Home » Kiosk » Kiosk Article » When the Public is Justified in Ignoring the Expert Consensus: A Reply to Michael Drake

When the Public is Justified in Ignoring the Expert Consensus: A Reply to Michael Drake

Michael Drake’s recent kiosk article “Knowledge, Expert Opinion and the Public Sphere: Why We Teach the Science We Do” displays a few misunderstandings about expertise and the public’s relationship to it. There are actually numerous cases in which laymen are justified in rejecting the expert consensus, and all are common in key public policy issues. Further, the determination of what should be taught in schools has nothing to do with expert heuristics as such.

The first and most common is when the consensus is about a value. For example, ask most experts in the nuclear power industry and they will tell you the consensus position is that nuclear power plants are safe. Can the layman rely on that? No! Whether nuclear plants are safe is a value about which experts have precisely the same level of knowledge as layman. An expert can tell you what the probability of the plant melting down might be, but she can never tell you whether that figure is safe. Safety is a value that the public can determine only by debates in which scientists participate as laymen, for we are all laymen in the matter of ethics.

A second problem is identifying which consensus is the “expert” one. Who has the proper expertise? In nuclear plant safety, should we listen to nuclear power experts? Civil engineers? Environmental experts? Physicists? Policymakers? Geologists? In the unlikely event that any identifiable group of experts has developed a consensus, why should the public listen, when it can point to other expert disciplines that are either undecided or opposed?

Another notable problem is when experts concur on a fact, but actually possess no reliable methodology for making such claims. A good example is the issue of dinosaur internal temperature regulation. For decades experts maintained that dinosaurs were cold-blooded, despite the fact that they had neither the evidence nor the methodologies to support that conclusion. Inertia sustained them. In the 1960s new discoveries and modes of thinking exploded this consensus, and now the field is in an exciting intellectual ferment in which there is no widespread agreement on how dinosaurs regulated their internal temperature.

Finally, the public should feel free to disregard the expert consensus when said consensus exists–not because theory, data and methods dictate it–but because politics demands it. It is commonplace in science and technology policy studies that the expert consensus frequently aligns itself with elite expectations. This is why the public has developed such a distrust of experts over the last few decades.

Drake raised the issue of Jesus skepticism as an example of “how deference to the expert heuristic works out in the practice of designing a curriculum.” I quite agree with this choice; it is an excellent one. “Jesus mythicism” (not “Jesus skepticism”) is a perfect example of all four problems identified with the expert consensus. First, the existence of Jesus is a value that has been reified as an axiom; it is taken as axiomatic that there was a historical Jesus whose life somehow resembles the Gospel stories. Second, while NT scholars might be in agreement about Jesus’ existence, other fields, such as comparative mythology, may be split or have come to other conclusions about it. Third, as a glance at any of the major works in the field shows, NT scholars possess no reliable methodology for ferreting out the historical Jesus from the morass of data. Finally, belief in the historical Jesus is dictated by the widespread faith commitment among NT scholars to Christianity. In short, laymen are free to reject this consensus for the artifact of theopolitical power that it is.

Finally, Drake’s paper itself is an example of the first error above. Drake is actually making three arguments,[1] each about values, but he smuggles the second two inside the first. After arguing that we should accept a claim as a scientific fact if it is based on expert consensus, he then states we should teach that consensus in school: “‘Fairness’ to fringe epistemic communities is simply not a relevant consideration in designing a sound science curriculum.” This statement invites the reader to agree that epistemic fairness is irrelevant, without making any actual argument for doing so; it is a classic example of deployment of authority (in this case, his assumed authority as a writer) to get the reader to accept an unargued value claim. Later Drake, discussing the expert heuristic, adds: “as such it is the tool that we use when we need to decide what should be taught in school.” Once again Drake has slipped in a value claim. The issue of what should be taught in the schools is a value, not a fact, and is completely separate from the issue of what counts as a scientific fact. If the public chooses to teach that the moon is made of green cheese, than that is the public’s right. If the public wants to teach that the world is 6,000 years old, it can do that, too. It so happens that the public (and I and Drake) are in agreement that the consensus of scientific knowledge ought to be taught, at least in some areas. However, the fact that this value is widely shared does not make it less of a value.


[1] And badly too. Drake says of his expert heuristic: “It is simply a tool enabling those lacking the relevant scientific expertise to make reasonably sound judgments as to what counts as scientific knowledge.” But this is surely an error. The fact that some judgement lies outside the consensus does not mean that it fails to count as scientific knowledge. It simply lacks the broad support of experts. There is a vast difference between “not being accepted” and “not being scientific.”