Thursday, August 6, 2009

Expert vs. Moral Authority

One of the themes developed in Imperfect Oracle is the distinction between various kinds of authority. Depending on the context, people refer to authority via one or another sobriquet: expert, or epistemic, cultural, moral, coercive, and so on. This sometimes creates confusion about what kinds of authority actually operate in science’s interactions with the larger society. The most important contrast, in my view, is that between expert (epistemic) authority and moral authority. To define the distinction in the most general terms: Epistemic authority as it applies to science is the capacity to make statements of how things are in the world that are taken to be true or a good approximation to the truth. A chemist asserts that a particular arrangement of atoms exists in the molecules of a certain substance; a geologist tells us that a geological formation is composed of a particular set of minerals, and that it was deposited in a particular geological epoch; an oceanographer describes the ways in which increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide are affecting the ocean’s acidity, and the effect this may have on development of shell-bearing organisms. Moral authority, on the other hand, is the capacity to hold forth on how the world should be. All sorts of people claim to possess moral authority, to be able to tell us how we should behave in one respect or another. Moral authority can be based on a variety of sources, among them divine revelation (religious leader), election to a political office (the President), traditional authority (a king or queen), appointive authority (a policeman), or expertise ( a garage mechanic or a scientist).

When scientific findings carry implications for the ways in which things are done or understood in the larger society, there is a potential for conflict with other ways of doing or understanding things. Science then must compete with other societal elements in arguing for acceptance of its findings. In these efforts, whether by individual scientists or by the scientific enterprise more generally, science is arguing for acceptance of science’s epistemic, or expert, authority; that science has the capacity to report reliably on how particular things are in the world, and on how things might change as a result of processes that are occurring. So when thousands of climate scientists all over the world report the results of making measurements and developing models of increasing complexity and capacity to make climate predictions, they are exercising epistemic authority. Out of all that work there has emerged what Michael Polanyi long ago referred to as a ‘scientific opinion’, a product of the way in which the scientific world is organized, of the critical evaluative steps taken in validating individual scientists and particular pieces of scientific work.
With respect to global warming, to cite a salient example, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has employed processes of sieving, merging, comparing and reconciling scientific reports to produce a consensus. Not every scientist involved in these processes agrees with every element of the final report. Some may find it too conservative in evaluating predictive models, others may feel that a particular component of the entire system has been given too little weight. Because the global climate system is excruciatingly complicated, with many interactive elements, the science is not yet at the point where it can predict climate futures with high precision. Yet the vast bodies of data collected to date are consistent with the best models available, and those models have become increasingly sophisticated as a result of dramatic increases in computational capacity. I have followed this field since the early 1970s, when the earliest computer-based models for predicting global temperature changes due to increasing carbon dioxide levels appeared. I find it remarkable that the predicted increases in global temperature caused by a doubling of the atmospheric CO2 concentration have not really changed a great deal over four decades of intensive scientific development. The scientific research on this topic is an example of science working in society to produce the best possible expert opinion on a matter of grave concern for the world’s human population, advice that is sufficiently reliable to form the basis of actions that society might wish to take in response to the findings.

Entities that are directly or indirectly sources of large CO2 emissions can be expected to look critically at the scientific claims. If they were playing by the same rules as science, their course of action would be to look for scientific evidence that contradicts the accepted findings and predictions. Indeed, there have been debates over whether phenomena such as variable sunspot activity are responsible for global temperature changes. However, the mainstream view of the climate science community has been that explanatory alternatives to greenhouse gas emissions as the major source of global warming do not adequately account for the range of climate changes observed.
Lacking viable scientific explanations for the observed warming effects, the next move for some has been to deny that the planet is warming significantly, or to adopt one or another of a set of positions that refuses to accept scientific authority. Science holds the cards in this contest as it really has no competition as far as expert authority is concerned. The opposition can, however, employ other strategies. One is to weaken the epistemic authority of science by flooding the discussion with counterviews that are supposed to be from legitimate scientists. The public has difficulty in distinguishing one set of credentials from another. For propaganda purposes the weatherman for a radio station in Kansas will do as an “expert” on climate. Thousands of signatures from such "experts" are presented as evidence that the scientific community does not buy into global warming. In another strategy, climate scientists are associated with unpopular views, by invoking terms such as “liberal” or “advocate of big government”. The main point is that a favorite tactic of those who oppose a consensus scientific position, for reasons other than doubts about the science itself, is to undermine the notion that there is indeed a consensus, and concomitantly, that those most vigorously arguing a consensus position are tainted in some way.
So when science attempts to exercise expertise in the world outside science, there is often resistance from other interests.

In my next blog I want to look at what it means for scientists or the science establishment to go beyond expertise , to attempt an exercise of moral authority. For example, science or its representatives would exercise moral authority with respect to the climate change issue by making arguments that go beyond simply the evidence for climate change. They would urge that society should act in some way in light of the prospects for climate change. At this point we come to a new set of questions and concerns. It is not entirely clear that science or individual scientists have any special capacity for exercising moral authority, even on an issue they know a lot about in terms of the underlying causations and likely consequences. Put simply, the capacity to tell it like it is does not in itself convey an authority to pronounce on how it should be. Attempts to exercise moral authority on matters fraught with controversy can be risky. It has been well illustrated in the climate change debates that when scientists offer advice on what, if anything, should be done they sacrifice epistemic authority to some degree, and often let themselves in for a rough time.

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