Thursday, 15 September 2011

On the disconnect between scientific and public opinion

No one has the time to become an expert on everything.

With the division of labour, individuals can develop skills in a specific discipline to a much higher degree than if we were to learn them all - we're no longer a "jacks of all trades, masters of none". We now have modern societies where specialised individuals have to rely completely on each other for even for the most basic and fundamental needs.

There's nothing wrong with that. Division of labour is closely associated with increased productivity, the rise of capitalism, and... the modern world, really. When someone spends their entire life perfecting skills in anything, it benefits us all. You don't have to invent the telephone and microwave by yourself. You don't need to build your own house or fix your own car. You don't have to develop an antibiotic and fashion a syringe to administer it - there are experts you can turn to who will do a much better job than you ever could.

So, every day we depend on the opinions of experts. Some might claim this is an appeal to authority, a logical fallacy: since they are a figure of authority, they cannot be wrong. For example, it would be silly to accept that the earth is flat simply because the prime minister of Australia said so.

But it is not fallacious when a consensus exists among legitimate experts on a particular matter in their field of specialisation.

Scientific consensus is not in itself a scientific argument, and it is not part of the scientific method. But for those of us who are not expert scientists on the subject in question, it is the best way to gain an understanding of the current state of the science. No need to point out that science cannot be decided by popular vote - scientific consensus is entirely different from a poll of public opinion.

A scientific consensus also lets us avoid putting all our eggs in one expert's basket. For laypeople, it is much better to understand the scientific consensus, rather than the opinions of a single scientist. A quote from Brian Dunning, author of the Skeptoid podcast:
When you hear any claim validated by the fact that some "scientists" support it, be skeptical. You need to know who they are, what their interest is, and especially what the preponderance of opinion in the scientific community is. You need to know if the scientist being quoted actually has anything to do with this particular subject, or if his specialty is in an unrelated field. Look to see if this scientist has authored a good number of publications on the subject in legitimate peer-reviewed journals. Find out what other published scientists in his field say about him. Determine whether his views are generally in line with the preponderance of opinion among his peers in his discipline. Fringe opinions are on the fringe for a reason: they're usually wrong.
Read the complete article here: Scientists Are Not Created Equal

Unfortunately, most people are not very good at gathering an accurate impression of scientific opinion. Few know what peer review is or how it works, and many develop strong opinions about scientific matters despite having poor knowledge.

Added to this, even when we do receive information from scientists, we tend to choose those experts who agree with our preconceptions.
...scientific opinion fails to quiet societal dispute on such issues not because members of the public are unwilling to defer to experts but because culturally diverse persons tend to form opposing perceptions of what experts believe. Individuals systematically overestimate the degree of scientific support for positions they are culturally predisposed to accept as a result of a cultural availability effect that influences how readily they can recall instances of expert endorsement of those positions.
Cultural cognition of scientific consensus

This results in instances where some people decide that the majority of experts agree with their opinion, when in truth it's the opposite. If 97% of experts are in a consensus, they'll simply listen to the 3% who support their views. A disconnect between scientific and public opinion develops.

Apparently, that's just how human brains work.
In a famous 1950s psychology experiment, researchers showed students from two Ivy League colleges a film of an American football game between their schools in which officials made a series of controversial decisions against one side. Asked to make their own assessments, students who attended the offending team's college reported seeing half as many illegal plays as did students from the opposing institution.
Fixing the communications failure

So what exactly am I getting at? Another quote from the above article should explain:
the goal... is not to induce public acceptance of any particular conclusion, but rather to create an environment for the public’s openminded, unbiased consideration of the best available scientific information.
This is all I want. I'm not sure exactly what will solve the problem. But I'm working on an idea which will hopefully help those who don't have the time or inclination to read hundreds of scientific articles in an attempt to get a solid grasp of scientific opinion.

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