Trusting Science Experts Can Be Disastrous
Nobody pushes the values of science more than scientists. But trusting them doesn’t always work out right.
We often hear that science is the surest path to reliable knowledge. Big Science (i.e., academia and the journals) are the biggest sales force for this view. “We need scientific values more than ever,” New Scientist preaches, using the occasion of Donald Trump’s election to scare people that this alleged anti-scientific president (a common opinion on the political left) is poised to send America into another pre-scientific dark age. Similar assumptions that scientists should be the default experts are expressed by Dan Kahan in Nature, “How to trump group-think in a post-truth world,” and by Kathleen Higgins in Nature, “Post-truth: A guide for the perplexed.”
“Whose word should you respect in any debate on science?” Peter Ellerton, a lecturer at the University of Queensland in critical thinking, asks his audience at The Conversation. Every student knows the expected answer. It’s the word of scientists. They are the ones who don’t take anybody’s word for anything. They subject all claims to the scientific method. Ellerton sets up some convenient straw men to knock down, such as climate change skeptics who trust one expert for their facts, but dismiss the view of the consensus of experts.
The argument is simple, and goes a bit like this. Science does not work by appeal to authority, but rather by the acquisition of experimentally verifiable evidence. Appeals to scientific bodies are appeals to authority, so should be rejected.
Ellerton finds a way to say that appeal to authority is not a fallacy.
The fallacy would be more correctly named the “appeal to false authority” – for example when celebrities who are famous for their sporting or entertainment achievements are cited in support of a particular medical treatment.
Appeals to appropriate authorities, such as experts in their fields, are one of the glues that hold our technological society together. We go to our doctor for her expertise and we are happy to take her advice without the insistence that the efficacy of potential treatments be demonstrated to us there and then.
Engineers build impressively tall buildings, pilots fly incredibly complex machines, and business experts advise on financial markets. All this expertise is confidently assimilated into our lives because we recognise its value and legitimacy.
It is not fallacious reasoning to accept expert advice. We rely on the authority of experts for quality control in many areas, including the peer-review process of science and other academic disciplines.
(Regarding peer review, see the 7/09/16 entry.) Ellerton is partly right in the sense that people and governments need to respect verifiable, observable expertise. The problem is that many scientific opinions these days refer to predictions that are not verifiable and repeatable. What will the climate be in 100 years? Nobody has been there yet. What will happen to a star that enters a black hole? It’s impossible to experience such a thing. So if “scientists” are the default watchers of truth, who watches the watchers?
Climate change makes a good test case about the value of expert advice that Ellerton presumes we must accept. Experts may find correlations with CO2 production and warming, but like we pointed out before, measurements like “global temperature” are fraught with selection effects (1/16/15), and yet the experts speak of this phrase as if it means something concrete. And nobody can be sure that trends will remain linear. Some go exponential, while others flatten out due to feedback. Even now, for instance, some climate scientists are pointing out that clouds could have dramatic feedback effects to cool the earth, but nobody knows how to include them properly in climate models (e.g., Phys.org).
So the question becomes, how do we tell the difference between appeal to true authority and appeal to false authority? Is Ellerton saying that people should just bow down before the scientific consensus? (See 10/14/13.)
Here’s a case where a whole continent did just that. New Scientist reports, “Europe’s green energy policy is a disaster for the environment.” In the article, Michael Le Page shows what happened when governments of Europe decided to follow the scientific experts on climate change, and set up “green energy projects” that were supposedly not as dirty as coal, oil and the other nasty fossil fuels that we all hear are so polluting.
The EU gets 65 per cent of its renewable energy from biofuels – mainly wood – but it is failing to ensure this bioenergy comes from sustainable sources, and results in less emissions than burning fossil fuels. Its policies in some cases are leading to deforestation, biodiversity loss and putting more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than burning coal.
“Burning forest biomass on an industrial scale for power and heating has proved disastrous,” says Linde Zuidema, bioenergy campaigner for forest protection group Fern. “The evidence that its growing use will increase emissions and destroy forests in Europe and elsewhere is overwhelming.”
The results have been worse than doing nothing, Le Page writes. Forests are falling, birds are dying, and companies profiting from the “green energy” initiatives are fighting reforms. Government officials, jumping on the clean-energy bandwagon to save the planet after all the warnings by scientists, erred by assuming that burning wood is carbon neutral. Wood fires can actually put out more soot into the air than coal. In another article from September 21, Le Page in New Scientist called the result “The great carbon scam.” It’s making global warming worse, they say.
It’s true that some scientists warned the UK government about this but were ignored. “They’ve ignored it because they’ve already committed,” Le Page says, citing a Princeton expert. “And because they don’t know what else to do.” Government officials were attempting to do the right thing by setting emission goals set by the UN at international climate talks. The IPCC, relying on the consensus of climate experts around the world, told governments what their emission targets must be, and the UK took their word for it. The result has been disastrous. Things would be better today if they burned coal, Le Page says.
Some will respond that scientists make mistakes, too, but have the best methods for self-correction. But how can anyone know when they are fully correct? Erroneous advice by scientific experts can be propagated for decades. We’ve all been told to drink lots of water each day, but Medical Xpress now says there’s little evidence to back it up. The experts all concurred that saturated fat is bad, bad, bad, but now another article on Medical Xpress says, “Saturated fat could be good for you.” A study in Norway “raises questions regarding the validity of a diet hypothesis that has dominated for more than half a century: that dietary fat and particularly saturated fat is unhealthy for most people.” This is not to say the new study has the final word, but only to illustrate that it’s not always easy to tell the true authority from the false authority, like Ellerton wants. You can’t just go by majority vote. Hardly a month goes by without some long-taught scientific “truth” unraveling with further research. Just this month, Nature pointed out that “carbon is not the enemy,” taking issue with the 2015 Paris climate accords.
Scientists in many instances deserve our trust, just like honest investigators in any other field, when they can support their conclusions with evidence and logic. C.S. Lewis said,
If popular thought feels ‘science’ to be different from all other kinds of knowledge because science is experimentally verifiable, popular thought is mistaken. Experimental verification is not a new kind of assurance coming in to supply the deficiencies of mere logic. We should therefore abandon the distinction between scientific and non-scientific thought. The proper distinction is between logical and non-logical thought.
The words “science” and “scientist” are so broad as to be meaningless. The subjects lumped under the “science” tent differ in reliability, testability or credibility (cf. political science with geology or cell biology). And is a “scientist” reliable all the time, even when asleep or drinking coffee? If we shouldn’t trust a celebrity basketball player on climate change, neither should we trust a climate scientist who studies one small detail of forest emissions pontificating about global policy on sustainable development. Scientific societies are just as subject to groupthink and peer pressure as any other human association, whether labor unions, political parties, or cults.
The Apostle Paul had a simple rule applicable to any expert opinion: “Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.” (I Thessalonians 5:21).