I was reading one of the Telegraph blogs today, by some guy who was pointing out, quite reasonably, that people tend to pick evidence that supports or confirms their existing beliefs. He said he did it himself. Then he got onto climate science, and some new report that had come out, and people’s responses to it.
The trouble is, there’s no avoiding it. As a non-climate scientist, I have to accept certain things on authority, as I do with all expert knowledge. This is an argument from authority, but we all do it, and it’s vital: if I had cancer, I’d accept the authority of the oncologist and the body of knowledge of the oncology community, rather than try to guide my own treatment with information I’d found on the internet. As Ben Goldacre said long ago in a different context, you have only two options: “you can either learn to interpret data yourself and come to your own informed conclusions; or you decide who to trust”.
I’ve decided who to trust, and it’s mainstream scientific opinion: the Royal Society, the Royal Institution, Nasa, the US National Academy of Sciences, the US Geological Survey, the IPCC, the national science bodies of 30 or so other countries. And that gives me a possible route out of the confirmation-bias trap: I have, in advance, outsourced my judgment to expert bodies. If several of them changed their position, I would change mine. It’s far from perfect, but short of becoming a climate scientist myself, it’s the only option I have; otherwise my reasonable belief that the climate is changing due to human behaviour becomes an article of faith. As it is, although it is mediated through authority, it’s still, I hope, based on empirical data, on the scientific method.
What I want to ask those sceptics who, like me, are not professional climate scientists is: what’s your way out? You are as trapped by confirmation bias as I am. You will not be able to disinterestedly search through the torrents of information, false and true, on the internet and elsewhere: the more you look, the more you will confirm your own beliefs, because that’s what we do. Since the design of the human mind makes you an unreliable judge, what evidence would it take to change your mind? Who, in short, do you trust? If you look at your own beliefs, and realise that there is nothing which could shake them, then you, as much as the hard Greens, are practicing a religion, not seeking empirical fact.
And I read all that and got thinking about where he’d said: “As a non-climate scientist, I have to accept certain things on authority, as I do with all expert knowledge.” And I wondered: Is that true? Do we have to accept certain things on authority?
I could sorta see his line of reasoning. He didn’t understand climate science enough to do it himself, so he had to take the scientific findings on trust. What’s wrong with that?
Perhaps the simplest answer was to wind back the clock five hundred years to 1512, and ask the same questions, and see what the answers would most likely have been. Five hundred years ago he would have been saying something like: “As a non-theologian who can’t read Latin, I have to accept the Pope’s authoritative teachings, I troth. And also I have to accept the consensus view that the sun goes round the earth, I wist. And also the medical science that teaches us that disease is a surfeit or deficit of one of the four humours, and can be regulated by judicious bleeding by expert outreach consultants using leeches or the latest ‘hot cup’ method, prithee.”
Jump back 500 years, and it’s glaringly obvious: he would have been better off distrusting the Pope, the astronomers, and the doctors, and almost everybody else as well, because most of them hardly knew anything at all about anything.
Yet there have always been experts, and wise men, and mystics and seers. And quite often they maybe knew slightly more about some things than the average guy, but not really very much more. Go back 2000 years, and if you had a really tough question you needed an answer to, you went to the top: you consulted the Oracle at Delphi.
Of course, looking back 500 years, we have the benefit of hindsight, and we know a lot of things they didn’t know, and we can snigger.
But is it going to be any different in another 500 years? Aren’t they most likely to be looking back at us here in 2012, and sniggering at us too?
The truth of the matter is that our ‘experts’ don’t really know very much more about anything than the ‘experts’ did 500 years ago. What we’re very good at doing is publicising our few small scientific successes – Newton, Einstein, etc -, while concealing all the acres of stuff we don’t understand at all.
The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that blind trust in experts is something like the root of all evil. For a start, as just pointed out, they’re never really that expert. They’re just guessing most of the time. And their guesses are almost certainly wrong. A healthy distrust of experts is what’s really needed.
Somebody wrote in the comments a while back that physicist Richard Feynman had once said, “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” And I think that’s the right attitude to experts.
But when it comes to questions about global warming, it’s not really about ‘who to believe’. Everyone has their own experience available to them, and they can ask themselves: “Does it seem to me to be hotter now than it was when I was young?” And they’ll have an answer. And it’ll be Yes or No. And that answer really ought to be the one that matters most of all. People should above all firstly believe themselves and their own experience. If they’re not going to do that, why the heck should they trust anybody else’s?
Same with smoking. People should ask themselves: “How often have I seen people taken ill after inhaling someone else’s tobacco smoke? How often have I seen people taken ill after inhaling their own tobacco smoke?” And again, they’ll have an answer. Very often. Often. Occasionally. Seldom. Never. Tick the appropriate box. I bet that for most people the answer would be: never. Because that’s my experience.
But these days, trusting your own judgment or experience is unthinkable. You have to find an expert. You have to find a guru. And when you make people into experts and gurus, you hand them power. And they use that power ruthlessly.
People have believed the climate scientists and the antismoking zealots, and they’ve handed them a great deal of power, and now they’re using the power and influence they’ve been given to set out to destroy Western industrial civilisation, and to shatter communities and demonise millions of smokers. They can do it because they’ve been promoted into experts by people who won’t or can’t trust themselves.
And also you can just say: I don’t know. There’s a good piece here with Richard Feynmen saying that he didn’t mind not knowing, that he could live with not knowing and not understanding.
The writer quoted above says: “If I had cancer, I’d accept the authority of the oncologist and the body of knowledge of the oncology community.” I’m not sure that I would. Because I don’t think they know very much about cancer, and their treatments are as mediaeval as bleeding people with hot cups or leeches. There’s a case to be made that you’re better off just buying yourself a few cases of good whisky than taking their advice.
My father got diagnosed with incipient bladder cancer, and was put on a course of radiotherapy. He drove himself the 20 or so miles to the hospital, underwent the first dose, and then drove himself all the way home. And when he’d got home, he promptly collapsed with a stroke from which he never recovered.
He’d have been better off if he’d just stayed home. He would certainly have lived a lot longer.
Going back to climate science, although I’m not a climate scientist, I can write computer simulation models, and I started writing my own climate simulation model a while back. It rather ground to a halt when I got stuck playing photon football in the atmosphere, going round in circles. But I was thinking today that I might resuscitate the project, and make a few simple assumptions to get past the obstruction, and do my own research. It astonishes me that more people don’t do that.
We’re also doing our own research with the ISIS study of smokers, rather than leaving it to the ‘experts’.
Anyway, here’s another 50 minutes of Richard Feynman. There’s a good bit about ‘experts’ at about 43 minutes.