by Thomas R. Wells
The authority of scientific experts is in decline. This is unfortunate since experts – by definition – are those with the best understanding of how the world works, what is likely to happen next, and how we can change that for the best. Human civilisation depends upon an intellectual division of labour for our continued prosperity, and also to head off existential problems like epidemics and climate change. The fewer people believe scientists’ pronouncements, the more danger we are all in.
Fortunately I think there is a solution for this problem. Unfortunately, it looks like some people are going to have to die.
How did we get to this place? Two interacting mechanisms: the paradox of expertise and the rise of consumocracy.
By definition, experts are the best source of knowledge and policy advice. (If someone knows better than the official experts, that just means they are the real expert.) So expertise should be a highly valuable, respected resource. But it isn’t because of the paradox of expertise, that experts lose credibility for getting things right as well as for getting things wrong.
First, consider what happens when experts give correct advice and we believe it and act on it in time. In that case the problem they warned us about will be prevented or much reduced. But then, because nothing really bad happened, the casual observer will conclude that yet again the experts were wrong or exaggerating. The problem here is that the better experts are at identifying and fixing problems before they appear, the harder it is for them to show the value of their contribution: the terrible things that would have happened without their intervention.
Second, consider what happens when we follow experts’ advice that turns out to be mistaken. This is bound to happen sometimes. The fact that experts represent the best understanding anyone in the world has about some topic doesn’t mean that that understanding can’t be wrong (as medical science got ulcers wrong for decades). It just means that we don’t have any good reason to believe that anyone else knows better. It can also be that scientific knowledge is correct in general, but doesn’t have the resolution to give accurate predictions about every case (such as who the economic losers will be from the free trade policies that makes the world much richer on average). In either case, excuses aren’t considered. Science got it wrong: the experts are blamed for the problems they failed to prevent and the credibility of their future claims is reduced.
Besides the built in self-undermining character of expertise there is also the phenomenon of consumocracy: the increasingly popular notion that we have the right to believe whatever it pleases us to believe and anyone who tries to tell us we’re wrong can go to hell.
This is driven partly by our human psychology directing us towards the things that promise to make us feel good. What the people who have dedicated their lives to scientific research have to say is difficult to comprehend and often bone-achingly dull compared to a Youtube video by a Flat Earther that makes you feel like you can do science from your couch. There are various kinds of psychic reward available here. There may be a pleasure in believing outrageous things and arguing with other people about them on the internet; or in believing you know something that other people don’t; or in membership of a community of fellow believers. Conspiracy theories are particularly fun to believe in because they make complicated and unpleasant events immediately comprehensible by making them all about you, the consumer of news events. The world isn’t so big and scary and difficult after all! It’s just a conspiracy by an all powerful government agency (or alien, or God) that cares deeply about your opinion!
Although the pursuit of purely psychic rewards has always been a vulnerability of human reasoners, it has only become full blown consumocracy thanks to a cultural shift. As Kurt Andersen explains very eloquently in his Fantasyland, we are dealing with an outgrowth of the same individualism that fuelled the rational enlightenment against unjustified authority and gave us modern science (the motto of Britain’s Royal Society was ‘On no-one’s authority’.) The flip side of establishing the right of individuals to follow the evidence wherever it leads is the right of individuals to believe whatever they want for whatever half-assed reasons they find compelling. Of course this is ridiculous. Facts are not matters of personal preference, like pizza toppings. They are or they aren’t. And whether they are has nothing to do with what we would like.
When consumocracy combines with the paradox of expertise, we get the anti-civilisational phenomenon of mass idiocy: vast numbers of people turning their backs on what humanity actually knows in favour of homespun stories that they enjoy more. That includes such dangerous stories as the idea that vaccines cause autism. The main response from those who still believe in science has been to stop the idiots from acting on their beliefs by backing up the epistemic authority of expertise with political force, such as by making vaccination compulsory. However, I do not think this is sustainable in a democracy since it does nothing about the core mechanisms that continue to undermine faith in expertise.
I have a different solution. We should let some people die for their mistakes so that the full price of idiocy is once again clear to everyone.
Should I vaccinate my child against measles?
When we are deciding who or what to believe on this question we are making an epistemic gamble. The most obvious thing to figure out is what outcome is most likely. Scientific experts are objectively the most likely of anyone to be correct, and so it might seem that the rational person should always bet with the scientific experts rather than against them. However, the most important feature of a gamble is not the probabilities of the different outcomes but the stakes: how much might I win or lose?
Here, the actions of the government become important. If it intervenes to enforce the advice of experts, then the worst possible outcomes are forestalled. Vaccination rates stay high and measles outbreaks remain easily contained. Unfortunately, by reducing the life and death stakes – by protecting parents from reality – the government has also reduced parents’ interest in finding out who really has the best knowledge of how vaccines or measles actually work. The stakes in this epistemic wager now come down to the parent’s own internal psychic rewards, for example the pleasure of fantasising themself a hero in the resistance movement against arrogant scientific dogma. This is a bet the anti-vaxxer can’t lose.
It may not be irrational for an individual to select their beliefs in this way. Nevertheless, once large numbers of people start making choices based on what they would prefer to believe is true, protecting them from the real world consequences of being an idiot quickly becomes politically unsustainable. This is because their behaviour undermines the authority of the scientific expertise that holds together the system in which their dissent from reality is made possible. At some point the system will collapse dramatically, like a political constitution overwhelmed by the careless opportunism of politicians who took stability for granted.
How can we break this cycle of increasing consumocracy and declining credibility of experts? Telling people to trust scientists doesn’t fly (although I have tried it elsewhere). Forcing people to go along with what the experts say just makes them more complacent in their idiocy. I think we should consider letting the stakes rise again. Society won’t recover its respect for the value of scientific expertise unless it has vivid and recent memories of what happens when we don’t follow the correct advice of experts. Sometimes a tragedy can do more good than harm. From time to time, we should step aside and let the idiots have their way.
So if parents don’t want to vaccinate their children because of what they think they found out in their Facebook research, let them experience the full consequences of that decision. Some of their children will die, and this is sad because those children will be paying the price for their parents’ fantasies. Some other children will die despite their parents’ faith in vaccines (because they were too young to be fully protected, or had immune-system problems) and this is also sad. But it is that sadness which would provide the reality check that nothing else seems capable of providing. It may seem callous to think of children’s lives in this calculating way, but societies trade off innocent lives for other values all the time (or we would have made the speed limit 20 mph). In this case there is something much more important at stake than saving commuters a few minutes a day. For if we cannot recover our ability to trust the experts then much worse things than a few measles outbreaks will follow.