How to deal with expert consensus

I realized recently that there are two main ways of rejecting what expert consensus seems to recommend. One option can be really interesting and worthwhile, and the other is almost always a waste of time.

Let’s start with the latter. The wrong way of rejecting expert consensus is just by saying that the experts are wrong, from a standpoint of non-expertise. This can often take the form of saying, “I’m aware of one or two or three studies [and, by implication, unaware of all the others], or of one or two or three experts, and what I hear from them confirms what I want to believe, so I feel justified in rejecting whatever I don’t want to believe.”

That’s just not a smart way of determining what we should believe, and it will certainly not be an effective way of convincing anyone who doesn’t want to be convinced. By that standard, everyone can be justified in believing virtually anything we might want to. In other words, by choosing this as our standard, we are replacing the possibility of a quest for truth with the sheer assertion of will.

The problem is that we aren’t in a better position to judge those studies or those experts than is the community of people who have been studying the topic at a high level for a lifetime. If we think that we are, then we’ve just made a very elementary and embarrassing mistake. That’s not to say that such bets will never turn out to be correct! Maybe in the long run the side we’re hoping is correct will actually turn out to be correct. But when that happens, it won’t be because we knew better than all the experts did. It will be nothing but luck which will have placed us on the winning side. We’re just as likely to get the right result if we picked our decision based on our horoscope or based on a dice roll. If we want to be on the side with the best evidence as it currently stands, we should always lean to the side of the expert consensus.

So then, what’s the other option? To me, this is where things get interesting. What we can do is accept the testimony of the knowledgeable, and then ask in what different ways we can act on that consensus. Usually, if we reject what the experts are saying, it’s less because of our allegiance to some vision of the truth than because we don’t like the practical implications that seem to follow from it. By rejecting the facts we don’t like, we can reject the actions we don’t want to take. But instead of willfully rejecting the facts, we can re-examine the apparent connection between the facts and the consequent actions.

The question of climate change is a good example. People who really don’t want to have to pay a gas tax, or who really don’t want to see the oil industry hurting, might just say that climate change is a big hoax, and damn whatever the supposed experts all want to say. There’s no way to have much of an intelligent or productive conversation with people who approach things in this way.

But we can have some interesting conversations, on the other hand, if we first all accept that to the best of our current knowledge, human-driven climate change is a fact and it will have damaging effects on the world and on society as it now exists. Having accepted a common starting point, then we can disagree on what to do about it. There are a great many economists who accept climate change as a reality but don’t accept that there is a simultaneous imperative to halt climate change as fast as humanly possible no matter the cost. They would have us invest our resources instead in a way that might be more realistic. If we devoted part of our efforts to replacing current technologies with existing greener alternatives, as the environmentalists advocate, that could be worthwhile, they say; but we can also devote some of our resources to trying to curb the harms climate change will bring about (eg by moving people away from coasts, further inland), and some to developing even more advanced technologies that might be able to make a bigger difference in the future when we need it. This is more likely to succeed, and will bring about better outcomes for humanity, they think, than just by trying as hard as we can to hit the brakes on carbon right away.

Are they right? I’m not qualified to judge. But I know that is a much more interesting and worthwhile conversation, and is much more likely to help us think about the things that need consideration.

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