Part five of Five Choices, a Philosophical Reflection on Scientific Knowledge
Who can we trust to make the important decisions? We have a choice. One approach is to stand by the ideals of democracy and, one way or another, let the people decide for themselves. But what if they make the wrong choice? We could be committed to a terrible course of action causing immense harm to public health, political stability, or the ideals of civilisation. Can we afford to let that happen?
The alternative is clear - we can let the important decisions be made by whomever has the relevant expertise. The experts, having had the necessary training, are ideally suited to make decisions, and to abandon expertise would be reckless - especially in a time of crisis. But the nature of every emergency is that the facts are not always evident and prior training is no guarantee of insight into a novel situation. So we face the exact same risks here as in giving the decision to the people - what if the experts make the wrong choice? The risks here are no less grave than with the people, since a terrible mistake is just as disastrous when it is made the well-educated - and it may even be far worse, if only because of the tremendous difficulty experts have in admitting they made a mistake.
But it is here that all this construction of idealised choices as a rhetorical device comes to an end. As every pollster knows, we can mount options deceptively because every time a situation is simplified to a binary choice, we have necessarily abstracted away the context which gives that decision its true meanings. If we come at the question of who we can trust to make important decisions as a choice between either the experts or the people, it looks as if we have to side with the experts. But this is not in fact a choice we should ever face, for the way to get the people to make good decisions is necessarily to share with them the perspectives of all the experts, all of whom are also part of the people. There is no need to nominate a set of 'the experts' to replace the decisions of the people. We are all 'the people', no matter what expertise we possess.
When it comes to the important decisions, the only viable way forward is to discover ways to combine expertise with democracy - because we need expertise to help make difficult decisions, but we also need democracy to ensure accountability and legitimacy, for otherwise there can only be thinly disguised tyranny. Once we realise this, we might begin to appreciate that a crisis is not a time to abandon the people for a tiny subset of experts, no matter how comforting we may find the artificial certainty this provides. On the contrary, when the people cannot question expertise, the experts become as blind to the truth as any other despotic ruler, while the people robbed of discourse with expertise become a danger to themselves and everyone else.
Good decisions do not flow from limiting the availability of expertise, but from ensuring that everyone with relevant experience is allowed to speak. This requires that we not give in to the temptation of premature certainty (the risk of 'The Science'), that we never ignore the harms inherent to our tools and methods (the risk of 'technology'), that we do not eviscerate the immense complexity of good health (the risk of 'disease'), and most certainly that we do not undermine both scientific knowledge and civil rights by saying that anyone who disagrees must be silenced (the risk of 'censorship').
These five choices do not offer different visions of good scientific practice. They offer an understanding of what good scientific practice entails, and of the risks we face when we undermine the work of the sciences through our politics or our fears (if indeed those names refer to different things...). The attempt to make experts into a caste, a priesthood, robs expertise of the democratic foundation that alone can legitimise it. The experts and the people are not opposites at all, but one and the same thing. Only when we accept this paradox can we begin to discover how me might live together.
The opening image is a detail from an encaustic artwork of unknown providence. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked by the rightful owner of the artwork.