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A Reply to Turton

I want to thank Michael Turton for taking the time to reply to my article. However, at the outset, my sense is that Turton misunderstands what it is I’m arguing.

Turton signals this misunderstanding, for instance, when he contends that “[t]he fact that some judgement lies outside the consensus does not mean that it fails to count as scientific knowledge.” But Turton here is arguing something I never placed in issue. The question I was addressing isn’t: What counts as scientific knowledge? The question is: What procedure is best for a layperson to decide what counts as scientific knowledge? And my answer to that question was only the modest claim that since laypersons generally are not epistemically situated to make sound independent judgments about whether the relevant expert consensus is correct, general deference to that consensus view should be seen by the layperson as epistemically normative.

Of course, Turton is right to say that this sort of appeal to expert consensus is fraught with difficulty in many domains. Clearly, on hot-button political issues like nuclear power, as Turton is right to say, policy makers will have to consult many different expert communities, all having different institutional allegiances and economic incentives, and with no one community clearly serving as a simple epistemic proxy.

That being conceded, however, I just don’t see that this sort of problem obtains in areas like physics, history, biology, mathematics, and so forth–that is, in the empirical disciplines that subtend your standard curricular fare. Is the debate, say, about nuclear safety analogous in its epistemological aspects to debate about the value of pi or about the factuality of common descent? If there are relevant similarities, I strain to discern them.

The dicey analogizing here I think is due in part to Turton’s assessment of what constitutes a “value” question–an assessment that, frankly, I find confused. Consider for instance that one of Turton’s examples of a “value” question is that of Jesus’ existence. Surely this is a categorical error. The existence of Jesus is a paradigmatic question of fact. Just because folks attach ideological value to the outcome of an inquiry doesn’t thereby make the ontological status of the object of inquiry a “value” question.

And speaking of value questions, Turton’s stretto of argument to the effect that I am “smuggling” in the value claim that we ought to teach the expert consensus in a given empirical discipline strikes me as odd. Indeed, it was precisely on behalf of that very value claim that I was arguing. (I’m amenable to Turton’s suggestion, however, that I did so poorly, of which the reader will dispose.)

. . .

I’d also just like to correct a minor factual error in Turton’s piece. Turton claims that “[i]f the public wants to teach that the world is 6,000 years old [or that the moon is made of green cheese], it can do that. . . .” But that’s almost certainly not the case–not under current Supreme Court doctrine, anyway. To simplify a bit, the Supreme Court has held that public school curricula require a secular justification to pass constitutional muster. See, e.g., Edwards v. Aguillard. Although I’m not an expert (wink wink), I’m pretty sure that empirical claims like that of a foundling earth and of a dairy-derived moon lack the relevant justification.