Tired of experts?

I’ve been trying to think of what to say in regards to Michael Gove claiming that people in this country have had enough of experts. This is mainly because I just don’t really know what to make of it. Does he really believe this, or was it just a slip of the tongue? Brian Cox has some stronger words. Today we probably have a better understanding of the world around us than at any time in human history. We therefore have an amazing opportunity to make informed decisions and – in my opinion – should aim to do so.

This requires talking to, and listening to, those who have relevant expertise. This, of course, do not mean that the evidence they present defines the decision that should be made; there will be many relevant factors some of which will be hard to quantify. It doesn’t mean that the experts have some kind of special place and get to decide what decisions should be made. They simply provide relevant information; how it is used is up to those who are in a position to actually make the decisions. They may even make the same decision had they recieved no information from experts; they’re still, however, better off with the information, than without it.

It’s possible (maybe even likely) that Michael Gove doesn’t really believe that we’re tired of experts, or that experts should be ignored. However, there is a valid concern that this is part of a trend to dismiss, or marginalise, experts. I’m currently reading Shawn Otto’s new book The War on Science, which John Abraham reviews in his article. Not only are there those who are ideologically pre-disposed to dismiss experts – because what they present challenges their world-views – there is also an issue with those who comment on science. Many have little in the way of actual scientific training, do not really understand how it works, and often think that there is no such thing as objective knowledge. This creates a situation in which all views are perceived as equally valid and can, therefore, legitimise views that have little, or no, validity.

Anyway, that’s all I was really going to say. As far as I’m concerned, it’s obvious that we should be willing to listen to relevant experts; being informed is clearly preferable to simply guessing. Those who don’t wish to do so, either have the arrogance to think that they somehow know better than experts, or are aware that what they’ll hear will probably be inconvenient, and so would rather not hear it. Neither possibility is particularly encouraging.  I do think that we should recognise the importance of evidence-based decision making, while recognising that experts don’t have some kind of special place at the table; their role is simply to inform.

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91 Responses to Tired of experts?

  1. Philip Moriarty says:

    Reblogged this on Symptoms Of The Universe and commented:
    I’m reblogging this post, “Tired Of Experts?” from …And Then There’s Physics for a number of reasons, not least the following section:

    “Not only are there those who are ideologically pre-disposed to dismiss experts – because what they present challenges their world-views – there is also an issue with those who comment on science. Many have little in the way of actual scientific training, do not really understand how it works…”

    Having wasted quite a bit of time engaging with those who are of the opinion that science works by doing two-minute keyword searches on Google so as to rip a result out of context, that part of ATTP’s certainly hit home. Here’s the rest of the post…

  2. This is a link to the actual broadcast where Gove made the comment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GGgiGtJk7MA

    Maybe we’re taking his words out of context? Wasn’t he was referring to people warning of what would happen as a result of Brexit; most of whom were economists? I agree it’s easy to see this as disdain for all experts, but I think—I hope—we might be reading too much into his comment. Or am I being too kind?

  3. Hal Morris says:

    An attempt to dianose this in the American case:
    https://www.sott.net/article/313177-the-cult-of-ignorance-in-the-united-states-anti-intellectualism-and-the-dumbing-down-of-america.

    I think there’s a lot of misinformation being generated to throw people off the trail of the real elites, the mega-billionaires many of whom have a big role in destroying the political and physical environment — with much success they strive to make out that academics and other relatively objective (compared to the think-tank-ocracy) source are the real cause, and the folks that should be gone after with pitchforks.

    In 2010, I wrote some commentary on the Academic-hating academic Angelo Codevilla, whose job seems to be providing “intellectual” cover for movement conservitism’s quite consitent use of this tactic at http://therealtruthproject.blogspot.com/2010/07/codevillas-ruling-class-really-new.html

  4. langdalepikes says:

    In the case of the EU referendum, I suspect that rather than not heading economics experts people on the whole voted on points of principle in the knowledge of the possible impact on GDP. In my opinion, the question of staying in the EU or leaving the EU doesn’t have an objective correct answer, it depends on your priorities. On the other hand the question of whether adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere will cause warming has a clear answer.

  5. john,
    True, he does say “experts from organisations with acronyms who think they know best”. I do have some sympathy with that view, given that many think tanks have obvious biases. However, organisations like the IMF and the World Bank are not really in that category.

    lang,
    It’s true that there is no objectively correct answer to something like leaving the EU. However, that does not mean that relevant experts can’t provide information as to the probable consequences of doing so.

  6. verytallguy says:

    Did you notice that Nigel Farage has very kindly offered his “expertise” to the team negotiating our brexit? Perhaps some experts are more equal than others.

    I think this cartoon may also be relevant:

  7. Tim Roberts says:

    “This creates a situation in which all views are perceived as equally valid ” . Well said. This perception that all views have equal validity may well be true in politics but is certainly not the case in science.

  8. vtg,
    Classic cartoon 🙂

    Tim,
    I think that some people think that their right to hold any opinion entitles them to do so without being criticised.

  9. Joshua says:

    FWIW –

    Kahan, for one, has a lot of evidence that there has been “there’s no credible evidence showing a decline in trust.” [in science, scientists, scientific institutions, etc.]

    http://chronicle.com/article/Seeking-a-Climate-Change/149707/

  10. Joshua,
    I read that article a while ago. I found this bit instructive

    Kahan slumped in his chair. That hadn’t been his point.

    It seems that a lot are confused about the point Kahan is trying to make.

  11. I should probably add the next bit

    “The only way to make progress is to use empirical methods to rip from the sea of the plausible the thing that actually matters. Otherwise we drown in storytelling.”

    I think this illustrates the problem with what Kahan presents. Define “the thing that actually matters”. If I’m communicating science, what matters is whether or not I can explain things to my audience in a way that allows them to gain some understanding of the topic. On the other hand, what matters to an advocate is whether or not they can present something that convinces their audience to accept what they’re trying to present. These aren’t the same things that matter and I don’t think Kahan distinguishes between the different possible scenarios very well.

  12. Joshua says:

    to note….that evidence isn’t presented in the article I linked – but it’s easy to find at Kahan’s blog.

    It is probably worthwhile to note the more general pattern of people across the ideological spectrum to selectively favor the “experts” that align with their own particular identity orientation, and reject “experts” who are “others.”

    I dare say that phenomenon is more common than those who reject “experts” across the board – which problematizes the notion that there is a particular group who are “anti-science.”

  13. Joshua says:

    Anders –

    ==> what matters is whether or not I can explain things to my audience in a way that allows them to gain some understanding of the topic. On the other hand, what matters to an advocate is whether or not they can present something that convinces their audience to accept what they’re trying to present.”

    But given that audiences enter the communication domain with certain ideologically-rooted predispositions, it’s not an either/or. How do you go about allowing someone to understand something without using science to address how they are likely to be “motivated” to interpret what you say?

  14. Joshua,
    I was thinking about that, and I’m struggling to see how I would communicate science in a manner that depended much on the ideological-biases of my audience. I would certainly vary what I presented depending on whether or not my audience was children, adults, having some scientific expertise, etc. However, if I knew that my audience was pre-disposed to reject the Big Bang as the origin of the universe, I probably wouldn’t change how I presented the science.

  15. Joshua says:

    Anders –

    Personally, I think that Dan goes somewhat astray in thinking that the goal should be to design a better method of science communication on the part of scientists…as if the polarization around “science communication” is some kind of unique context that is distinct from other communicative domains.

    I think what is more essential is to design a better communicative context – where shared interests are the goal, and where there is ownership from participants in engaging with what we know about the influences of motivated reasoning.

    Along those lines, I don’t think that the goal would be to design communication dependent on ideological biases of the audience, but to design communication with the goal of mitigating the basic human tendency towards motivated interpretation

    When working with children, my goal as an educator is to enhance their ownership over their learning process, to become “self-actualized” as learners who are metacognitive about their learning process. Any learner, however, whether a child or an adult or a scientific novice or scientific expertise, has to accept that same ownership responsibility – and in doing so, become materially invested in controlling for his/her own biases. With a lack of such ownership investment, biases will persist. Not method of communication will effectively de-bias an audience.

    Problems occur, IMO, when people think that they can circumvent that process of ownership for the audience by designing a better method of communicating (from a top-down mindset).

  16. I don’t think that the goal would be to design communication dependent on ideological biases of the audience, but to design communication with the goal of mitigating the basic human tendency towards motivated interpretation

    Okay, this does make more sense to me. On the other hand, I’m still not sure how this would influence basic science communication.

  17. Joshua says:

    I want to be sure to make it clear that I don’t agree with quite a bit of Dan’s conclusions, although I find his research quite interesting (not surprisingly, I think that some of his conclusions are motivated by particular biases).

    ==> “I’m still not sure how this would influence basic science communication.”

    From my perspective, it completely depends on the science communication environment. Within a policy development process, instead of an expert seeking to deliver information in a top-down fashion, the expert is there to serve as a resource for the learner. The expert is one brand of participant in a non-hierarchical communicative platform.

    I’m talking about a framework that extends beyond science communication, to framework that encompasses a more general educational paradigm. Learners construct and build their understanding through a deliberative process that employs an executive control over methodologies and strategies, including a process of controlling for their biases.

    I’m not saying that experts should or shouldn’t communicate in an particular way. As a scientist, you present your research as a part of your work. You don’t need to alter that process depending on the audience. But as a participant in a policy-development process, your ability to leverage your expertise is necessarily a function of the efficacy of the communication context. If the context is broken, no amount of design will make your communication effective.

  18. Joshua,
    Well, except in my experience, the style of science communication is defined by the audience/organiser, not by the presenter. If I’m asked to engage publicly, it could be formal, informal, question/answer, presentation/lecture.

  19. Joshua says:

    Anders –

    Right. And as such, you aren’t responsible for how the audience integrates the information you provide. That is the audiences responsibility at the individual level, and the organizer’s responsibility at the collective level.

    I do think that is some aspect of what Kahan was trying to communicate in the “hadn’t been his point” excerpt: the scientist can’t materially alter the audience’s tendency towards biased interpretation. But his message gets muddled, IMO, when he gets self-righteous about science-communication “polluters” who he seems, in a contradiction, to blame for the reaction of “skeptics.”

  20. Joshua says:

    Anders –

    It’s also important to note, as Dan belabors, that in the vast majority of science-involved communication contexts, which presumably applies to most of the contexts where you’re communicating about science, none of this is particularly problematic.

    One wouldn’t design a communicative paradigm based on the dynamics of a tiny outlier. By the same token, anyone who tries to generalize about “science communication” more generally by cherry-picking problematic oulliers (plate tectonics, the lipid theory, climate change) isn’t really engaging in the question of how to improve science communication, but leveraging science communication to serve an ideological agenda.

  21. Personally, I do think it is unfortunate that Kahan seems to get all self-righteous about “pollutors” because some of what he presents is interesting. That, however, it is often contradictory does reduce how seriously I’m willing to take it.

  22. that in the vast majority of science-involved communication contexts, which presumably applies to most of the contexts where you’re communicating about science, none of this is particularly problematic.

    Indeed, this is almost certainly true.

  23. Joshua says:

    Anders –

    ==> That, however, it is often contradictory does reduce how seriously I’m willing to take it.

    I understand the frustration, but in the end, any contradictions in his own communication and messaging are irrelevant to the value of the evidence he presents.

  24. It seems to me that a lot of people on the Leave side said things purely for their political effect, and maybe now wish they hadn’t.

    Or they’re just cynical bastards.

  25. Prof. Brian Cox has also been commenting on the attack on ‘experts’ …

    https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/jul/02/professor-brian-cox-interview-forces-of-nature

    But as others suggest, it is more nuanced. There are some (of ‘Merchants of Doubt’ ilk) who are ideologically opposed to science that appears to conflict with their neoliberal, anti-regulation, viewpoint, who are cynically trying to undermine expertise they probably know is right. There are others who suffer from extreme dose of Dunning-Kruger effect (WUWT, Jo Nova, et al.), who imagine they are the experts. Then there are politicians who will oftn take politically motivated positions, despite what the experts tell them, in order to keep their constituencies happy.

    None of this really applies to the ‘person in the street’ who is unlikely to consult a witchdoctor if they get a detached retina but will trying to get the best post medical expertise available.

    On the whole, people are really interested in science and interested in learning more, and their level of trust in scientists is I think far greater than politicians or journalists.

    Economists? Ok, so that’s another story, and maybe greater scepticism amongst the public.

  26. Joshua,
    Indeed, I largely agree. On the other hand, if someone claims to be studying how to communicate in a polarised environment, then you might expect them to illustrate that they know how to do so. To be fair, that may not be true. It’s quite possible that someone can understand how best to communicate in a polarised environment, but be incapable of doing so themselves. However, it does still make it hard to take them seriously, especially when they do seem quite willing to criticise others who they regards as presenting a polarising message.

  27. Richard,

    On the whole, people are really interested in science and interested in learning more, and their level of trust in scientists is I think far greater than politicians or journalists.

    Indeed, I think this is true and something that we shouldn’t forget (even if it is sometimes hard to do).

  28. David,
    A combination of the two, I suspect. Certainly appears as though people are rather surprised that Leave won and now aren’t quite sure what to do.

  29. Joshua says:

    A good article, I thought:

    https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/academics-take-stock-after-brexiteer-victory-over-experts

    –snip-

    Still, for all the soul-searching in academia about declining trust, scientists remain one of the most trusted professions in the UK, according to an Ipsos Mori poll released this year. Seventy-nine per cent of the public trusted them to “generally tell the truth”. Professors scored similarly highly before they were dropped from the survey in 2013. But whether future surveys will tell a similar story is unclear.

    –snip–

    Ipsos Mori poll

  30. lerpo says:

    They may even make the same decision had they received no information from experts; they’re still, however, better off with the information, than without it.

    Depends what the goal is. The previous Canadian government certainly cancelled funding for science with the potential to threaten the development of the oil fields or any other government objective. There is often evidence for and against any action. If you’re a policy maker your better off without science.

    The general public on the other hand ought to be keen on evidence based policy.

  31. semyorka says:

    Gove is a clown playing to an audience. Also another oxbridge educated humanities student who thinks science is beneath him (check out how many high profile UK skeptics meet this broad definition). You will find many of the most prominent politicians and journalists who are vocal on the topic are either humanities or economics graduates from oxbridge or somewhere similar (LSE, St Andrews etc).

    There has always been a wellspring of distrust of experts among the general public and a cadre of politicians keen to exploit that.

    What has perhaps changed is the sheer depth of anti establishment sentiment in the UK as a whole. Look at Labour being wiped off the map in Scotland, or the Tories under pressure to UKIP in many of their core seats, the low turn out for elections, especially among the young and the sort of candidates that are being pushed forward in the US and UK when there is public involvement in their selection (Trump as an example). Our political systems have reached breaking points (lots of reasons) and appeals to anti establishment, anti expert ideas that pander to parts of the electorate are successful.

    Still the current state of the pound and some of the early indicators on the economy suggest one or two might be eating their words in a month or so.

  32. John Hartz says:

    Here’s another expert’s opinion on this matter…

    Relying on expert opinion to build public engagement can sometimes backfire

    The Leave campaign made effective use of anti-establishment messages which portrayed the experts and elites as a self-serving group who do not understand the concerns of ordinary people. This approach has also been used to promote climate scepticism. There are many common features between climate sceptics and Leave supporters. In polls, supporters of Leave were twice as likely to disbelieve climate change than supporters of Remain. They also share a common demographic, being disproportionately older, male, conservative, and white. In a recent article, environmentalist Nick Mabey and psychologist Kris De Meyer observe a common ideological thread in the presenting of both issues as internationalist, left-wing state intervention in national sovereignty and personal freedom.

    The Leave campaign understood these principles from the outset and played a much more effective and responsive game. Leave was dismissive of overall expert opinion, though it recruited enough expert outliers to claim some authority for its claims. Instead it focused its messages on people’s core values and identity – patriotism, independence and cultural purity. It created catchphrases that rapidly became social memes, repeated between peers at work and in the pub, about “defending our borders” and “taking back control.” And it skilfully wove these into wider themes of national and cultural identity.

    What Brexit teaches us about climate change communications by George Marshall, Climate Outreach, June 29, 2016

  33. Michael Hauber says:

    RIchard Erskine,

    while the average man in the street may not consult a witchdoctor, there is still a minority who would consult with naturapaths etc. I would also think that theory vs practice might make a difference to our attitude to experts. I suspect more would question expert theory on how to manage our health (diet, exercise etc) than would choose to go to a fringe practitioner to treat a serious medical problem.

  34. You’ve identified an important misunderstanding. Just yesterday in my regular haunt, The New York Times, I found this article, There Is No Scientific Method in the philosophy section, <i<The Stone, normally a philosophy blog, highlighted on the front page. The appearance on both sides of the Atlantic of suspicion, morphing into hatred, of knowledge, merits strong response, for which I thank aTTP. It’s nothing new; in the Eisenhower era, we were “eggheads”.

    It’s odd, because all the people who suspect knowledge are eager to take advantage of the Internet, a scientific product, and improved health care, another, just two examples. The cognitive dissonance is carefully cultivated. I was surprised to get a lot of support for my response, which I should have, once again, thought through a little more carefully; still, I’m glad people care. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but I gave the metaphor a pass in my criticism, which I should not have done (#2 in Readers’ Picks, if anyone wants to know, but aTTP says it so much more thoughtfully and knowledgeable, and, honestly, comment sections?! though I can’t help but be chuffed, 539 votes and counting!?); I used the Popper reference from my friend.

    I’d like to know about the Shawn Otto book, which comes highly recommended; trouble is, I think we’ve already absorbed and engaged in these discussion for a long time, and don’t need more reading. Jane Mayer’s Dark Money, Chris Mooney’s Republican War on Science, Naomi Oreskes Merchants of Doubt, and many others since then … Josh Fox said it well; if you are busy on your computer clicking away, it’s not good enough. One needs to be out protesting, making a noise, if one is not doing real science like our doughty and courteous author here. Skip to minute 10 or after if you have limited time:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zWXELfdPq1s “Josh Fox: Let Go and Love”

    Speaking of books, I’ve been reading Capitalocene or Anthropocene, and in addition to a whole of lot nearly unreadable academic grandiosity, there is a neat concept: “cheap nature” which I think if worthy of serious thought. Next stop: Monbiot!.

  35. Aside from my typos, a couple of added points. Gove is disgusting, thanks for the clip. An exploitative monster.

    My impression of Dan Kahan is that he has a very nice job and enjoys boxing cute with an audience. He is not wrong, but he has nothing new to say. He’s more part of the problem than he thinks. Clever and successful. What we need is more words of one syllable and straight-up sentences. A scam is a scam.

  36. T-rev says:

    Some of it comes from misunderstanding science, thinking it’s dogmatic ah la religion. Asimov’s classic essay ‘the relativity of wrong’ touches on this

    http://chem.tufts.edu/answersinscience/relativityofwrong.htm

    I had this very debate with a friend yesterday who is also dismissive of experts, saying they ‘inevitably end up being proven wrong’. Some of that comes from conflating pseudo science with science eg Economics and he has a point in terms of economists. I am very dismissive of classical economics experts for example but then so are some Physicists, as has been discussed here before, as are others like Kevin Anderson and even Warren Buffett (he of the quip that any organisation that employs an economist has one employee too many).

    then we have David Dunning’s (of Dunning-Kurger Effect fame) ‘confident idiots’.

    https://psmag.com/we-are-all-confident-idiots-56a60eb7febc

    I’d consider myself to be a self aware ‘confident idiot’ 🙂 and try ever so hard not to be.

    and it’s nothing new, Sagan etal was banging on about this decades ago

    “We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”
    ― Carl Sagan

    and I am sure Aristotle etal did as well. The difference being the scale of the impact, now we pump out Gt of CO2e and ignore the experts, we over consume and ignore the experts (limits to growth) etc etc. This will not end well, societal inertia and ‘tragedy of the commons’ ensure that.

    What to do ? I make sure I never vote for a politicans if they are a lawyer or economist but outside of that. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  37. Bob Loblaw says:

    I think you need to distinguish between “experts” and experts. Just like “skeptics” and skeptics, when it comes to climate change, etc. Fake experts are a standard tactic of the denialati and obstructionists, and a key requirement of a fake expert is to appear certain. The media are full of fake experts (read “false balance”) that are just talking heads with a mouth for rent.

    The general public often can’t tell the difference, so it is easy to imagine that once you decide “experts” are full of crap, then the real experts that talk in uncertain terms are easy to dismiss, too.

    The whole “every opinion is equally valid” schtick is damaging in the long run. The “I won’t accept criticism” approach is often wrapped up in a “Free Speech” argument – any criticism of what I say infringes on my right to free speech. (Cue XKCD cartoon in 3, 2, 1… http://xkcd.com/1357/). My opinion? Opinions are like sphincter muscles: every @$$hole has one.

  38. Magma says:

    Shorter version of points I’ve previously made

    — Many experts communicate poorly with non-experts.
    — Depending on the topic and for a variety of reasons, incited reactions can range from bored disinterest to active hostility.
    — Adversaries can stoke hostile reactions for their own purposes.
    — In the case of climate science, to find out who ‘skeptics’ consider effective communicators look at the individuals they attack the most harshly. (Don’t know if this was an issue with Brexit.)
    — It’s almost a cliche by now, but Dunning and Kruger are correct and many of those who dismiss experts genuinely don’t know how little they know.
    — So as not to dislocate our collective shoulders patting ourselves on the back, experts sometimes get important things wrong in their own fields; some degree of humility is never a fault.

  39. Magma says:

    Slightly off the main topic, yesterday Judith Curry dismissed entire categories of scientists (botanists, biologists, entomologists, agronomists, entomologists, oceanographers, etc.) as having no relevant expertise in climate science and then doubled down with the denier claim that they belonged to “professional societies who are not involved with the physics of climate but explicitly profit from the alarm”.

  40. Susan,
    I don’t know what to make of that NYT article. I’ve read it once, and it’s not really making sense yet. I’ll try again.

    Bob,
    Yes, a good point. In fact, something I meant to say was that there is no such thing as an expert. What we have are a lot of people who have specific expertise that will be relevant to some specific issues. No one person is, however, simply an expert who can contribute to all possible issues.

  41. Magma,

    who are not involved with the physics of climate but explicitly profit from the alarm

    I suspect that I would be regarded as simply a physicist, and therefore not qualified either. Oh, the irony!

  42. verytallguy says:

    Magma,

    just had a quick look at your prompt to Curry. She says:

    This statement is a blatant misuse of scientific authority to advocate for specific socioeconomic policies.

    This only follows from a very narrow view of ethics. It’s equally possible to argue that ethically, a group of experts who see huge risks being ignored have a moral imperative to call for action.

    It seems pretty simple. Curry’s views on climate science are in a tiny minority, she doesn’t like that and uses her blog to vent. No real problem there I guess. Even ATTP vents occasionally…

    She should publish papers contradicting the findings she doesn’t like, and to be fair to her at least with Nic Lewis she is actually doing some of that. Whining on her blog though is unedifying and by supporting the transparent attempts to deceive by Ted Cruz in Congress she makes it pretty hard to take the moral high ground as she attempts to here.

  43. I also think what Judith has said largely misrepresents what the letter actually said. The only policy relevant section said:

    To reduce the risk of the most severe impacts of climate change, greenhouse gas emissions must be substantially reduced. In addition, adaptation is necessary to address unavoidable consequences for human health and safety, food security, water availability, and national security, among others.

    The latter part about adaptation seems obvious. We will clearly have to adapt to certain changes. The first part about reducing greenhouse gas emissions is associated with doing so to reduce the risk of the most severe impacts. This doesn’t say we have to do so, but not doing so will not reduce the risk of the most severe impacts. I think both of these (reducing greenhouse gas emissions to reduce the risk of the most severe impacts, and adapting to address unavoidable consequences) are scientifically defensible statements.

  44. verytallguy says:

    ATTP,

    yes, I think you’re right. More broadly I’d also maintain that it does not follow that because you’re a scientific society, ethics demand you must refrain from advocating for policy.

    In fact, I’d argue the opposite – that a scientific society has a duty to advocate for policies if the science shows a very strong reason to.

    The obvious thought experiment is the impending asteroid strike which is being ignored by a world ignoring scientific findings on its approach. What should a scientific society do in such a position? Publish learned papers on orbital mechanics and economics of planetary wipeout but stay schtum?

  45. I agree. The idea that a scientific body should avoid advocation for action when aware of evidence suggesting that there could be very negative consequences if we don’t, is bizarre. We fund research in order to improve our understanding of the world around us and, ideally, to help us make informed decisions when necessary.

  46. Gove claims “people in this country have had enough of experts” after putting himself forward as a candidate for prime minister after having repeatedly pointed out that he was not qualified for that role (or words to that effect). There is a sort of logic there ;o)

  47. Magma says:

    I can only speculate as to Curry’s motives, but whether consciously or not she is attempting a divide and conquer strategy in which no one can succeed. I think this is an accurate (if hostile) summary:

    1. Only a select subset of climate physicists are competent to discuss detection and attribution of climate change
    2. Those same climate physics scientists are not competent to discuss the environmental and economic consequences of climate change, or mitigation measures.
    3. Multidisciplinary syntheses and consensuses are worthless politicized bunk.

    (correction to 2:04 AM comment: I meant to write ecologists, not entomologists twice)

  48. The Stone: A forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless. The series moderator is Simon Critchley, who teaches philosophy at The New School for Social Research.

    Clickbait headline likely not the author’s. In a world not primed to think diy is as good as the real thing, the premise would not be so annoying. I just reread it, and even on its own terms, he seems to barely touch science with his argument. Them bricks pretty strawless. There is an interesting discussion to be had about how, why, evolution of science and how to stay open-minded, but imnsho this wasn’t it.

    Do you have an opinion about the Otto book?

  49. Willard says:

  50. Magma says:

    @ Steven Mosher: Starting over 25 years ago, geophysicist-turned-computer scientist Les Hatton demonstrated a potentially similar effect with commercial software packages used for seismic interpretation in the oil industry, with literally hundreds of multimillion-dollar decisions resting on interpretations of details that were often inconsistent between packages. (Hatton has since followed up on this idea in more general terms.)

    Les Hatton, The T Experiments, Errors in Scientific Software, IEEE Computational Science & Engineering, Apr-Jun 1997, p. 27-38

    As for the new observation, it’s probably pointless for any nonspecialist unfamiliar with the field to try to come up with a meaningful comment on a highly technical issue:

    Second, a 15-year-old bug was found in 3dClustSim while testing the three software packages (the bug was fixed by the AFNI group as of May 2015, during preparation of this manuscript). The bug essentially reduced the size of the image searched for clusters, underestimating the severity of the multiplicity correction and overestimating significance (i.e., 3dClustSim FWE P values were too low).

  51. Szilard says:

    The Chilcot Inquiry site: http://www.iraqinquiry.org.uk/

    A vast trove of documentation for an experts-vs-decision makers case study. Except for the intelligence community, the experts come off far better than the decision makers in this one. Which is interesting, given various opinions to the effect that the Iraq War fiasco is a prime cause of today’s suspicion of “experts”.

  52. Steven Mosher says:

    To reduce the risk of the most severe impacts of climate change, greenhouse gas emissions must be substantially reduced. In addition, adaptation is necessary to address unavoidable consequences for human health and safety, food security, water availability, and national security, among others.

    ##//##

    To reduce the risk of the most severe impacts of climate change, greenhouse gas concentrations must be limited or capped.In addition, adaptation is necessary to address unavoidable consequences for human health and safety, food security, water availability, and national security, among others.

  53. Steven

    To reduce the risk of the most severe impacts of climate change, greenhouse gas concentrations must be limited or capped.

    Most evidence suggests that this would require substantially reducing emissions, so it’s not clear why the latter differs from the former.

  54. BBD says:

    You are being gnomic again, Steven. Perhaps you could make your point explicit?

  55. Michael 2 says:

    ATTP says “I suspect that I would be regarded as simply a physicist, and therefore not qualified either.”

    I regard you as an astronomer and no less qualified on this topic than other interested persons. I do not regard anyone as an authority in climatology simply because no one exists to confer the title of authority on the subject, without himself having been appointed to it by someone who had been appointed to it and so on. The first, naturally, appointed himself and there seems to be rather a lot of that sort of thing.

  56. JCH says:

    BOLD (Blood Oxygenation Level Dependent) fMRI operates on the principle that hemoglobin is diamagnetic when oxygenated but paramagnetic when deoxygenated. The contrast between oxygenated and deoxygenated hemoglobin can be used as an indicator of cerebral blood flow to areas with increased neural activity. …

  57. BBD says:

    I do not regard anyone as an authority in climatology simply because no one exists to confer the title of authority on the subject, without himself having been appointed to it by someone who had been appointed to it and so on. The first, naturally, appointed himself and there seems to be rather a lot of that sort of thing.

    This sort of ontology requires that nobody can be regarded as an expert in anything.

    Which, of course, is silly.

  58. Michael 2 says:

    The article states: “I’m struggling to see how I would communicate science in a manner that depended much on the ideological-biases of my audience.”

    Dan Kahan approaches it well enough IMO. Avoid the landmines, figuratively speaking. That’s about all there is to it.

    Consider:

    “When Kahan went back to the more basic questions on climate change—the world is getting hotter, and that heating is caused by humans—his subjects shifted back into their polarized positions.” (* below)

    The key word is “hotter”. Edinburgh right now is 14 degrees C (57 F) and raining (more or less). For a world to get “hotter” it must already be “hot”. Well, it isn’t, or it is, it depends on where you are, or more particularly, where is your MIND.

    Dan Kahan speaks of people having generally correct scientific understanding if the questions are written to avoid triggering a worldview:

    “Braman also sent Kahan the work of Mary Douglas, an anthropologist who, several decades earlier, had developed a cultural theory of risk assessment. Social norms, above all else, informed how people judged risks, she said. The public divided along two spectra: one measuring their support of social structure, running from egalitarian to hierarchical; the other, their devotion to individualism or communitarianism. The scales combined for four essential worldviews.” (*)

    * [http]://chronicle.com/article/Seeking-a-Climate-Change/149707/

    I found the article sufficiently interesting to read the entire thing. [Snip. -W]

  59. snarkrates says:

    Michael2,
    Just curious. Do you say these things out loud to yourself first, so you can maybe assess whether they sound stupid? Maybe try saying them to someone else before you write them.

    One becomes an authority on a subject by publishing peer-reviewed papers on it–the peers determine whether what one has to contribute is new and insightful. What you’ve contributed is not.

  60. Joshua says:

    –snip–

    Abstract:
    The purpose of the present study was the investigation of interaction effects between functional MRI scanner noise and affective neural processes. Stimuli comprised of psychoacoustically balanced musical pieces, expressing three different emotions (fear, neutral, joy). Participants (N=34, 19 female) were split into two groups, one subjected to continuous scanning and another subjected to sparse temporal scanning that features decreased scanner noise. Tests for interaction effects between scanning group (sparse/quieter vs continuous/noisier) and emotion (fear, neutral, joy) were performed. Results revealed interactions between the affective expression of stimuli and scanning group localized in bilateral auditory cortex, insula and visual cortex (calcarine sulcus). Post-hoc comparisons revealed that during sparse scanning, but not during continuous scanning, BOLD signals were significantly stronger for joy than for fear, as well as stronger for fear than for neutral in bilateral auditory cortex. During continuous scanning, but not during sparse scanning, BOLD signals were significantly stronger for joy than for neutral in the left auditory cortex and for joy than for fear in the calcarine sulcus. To the authors’ knowledge, this is the first study to show a statistical interaction effect between scanner noise and affective processes and extends evidence suggesting scanner noise to be an important factor in functional MRI research that can affect and distort affective brain processes.

    –snip–

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3832369/

  61. snarkrates says:

    Steve Mosher,
    That’s precisely why I don’t like the idea of sharing code when one can merely outline methodology and let other groups develop their on code to verify a result.

  62. Dikran Marsupial says:

    Michael2 wrote “I do not regard anyone as an authority in climatology simply because no one exists to confer the title of authority on the subject,”

    Not perfect by any means, but try this. If you seriously want to argue that the ordering of this list is not correlated with authority in climatology, you have a bit of a problem! ;o)

  63. izen says:

    @-” I do not regard anyone as an authority in climatology simply because no one exists to confer the title of authority on the subject, without himself having been appointed to it by someone who had been appointed to it and so on. ”

    Authority can only be conferred by a higher previous authority so any authority must be traceable to its antecedents?
    Turtles all the way up…

    @- Susan Anderson
    “The New York Times, I found this article, There Is No Scientific Method in the philosophy section”

    Largely recycling the sort of New Age Woo that science philosophy flirted with in the later 70s early 80s. Its a recurring theme that science has elements in common with the creative arts as a human social pursuit. It is not even new that the evolutionary, ‘survival of the fittest’ method emerges in many disciplines.
    The problem is when this is used to claim that science, like poetry, painting and music are socially defined forms. Confined by the same limitations of fashion and available narrative structures and therefore constrained to human opinion with little claim to objective truth.

    The Article is shallow and thin with bad examples that mistake a metaphorical similarity for an identity. Category errors abound. The author claims to explore the issue with more nuance and subtlety in his book. One would hope so given that he expects people to pay most of $60

    A strong counter to the idea that science is constrained by the limits of human/social creativity is Quantum mechanics. There are meant to be 5 basic narratives, ways of telling a meaningful story in human understanding. QM forced science to find a sixth. It made (makes?) no sense and many of the best scientists of the day rejected and resisted it (Einstein) but the utilitarian success and clear effectiveness of the story of quantum observational uncertainty forced its acceptance.

    No surprise that the concept then filtered into literature and music.

  64. Chris says:

    No surprise that the concept then filtered into literature and music.

    and films don’t forget:

    Quantum of Solace 🙂

  65. Michael 2 says:

    snarkrates “Michael2, Do you say these things out loud to yourself first”

    No. I imagine the sound of the words (subvocalization); it is not necessary or useful to speak out loud in an otherwise empty room. I suppose I could make movies of myself but that seems a bit narcissistic; something the millenials are more likely to do.

    “Maybe try saying them to someone else before you write them.”

    You are adequate for the purpose.

    “One becomes an authority on a subject by publishing peer-reviewed papers on it. The peers determine whether what one has to contribute is new and insightful.”

    Unfortunately, the scope of that authority is limited to those peers and their subscribers. In the Navy my authority was made visible by little golden anchors on my collar. It had powerful effect on sailors but none whatsoever to civilians. To a civilian, its just jewelry.

    Another problem is circularity. How exactly do these peers obtain the authority to designate any other authorities? Well, it was conferred on them. By whom? Sooner or later you arrive a person that conferred authority on himself and then starts bestowing authority on others.

    On other news:

    I agree with your statement that the actual code of a model need not, and probably ought not to be made public; only that methods be described so that others can write their own code and arrive at the same results (or not). If by using new code one still arrives at the same result, that is much better than simply running the same program and getting the same results (duh).

    Audits are useful but don’t count as replication.

  66. Willard says:

    Quantum is nothing compared to tornadoes:

  67. Michael 2 says:

    BBD responded, saying “This sort of ontology requires that nobody can be regarded as an expert in anything.”

    Precisely so; but not in a cosmic, global sense that an “expert” exists outside of his subscribers.

    “Which, of course, is silly.”

    On the contrary; it goes to the heart of the problem and the topic of this page. I must subscribe to at least an initial authority, a “bootstrap” operation that does not have a precedent in that particular field. This bootstrapping is almost certainly going to be social in nature.

    There’s a subtle difference between authority and expert. Authority relates to authorship; the first of anything is its author and he is the authority thereof. It is the Authority that designates Experts. Without an Authority there can be no Experts, as anyone could claim to be an expert, but as easily anyone could claim that someone else is not an expert, which is pretty much what I see, and there is no final authority that can settle the matter once and for all for everyone.

    Social authority exists; the power to command your obedience. I haven’t studied the etymology of the word when used in that context but I suspect it is related to the author of a particular social contract and thus empowered by that contract to enforce it.

    Consider colleges and universities. Whether a degree or classes obtained at one have any meaning at another depends upon an authority called an accreditation board. That little group of people ultimately decides *where* your PhD means anything. Within the scope of that accreditation board your PhD is portable and authoritative; outside the scope of that accreditation it’s basically nothing; a mere assertion or claim.

    My own educational career was stymied by just such a thing; perfect 4.0 from an accredited eastern US college, but on moving west discovered that my degree wasn’t accepted, neither any credits from that college, because the new college was accredited by a different agency, a western agency. I’m a stubborn libertarian and refused to reboot my entire college program from freshman onward just because I moved from one state to another.

    But that’s the way it is. Experts proclaiming themselves have no authority. All authority is ultimately social and emanates from the alpha person that bootstraps the authority ex-nihilo and finds a few other people to believe he has it. Then he appoints some experts and away you go; in one direction to academia, in another to religion. Not so very long ago they were one and the same.

  68. BBD says:

    Since you blanked what I had to say about the shortcomings of your ontology earlier, here’s another insight into the history of climate science. If memory serves, I have linked this for you before – possibly at Greg’s. Do please read it this time. It directly addresses your concerns.

  69. I think deGrasses has indeed strayed into areas where he has little expertise or understanding. However, I think that article probably misrepresents what he was suggesting. The article title has “ruled by evidence” while deGrasse Tyson’s tweet said “based on the weight of evidence”. I agree with the latter if what he means is “be aware of the weight of the evidence when making a decision”. It doesn’t mean that the evidence defines the decision that should be made, because there will of course be other important factors that will be hard to quantify.

  70. The article even says

    And yet, despite its abysmal track record, people continue to have extremely positive opinions of “science.”

    What abysmal track record?

  71. Steven Mosher says:

    “Steve Mosher,
    That’s precisely why I don’t like the idea of sharing code when one can merely outline methodology and let other groups develop their on code to verify a result.”

    You dont understand code sharing then.

    I will give you an example of how I use people’s code.

    1. Basic QC check. Does the code actually produce the graphics used in the article.
    In one of the early tests of reproducability Folks discovered that researchers could
    not reproduce their own studies!!
    So, when you give me your code I am going to run it just to check

    A) Is the data you reference still available ( One of ross mcKittricks papers failed on this )
    B) do the charts match?

    2. basic Math check… Opps
    http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2004/08/26/mckitrick6/
    I have my own examples of math errors found in peoples code. Even really smart guys
    They say thanks and fix it

    3. Running the Sensitivity tests that they found un interesting
    the number one reason for reqeusting Hansen’s code was to do this kind of work.
    in the end CCC did a way better job than I ever planned
    http://clearclimatecode.org/

    4. Adopting a Proven Method
    For example I took Nic Stokes Code, RomanM code and Tamino Code for calculating
    temperatures and just put it together in a system that allowed you to quickly compare and contrast

    5. Re Factoring. If you want to refactor a method into a different language ( lets say from matlab tto R ) so that more people can use it freely then having the code is necessary.

    6. Freeing up the orginator from support.

    its funny that you think you can merely outline a method and people will get the same result.

    But here is the point

    The primary reason for sharing you code and data is so that Others can more easily build on what you have done.

    If your goal is disproving stuff… then sure go take the instructions given in the paper do your own version, see if you can get the same result and when you dont try to figure out why.
    if your goal is building on stuff then you’ll want the stuff to build on and the best tools available.

  72. Steven Mosher says:

    “I think deGrasses has indeed strayed into areas where he has little expertise or understanding. However, I think that article probably misrepresents what he was suggesting. The article title has “ruled by evidence” while deGrasse Tyson’s tweet said “based on the weight of evidence”. I agree with the latter if what he means is “be aware of the weight of the evidence when making a decision”. It doesn’t mean that the evidence defines the decision that should be made, because there will of course be other important factors that will be hard to quantify.”

    I’m still forming an opinion on this whole question of the role of experts.
    Since its the internet I naturally want to disagree with everything you wrote.. haha.

    i think we want to listen to experts
    Im not sure we know one when we see one
    I am also aware of systems that are weak because of a single failure point.

    Perhaps there is an interesting debate..

    The army of davids versus experts.

    or.. when does the wisdom of crowds trump the wisdom of experts?

    hard question.

    I’ll also observe that we can probably never use the word trump in quite the same way ..

  73. I agree that it is potentially difficult. On the other hand, if people were really serious about getting advice from experts, then they could simply talk to lots of people who had credentials in some relevant area and see if some kind of consistent picture emerges. That’s essentially what the IPCC does. My own view is that it is probably not that hard to get an idea of whether or not there is general agreement amongst those with relevant credentials (let’s call them experts) or not and – if there is agreement – what the general view is. It’s probably, however, pretty difficult to get those who are in decision making roles to actually do this.

  74. Kevin O'Neill says:

    SM writes: “Perhaps there is an interesting debate..
    The army of davids versus experts.
    or.. when does the wisdom of crowds trump the wisdom of experts?

    I’ve seen this same sentiment voiced before, yet I’ve never seen anyone who advocates this position actually live by it (though *die by it* would probably be the likely outcome).

    Surveys like those done by the National Science Foundation on basic public knowledge of science and engineering would signal caution in believing in the wisdom of crowds.

    Fig. 7-9 is also relevant.

  75. Yes Izen, almost all NYT commenters agreed it was bad and even dangerously bad, “woo woo” is a good description.

    The book I was asking about was the Shawn Otto War on Science aTTP mentioned in his text because I was wondering if it had anything new in it compared with, for example, Jane Mayer’s Dark Money and Mooney and Oreskes on Merchants of Doubt, and a host of others. It’s annoying that people have to make nice in the middle with the constant moving of goalposts.

  76. Susan,
    I haven’t finished Shawn Otto’s book, but I am finding it interesting and well written. I haven’t the other books you mention, so I can’t compare it to them.

  77. izen says:

    @-SM
    “or.. when does the wisdom of crowds trump the wisdom of experts?
    hard question.”

    Not really, the answer is very rarely, only when the uncertainty or probability distribution of the answer at issue is Gaussian and matches the ‘crowd’ uncertainty. For any system with granular/skewed probabilities it fails. That’s why nobody tries to determine the mass of the Higgs by asking a crowd.

    Focusing on ‘experts’ confuses person with content. A particular specific expert may or may not present an accurate version of the best knowledge human society has about something. We do not use the radiative transfer equations because Plass has scientific authority, any credibility Plass et al have is because the equations work. They produce useful results. When a field of science has established the legitimacy of utility it requires extraordinary evidence to reject conclusions drawn from that same science in other fields.

    It is why most people accept that astronomers can find planets around other stars because the methodology used to deduce that involves scientific knowledge that has been validated by its functionality in other areas.

    There is one way in which the wisdom of crowds may Trump the wisdom of an expert. when it is a crowd of experts. The statements made by most scientific bodies as representative of the overall opinion of their participants would be an example. Obviously some will have extreme views either way, but those statements do represent the wisdom of a crowd with some chance of matching the probability distribution of the real uncertainties.

  78. izen says:

    @-“I think deGrasses has indeed strayed into areas where he has little expertise or understanding.”

    I do not see deGrasse presenting himself as having expertise or understanding in any particular field. Except perhaps in being able to present aspects of science in an entertaining and amusing way to a particular demographic with a low level of knowledge and interest in science.
    Popularisers have a role to play as with Bill Nye but it is a category error to class them as experts or the best source of evidence and understanding about some scientific issue with a significant social impact.

  79. Mighty Drunken says:

    I am glad this topic came up! As an expert on expert opinion, especially if we want or should listen to experts, my considered opinion is, “No we shouldn’t”.
    BTW if anyone wants some brain surgery I will give it a go, I promise I am not an expert.

  80. izen writes: “I do not see deGrasse presenting himself as having expertise or understanding in any particular field.”

    I believe you sell NGT a bit short. He’s not simply a talking head. Like Sagan, he was a scientist first.

  81. Bob Loblaw says:

    SWMBO and I watched a couple of documentaries we had recorded on TV that are relevant to all this. The first was on conspiracy theories:

    http://www.cbc.ca/doczone/episodes/conspiracy-rising-1

    and touched on a lot of the common themes that appear in the Climate Wars. We then watched one on experts:

    http://www.cbc.ca/doczone/episodes/the-trouble-with-experts

    I wished I’d know the information in that one 35 years ago. Apparently you can become an “expert” for a few thousand dollars and a couple of weeks’ training. It covers the essentials: how to be confident, how to be decisive, don’t show doubt, etc. All about how to be “an expert on TV”. Silly me, I’ve spent nearly 40 years studying for a bachelor’s degree and a PhD, then teaching, publishing, followed by working and doing research in atmospheric science. I think I can say that I have some expertise in the subject of climate, but I never get to play an expert on TV! (Well, just once, 25 years ago.)

    Tangent: I’ve read Mooney’s “The Republican War on Science”. It’s worth the effort. I’ll probably try to find Otto’s book locally, unless someone who has read both says it covers no new ground. The actual approach taken by affectionados of the war on science pretty much follows a “let’s make it look like we’ve got science on our side, but don’t let real science get a foothold in the public mind”. Pretty much a more sophisticated version of what Steven Colbert calls “truthiness”.

  82. Dikran Marsupial says:

    Michael2 wrote “In the Navy my authority was made visible by little golden anchors on my collar.”

    Perhaps there are good reasons why the navy and academia do not operate in the same way in this respect. If you need golden anchors to recognize authority, that suggests a rather unthinking/unquestioning attitude, which isn’t going to work well in science for rather obvious reasons.

  83. Dikran Marsupial says:

    BTW, I think you will find that the general public do respect military rank as an indicator of authority on military matters, so your analogy was obviously bogus anyway.

  84. ligne says:

    “Another problem is circularity. How exactly do these peers obtain the authority to designate any other authorities? Well, it was conferred on them. By whom? Sooner or later you arrive a person that conferred authority on himself and then starts bestowing authority on others.”

    can you give a couple of examples of this happening?

  85. Dikran Marsupial says:

    “How exactly do these [admirals] obtain the authority to designate any other [admirals]? Well, it was conferred on them. By whom? Sooner or later you arrive a[n] admiral that conferred authority on himself and then starts bestowing [admiralties] on others.”

    Of course if you go back far enough, then admirals were essentially self-bestowed (c.f. privateers), so presumably Michael2 questions the authority of modern admirals? ;o) Alternatively this could just be bullshit (in the Harry Frankfurt sense) and Michael2 doesn’t want to accept the academic authority of those who have earned it through their hard work and excellence.

  86. Pingback: The Scientific Method | …and Then There's Physics

  87. Brian Dodge says:

    I doubt that Michael2, and many like him, could anonymously text Mann and Monckton to discuss global warming, and ever tell which one is an expert on global warming. If the conversations strayed into politics, many would misattribute scientific expertise to Monckton due to concordant political views.
    The essentials – confidence, decisiveness, certainty, or little gold anchors on the collars may convey authority, but they have little to do with expertise, or even the ability to recognize it.

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