Antitechnocracy

A reporter from This American Life did something interesting for today’s broadcast: she brought together a ninth-grade global warming skeptic and the executive director of the National Earth Science Teachers Association together in the show studio for a discussion. (Audio available here.) The dialogue was reasoned and civil. In quick summary: the scientist presented the skeptic with the best evidence available and went through the logical arguments, from temperature/CO2 correlations to ice core measurements. The skeptic then asked, “well, what about the following things?” – and presented some common climate-change-skeptic arguments (for example, why has there been higher snowfall in recent years in some places). The scientist went through each, point by point, and explained the science behind each and whether or not that science was relevant to the overall climate picture (for example, warmer temperatures allow the atmosphere to hold more water vapor, giving the higher snowfall – and, besides, our day-to-day weather experience is separable from the trend of the climate).

At the end, the reporter asked the skeptic how convincing the evidence was. Did she buy it? In short: no. She said that she could see how the scientist’s explanations could account for all the data, but… The ninth-grader then said something very astute here. This is a similar situation to the debates between scientists and educators and creationists. You have some people who can be convinced, and some who accept the theory, but then there are also some people who won’t buy the scientific results no matter what. In other words, when we want to believe something, we tend to believe it. Regardless of evidence.

Next, the reporter asked the ninth-grader if the scientist could do something to sway her opinion, and what that would be. The ninth-grader thought for a moment, and decided that if she just had all the arguments from both sides laid out in front of her, and she got to make her own decision, then she would be more likely to accept the scientific consensus.

I have mixed feelings about that conclusion. On the one hand, I would like to laud this ninth-grader for her desire to weigh all the evidence and arguments and make an informed decision. (I definitely want to laud her for her presence and attitude on the radio. She was quite reasonable and did a great job expressing herself.) But, on the other hand, the scientist was right to point out that when we are trying to account for the behavior of the universe, our belief has no bearing on reality. And, if this ninth-grader really wants to make all her decisions and form all her opinions this way…she’s got several lifetimes of study, schooling, and degree programs ahead of her.

I wonder to what extent this sort of attitude is systemic in American society. Politicians and pundits challenge scientific findings on the basis of belief, politics, “common sense,” and “gut feelings.” School board candidates get elected by saying that they will “stand up to the experts.” We are supposed to feel that we live in a free country, that everybody’s opinion is valid, and that anyone can make a decision on any issue. While I think that everyone has (and should have) that potential, I am not comfortable with the recent anti-expertise trend that I think may result from that philosophy.

Let me provide a concrete example: suppose I go to the emergency room because there is something going dramatically wrong with my body. I don’t want to try to suss out a diagnosis using only common sense, and I don’t want a doctor who will base his medical decisions on similarly fuzzy impressions. I want the best doctor. I want an expert doctor. I want a doctor who knows all the details of the human body, how drugs and lab tests and surgical procedures work and interact, and how all that knowledge applies to my situation. Similarly, if I have a legal problem, I want an expert defense lawyer – because, though I have the right to defend myself and I’m decent at expressing my opinions, I know that a competent prosecutor could run circles around me. Heck, if I have a car problem, even though I’m an engineer for a living and I learned all about combustion cycles and the principles of mechanics in my physics classes, I want an expert mechanic to fix my problems. I’m a smart and capable guy, but I don’t have the time or desire to become an expert in all these things – so I rely on other people.

“Common sense” is great for some things, such as solving interpersonal problems. But common sense didn’t get us to the Moon, or win the World Wars, or invent the modern computer, or eradicate smallpox. Expertise did those things, and many more.

In the case of climate change, the expert scientists have long held a consensus conclusion. Most of the arguments denying global warming come from politicians and commentators. If we all were willing to go through the effort of learning the scientific process, learning the techniques and tricks that scientists use to produce their results, combing through and analyzing the data, and weighing our conclusions against other studies, then this debate wouldn’t be happening the way it is. Nor would it be happening so if we accepted the conclusions of those experts who did devote their lives to all that data analysis and research. But it seems that Americans all want to make their own decisions on the matter – that they want to think that their beliefs, rather than data-driven conclusions, describe the way the universe works.

After the data is analyzed, though, there is an important role for common sense to play: determining the policy actions, if any, informed by expert conclusions. If economic conservatives want to accept that climate change is happening, but adopt the position that we should not take any action to prevent it, then I can respect that viewpoint as intellectually honest even if I disagree. But when such people deny climate change entirely, well…I wonder what kinds of doctors they want treating them.

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