be functioning in order to maintain these states. I also got to know what various experts in the field thought about other experts’ research. Over time, I gradually developed a sense of who the mavericks in the field were, and which neuroscientists made good arguments relating to animal consciousness and which ones didn’t. I couldn’t have obtained that kind of knowledge simply from reading science articles in online journals.

Can a layperson never legitimately question a scientific consensus?

But does that mean that a layperson, who lacks that kind of inside knowledge, should never question a scientific consensus? I think not. A lay investigator – for example, a journalist like Chris Mooney – can expose a false claim regarding the existence of a scientific consensus, where in fact there is none. Alternatively, a layperson can unmask an artificially generated consensus, which arises in particular circumstances that are known to be especially conducive to “groupthink.” Additionally, on rare occasions, a layperson can expose flaws in the data on which the consensus is based. A layperson can also call a consensus into question by pointing to some vital feature that it lacks, and by arguing that without this feature, the currently reigning consensus should not be taken as Gospel. (For example, if there is a scientific consensus that a certain kind of change is occurring, but no underlying consensus regarding the mechanism driving that change, then future extrapolations regarding the direction of that change, based on past and present data, are automatically suspect. The same goes if scientific agreement exists on the mathematical equation describing this change, but there is considerable disagreement on the values of one or more of the key parameters in the equation.) And finally, a layperson can call a consensus into question simply by highlighting the massive uncertainties that still exist in the field, and by showing that these uncertainties dwarf what scientists know at the present time.

I intend to elaborate on these points in future posts of mine, in which I’ll be talking about several cases where laypeople helped to bust a scientific consensus.

Why an unchallenged scientific consensus eventually kills democracy

I would also argue that Professor Collins’s position, which Chris Mooney so enthusiastically champions, has fundamentally anti-democratic implications for society at large. It gives scientists the power to dictate the political agenda, without fear of being challenged by the elected representatives of the people. For instance, if the experts in a given field reach a consensus that a certain problem needs to be urgently addressed, then they can effectively dictate that a specified proportion of a country’s budget be set aside, in order to tackle that problem – and no-one can challenge their right to do so. After that problem is addressed, they can then manufacture another crisis to keep the funds flowing. Perhaps Chris Mooney will tell me that I am being overly cynical, but I cannot help recalling Lord Acton’s oft-quoted dictum, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The inevitable consequence of giving scientists political power that can never be challenged is the destruction of democracy and its replacement by a scientific oligarchy.

Four peculiar implications of Professor Collins’s views

I’d like to conclude this post by pointing out that if Professor Harry Collins’s contention that a layperson is never in a position to question the inside knowledge possessed by scientists working in a given field were correct, several interesting (and highly controversial) consequences would follow.

A simulated image of Sirius A and B, using Celestia, a 3D astronomy program. Image courtesy of Chris Laurel and Wikipedia.

First, if one accepts the claim that the scientific way of knowing is the only legitimate way of knowing about the world around us, it follows that laypeople cannot really be said to know any of the conclusions that scientists have reached about natural phenomena, except in a secondary and derivative sense. Precisely because they are not “in the loop”, laypeople have to ultimately trust in the testimony of scientific experts, which means that everything they think they know about science is really knowledge based on testimony. This strikes me as a very peculiar position to take. It would mean, for instance, that no matter how much I read about the experiments in which scientists originally measured the distances of nearby stars (e.g. Sirius A), and no matter how well I understand the scientific logic underlying those experiments, I can never really know that Sirius A is 8.6 light years away, because I’m not an astronomer. If Collins is right, then my so-called “astronomical knowledge” of this fact is really knowledge based on the unanimous testimony of contemporary astronomers, that the scientists who performed the original experiments measuring the distances to nearby stars actually knew what they were doing. That testimony, and not my own understanding of the experiments, is what validates my claim to know the distance of Sirius A from Earth. Does Collins really believe this? Does Mooney?

A second odd consequence of Collins’s thesis is that it makes scientific knowledge irreducibly subjective. I say “odd”, not only because scientists have long prided themselves for their objectivity, but also because the entire stock of our scientific knowledge of the world around us is supposed to be expressible in objective, “third-person” terminology, without any reference to ineluctably private “first-person” states such as subjective opinions or feelings. On Collins’s account, however, the subjective opinions of scientists in any given field play an essential role in the process whereby a consensus is arrived at in that field: experts debate one another vigorously, form opinions of the merits of one another’s arguments, and revise their own views in the process, until eventually some kind of agreement is reached. Science, on this account, might be defined as a process whereby experts refine their subjective views of the world, based not only on their observations but also on their mutually agreed interpretation of those observations. However, I think this account of science attaches a far greater emphasis than most scientists would want to attach to the role of experts’ subjective beliefs, when they are in the process of arriving at a scientific consensus.

A humanoid robot: Actroid-DER, developed by KOKORO Inc for customer service, appeared in the 2005 Expo Aichi Japan. The robot responds to commands in Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and English. Image courtesy of Gnsin and Wikipedia.

A third interesting implication of Professor Collins’s claim about scientists having uniquely privileged inside knowledge is that computers and robots, which are (like laypeople) “outside the loop”, can never have scientific knowledge, no matter how much scientific data they can access and no matter how skilfully they can answer science-related queries, based on that data – unless someone eventually designs a humanoid robot that can fool scientists into thinking that it is a scientist, and that can converse on equal terms with experts in the field! Such a robot would not necessarily have to pass the Turing test and be able to converse naturally on any subject: it need only be able to engage in deep conversation about one specialty. The reason why this conclusion seems odd can be readily seen, if we consider two hypothetical robots, Adam and Betty. Adam has a vast database and can answer scientific questions on a broad range of subjects. He can also answer at length, elaborating on the issues involved in a way that gives the impression that he possesses an in-depth understanding of these subjects. However, Adam has not been programmed in a way that allows it to carry on a conversation; all he can do is answer questions. He is utterly incapable of initiating a conversation, or of continuing one in a natural manner – even if that conversation is restricted to scientific matters.

Like Adam, Betty has enough information in her scientific database to sound like she knows what she is talking about when she is asked a question in her designated field of expertise, although her database is markedly inferior to Adam’s, and she cannot answer questions as thoroughly as he can. Unlike Adam, however, she has been skilfully programmed with the ability to carry on a conversation, on a restricted range of topics. She also looks indistinguishable from a human being, whereas Adam looks rather clunky and moves in such an awkward fashion that no-one could possibly mistake him for a human being. Although Adam can give much more thorough, in-depth answers to science-related questions than Betty, Collins would say that he can never have scientific knowledge, because he cannot interact with scientists in his field. Betty, on the other hand, is capable of having true scientific knowledge, even though her database is inferior to Adam’s, because she possesses the ability to talk to these scientists about their field of expertise. This strikes me as a rather odd conclusion, to say the very least.

A CGI generated rendering of two Greys. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

A final, peculiar entailment of Professor Collins’s account of scientific knowledge is one that will surely dismay Chris Mooney: it fails to rule out young-earth creationism as an irrational opinion. Here’s why. Suppose that a group of technologically advanced aliens lands on Earth, and proceeds to dazzle the world’s top scientists with their superior knowledge and awesome feats. So far ahead are they of Earth scientists in every field, and so successful are they at making verifiable scientific predictions, that everyone on Earth decides to trust what the aliens have to say on scientific matters, from now on. They are the designated experts.

All goes well, until one day, the aliens make a surprising announcement.

“You have been brought up to believe that the universe is about 13.8 billion years old, and that the Earth formed about 4.54 billion years ago. We regret to inform you that this opinion of yours is mistaken, and that the universe is, in reality, only a few thousand years years old. Of course, we realize that there are obvious objections that will immediately occur to you: what about radiometric dating? What about the absence of short-lived isotopes from Earth rocks? What about varves? What about ice cores? What about light from distant stars? And so on. We are perfectly aware of these objections, and we can answer all of them. Unfortunately, the mathematics required to comprehend our answers to these arguments is currently beyond your grasp, as your brains are not as advanced as ours, and it would take thousands of years to educate you to our level, even using the most advanced techniques. For the time being, you’ll simply have to take our word for it. Sorry, but that’s the way it is.”

It seems to me that on Collins’s account of science, Earthlings would have no choice but to take the aliens’ word for it, and embrace young-earth creationism, since they have already recognized the aliens as the most trustworthy source of scientific knowledge, based on their intimate familiarity with every field of science, their successful predictions which have been borne out again and again, and their amazing technological feats, all of which place them light years ahead of Earth scientists.

Of course, Chris Mooney might reply that the foregoing scenario is purely hypothetical, and indeed it is. Nevertheless, I’d be interested to know which way he’d jump, in a situation like that. (As most of my readers will be aware, Mooney is vocally critical of creationism, which he dismisses as pseudo-scientific nonsense.) For my part, I would maintain that deference to authority is not always a good thing, and that you should not surrender your powers of rational judgement to someone else, simply because they are a lot smarter than you are.

That leaves the question of whether it could ever be rational for a human being to accept on trust the word of another intelligent being that the universe was really quite young, even though it appears to be very old. Readers will know that I accept common descent and an old Earth, but I would also have to acknowledge that there is a remote possibility that my beliefs on these points are mistaken, although it would take more than an alien’s say-so to convince me. I would, however, regard it as perfectly rational to accept the say-so of a Being with supernatural powers, on matters relating to the age of the cosmos, if it gave a clear sign indicating its ability to control (and suspend) the laws of Nature, and declared that sign to be a validation of its claim for the young age of the cosmos. The science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke famously maintained that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic (Clarke’s third law), but it appears to me that even technologically advanced aliens would still be subject to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and that they would not be able to bring a dead body back to life, for instance. Additionally, I would be quite happy to accept eyewitness testimony of such an occurrence even though I had not witnessed it myself, since the improbability of a miracle increases only arithmetically over the course of time, with the number of observations one makes that conform to the laws of Nature, whereas the improbability that a group of independent eyewitnesses are mistaken when they claim to have seen a miracle increases geometrically, in proportion to the number of eyewitnesses – a point made by the 19th century mathematician Charles Babbage in chapter 10 of his Ninth Bridgewater Treatise. At some point, then, a sufficient number of witnesses can render it rational to believe in a miracle, the evidence of science notwithstanding. My own reason for not accepting young-earth creationism, despite my willingness to countenance miracles, is that as far as I can tell, no miracle has ever been worked with the specific aim of demonstrating the truth of YEC.

I believe that my epistemological position is a more reasonable one than that proposed by Professor Collins and endorsed by Chris Mooney. However, I’m sure that readers have their own views, which they’d like to share, so I shall finish here, and throw the discussion open.

(P.S. For those who may be interested, I wrote a short post on a thread four years ago, which Barry Arrington turned into a post titled, Expert, Smexpert, on the question of when it’s rational not to trust the word of an expert. I listed about a dozen conditions in which an expert’s statements should not be trusted; readers then weighed in with a few of their own. Cheers.)

“...Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way.” ? Michael Crichton The word ‘consensus’ has no place in science and is never a validation of any hypothesis, yet one frequently sees trust in ‘consensus’ for validation of important scientific concepts. [Alan Feduccia, Riddle of the Feathered Dragons, Yale University Press 2011, pp. 4-5] “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” ? Mark Twain “Wrong does not cease to be wrong because the majority share in it.” ? Leo Tolstoy, A Confession humbled
OldArmy94 "The only thing that I can compare this phenomenon to is the 'science' of Nazi Germany and how it was always centered around the so-called truths of Aryan racial superiority." You're forgetting Trofim Lysenko: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lysenkoism RalphDavidWestfall
The global warming scam is failing politically, solely because the general public has refused to kowtow to an alleged "scientific consensus." And as the grifters' pseudo-scientific predictions continue to be shown more and more wrong, it is a scam that is bound to become more and more paradigmic exactly why not to bow to any consensus manufactured by the likes of Prof. Collins, Squire Mooney, and their ilk. jstanley01
VJT: Good catch. This is a case of obvious over-reach, which has turned . . . as SM highlighted . . . into a self refuting absurdity. Yes, only the sufficiently familiar and capable can understand technical matters or discuss nuances of the latest buzz or the like, but that has little to do with whether findings in general and issues/concerns are accessible to "outsiders." And no, an oligarchy in lab coats is not any better than one in whatever period or institutional costume you want. KF kairosfocus
“You cannot get a good picture of what is going on in science from the literature,” This is a massive admission, if true. Billions of dollars of taxpayers money are spent every year to produce this literature. The express purpose of this production is the spread of knowledge, i.e. giving readers of the literature "a good idea of what is going on". Of course, this is not any kind of admission, since it is not true, except it is an admission that Mooney is a sycophant and Collins a fraud. If Collins really believes this, then the next funding application he makes should spell out in clear and unambiguous terms, to the funder, that the research he undertakes will not produce any publication capable of informing the reader of the results of his research, or its implications. It's got to a poor state of affairs when people can so effectively destroy the entire ethical and rational basis of their own profession, and be taken seriously. ScuzzaMan
simply because they are a lot smarter than you are. I think this small phrase should perhaps recieve a lot more emphasis. I agree with the entire sentence so I'm only quoting this last bit. There are many types of smart. I've watched stupid people make much better decisions than "smarter" people. I daresay the entire endeavor of deciding who the smartest are wouldn't really have anything to do with intelligence. Perhaps that is why those who seek alternatives start losing their jobs, etc. MrCollins
Jon Garvey@8 and bateman@10, Very astute! The observations of Polanyi and new to me, but ring true. It's precisely why discipline and integrity are vital to scientific experimentation. Related is Festinger's cognitive dissonance. We choose the things we "personally know" to make a coherent model of our world compatible with our experiences and values. What else can we do? Finally, I'd say that we can only learn when we're open and humble enough to be instructed and corrected. -Q Querius
My fields, in which I have the education and experience to be considered having "expert" (whatever that really means) level knowledge of (criminology and mental health counseling), are certainly open to criticism and opinion from people outside of the field. In fact, I would say it is extremely valuable that they do. You never know the insight that an expert in business or a layman in sanitation studies can offer. No one should be so arrogant as to disregard them offhand for not being an insider. Moreover, as an "insider" in a couple fields, I notice that often my "feel" for the body of knowledge may in fact be a bias (either systematic to the field or particular to myself). I need "outsiders" to shake up my paradigms! Why should the physical sciences be any different? Bateman
My own reason for not accepting young-earth creationism, despite my willingness to countenance miracles, is that as far as I can tell, no miracle has ever been worked with the specific aim of demonstrating the truth of YEC.
I'm a YEC. I did not choose to become a YEC but am one by definition, even without reading or analyzing a single scientific paper. The reason I am a YEC is because I believe in a single miracle. The miracle I believe that forces me into the YEC camp is: That God raised Jesus from the dead on the third day. Believing what is preached about this one event was enough for God to place His Spirit within me so that by it I am now able to believe everything else God had written about Himself -- including "In the beginning God ..." So don't quit searching for that one miracle with the specific aim of demonstrating the truth about everything -- including the truth of YEC. "Seek and ye shall find ..." awstar
VJ Your point about the entailment that scientific knowledge would be partially subjective is probably reflecting what is true, according to no less a thinker than Michael Polanyi. He argues that any body of knowledge contains a significant proportion of what he calls "personal knowledge" (as distinct from purely "subjective"). So it's true that working in any field, whether that's iron smelting, my own field of medicine, or evolutionary biology ... or astrology ... gives one a "feel" for that body of knowledge that an outsider can't hope to achieve without joining the guild and gaining the hands-on experience. Three things follow. (1) That, sadly, we're all ousiders to most fields of knowledge and are at a disadvantage compared to the insiders. (2) That the "personal knowledge" of a field may or may not reflect objective truth. An expert astrologer, or phrenologist, or psychoanalyst may have a wonderful feel for what's "right" in his field, with no connection to reality at all - the connection to objective truth is, inevetably, largely a faith commitment, with moral implications too (as in Haeckel's expertise at discerning "primitive" racial characteristics). (3) Science, whilst it contains any such knowledge that cannot be communicated to any intelligent person, is to that very extent less than completely objective. That's not a bad thing, because it's true of all knowledge as a fact of life, but it does mean that the pretensions of science to be uniquely able to tell objective truth is unsustainable. Jon Garvey
How does thie Mooney guy know this? Would he recognize error as a option for a group of sciency workers? The nonesense to tell people not to question sciency types. First because its not a big deal what they do. Most or all just memorized things in their teens and twenties. The tiny few who actually do a new thing are still doing very little. The common man easily can understand anything known and any new thing. Easily error exists in the small circles that actually pay attention to a particular subject. I am late to sciency stuff and now or in the past find it all very unimpressive and low intellectual competence. OH YES THEY CAN BE WRONG and mostly don't do much. Evolutionism is case in point. They all screw up about why they get it wrong. Not just because of not being sharp. Its all about everyone is not impressive. Its silly human pride. Challenge everyone everybody and mostly you will be right. Robert Byers
The disturbing thing about "consensus science" is that the political ideology behind the science is seen as infallible; the mere use of the term "denier" by those who trumpet Darwinism and climate change certainty is disgraceful. Think about it--it is the political and social ramifications that make such arrogance and blustering necessary. The only thing that I can compare this phenomenon to is the "science" of Nazi Germany and how it was always centered around the so-called truths of Aryan racial superiority. OldArmy94
If true Mooney's job reduces to that of a science gossip reporter as far as I can tell. He's neither scientist nor philosopher scientist so how in the world does he know Collins is right? Seems rather stupid. lpadron
In every generation, mediocre scientists assume that they can't possibly be wrong and then become involved in some dangerous huge cock up. Unfortunately, they are never held culpable for their mistaken advice. Instead, they simply lose the limelight and nothing more is said. So do we now want to give scientists the power to control atmospheric composition? What could possibly go wrong? Oh yeah, it was "an honest mistake," but now we know so much more! (cough, gasp, wheeze) -Q Querius
I have special knowledge of charlatans. Mung
In the case of HIV, Dr. Peter Duesberg, considered in the late 70's and early 80's to be the premier virologist in the US, if not the world, questioned the "HIV causes AIDS" consensus, which quickly arose among the "experts". What happened? Was there a discussion of his views? No. He started being uninvited to conferences, had his papers not published, lost his graduate students, and finally his lab. So, apparently, not only are lay people not in a position to question the "experts," but even ONE "expert" is not in a position to question THE "experts." Let's hear it for group-think. What was Duesberg's concerns? HIV doesn't demonstrate the normal characteristics of what a virus is expected to demonstrate. How outlandish, wouldn't you say? When it comes to "global warming," I have yet to get an answer to my question: if anthropic CO2 'causes' warming, then why did this warming begin in the 1830's and 40's? If you can't answer that question, then it would be better if you didn't say anything at all. But that doesn't seem to stop anyone. Likewise, anyone who is remotely familiar with computer simulation knows that because of its iterative mathematical nature, the earliest portion of any simulation is the most accurate---too many variables can vary out of range as you move on. Yet, during the last 17 years, global temperature has not gone up (yes, it's higher than before---but not over the last few years!!), it's been level and then has fallen the last couple of years. If their models got this wrong, the rest is nothing but rubbish. Any fool knows this. But, of course, the 'consensus' is never wrong. Why? Because if you disagree with them, they will destroy you. You see, this is how science is supposed to work. ;-) Addressing Collins claim head-on, I will admit that among the scientific 'elite' in any scientific regime, there will be a kind of 'inner circle' who are familiar with the prevailing ideas and what is considered to be acceptable, or unacceptable, arguments. That doesn't mean they're always right. It just means they help to determine the 'cutting edge', if you will, of that scientific area of inquiry. Certainly, though, pdf files, Wikipedia, arXiv, and the Internet in general, has changed all of this to a great degree. PaV
Gnosticism is alive and well. Charlatans always claim to have special knowledge. stjones

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