J. B. S. Haldane Lecture: How the Public Can Assess Expertise

J. B. S. Haldane Lecture: How the Public Can Assess Expertise

Dan Jacobson summarises the recent annual Haldane lecture, and discusses how the public can criticise the work of experts

In 2016, ‘post-truth’ was selected as ‘Word of the Year’ by Oxford University Press. With the benefit of hindsight, this is an obvious decision. This term has since epitomised the entire paradigm shift in our political climate, with its characteristic emotional appeals that formed the roots of Nigel Farage’s Brexit campaign, that were mirrored in the sloppiness of the subsequent Remain campaign, and finally perfected during the U.S. Presidential Election.

Its effects were most pertinent following Michael Gove’s claim that the British public had “had enough of experts”. Whilst post-truth most likely stems from a combination of chronic fear of condescension, and Gove’s inability to answer reasonable questions, such disillusion emitted by the general public may have arisen from the fact that despite the amount of knowledge we currently have access to, an expert in one field is not necessarily an expert in another.

J. B. S. Haldane, a professor of genetics and biometry at UCL between 1933 and 1956, was arguably one of the last polymaths. An accomplished mathematician, statistician, geneticist and political critic, he has been credited with scientific developments ranging from the famous ‘Primordial Soup Theory’, to the mapping of haemophilia and colour blindness on the X-chromosome. Following the recent surge in unpopularity of many of UCL’s greatest research figures, it is reassuring that a forward-thinking person lies within their ranks, providing inspiration for an annual lecture that is now held in his honour, organised by the UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies.

This year’s lecture was delivered by Dr Heather Douglas, a researcher in science and society at the University of Waterloo, Ontario. Her work has generally focused on the symbiosis between the general public and researchers, and the roles of both in determining scientific policy. Although this relationship relies on an ability for public critique of experts, this seems difficult to achieve without the public becoming experts themselves. However, this capability is necessary for a well-informed public, and is thus a cornerstone of a functioning democracy. As is often seen, most notably during the 2007 financial crisis, experts can be wrong.

A comprehensive report conducted by the Pew Research Center, Washington, displayed a disconcerting scepticism of scientists from within the U.S. population, particularly regarding subjects such as evolution, climate change and GMOs. Unfortunately, expertise assessment in these fields is difficult, due to the lack of short-term results and successes. The expertise of a chess player, for example, can be immediately determined by their ability to win. On the other hand, if a climate scientist postulates a global warming model, waiting to see if it pans out properly is not an option.

Fortunately, trust in scientists with long-term goals no longer needs to be a matter of blind faith. In her lecture, Douglas suggested a ‘Tripod of Trust’: three factors that should be achieved in order to allow the public to offer reasonable assessment of the work of experts, without becoming experts themselves. Fundamentally, these rely on a proper functioning of the scientific process.

The first aspect required for trust is a baseline assessment. Especially when short-term successes are not viable, experts should be able to explain why they will achieve success. As opposed to this being an exercise in education, this displays the complexity that experts must deal with. Often this is implemented badly, such as with the overuse of jargon prior to the 2007 financial crisis, so we must be vigilant. In the words of comedian John Oliver, “If you’re going to do something evil, put it in something boring”.

The other two aspects of the Tripod of Trust are the social conditions within which the research is occurring, and the values displayed by the scientists themselves. These relate to scientific integrity, a community in which debate is encouraged, and where opinions are free to change in light of new evidence. As Douglas said, “We want to trust experts who would make judgements the way we would make them”.

It should be noted that the onus is not entirely on the researchers. The importance of scientific integrity relies on an engaged public acting in a way that is both benevolent and constructive. Douglas says that her theory “will work well once science education is fixed”, and it is true that only a well-informed public can effectively assess expertise. When asked if she herself has the expertise to make these remarks, she joked “It’s so good being a philosopher. I can go off zeitgeist instead of data”.

Haldane would hate the term post-truth; an idea that we have somehow transcended the necessity for reason and expertise, in favour of lazy conspiracies and ad hominem. An educated and engaged populace is undeniably something to strive for. Once the stigma and cynicism of expertise are removed, as Douglas says, “we can only hope this would reduce the bullshit in the end”.

Image credit: pexels.com

Dan Jacobson