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Trust The Experts

Various blogs have been tossing around a draft paper by Neil Levy arguing that we shouldn't try to become more well-informed on complicated issues, and instead should defer to whatever experts share our political/ethical commitments (see this thread for a discussion in which Levy himself participates). There's certainly something to be said for deferring to people who have studied things more thoroughly (see Morat's comments on the futility of lay arguments against evolution), though there's likewise much to be said for John Stuart Mill's view that to hold an opinion obliges you to understand the other side's arguments. What caught my interest, though, was Levy's use of environmental issues as examples of controversies we should let the experts decide. For example, he says:

The problem, for the non-expert, in these environmental debates, is how to assess each side’s claim that the type-one evidence [basic facts] they cite better supports its case than that cited by the opposition. Reduction in forest cover worldwide has slowed to a near stand-still; that’s the good news. Tropical forests are shrinking faster than ever; that’s the bad. Does this add up to environmental degradation or improvement? It is extremely hard -- for the non-expert -- to say, even if we limit our attention to this single issue alone.

The thing is that environmental experts can't say whether it's degradation or improvement. That isn't an objective question. Expertise is certainly useful in informing the debate, but the answer is relative to the desires, interests, and acceptance of affected lay people. It's not just that the experts don't know enough and hence can't resolve the issue, it's that outsiders are incapable of making a justified decision.

It's increasingly the consensus among environmental experts that lay people should call the shots (witness the move toward participatory approaches). So if anyone is thinking of deferring to me as an expert on environmental issues, my expert judgement is that you should become as well-informed as you can and contribute to the debate.


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