Who’s right?

loading animation
Sunday, 22 June 2014 18:30 by Ken Wolff

Back in April, Senator Brandis wrote an article (reported on the ABC) in which he claimed that although he believed humans were causing global warming he was ‘really shocked by the sheer authoritarianism of those who would have excluded from the debate the point of view of people who were climate change deniers’. He went on to say that people who think the science is settled are ‘ignorant and medieval’.

Adam Bandt for the Greens responded:

“If someone said ‘two plus two equals five’, would you insist on giving them as much airtime in the media as someone who said ‘two plus two equals four’.

The science community is now essentially speaking with one voice. To say someone without science training can somehow simply on a free speech basis say that they’re all wrong is a very feudal way of thinking.”

These statements raise concerns regarding climate change and free speech. But there is another issue embedded in them which is the one I want to explore: the role of experts in shaping government policy.

Human society has always used experts, even if early on they were identified by experience, status or age. In our modern society technical and scientific expertise has grown exponentially as we have become more dependent on science and the technology arising from it. That has also been reflected in the legislation going through our parliament. The first parliament in 1901 passed 17 acts in total, including matters of post and telegraph services, and distillation, the only two which may have required some expert advice. Between 2008 and 2012 an average of 220 acts per year was passed including on such matters as offshore petroleum, greenhouse gas storage, nuclear terrorism, road safety and higher education, each of which, among many others, would have required expert input.

While expert input may seem essential for some issues, governments, unfortunately, also use experts to avoid responsibility for their decisions. They establish an ‘expert’ committee and then claim their decision is based on the committee’s advice or evidence, thereby implying they essentially had ‘no choice’ in their final decision.

That leads to the crux of the problem: that the use of experts is inherently undemocratic as the expert becomes an ‘authority’ presenting decisions of public policy, whereas democracy is meant to be based on keeping ‘authority’ in check.

The ultimate outcome can be the rise of a ‘technocracy’ — government by technocrats, or experts. Underlying the technocrat approach is the belief that expertise and knowledge will lead to the best rational decision, one that cannot really be questioned because non-experts, including politicians, are not qualified to judge what the experts are saying.

In the 1990s there were fears that the European Union (EU) was going that way largely due to the regulations being made by the European Commission. While the regulations may have been based on the best technical and scientific advice, they were often met by resistance in some nations of the EU, both by politicians and the public. This meant the advice became politicised, but that helped slow the descent towards a technocracy. Despite that, there is a history of experts determining policy in a number of northern European nations, in particular Germany.

A problem for politicians, especially as regards scientific advice, is that scientific results can contain a number of uncertainties. Although this is part of normal scientific enquiry, and promotes further research and refining of theories and models (such as in the current climate change science), it does not necessarily provide a solid basis for decision making. Put simply, politicians often need to act before the science is conclusive.

There is also growing distrust of experts among the populace, for a number of reasons: the political use of experts to justify disputed decisions; the problems that have arisen from following experts previously (that is, the introduction of technology that has initially enhanced our lives but subsequently led to environmental or social problems); fears of the potential rise of a technocracy and the loss of democratic power, and a more educated and informed populace that is better able to question.

On the other hand, the public is reliant on science for risks we face that our normal senses cannot perceive, such as radiation or the detection of the ozone hole in the 1980s. You might say it is a ‘love/hate’ relationship we have with the experts.

Of course, governments and politicians rely on other ‘experts’ outside the technical and scientific areas, such as in economics and education. Neither of these can be called sciences in the sense that it is rare that they can reach irrefutable conclusions, such as two oxygen atoms and a carbon atom making up carbon dioxide. Economics claims to be a science but given its predictive history (an ability of solid science) it can hardly claim that title. We have only to look at economic forecasts and how often they have to be changed, or how often they do not foresee the next recession (when did they ever foresee one?). Why would the public put their faith in such experts?

The other claim the public often rejects is that these ‘experts’ are the sole repository of expertise in their field. Individuals can also be experts, particularly as regards local knowledge. A classic case occurred in England after the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986. Radiation was detected in Cumbrian sheep fields but the scientists said that this would quickly be ‘immobilised’ in the soil and pose no significant danger. They were wrong on three counts:

1. their advice related primarily to alkaline clay soils but the Cumbrian area was acidic peat;
2. they failed to consider that the radiation could enter the human food chain from sheep grazing on the local grasses; and
3. the farmers also had detailed knowledge of local changes over a number of years and eventually the scientists were forced to concede (and accept the local knowledge) that the radiation came not from Chernobyl but the nearby Sellarfield nuclear reprocessing facility.

This raises another issue, that when expert advice enters the public arena it can be judged not by what it says but by a number of other criteria, including whether or not it concurs with local knowledge which, as shown in Cumbria, can also be a valid source of expertise.

So the question becomes if we can’t live with them and we can’t live without them, what do we do?

One approach is education and awareness, making the public more aware of research and its findings. This requires experts participating in public fora, airing their research in the media and engaging in public debate. The Australian National University (ANU) has a specific policy on this and states that it will support its academics in public debate if the policy is adhered to. The preamble states that:

Academics have an obligation to present their expertise outside the strictly academic context: they are expected to inform public debate from the perspective their scholarly expertise brings to an issue.

But the policy notes:

In public debate, such as opinion pieces or columns in the media, it is generally not possible to provide a detailed scholarly justification of the position adopted, nor to present every possible perspective on an issue: but it is expected that the position adopted should be defensible and that justification for it should be available or able to be given at a level which would be of acceptable standard in the field of scholarship.

The latter statement suggests one difficulty for experts involved in public issues. They cannot necessarily explain all the intricacies, uncertainties or assumptions that underlie their position. Overseas research suggests that academics draw a line between internal discussion (within their discipline) and public discussion of their discipline, feeling, particularly in scientific areas, that the public has limited competence in dealing with their detailed findings.

The ‘public competence’ may actually be a public questioning because many aspects of expertise are contested and it can take time for experts to reach a consensus. In such situations, the scientific or other expertise is not really adding to public understanding but perhaps only confusing it, and it does not provide certainty to the public nor provide the level of guidance necessary for decision making by public officials and politicians.

While governments claim to seek ‘evidence-based’ policy, in my 30 years as a public servant this was just as often ‘policy-based evidence’ — that is finding the evidence that will support the position the government intends to take. That was an approach I had to adopt on a number of occasions (for governments of both persuasions). So divergences in expert opinion can also mean their advice is used to justify pre-existing positions, just by picking which expert agrees.

There are also calls by some for greater public participation in technical and scientific debates and, particularly, in framing the policy arising from such debates. This is relatively new, in the sense that the dominant form of participation has usually been after the policy is decided, in implementing the policy or taking actions arising from it, such as reducing household energy usage as one step to assist in limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

If there is greater involvement, how does the public judge what the experts are saying?

Such judgments will inevitably be coloured by local experience: for example, support for climate action in Australia was at its highest during the drought from 2002 to 2006, a time when it could be said that local experience seemed in accord with what the experts were saying. But as we have seen, that local experience varies over time and with it the judgments the public makes. Local knowledge also does not help in understanding issues that may be relevant on a much wider scale — which is one reason global warming is a difficult concept to grasp when there are no immediate signs of it in one’s own locality.

Politicians face the same problems. A research paper prepared by the Parliamentary Library in October 2013 addresses how lay persons, including politicians, judge technical and scientific knowledge. One means is ‘social expertise’, our general understanding of our own society and the role of the various players in it: it allows us to make judgments about who we agree with rather than scientific judgments on what ought to be believed. In making such judgments the paper goes on to suggest the following questions should be answered:

  • Can I make sense of the arguments?
  • Which expert seems the more credible?
  • Who has the numbers on their side?
  • Are there any relevant interests or biases?
  • What are the experts’ track records?
The paper concedes that even answering these questions can still be problematic but suggests that using them together can improve their strength and reliability. They are questions that can be used by politicians when assessing expert opinion coming before parliamentary committees.

If our politicians actually used this approach there would be no question in Australia regarding anthropogenic global warming.

Even with the best advice and with understanding of the expert knowledge, or at least judgments about it, the decisions to be made often require much broader considerations. There are value or moral judgments to be made in deciding policy. Even if the experts are all pointing in the same direction, will a policy arising from that advice be right, fair and just? Economic and social implications also come into the argument, which is where Abbott won the debate on climate change when in opposition.

Additionally, even when expert advice is accepted that does not mean there is agreement on what should be done. There is often much more debate about what measures should be taken and that depends on many other issues and power relationships.

The politicisation of expert advice, while creating some problems, is as it should be, for without that we would become a technocracy. The outcomes and policies arising from expert advice still need to be debated publicly in the political sphere.

Finding the expert who is right becomes not just a matter of the research they have undertaken, but of their standing and acceptability — both socially and politically; of whether following their advice will produce fair and just outcomes; and of how their advice plays out politically between competing interests. So, no matter how technically or scientifically good the advice, it is likely that differences will remain, not so much regarding the expertise, but in terms of who to believe and what to do about it.

What do you think?