We are all in some bubble of information these days. In my bubble, one understandable but troubling trend has manifested itself: an incessant insistence by the popular press that only ‘experts’ (i.e., academically-trained researchers) have any right to speak on issues that concern things of import (health, prosperity, etc.).
It is a truism to say that people who have dedicated significant time to studying a particular phenomena should be given ample time and influence when the public-at-large must decide how to respond to that phenomena. If I have an issue with my plumbing, I call a plumber. But this doesn’t mean that an arbitrary plumber that picks up the phone may know all that there is to know about plumbing, that a plumber is immune to other influences which may affect his or her advice, or that I should I fix my plumbing without considering other effects that the plumber may be agnostic to (e.g., should I drain my child’s education savings account to fix a plumbing issue?).
Much of the same issues that affect plumbing affect science, but sometimes more acutely. First, who decides who has the credentials to work as a scientist? Largely, other scientists. A plumber is judged by their technical prowess, by their creativity, and by the longevity of their work. The ultimate arbiter are the facts-of-the-matter: was the leak stopped? how expensive was the work? A scientist is no different except in one important aspect: the ultimate arbiters of science are, in the short term, other scientists.
To avoid becoming a self-justifying cult of truth, the modern academic system rests on the ability of ‘experts’ to avoid, as much as possible, allegiances to a particular truth. Instead, the system is built on the meta-truth of an honest pursuit of Truth. Through this ethic, science remains open to new ideas, and rids itself of theories that calcify into unquestionable gospel without an overwhelming amount of evidence. Even then, we can speak of theories that have predictive power, but little aesthetic appeal. We should be suspicious of scientists who (1) present any particular model as beyond questioning, and (2) apply science as an all-encompassing explanatory system. The question of whether or not all phenomena can be studied through scientific means is itself not scientific.
Broadly speaking, a Ph.D. means that one has demonstrated the skills to present and investigate some theory and communicate one’s conclusions in a cogent manner. However, the overwhelming majority of ‘theories’ are not made ex-nihilo, but are the product of a scientific milieu which has fashions, dogma, and political undercurrents (wherever there are gatekeepers, there is politics).
Second, science, in so far as it relies on this hypothetico-deductive model, is not designed to provide positive answers. It is designed to reject false theories. Out of the theories which are clearly not ‘false’, which one best reflects reality? That question is generally not in the purview of science. For example, there are alternative theories to general relativity that explain relativistic gravity. However, general relativity is considered to be the most appealing because it is the simplest. This appeal to Occam’s razor is an aesthetic judgement; but why should it be true? It itself cannot be rejected by science. Further still, there are almost certainly theories or parts of theories which may be true but are simply unfashionable to even reject. They are below consideration, but may not be below ‘truth’.
In light of this, it is particularly troubling to see the scientist idolized as a kind of philosopher-king. I love science, I love academia, but I do not love idolatry. To the extent possible, academics are trained to be free from political inclinations, to not be affected by trends and fashions, and to seek ‘truth’ for the benefit of all humankind. But they are trained in a very specific sense, almost always specializing in a narrow slice of ‘truth’, and with conflicting and pernicious mantra (publish or perish!).
The history of science, philosophy, and medicine is rife with examples where ‘outsiders’ and ‘non-experts’ fought, often in vain, for heterodox opinions that were rejected by the ‘scientific consensus’ at the time but which we now take for granted. Not everyone with a heterodox opinion is Copernicus, but neither must they be an ignorant crackpot who wishes to poison the populace.
The reality, for scientists and for all people, is that we are all trying our best to interpret the phenomena we see before us. Given sufficient patience and diligence, science can help us contextualize phenomena and reject theories that do not explain new evidence. But science is not, and will never be, free of politics, dogma and fashionable ways to conceive of the world. Even if this was the case, we must not fool ourselves into believing that a concrete understanding of the world will make our decisions as simple as consulting the experts on the matter.
As David Hume wrote, we cannot get an ought from an is. Ultimately, what society ought to do is the choice of the society itself, of which the ‘experts’ on any particular issue are but one part.
Yours in pulp,