Wednesday, February 04, 2015

When should voters defer to the views of scientists? - The Washington Post

When should voters defer to the views of scientists? - The Washington Post

I. The Case for Deferring to Scientists.

This raises the question of whether voters should defer to majority scientific opinion on these issues. Given my research on political ignorance, it is tempting for me to conclude that the answer is almost always “yes.” The majority of the public is often ignorant about basic facts about government and politics, and their scientific knowledge is also far from impressive. You don’t have to believe that scientists are always right about scientific issues to conclude that they are on average more likely to be right than generally ignorant voters are. To the extent that this is true, an electorate that defers to majority scientific opinion on these issues would make fewer mistakes than one that does not, even though neither would be completely error free.

The above reasoning has some merit. But it is important to avoid conflating two different kinds of “scientific” issues. Some of the questions addressed in the Pew survey are almost purely technical questions. For example, the issue of whether GMO foods or foods treated with pesticides are safe, or the issue of whether human activity is the main cause of climate change. On these sorts of technical matters, scientists are indeed likely to know much more than most ordinary people, and there is a good case for deferring to them. But some seemingly scientific policy issues actually include major nontechnical components on which scientists are not likely to have specialized knowledge.

II. The Limits of Scientific Expertise.

Some of the questions raised in the Pew study are actually mixed questions of scientific facts and moral values. For example, the issue of whether animals should be used in scientific research partly depends on the scientific benefits using them; a question on which scientists have special expertise. But it also depends on the moral status of the animals in question, and whether it is ethically permissible to inflict certain types of harm on them. On that latter issue, scientists have no special knowledge. If there is a group of experts that does, it is likely to be moral philosophers and political theorists; and these groups are – on average – more sympathetic to animal rights arguments than the general public is.

Other issues on the survey raise questions of political economy rather than pure science. For example, many more scientists (82 percent) than ordinary people (59 percent) believe that growing population will be a “major” problem in the future. Whether it will be or not depends largely on whether the possible costs of population growth (e.g. – environmental externalities) will outweigh the benefits, such as increased innovation and a greater division of labor. On these latter questions, economists are likely to be more expert than natural scientists are, and economists tend to be much more skeptical of Malthusian arguments than either natural scientists or the general population. They like to point out that Malthusian predictions have proven wrong for some two hundred years, which does not prove that they will always be wrong, but does suggest reason for imposing a high burden of proof on them.
In sum, it makes good sense to defer to the views of experts on areas that are actually within their expertise. But not on questions that may seem related, but actually are distinct. Telling the difference isn’t always easy. Here, as elsewhere, being a responsible, well-informed voter turns out to be a lot harder than we might think.

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