Tuesday, March 2, 2010
For the most part we are obedient, if reluctant followers of their word. We can be relatively assured that, if not always correct, they are at least following a consensus. While in practice, most have gone through a certification process by which some board, itself representative of a larger consensus, has determined certain standards of truth in the field. In other areas, whether conducting or speaking on research, their name is trading on their position, which is then dependent on the academic journal within which they are published, or, as is most often the case when we hear of them, brokered by the reputation of the news agency that uses them as a source in a story.
Of course, none of this means that they are in any way correct. Rather it is all an elaborate social mechanism for enabling the lay public to place a certain amount of trust in their word and work. In modern society knowledge is the lubrication of productivity. Reliable information is enormously valuable for assessing risk and distributing resources. Institutions have evolved as gatekeepers to the authority of this knowledge.
Unfortunately, even while most often it is the case that good knowledge gets disseminated, bad knowledge can also slip through. In 1998, The esteemed medical journal The Lancet published a paper that purported to have found evidence showing that a common vaccine caused autism in children. Subsequent studies however were unable to reproduce the findings, and the scientific consensus has overwhelmingly rejected the claim that there is any link between vaccines and autism. The paper was recently retracted, as The Lancet decided upon re-evaluation that the paper was unfit to publish. A great embarrassment for the esteemed journal, the original paper is thought to have contributed significantly to a large public perception that vaccines are unsafe and set the stage for a dangerously un-immunized public.
A claim could also be made that episodes like this have much broader consequences for society if the public begins to lose faith in the authority of legitimately established gatekeepers of good knowledge. It is from this weakening that conspiracy theories arise. If no authority is to be trusted on a subject, then it may end be being the case that certain authorities are trusted who shouldn't be. Because the fact of the matter is, the lay public can't tell. This phenomenon is well-illustrated by the common presentation of debate on cable news television. Two experts from opposing sides of an issue are represented, yet one may represent the consensus of 99.9% of experts in the filed, while the other represent the .1%. Yet to a public unaware of the larger issues involved, the debate appears balanced. One might easily become swayed by the minority view not based on actual facts or the merits of the case, but on slick rhetoric. I'll be honest, if two auto mechanics were debating the best way to install a certain gasket, even if one represented the view of every other mechanic in the world, I can't say I'd be able to tell the difference.
It is an unfortunate position to be in, not knowing who to trust on an issue. Most of the time we simply fall back on the standard views of our own ideological perspective. This seems to be a surprisingly popular technique. In most cases, our ideology finds a way to fit with expert consensus. This is likely largely because of the consensus surrounding that which is mutually agreed on in the first place. Few issues have been able to survive very long when unsupported by scientific evidence. Racism was argued to be genetically justified until the evidence fell apart. So it was with creationism. Homophobia is hanging on with all it's got. Issues that still remain do so largely because the consensus opinion is either still too divided or not there at all.
Yet some issues refuse to die not because of a lack of expert consensus, but because of a distrust in the experts themselves. This is tricky, because there have been examples of issues where the expert consensus was flat out wrong. However, in far and away most cases, expert opinion has proven correct. Yet regardless, the lay person is simply unequipped to determine for themselves whether it is the consensus or the outlier which is correct. Usually in these cases there is another, much larger motivating factor behind the outlier's belief. For instance with the case of creationism (now being called intelligent design), a leading proponent of the theory of ID is Michael Behe, a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University, an "expert".
So what is one to do when one holds a belief, or doubt, that is outside the expert consensus? Most academics are liberal, and so as a liberal, I'm in expert company. How convenient! But this in no way makes me, or them right on anything. It does though, mean that my views are all well within the expert consensus. I very rarely find myself in a situation in which the expert consensus contradicts my own view. One wonders what it must be like to be a Christian Fundamentalist, global warming skeptic, monetarist who believes in aliens, homeopathy, vitamin supplements, that Obama is a secret Kenyan Muslim, 9-11 was an inside job, FEMA is setting up concentration camps, gays want to molest children, and of course that a small group of elites controls and manipulates the world's affairs. Although that last one does at least seem kind of reasonable, I think I'd probably be attending a lot of TEA parties.
So for the lay person who finds himself in the uncomfortable position of holding a minority opinion in a field that he himself is not an expert in, I can only suggest that he do the honest thing and try at least to first concede the likelihood that he may be being misled and at the very minimum take great care to inform himself on as much of the other side as possible. The nice thing about the internet is that on controversial issues, holders of expert consensus often make available detailed responses to the usually well-trodden tropes of the minority viewpoint.