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.)