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From my perspective about science, a scientific method exists and you choose to use it or not. This scientific method has evolved throughout the time - and continues to evolve - to give us guidelines on how to observe our environment to better find patterns that are accurate. The theory is that one who uses the scientific method has better chances of finding a reliable pattern. But that is a probability, not a certitude.

The problem raised in this thread about determining if we should follow (blindly?) 'scientists' (who is a scientist?) or not is not one about the merits of the scientific method, but about personal freedom and acceptance of diversity.

Say a group of people decides we need to build an ark because a catastrophic flood is coming. Let's take 2 scenarios:
• in one case, 90% of the population wants to follow them and participate in the project;
• in the other case, only 15% of the population wants to follow them.
In any case, why would anyone wants to force the people who don't want to participate, to do so, against their will? If you want to build an ark, do it, no matter what are your reasons, no matter what are your means, no matter what are the outcomes. The same judgement applies if you don't want to build an ark.

If I tell you that the group of people who wants to build an ark (whether they are followed by 90% or 15% of the population), based their decision on a quote from the bible, it would be laughable for anyone who chooses to follow the scientific method. In such a case, any 'scientist' would be glad to have the freedom to choose which project they can invest in.

But what if I tell you that the group of people who wants to build an ark (whether they are followed by 90% or 15% of the population), based their decision on a thorough examination of weather data and elaborate mathematical models? Why would the rest of the population lose their freedom to choose their own path? Whether their choice is based on a bible quote or simply on an "I don't care" mentality.

Even with the argument that if they don't participate, we're all going to die or that they will be saved by your ark anyway and that's unfair, your choice still lies with what you will do with the conditions given. It shouldn't be about what others will do, even if what others will do will have an influence on your decision.

It's funny how if a squirrel don't help you build the ark and you can't finish it in time, nobody blames the squirrel. If a squirrel jumps on your ark and get saved, again, nobody blames the squirrel. Why is it different with another human being? Why not accepting the fact that some will know the outcome (maybe out of pure luck), some will not, and that the one who doesn't have a clue might be you? People who use the scientific method should understand more than anyone else that everything is about probabilities, thus anyone can be a winner or a looser. Pretty much the whole scientific concept behind diversity.

The scientific method is a tool, not a magic wand.

Averagesupernova, BillTre, PeterDonis and 1 other person
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I will point out your argument about liberty fails completely in the current COVID-19 pandemic.

jack action and Motore
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I will point out your argument about liberty fails completely in the current COVID-19 pandemic.
jack action's point is made. Long in discussion, but made. The point is, back to the same question. Nobody is certain of scientists being taken as authorities or not. The reference to the Ark & Flood example is just to show, planning for disaster and combined community participation is helpful - very helpful.

Mentor

This is off topic here; too many other considerations are involved that are outside the purview of science. Please keep discussion in this thread focused on the Insights article and its topic.

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OK then back to the question at hand. I believe the appropriate layman's response is familiar. If it is an important question one should seek a second opinion. What else can one do?

Mentor
If it is an important question one should seek a second opinion.

And then you have the same problem with respect to the second opinion that you had with respect to the first: how can you evaluate it?

What else can one do?

That question is what my suggestions in the article are intended to address.

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In practice, at least for the medical analog to which i was alluding, the Google search and some working knowledge of the interpretation thereof, constitute a kind of search for consensus opinion. I think mainstream science relies on consensus when necessary.
This produces numerous pitfalls but I am reminded of Churchill's admonition about Democracy.

Mentor
In practice, at least for the medical analog to which i was alluding, the Google search and some working knowledge of the interpretation thereof, constitute a kind of search for consensus opinion.

I can't speak for other people, but when I am looking up information about a medical question, I'm not looking for consensus. I'm looking for what the information is based on. Have there been studies done? Are there papers I can read that describe them? Is what I'm finding consistent with my general understanding of how the human body works and how chemicals work? And so on.

I think mainstream science relies on consensus when necessary.

I think it depends on what you mean by "relies". I don't think scientific claims should be established by consensus. They should be established by a track record of accurate predictions.

I do think consensus plays a role in mainstream science when scientists decide which research areas to work on.

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In light of your (I think correct) last sentence, it would seem to me that
1. The negative nature of science is that nothing can ever be proven completely correct
2. Things we rely upon as "true" are those that have been the most researched and withstood the scrutiny
3. The role of consensus in shaping the outlines body of scientific truth should not be minimized

Mentor
The negative nature of science is that nothing can ever be proven completely correct

Agreed.

Things we rely upon as "true" are those that have been the most researched and withstood the scrutiny

This is not how I would put it. I would put it that things we rely upon as "true", at least in a scientific context, are those that are based on a solid track record of accurate predictions. Usually those things are also the ones that have been the most researched and withstood the scrutiny, but the latter are just proxies, and since we should have direct access to the track record of successful predictions, there is no need to use proxies to judge the claims. We can just examine the track record directly.

The role of consensus in shaping the outlines body of scientific truth should not be minimized

Again, I would put it differently. I would say that the role of consensus in determining what is researched and what gets scrutiny should not be minimized.

I also would say that the role of consensus in that process can be significantly affected by how science is funded. Today almost all science is funded by government grants, which means funding is centralized, and so one would expect consensus to play a larger role in determining where the funding goes. Contrast this with the situation in, say, the middle of the nineteenth century, when almost all science was funded privately, and consensus played much less of a role, since each scientist only had to convince his own private patron (who in many cases was just himself) that he was working on something worthwhile.

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Usually those things are also the ones that have been the most researched and withstood the scrutiny, but the latter are just proxies, and since we should have direct access to the track record of successful predictions, there is no need to use proxies to judge the claims. We can just examine the track record directly.
If I understand you, this presupposes that data sufficient to test the predictions already exists. But often it requires the aforementioned consensus to generate the data (the poster child being the Higgs Boson I suppose). Or gravitational radiation. Many such examples, but certainly not always.

Mentor
If I understand you, this presupposes that data sufficient to test the predictions already exists.

Yes. If it doesn't, obviously you can't test the predictions, so you can't know whether or not they are accurate.

often it requires the aforementioned consensus to generate the data

Yes, this is included in deciding what is researched and what gets scrutiny.

hutchphd
Staff Emeritus
Scientists only deserve deference when they can demonstrate the necessary predictive track record based on scientific models to support whatever claims they are making.

Do you have an opinion on Neil Ferguson's 2005 comments on H5N1 flu?
1. 150M-200M could die, based on scaling up 1918. (Reported in The Guardian)
2. 1.5B (e.g. 1500M) could die, assuming a mutation that produces a more deadly and contagious strain (Reported in New Scientist; to be fair, the "more deadly" part was entirely of New Scientist's making. The relevant paper doesn't discuss outcomes at all.)

Mentor
Do you have an opinion on Neil Ferguson's 2005 comments on H5N1 flu?

Do you have links to the items you referenced?

hutchphd
Mentor
The Nature paper is behind a paywall.

It's hard for me to evaluate this specific case if I can't see the actual scientific paper. In general terms, the track record of such predictions does not seem to be very good (this particular set of predictions being an example of that).

jack action
Tom Nichols raised the broader contextual issue of authority in a well-described article, The Death of Expertise, highlighting the challenge of rational engagement when participants feel that their uninformed opinions should carry equal weight to opinions informed by expertise. 'Science' as an informed opinion suffers in such dialog for many reasons, including an inability to bootstrap participants onto an even playing field of understanding for the purpose of having a cogent discussion in the first place.

Mentor
an inability to bootstrap participants onto an even playing field of understanding for the purpose of having a cogent discussion in the first place.

I think it's fair to say that this phenomenon has been observed here at PF.

The Nichols article is interesting, but it is using a definition of "expert" that is quite a bit broader than the category "scientist with a strong predictive track record to back up their claims" that I was using as a basis for discussion in my article.

For example, Nichols says he is (or at least would like to think he is) an expert in social science and public policy. But I don't think he could show very much of a predictive track record to back up that claim. His basis for saying he is an expert appears to be, basically, that he is better informed and has a better grasp of the techniques of using reason than most of the people he encounters. But it is perfectly possible to be all those things and still not be able to make useful predictions in a specific domain, even if that domain is of great practical interest, simply because the domain is too complex and intractable to analysis, and too unsuited to the kinds of controlled experiments that have allowed us to develop a strong predictive track record in physics or astronomy.

In that kind of domain, I think the best attitude is to recognize that there are no "experts" in the sense of people who have a better predictive track record than others. There are certainly people who are better informed and have a better grasp of correct reasoning. And there are elements of expertise, considered in a broader sense than "predictive track record", that are much more of an art than a science. Nichols mentions doctors and lawyers as examples of experts, but while those disciplines are (or at least should be) informed by science, they are not sciences, they are arts, and much of what they do consists of applying non-repeatable human judgment to non-repeatable unique situations. There are certainly people who are better at that, but recognizing them, I think, is itself an art, as is assigning them their proper role in public discourse, and is outside the scope of what I was discussing in my article. It's probably worth a separate article to itself.

jack action
The Nichols article is interesting, but it is using a definition of "expert" that is quite a bit broader than the category "scientist with a strong predictive track record to back up their claims" that I was using as a basis for discussion in my article.

That's true, @PeterDonis, both of you recognize the difficulty in the concept of 'authority', but you are elaborating a more specific case than Nichols via the attribute of predictive power.

(And I agree, social science and public policy is a domain where 'experts' are hard pressed to show a track record of useful and statistically correct predictions, possibly because the underlying theories do not have the embedded repeatability of physics?)

However, I do wonder whether "one’s own common sense should be a good guide in evaluating their [scientists] claims" isn't a disconnected concept for many people, and esp. non-experts. Scientific American has an interesting viewpoint on how such 'common sense' might be practically applied, and there are many other sources with similar ideas, but having read many PF posts with references to peer-reviewed papers, I am often still in the dark about the predictive track record and the uncertainties presented, let alone whether the papers even make sense.

Still, I agree with your gate-keeping idea because we need some basis for interpretation of claims, but I remain unsure whether being an expert in one field necessarily makes it easier to critique the validity of claims made by experts in another field? And if experts struggle, how do laypeople know which 'science' to listen to?

Mentor
possibly because the underlying theories do not have the embedded repeatability of physics?

To the extent they even have underlying theories, yes.

I do wonder whether "one’s own common sense should be a good guide in evaluating their [scientists] claims" isn't a disconnected concept for many people, and esp. non-experts.

Bear in mind that I suggested that specifically for the case where an ordinary lay person, not well versed in the specifics and jargon of the field, is trying to evaluate claims made by experts in the field. Obviously the ordinary lay person can't critique the details of those claims and the theories that lie behind them, since to do that one would have to be well versed in the specifics and the jargon of the field. (Note that this latter is not exactly the same as having academic credentials in the field, though there is of course much overlap.) But it's still possible for the ordinary person to look at the actual predictive track record and apply common sense to it, as well as how the claims are presented (and I gave specific examples to illustrate how particular claims have been presented to the public).

having read many PF posts with references to peer-reviewed papers, I am often still in the dark about the predictive track record and the uncertainties presented, let alone whether the papers even make sense

Peer-reviewed papers, ironically enough given PF's rules about sources, are often not the best places for a lay person to get that information, since they are typically written for other experts, not for the lay person. In many cases that's fine, because what is being discussed in the papers does not have any direct relevance to public policy questions that a lay person, as a citizen, might want to have an opinion on. For cases where the science does have such direct relevance, part of the duty of the scientist, as I've said, is to accurately communicate the current state of knowledge, including all uncertainties; I should have added that this needs to be done in terms the lay public can understand, i.e., by distilling the details and jargon of the field into a predictive track record that a lay person can reasonably evaluate. (The example of astronomers predicting the future trajectories of asteroids is a good one here.)

I agree with your gate-keeping idea

I'm not sure I proposed a gate-keeping idea. Can you be more specific?

I remain unsure whether being an expert in one field necessarily makes it easier to critique the validity of claims made by experts in another field?

I think it depends on the fields; I'm not sure there is any useful general rule.

if experts struggle, how do laypeople know which 'science' to listen to?

Unless there is some reason why laypeople need to know, such as a public policy question that needs to be decided, the laypeople should not have an opinion at all. That's difficult for many lay people to accept, but it's the only rule that makes sense.

If there is a public policy question that needs to be decided, then there are, as far as I can see, three possibilities:

(1) Scientists are able to present a solid predictive track record that stands up to scrutiny. This is the easy case: take the scientists seriously. (An example would be astronomers predicting the trajectories of asteroids.)

(2) Scientists are unable to present any significant predictive track record at all, or if they do present one, it does not stand up to scrutiny. This is a harder case than the first one, but the answer is still pretty clear, though disappointing: science is simply unable to provide any useful guidelines for public policy in this area. So any public policy decision in this area will need to be made on other grounds entirely. (An example would be something like global poverty: nobody really has a good predictive track record on how to address poverty. So whatever public policy decisions we make about it cannot rely on any significant scientific guidelines. Which, unfortunately but unavoidably, means that such decisions tend to be ad hoc and the resulting policies don't work very well.)

(3) There are multiple disputing communities of scientists, none of which has a predictive track record that is compelling enough to overcome the others. This is the hardest case, and I don't think there is a general rule that can be given about it, except that, like the second case, the grounds for whatever public policy decision gets made will end up not being based on the relative scientific merits of the various proposals. (An example of this case would be decisions that various countries have made about funding high energy physics experiments, for example the cancellation of the SSC in the US in the 1990s vs. the European decision to fund the LHC, in the light of the disputes within physics about the status of string theory vs. other approaches to going beyond the Standard Model of particle physics, and also about the relative status of high energy physics vs. other subdisciplines, such as condensed matter physics, that many physicists think are underfunded.)

Mentor
Scientific American has an interesting viewpoint on how such 'common sense' might be practically applied

Yes, this article looks like a good list of suggestions for how to do that.

Gold Member
Tom Nichols raised the broader contextual issue of authority in a well-described article, The Death of Expertise, highlighting the challenge of rational engagement when participants feel that their uninformed opinions should carry equal weight to opinions informed by expertise.
What I'm reading in this article is basically: «I believe you can have an opinion, as long as you agree with me.» This is the kind of arrogance that leads to people distrusting someone. And, in my opinion, anyone should be.
Scientific American has an interesting viewpoint on how such 'common sense' might be practically applied,
Here's is the ONLY criteria that matters for scientific credibility found in that article:
Credible scientists can lay out:
• Here's my hypothesis.
• Here's what you'd expect to observe if the hypothesis is true. Here, on the other hand, is what you'd expect to observe if the hypothesis is false.
• Here's what we actually observed (and here are the steps we took to control the other variables).
• Here's what we can say (and with what degree of certainty) about the hypothesis in the light of these results.
• Here's the next study we'd like to do to be even more sure.
The part I highlighted is critical. NO one can claim expertise without that. Repeatability of the observation is also a big one (i.e. degree of certainty). Modelling doesn't count (unless based on past experiences with known outcomes). It might reassure that you are on the right path for further investments on your hypothesis, but it is not a scientific observation.

The biggest problem I don't understand in this debate about expertise, is why the need to convince everyone else that you are right? «I [don't] believe in God.» OK. «I [don't] trust vaccine.» OK. «Because of that, you must do as I do.» Wait, what? Why? Do it. If what you do works better than what others do, there are no reasons why people won't follow. Of course, this is a long process.

Anytime I see someone trying to convince me of something, I wonder what are his/her motivations. Every time I see that behavior, it's only about money - directly or indirectly. And I speculate that people having trust issues with experts - especially the arrogant ones - react the way they do, for the same reasons. Unfortunately, they often go in the opposite direction with the same intent: I must believe in their conspiracy theories.

But, in the end, if someone don't believe you, it's because YOU failed to convince him/her, not that he/she is an idiot or some other derogatory comment of the sort.

weirdoguy, atyy and Motore
Mentor
why the need to convince everyone else that you are right?

In many cases, there isn't one (which does make one skeptical about motivations when people try so hard to convince others anyway in such cases).

However, in cases where there is a significant public policy question at issue, for which only one decision can be made, if not everyone agrees on which decision should be made, there has to be some convincing done one way or the other.

Motore
Gold Member
However, in cases where there is a significant public policy question at issue, for which only one decision can be made, if not everyone agrees on which decision should be made,
In such a case, no decisions should be made about that particular subject. For anyone who is part of a group, no matter what unite the people in the group, everyone should agree on what they do together. Otherwise, it is still everyone is entitled to his/her way of doing things (on that particular subject).

Why would anyone wants to join a group that forces you to do what you do not want to do? Why would anyone wants to fund an organization that does the opposite of what he/she wants to do? Apparently, you have to do everything in your power to be on the winning side and use everyone money for your goals, no matter what others think. Afterwards, if you're right, you are a hero that saved the opposite side against their will and they should thank you; If you're wrong ... well, don't blame me, everyone makes mistakes. At least I did something, right?

I understand that it is very difficult to have 100% of the people on board. I also understand that when it happens, it is great. But if it doesn't, I don't see any harm in that. If 90% of the people do the same thing as you do, isn't this already pretty great? Let the other 10% live their own way and see where it goes. And if you're wrong, you will be glad they already made progress on their side. If you were right, call it insurance and welcome them back to your group. If it's 50/50 - or even 25/25/25/25 - the argument is even more valid.

https://www.physicsforums.com/insights/is-science-an-authority/ said:
there are cases where definite predictions by scientists are reliable enough to be taken as authoritative.

It is putting all our money in a central pot that lead us to argue endlessly on what we should do with it. Set the projects, then sell them to get the necessary funds. Urgency is no excuse either. Democracy is not just a concept for when decisions fit one desires. This way of thinking is what lead to the question «Who has the authority to make the decision for someone?» The answer for any democrat (the philosophy, not the party) should be «the person itself». Any other answer is anti-democratic by definition.

Motore and atyy
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In such a case, no decisions should be made about that particular subject.

Sometimes that's not an option. Although I would agree that the times when it's really not an option are much, much rarer than our current political structure admits.

Why would anyone wants to join a group that forces you to do what you do not want to do?

It's impossible for everyone to be able to choose every group they belong to and assent to everything that every group they belong to does. Everyone is born into at least one group of people they didn't choose: their family. Everyone has to live somewhere, everyone has to eat, and unless you're willing to be a hermit in the woods making use of nothing you didn't acquire or make yourself (but nobody who fits that description is reading or posting here anyway), you have to have cooperative relationships with other people. That means sometimes group decisions have to be made that affect everybody in the group, even if not everybody in the group agrees with them.

The real question, to me, is whether, when group decisions do have to be made that affect everybody in the group, the people who have a voice in those decisions are the ones who will be affected by them and will have to live with the consequences, and people who have no skin in the game also have no voice in the decision process. To the extent that is not true (and I would submit it very often isn't in our current political structure), that is a problem.

Homework Helper
Gold Member
What I'm reading in this article is basically: «I believe you can have an opinion, as long as you agree with me.» This is the kind of arrogance that leads to people distrusting someone. And, in my opinion, anyone should be.
+10
To the extent that is not true (and I would submit it very often isn't in our current political structure), that is a problem.
+10.

Now, can we close this discussion?

Mentor
can we close this discussion?

Discussion of the Nichols article, or discussion of the Insights article?

Regarding the Nichols article, I think probably enough has been said, yes.

There might still be further comments or questions about the Insights article, so I don't think the thread needs to be closed yet.

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Regarding the Nichols article, I think probably enough has been said, yes.
Thank you, that's exactly what I meant.

Gold Member
Going back on this quote:
https://www.physicsforums.com/insights/is-science-an-authority/ said:
there are cases where definite predictions by scientists are reliable enough to be taken as authoritative.

Reading the article closely seems to define those cases as:

we’re not supposed to accept what scientists say on their authority. [...] We’re supposed to think critically and try to build our own understanding. But there are at least two objections to this.

The first is that nobody has the time or the wherewithal to personally check out everything.

[...]

The second objection is that most people don’t have the expertise to second guess what a scientist says when talking about an area of science.

So if I don't have time and/or don't understand, it can be a good reason to subject myself to another authority than my own. And to make sure we are in the presence of a 'good authority', we need to ask 2 questions:

The first is simple: what kind of predictive track record does this area of science have? What kinds of predictions has it made that have been confirmed, and how precise were the predictions?

[...]

The second question is, how are the scientists presenting their claims?
But analyzing the answers to those questions (and even asking them) requires: 1) having time to do it and 2) having the knowledge to understand what defines a 'good' scientist (i.e understanding what is the scientific method). This brings us back to your two previous objections.

Furthermore, I don't recall hearing the scientists, per say. There are always, journalists, politicians and other people to simplify (or even alter) radically the message between their mouths and my ears because, apparently, "the common man don't understand". People who often don't even have the scientific know-how more than the common man. People who have agendas of their own. I'm baffled by the fact that I have to hear the message about the environment from a 16-year-old girl that can only say "Listen to the science." Everybody knows her name. But who are those scientists? What are they really saying? I never saw a panel of these scientists on the news. I cannot even think of one name of a scientist who actually work in the field (not just a popular scientific journalist who reads lot of papers).

My point is that if you don't define those special cases in a less general way, you are not really answering the question. And I personally wouldn't say that I want to submit myself blindly to a vague definition of who has that authority and a vague definition of the extend of that authority.

Mentor
So if I don't have time and/or don't understand, it can be a good reason to subject myself to another authority than my own.

Suppose astronomers said that they had calculated the orbit of an asteroid, first discovered a few months ago and subjected to detailed telescopic observation since then, and they have found, after detailed analysis and checking and double checking and triple checking to make sure they haven't made a mistake, that it is going to hit the Earth in, say, 2050. Would you refuse to take that statement as authoritative because you aren't personally an expert in orbit calculations and so can't directly review their work?

Keep in mind that the only statement I am saying you might want to take as authoritative is the statement that an asteroid will hit the Earth in 2050. That is not the same as a statement, from someone else other than the astronomers, about what we should do about it.

This also illustrates the important distinction, which you have not mentioned, between "taking a particular statement as authoritative" and "subjecting oneself to another authority". They're not the same. Not all statements are commands.

I don't recall hearing the scientists, per say.

Finding the actual research paper written by the scientists is usually very simple--just look on arxiv. There is no need to rely on second or third hand accounts from journalists or anybody else. When I see a link to a news article, the only thing I even bother looking for in the article is a reference to the actual paper; I never read what second or third hand sources say about what the scientists are saying.

There is one genuine problem in this regard, which is that so much new research is described in papers that are behind paywalls. That is unacceptable, particularly given that most if not all such research was paid for by us, the taxpayers. There ought to be a hard requirement that any public funded research must make all of its results and data available freely to the public.

My point is that if you don't define those special cases in a less general way, you are not really answering the question. And I personally wouldn't say that I want to submit myself blindly to a vague definition of who has that authority and a vague definition of the extend of that authority.

I have made no such claim. I specifically talked about how the scientists present their claims, not about how second or third hand sources present them.

Also, I think you are getting hung up on the word "authority". As I noted above, taking a statement of some fact or prediction as authoritative is not the same as having someone else tell you what to do about it.

BillTre
Peer-reviewed papers, ironically enough given PF's rules about sources, are often not the best places for a lay person to get that information, since they are typically written for other experts, not for the lay person.

Absolutely, but PF is a microcosm of the issue with 'science as authority'. Many PF members admonish laypeople for posting uninformed views because they are not technically correct. I doubt such responses are localized to the forums. And as you say, PF requests peer reviewed papers to substantiate arguments being made. It creates a tension that is not easily reconcilable and makes me wonder: can an authority inaccessible by most of the population be legitimate?

Unless there is some reason why laypeople need to know, such as a public policy question that needs to be decided, the laypeople should not have an opinion at all.

This seems a dangerously slippery slope. Uninformed opinions are rarely helpful, but I am not sure that I want a technocracy as my governmental model

That aside, can we grade opinions? As QM blurs into classical physics, at what point is an opinion informed enough for it to matter?

I'm not sure I proposed a gate-keeping idea. Can you be more specific?

Sorry, I meant your concluding paragraph in the Insights piece - predictive track record and uncertainties - which you have expanded on in your reply to me in #55.

Your thoughts are challenging and I'm even wondering whether we all have the same meaning of the term 'authority' through this discussion. Common definitions refer to the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience. On that basis, surely science is merely an input to authority, and not an authority itself?

Mentor
PF is a microcosm of the issue with 'science as authority'.

Yes. I explicitly discuss this in the article.

Many PF members admonish laypeople for posting uninformed views because they are not technically correct.

We don't admonish people just for posting incorrect views. We correct them.

We do admonish people for stubbornly adhering to incorrect views after they have already been corrected, yes.

The purpose of PF is to help people learn and discuss mainstream science, and the things I've just described are part of doing that.

PF is not "authoritative" in the sense that we don't expect you to believe what we say, just because we say it. That's why PF has rules about references (more on that below). We don't generally require references for statements that should be common knowledge in whatever scientific field is being discussed, at the level of the thread (obviously what would be taken as common knowledge in an "A" level thread is not the same as what would be taken as common knowledge in a "B" level thread). But that's more a matter of being respectful of the reader's time; a big part of the reason for the thread levels is to avoid bogging down advanced discussions with explanations of basic points.

PF requests peer reviewed papers to substantiate arguments being made.

Yes, but even then, we don't expect you to take what those papers say as authoritative. Requests for references generally fall into three categories:

(1) Someone wants to discuss an interesting theoretical claim or an interesting experiment, but they haven't given any specific source. Without a specific source, so that everyone has a common basis for discussion, the thread is not likely to go well. So we request a reference. The reference still doesn't get a free pass; it will be judged on its merits (as will the claims the poster is making that purport to be justified by it). But having it makes it a lot easier to have a productive discussion.

(2) Someone wants to know more about a topic than can reasonably be explained in a discussion thread. These references are usually textbooks or the online equivalent (for example, I often give references to Sean Carroll's online lecture notes on GR). This is not meant as a claim that every single statement in the reference is true or that the reference should be taken as an authority without trying to understand or evaluate what it says. It is just a pointer to a useful place to start further investigation.

(3) Someone is making a claim that, to readers who are familiar with the field, seems obviously false. We need to figure out whether this person has simply misunderstood something they've read, or is misstating in some way some fairly advanced claim, or has some other agenda. (Technically there is a fourth possibility, that the person genuinely has got hold of something new, but I have yet to see an example.) We ask for a reference to help figure out which of those possibilities it is. Often the actual details of what the reference says ends up being immaterial; it's more a way to properly get the discussion into the correct category.

can an authority inaccessible by most of the population be legitimate?

A question about whether authority is "legitimate" really only makes sense if the authority is giving commands. As I pointed out to @jack action, scientific statements, even when they are backed up by a solid enough predictive track record to be taken as authoritative, don't give commands. They just tell you facts or solid predictions. They don't tell you what to do about them.

So a better question might be whether it's fair (if that's the right word) for so much authoritative information to be in a form that is either inaccessible or uncheckable by most of the population (as with the calculations of astronomers about possible future asteroid impacts, which most people are unable to replicate).

My initial response to this is pretty blunt: there is no free pass to knowledge. If most of the population can't be bothered to take the time to learn our best current knowledge, then most of the population has no right to have an opinion about it. We can't help the fact that a lot of that knowledge requires advanced math or laborious computer calculations. We don't decide what it takes to understand Nature; Nature does. We have to take it as it comes.

It is true that much of our best current knowledge was acquired in a way that most people cannot replicate, and is not necessarily expressed in a form that most people can easily access. A big part of the mission of PF is to help with that, by explaining to people as best we can, in terms they can understand, what our best current knowledge actually says. But at the end of the day, it's up to each person, if they're going to have an opinion about anything they care about, to make the effort to make it an informed opinion.

Robert Heinlein has a character in one of his novels remark that the claim of a person to have a "right" to access to whatever knowledge they want, is like the claim of a person to have a "right" to be a concert pianist--but who does not want to practice.

BillTre
Mentor
surely science is merely an input to authority, and not an authority itself?

As I said, science can only tell you facts or solid predictions (assuming they are properly verified and checked facts, or predictions backed up by enough of a track record to be solid). It can't tell you what to do about them. So no, science is not an "authority" in the sense of giving commands, even when it makes statements that are solid enough to be "authoritative" in the sense of "ignore this at your peril".

The question of who, if anybody, has a right to give other people commands, is not a scientific question, and (fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view) science does not have much to say about the overall subject. (The discipline sometimes called "political science" is not a "science" in the sense we are using the term here--it's only a "science" in the sense of "something some people study".)

A question about whether authority is "legitimate" really only makes sense if the authority is giving commands.

Most definitions of 'authority' I've seen assign the right of command. Which is why I'm not sure we're discussing this from the same baseline, @PeterDonis, and esp. because you've not defined the term in your Insights piece.

Are you really arguing about the correctness of science and our ability to gauge and ascertain that?

But the question "Is science an authority?", asked in 2020, really only matters on the "what we should do about it" part. If an astronomer tells me that the best protection I can have against an asteroid coming in 2050 is to have an underground shelter that will cost me 50 000 $to build then, yes, I will take this statement seriously into consideration on my future actions as he is "a person accepted as a source of reliable information on a subject." That being said if the same astronomer tells me that I'm obligated to build a 50 000$ underground shelter because science is an authority, in the sense that it is "The power to enforce rules or give orders" or "Persons in command" [1], then I have a problem and will even begin to question the validity of the fact there will be an asteroid at all.