There’s a flurry of surprise in the media at the suggestion that “neutrinos travel faster than light”. It seems many of us are surprised that scientists are surprised. Again and again, the media make the mistake of thinking that science is a very trustworthy body of knowledge, instead of a very risky, hypothetical, often internally inconsistent body of guesswork.
Why? – I think it has something to do with the social status we accord scientists, and experts in general. And the urge to accord an elite special social status seems like a nearly universal human failing. Most human societies seem to have notable figures – such as “holy men” or experts in subjects that are arcane to the average person – who are not simply consulted for their opinions, but are entrusted with decision-making powers on the basis of their expertise. These experts are not entirely to blame for their own status: ordinary people are generally uncomfortable with uncertainty, and hate making decisions in a vacuum. So they tend to abdicate the responsibility – and avoid the anxiety – of thinking for themselves, by passing decision-making powers to others. For their part, most experts are happy to accept this honour. The “activists” among them actively seize the honour. For that reason among others, academics naturally gravitate towards the role of “expert” or “guardian of opinions” in society.
That may be good for academics, but I think it’s bad for individual development, bad for truth, and bad for knowledge.
And it’s bad epistemology. An expert is someone who is unusually familiar with his subject (i.e. a set of theories) rather than someone who makes unusually reliable judgements about the subject matter (i.e. the reality the theories purport to describe). To illustrate this, take economists. Some of them passionately believe that Hayek was right, while others passionately believe that Keynes was right. Both no doubt have endless arcane details of their respective theories at their fingertips. Whichever side happens to be right, the self-assurance of economists is evidently no measure of the reliability of their opinions. The same applies to experts in theology. However familiar they may be with the “five ways” of Aquinas or the “seven pillars” of Islam, they are the last people anyone should consult on the question of God’s existence.
Or take philosophers. A utilitarian like Peter Singer can make a decent case for euthanasia, and a non-utilitarian like Roger Scruton can make a decent case against it. Evidently, an “expert in moral issues” is someone who spends a lot of time thinking about moral issues, not someone whose moral opinions are more reliable than the moral opinions of others. (If they were more reliable, there would be more convergence.)
Experts such as scientists do not have more reliable opinions, but more penetrating opinions. In other words, they theorize about the hidden structure of reality, but the more hidden is the reality they theorize about, the riskier their theories get. The history of science is a series of ever more penetrating theories, almost all of which are eventually rejected as false. But lack of certainty doesn’t matter here – the beauty of science lies in its penetrating power rather than its certainty.
The one place where certainly (or at least reliability) really does matter is in action. We act to achieve goals, and we should be guided by trustworthy beliefs about how to achieve them. To strive for the required level of trustworthiness, ordinary non-expert members of the public should listen carefully to expert opinion, on all sides, but make judgements for themselves. As Edmund Burke noted, trustworthy judgements are more likely to be made in the everyday realm of common sense than in the rarefied air of arcane expert opinion. That is why juries of ordinary people make decisions in law courts rather than expert witnesses. Jury members listen to expert opinions, of course, before they decide. One of the most important functions of the jury is to force expert witnesses and legal representatives to make their case in layman’s terms, in other words to drag the discussion down to Earth, where reliable judgements can be made.