Tuesday, July 06, 2010

PZ Myers explains why you should trust the experts

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Cartoon scientist

For all those who claim that we cannot know anything for certain, that science is just as dogmatic as blind faith, and especially, that we shouldn’t trust the “experts” and that those who rely on the intellectual authority of scientists are wrong and foolish, then I wish to present you with this excellent retort from PZ Myers who says it as it is:

We read the books — even the simple books for the lay public — and they describe the evidence for the age of the earth, and they also explain how the data is used to explore deeper into geology. I'm not a physicist or geologist, but it's relatively easy to get an overview of the host of data used to support estimates of the age of the earth, to see the degree of detail geologists have at hand, and it's also even easier to see that working geologists and physicists, people with in-depth training in their fields, are not arguing over whether the earth is 6000 or 4.6 billion years old; the issue is settled.

It's not dogmatism, it's pragmatism. The depth of science is so great that no one brain can even grasp the whole of a single subfield, so we trust our colleagues — at least, we trust them as far as they demonstrate cooperation with the tacit rules of the institution of science, which safeguard to some extent the reliability of a scientific claim. The relevant scientists say the earth is 4.6 billion years old, and they are all willing to show their work, so I'll provisionally accept it until I see a reliable source provide cantrary evidence. A cowardly creationist who won't even set a rough date is not a reliable source.

Of course, he’s talking about scientists’ certainty regarding the established age of the Earth (ie. the field of geology), but you could replace that with any other subject or field – Evolution over Creationism (biology), vaccines vs. antivaccination (medicine), whatever – and still get it perfectly right. Yes, experts are often wrong, and some so-called “experts” truly are nothing but charlatans out to peddle an agenda. (See the case of Creationists coasting through PhD programs just to subsequently be able to use their credentials to proclaim their authority despite their utter cluelessness in the matter.) The thing is, though, that whatever mistakes that experts make are certain to usually be quite small in scale – such as, say, getting the age of the universe wrong by a degree of a few thousand or million years, which is less than the blink an eye in cosmological terms – and that regardless of the fact that scientific experts are just as human, and therefore fallible, as anyone else, the (more important) fact that they have spent their lives searching, researching, digging for answers, testing ideas and meticulously laying out the conclusions of their scientific explorations does act to give them all the credibility they need to be taken seriously by laypeople, those who are not scientists and therefore rely on actual scientists – the experts – to tell us what is and what isn’t.

Are they sometimes wrong? Yes. But does that affect the fact that they are still the most knowledgeable and generally unbiased, and therefore trustworthy, people out there in terms of acquiring knowledge? No. So, yes, you truly should “trust the experts” – not as infallible gods of empirical knowledge, but as people who usually possess a far greater understanding of our universe and its workings than you do (as is delineated by their chosen fields of expertise, that is) and, therefore, whom you should ask for knowledge, rather than any old uneducated, underqualifed and usually politically- and/or ideologically-driven hack.