by Judith Curry
If deference to the authoritative opinions of experts is essential to our rationality and knowledge, and if that deference unavoidably rests on trust, not only in the competence, but also in the epistemic and ethical characters of our experts–then it is high time that we get to work on the ethics of expertise. Indeed, it is past time. – John Hardwig
The sociology and politics of ‘expertise’ have been the topic of numerous CE posts:
- Uneasy expertise
- Death((?) of expertise
- On confusing expertise and objectivity
- Expertise: breadth vs depth
- Politics of expertise [I] [II] [III][IV]
Just reading the titles give you a sense of what the main issues are in the climate domain. What is largely missing in these previous posts is a focus on the ethics of expertise.
The basis for this post is a 1994 essay by John Hardwig: Ethics of Expertise. The overall framework is described in this paragraph:
An ethics for experts must be an ethics that acknowledges that where there is expertise, knowledge is not in fact open and accessible to all; an ethics that recognizes that the expert’s reasons cannot be checked by the layperson and often will not even be intelligible to him. It must be an ethics sensitive to a kind of power in knowing, a power unlike that of any of our epistemic peers, whose opinions we can usually test for ourselves. It must also, then, be an ethics sensitive to the very basic vulnerability that comes with deciding to let others make up our minds, for that kind of reliance on others undermines even the internal independence necessary to decide not to accept what the other says.
So, to what extent do climate scientists who are visible in the public debate as experts, follow this ethics of expertise? And the institutions supporting the experts? And those appealing to experts? Here I summarize Hardwig’s Maxims, with some commentary about how each one relates to the challenges related climate science expertise.
Maxims for the Expert:
1. Admit when you don’t know, when you’re guessing, and when your opinion is only a reasonable estimate. Don’t overestimate the scope or certainty of your knowledge, or the inferences that can be validly drawn from it. Refuse to give opinions when you are being asked for opinions that are beyond the range of your expertise. Distinguish cases where no one knows from those where you don’t know and make proper referrals in the latter cases. Also, loyalty to the community of experts is often combined with a sense that you are letting the community down if you admit the limits of the community’s knowledge. But it is an ethical vice to pretend to know more than you do; it is an epistemic vice to believe that you know more than you do.
JC comment: This is pretty much the point I have been trying to make with my Uncertainty Monster arguments. The concern about of ‘letting the community down’, and the backlash, is illustrated by the Scientific American article Climate Heretic Judith Curry Turns on her Colleagues.
2. Tell the truth as you see it in your professional judgment, but don’t give the impression that you speak for the community of experts when you do not. When the community of expert opinion is divided, there is an obligation to say that it is. When your opinion is a minority view within the community of experts, you should make that clear.
JC comment. For climate scientists who hold minority opinions (it doesn’t take much to be shunted in this category; minor disagreement with ‘consensus’ statements or stating that uncertainty might be greater), it is pretty clear that these scientists are in the minority, since they have been subject to pejorative labels (denier, etc).
3. Tell the truth as you see it in your professional judgment, even if you have to tell your employers, clients, or those in power things they don’t want to hear. Nor that you will publicly support positions or propositions that you do not believe the evidence supports. Truthfulness is important in any relationship.
JC comment: The pressures to conform to the consensus are enormous. I don’t think that experts speaking out in public are intimidated into saying something that is at odds with the truth as they see it; rather, scientists that disagree with the consensus mostly stay silent and don’t enter the public debate.
4. Recognize the human propensity to rationalize: you will be tempted to believe what your employers or those in power want to hear you say. Where possible, make allowances for this tendency by checking your opinion against that of other members of the community of experts who operate under fewer or different incentives, or against other communities of experts.
JC comment: This is an issue more for scientists supporting the consensus; scientists disagreeing with the consensus are well aware of the consensus statements and arguments. The reverse is not true; any attempt to balance the consensus perspective with an opposing one is regarded as bias (the so-called ‘balance as bias’ in climate journalism).
5. Consider the effects of your statements on those who are not your employers or clients. Obligations to employers or clients do not outweigh more basic considerations of justice.
JC comment: This one is hugely complex for the wicked climate problem; the world’s poor are the latest punching bag, with both ‘sides’ claiming moral superiority with regards to reducing fossil fuel emissions or not. In the climate change problem, it seems that often one’s sense of social justice trumps a realistic characterization of the problems and the uncertainties surrounding the science and the proposed solutions.
6. Know your own ethical limits. Try to avoid positions where you might not be able to obey the above principles because you are susceptible to the temptations of the position or too afraid of the possible costs of following them. Don’t pollute the atmosphere of social trust by abusing it for personal gain, increased respect, or support for your discipline. Each new case of untrustworthy research that comes to light fuels public suspicion that scientists and other experts are distorting their messages to serve their own interests or those of special interest groups.
JC comment: Not adhering to the above principles regarding the climate change issue has become institutionalized by the professional societies, with their alarmist statements on climate change and pleas for urgent action.
Maxims for Those Appealing to Experts:
The ethics of expertise is not a one-way street. Even if he cannot very well evaluate the testimony of an expert, a layperson remains an agent, and an important part of the ethics of expertise is the ethics of one who appeals to experts. Indeed, there are ways in which laypersons can make it more likely that experts will offer trustworthy testimony.
1. Try to find the best-qualified expert and recognize that agreement with your values, desires, policies, plans, or hunches is not a qualification for an expert. Selecting an expert because you know she will support your position is a form of deliberate deception (or of self-deception) and hence an ethical vice. Appealing to experts who will support the views we already hold is a common failing, but it defeats the rational purpose of appealing to experts.
Suppose our interests conflict or we disagree about what should be done. Then, if you are not persuaded to my position on the basis of what I’ve said, why should you be persuaded by an expert I have selected if she has been selected because she will support my position? The tendency will be for you to select “your” expert who you know will support your position. You, then, refuse to accept anything my expert says, and I refuse to accept anything your expert says. We’re then back to our original position of disagreement, except that we have undermined the on the issues we confront.
JC comment. Well this is an interesting one in context of how witnesses are selected to give Congressional testimony. The majority party gets to pick the majority of the witnesses. Gotta wonder what all this accomplishes, does this move the needle of disagreement any? Interesting that prior to 2009 I was called to give testimony twice by the Democrats; in recent years I have only been called by the Republicans.
2. Although you appeal to experts to reduce your uncertainty and to enable you to act with greater assurance, recognize that what you would like to know simply may not be known. Do not generate pressure on experts to pretend to know more than they do, to overestimate the relevance of what they know, or to feign consensus within the community of experts where there is none. Facing the need to decide about issues involving complex and technical matters and recognizing the insufficiency of our own knowledge, we find it very difficult to refrain from trying to get more information or certainty from experts than they have to offer.
JC comment. The UNFCCC and the world’s policy makers are guilty of this one big-time. I have some sympathy for the political pressure that the IPCC is under to reduce uncertainty and present a consensus.
3. An expert’s educated guess may or may not be a sufficient basis for action. Try to distinguish these two types of situations. Also recognize, however, that even the best, most informed judgment can be mistaken. Experts will have better reasons than laypersons (within their domains of expertise). But better reasons are not always sufficient reasons to act-for example, when no action is an option or the decision can be postponed; when other, less uncertain alternatives exist; when the risks or costs of their having guessed wrong are great.
JC comment. Again, this is a great failure by the UNFCCC and the world’s policy makers who are seeking to use highly uncertain climate models and expert judgement as the basis for far reaching policies to change global governance, economics, and the global energy infrastructure
4. Recognize that experts either directly or indirectly in your employ will be tempted to tell you what you want to hear and that those trained to be experts have not been selected for their courage or their ability to withstand the heat of nonacademic battle. Try to make experts understand that you want their candid assessments, not support for your position.
JC comment. In the climate change debate, given all the diverse political interests in play, I’m wondering who really wants candid assessments? I would hope that national security agencies and the financial sector at least would want candid assessments.
Maxims for the Community of Experts:
1. Never use rewards and punishments to stifle dissent within the community of experts. Rewarding mere conformity or punishing disagreement would seriously compromise the community’s quest for truth and hence its claim to be a community of experts. It should be equally obvious, however, that there will be a temptation to encourage conformity, both because professional consensus presents a better face to the public and also because of our natural tendency to see those who agree with us as more competent and more ethical than those who disagree with us.
JC comment. This issue reflects the great concern that I have for the statements on climate change that professional societies have been making [link]. These statements give excuses to journal editors/reviewers, conference organizers and award committees for enforcing conformity and squelching research that disagrees with the consensus.
2. Beware the gap between social expectations of your community and what your members can in fact do. Combat unrealistic social expectations. Do not attempt to generate social support for your work by overestimating what is known, what is likely to become known, or the relevance and applicability of either to practical problems. Trust that has been lost or destroyed is extremely difficult to reestablish.
JC comment. The IPCC deserves some sympathy on this one. Policy makers and the UNFCCC have unrealistic expectations of the IPCC for reducing uncertainty and presenting a consensus.
3. Take steps to ensure that your members are worthy of the social trust placed in them. Those who abuse the power inherent in their specialized knowledge must be censured, penalized, and ultimately excluded from the community of experts. Granted, however, the lines between mistakes and culpable mistakes, between mistakes and incompetence, between incompetence and disagreement, and between disagreement and improper behavior will not often be easy to draw.
JC comment. The Peter Gleick case [link] and AGU’s failure to censure him in any meaningful way is a case in point here. This does not reflect well on AGU’s community of experts.
4. Resist the temptation to “circle the wagons” and defend the reputation of the community by withholding information about the misconduct of members of your community. Work for institutions and social settings that minimize temptations to abuse the power of expertise and that protect those who blow the whistle on untrustworthy members of the community.
JC comment: The behavior revealed by the Climategate emails (the emails themselves and the community response) illustrate this perfectly. This behavior has resulted in a colossal loss of public trust to the community of climate scientists. [link]
Maxims for a Society or Group that Relies on Experts:
1. Create settings for experts that protect experts who take responsible but unpopular positions, and that minimize the temptations to abuse the power of expertise.
JC comment: University tenure is key. The so-called ‘balance’ in news reporting is helpful in this regard. The blogosphere provides a platform for unpopular positions (attempting to censor them through journal peer review no longer works). Institutional practices (universities, professional societies) to minimize the temptations to abuse the power of expertise seem totally lacking [this was discussed in Ethics of Communicating Scientific Uncertainty].
2. Do not permit expertise to be monopolized by the wealthy or powerful or to be used as a tool of oppression or exploitation.
JC comment. There has been much angst over the possibility of oil companies or the Koch brothers buying contrarian climate research. However, the recent Grijalva inquisition [link] reveals that there is little cause for concern. There is probably more concern for influence buying on the green side. Either way, I don’t think funding is the main source of bias among climate scientists; rather it is ideology and peer pressure.
3. There is a responsibility to finance the education and information (through experts) of opposing and potentially opposing groups. Unless money and power are to resolve the discussion of questions of truth, the knowledge-buying power of different groups must not be grossly unequal.
JC comment. Well this is an interesting one; it almost argues that oil company and Koch brother funding of climate research is to be welcomed to counter the biased funding by the federal government.
It is indeed high time to work on the ethics of expertise in the public debate on climate science. Unless we are prepared to declare the whole issue hopeless [Uneasy Expertise]: Experts might instead need to pick a side, join the fight, and accept that their claims to knowledge and authority will always and everywhere be contested.
Regarding the people/groups that call on expertise, its hard to imagine that they won’t continue to play politics with expertise, although hopefully a few groups will emerge that are appealing to experts in the context of genuine inquiry.
Regarding individuals putting themselves forward as experts, this is largely an issue of individual conscience, although I agree that other scientists should call out inappropriate uses of expertise (I seem to be one of the few climate scientists doing this, and I’m not making many friends within the community for doing this).
My bigger concern is absence of concern about these issues from the institutions supporting research – universities, professional societies and funding agencies. This where the big failing lies. Journalists, lawyers, engineers etc. all have codes of ethics of relevance to public expertise, whereas scientists do not – pretty much anything goes, and there are too many examples of scientists behaving irresponsibly in this regard who are rewarded by their universities and professional societies.
It will be interesting to see if there is any interest in pondering this issue, or whether everyone will give up and just play politics with expertise.