March 26, 2007


Sometimes as you read a post, you feel an inner cheer from the inside. Such an emotion came across me as I read the Political Umpire (a man for whom the term, robust good sense was invented) today on homeopathy. His post is a delight to read but it reflects something that I think is rather insidious. Chris Dillow often speaks about a corrupting respect for experts, most recently here and he is right to draw attention to the way that experts are not neccesarily, especially in politics or on stockmarkets, the best guessers of what will happen. However what I am sure that Chris would agree with and what the political umpire's post suggests is that there are some branches of knowledge- medicine would be one where there is a method to do things and not following that method means that your conclusions aren't very useful. What is interesting is that often in the fields of probabilistic calculation where knowledge doesn't neccessarily help we rely on experts and in fields where knowledge is definite, we tend to allow too much debate.

To be uncharitable you might call it the Today program error. On the one side I have an eminent scientist who beleives in evolution, on the other a creationist who has never done any proper science who doesn't and I treat them equally. One though has done a huge ammount of experiments, rigorously tested out his theories and the other hasn't. Despite that the interviewer and the public adopt a posture somewhere in the middle. There are unfortunately, postmodernism aside for a moment, facts which we can prove, theories which help us understand the world. Experts of course are people and are fallible and wrong often- but there are ways of locating and testing and finding out knowledge- footnotes in history (so that others can find your sources), repeatable experiments in science (so that others can do the same experiment you do), archived surveying in social sciences (so that others can look at the same data that you derived your work from)- if I have something that has better footnotes or experimental data to back it up then unless my thesis is irrational, its true.

Chris Dillow often speaks about expertise in a rather dismissive tone and he is right too- experts aren't very good at predicting. But rigour in finding knowledge is different from expertise in guessing what will happen- and rigour is what we need. That doesn't mean we need a class of experts at all- because human beings are flawed and make lots of mistakes, but it does mean that it isn't legitimate to argue in certain ways. It isn't legitimate to say that homeopathy works just because it feels like it does- you need experiments and trials just like other medicine. It isn't legitimate to say as someone recently told me that the Catholic Church has never enjoined resistance to a sovereign, you'd need a lot of footnotes to persuade me that it hadn't- and you'd need to explain what was happening say Robert Parsons. Arguing like this isn't elitest it is simply to demand that people when they talk about facts work out what the facts are before they discuss them.

I suppose to a certain extent what we see in society at the moment is too much respect for experts as magi, as mystical beings who divine truth in a mysterious way, and too little respect for the way that truth is manufactured. The truth is that what an expert says goes no further in its validity than his footnote or his experiment will take him or her, we tend to think that experts are a caste apart when they are just ordinary humans using a method to create knowledge. Chris is right, we shouldn't be too respectful of the prognostications of experts, but when we criticise we should be clear about what we are doing. Noone knows the future, and in many cases your hunch is as good as mine. But there are things that we do know and that we can find out and about those we should be rigorous. Homeopathy is just unproven- we should be clear that is so and reject it until someone does the experiment which shows that it works and is repeatable by others.

(Incidentally I should say that this post is a work in progress- the conclusions are uncertain and I'm willing to accept some discussion on some of these points.)


chris said...

Since you've invited me to agree, I will.
My objection to trusting "experts" is to the notion that there is a priestly elite that knows best. What we should trust is facts and logic - that is, the scientific process (when done properly) - not people.
Quacks exploit precisely this category error. They hope a good PR machine and pleasing manner will disguise the fact that they know nothing.
The tragedy is that journalists so often fall for it - but then, journos are suckers for trusting people rather than processes.

Political Umpire said...

Thanks for the kind remarks G, and I think your post is spot on. I think the point is that there are experts and then there are experts. Your contrast between the 'creation scientists' and those who have studied evolution and the world's origins is a nice illustration.

The following is from a review by Robert Nola of Meera Nanda's important book "Prophets Facing Backward", which talks about another pseudo science popular in the East, 'verdic science':

"In the West we are familiar with the way in which creationists have co-opted the word ?science? to give 'creation science' wider credibility. Creationists conduct no experiments, make hardly any observational investigations, do not investigate hypotheses in relation to experiment and observation, and publish their results in no journal that is even vaguely scientific - except their own publications. Their programme of 'creation science' has not discovered one novel fact, the discovery of genuine novelty being one of the features of nearly all sciences. Finally, creation science is in conflict with theories of evolution, but fails to show in what way it might be superior either on grounds of evidence, or by offering better explanations, and the like. In these respects it exhibits all the features of a speculative hypothesis that is maintained not by anything that might be vaguely deemed scientific, but by other, extra-scientific interests. In these respects it is certainly a non-science, and there are good grounds for declaring it a pseudo-science.

This is not to say that all speculative doctrines have no scientific value. As Popperians are fond of pointing out, there are doctrines which are advanced on grounds other than those accepted in the sciences, the prime example being Ancient Greek atomism. This was arrived at by philosophical considerations; but it remained a piece of influential metaphysical speculation that had no empirical basis until one was provided towards the end of the 19th century. So even Popperians who are fond of demarcating science from non-science, and from pseudo-science, leave room for a doctrine such as atomism which is non-scientific but not necessarily pseudo-scientific. Of course, one of the things rejected by all postmodernists, and some other approaches in contemporary science studies, is any attempt to draw up such lines of demarcation. But given these broad demarcations, a close comparison can be drawn between 'Vedic Science' and 'creation science' that sets both at odds with ancient Greek atomism. All three doctrines share the feature of being non-scientific, but atomism left itself open to becoming scientific while the first two doctrines do not, thereby exhibiting all the features of a pseudo-science. Yet both are touted by their advocates as scientific."

james higham said...

...too much respect for experts as magi...

That's so true. The scientists have been gods to the populace, especially on the notion of evolution which has so many holes in it and changes by the decade.

Empiricism is not the be all and end all, Tiberius. The comment here in the comments section that Creation Scientists [a misnomer if ever there was one] do no experiments is fatuous. Only a scientist would come out with that.

There are so many other fields of knowledge testable by other means but this is not countenanced in this humanistic age.

Andy D said...

I agree with a lot of the information in your post and in the follow up comments. I have one very straight forward question: Why isn’t this same standard applied to global warming?

If any other scientists put forth the same models that are put forth in the global warming arguments, they would be ignored or even laughed at. The global warming models simply don’t work. One can’t take any historical data and input it into the models and expect a close guess to today’s climate. And yet, on news story after news story, global warming is treated as a fact.

If we are going to apply the Scientific Method to religion, then why shouldn’t we apply it to science?

james higham said...

Two things here, Andy D: warming is treated as a fact...

Yes, it clearly is. Just look outside the window, let alone the scientific evidence.

...If we are going to apply the Scientific Method to religion, then why shouldn’t we apply it to science...

Precisely. It's time Science was put under the microscope.

By the way, please forgive my tone in the last few posts, Tiberius. I've just finished a gruelling three weeks and am too crotchety for words. Back to normal soon.

A. said...

great post.

Gracchi said...

Andy I am not sure I want to get into the Global Warming debate. Your point about religion is interesting- I personally don't think that science can discuss the real subject of religion which is the existance of a God. What science discusses is the reality as it appears to us here and now- evolution is part of that- but it can't discuss what might appear and what might exist in addition.

As to your point about global warming, my own understanding is that the scientific work has been done according to the usual methods. But I'm not going to say anymore- I suggest you bring up those issues at this blog where the guys probably know more than I do about the issues.

james higham said...

What science discusses is the reality as it appears to us here and now- evolution is part of that...

Evolution is a theory, Tiberius, as much as the divinity of Christ, which had certain evidence supporting it, though not conclusively. Ditto evolution.

Where science fails is that it does not follow your dictive and explain reality fully, for there is much reality in ghostly apparitions, auras around humans,UFOs, strnge non-temporal phenomena. These things exist but they are not explained.

Science must explain birth - why life comes to a person. Not how they move and eat - that is within the scope of science. I mean feelings, spiritual warmth and human perverseness. How the controlling mechanism for the organism operates.

Science must not be just cold and clinical observation of rocks and vertebrates. It hs a larger responsibility than that.

We may not like the realm of the spirit, we may deny it but for many, many people, it exists. There's something there all right and it needs to be explained.

Gracchi said...

James no I'm not that people shouldn't explain the realm of 'spirit' and lets stick with that for the moment as a definition. Just that science which is about the observation of facts in this world can't explain it. Scientific thinking is only part of one's general philosophy- its never the whole of it there are lots of subjects like how we know what we know, what people have felt about things in the past, whether art is beautiful, whether something beyond the world exists which are important and have answers but those answers just aren't scientific.