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Follow the Science

by Gregg Ten Elshof

Charles Cooke, in a recent episode of a National Review podcast, “The Editors,” accused many progressives of being like “a cheap date.” You need only say the word “science,” he quipped, to win their hearts. Probably there’s something true in the accusation. But there’s also something very dangerous about leveling that kind of accusation in our current situation.

In my conversations with neighbors and friends lately, I’ve been asking how we (the non-experts) should posture ourselves toward strong global scientific consensus on matters of science. More specifically, I’ve been asking folks which of the following two is closest to their own attitude:

  1. When the global scientific community achieves strong consensus on a scientific matter, believe them — even if their conclusions depart from how things seem to you (a non-expert) after your own attempt to understand the evidence and even if you can find fringe scientific experts expressing opinions closer in keeping with your own sense of things.
  2. When the global scientific community achieves strong consensus on a scientific matter, compare their conclusions with your own after your own attempt to understand the evidence as a non-expert. If your conclusions depart from strong expert consensus and if you can find fringe scientific experts defending your own sense of things in ways that make sense to you, then depart in your belief from strong global consensus among the experts.

What has been alarming to me is the number of people who say that they would have identified more with (1) as recently as a month or two ago. But now, in the wake of an economic shutdown fueled by strong global scientific consensus about the likely effects of letting this virus burn hot, they find themselves more friendly to (2).

What they report, in other words, is that current economic conditions are changing the way they form beliefs about matters scientific. How should we feel about this? I say, not good.

In recent years, undo suspicion of strong global scientific consensus has been creeping into conservative evangelical circles. It shows up, for example, in anti-vaccination communities, in climate-change-denying communities, and in intelligent-design communities where mainstream science is vilified and folks are encouraged to follow their own common sense when it comes to matters of science. This is a mistake. It is an epistemological mistake since any reasonable epistemology will accommodate deference to expertise (of any kind). And it is a moral mistake insofar as the refusal to defer to experts manifests a failure of humility. It has always been a dangerous mistake. But the dangers are, perhaps, more salient now than ever.

Many are wondering, I think, what it looks like to be reasonable in a time of such uncertainty (even among the experts). Here are a few guiding principles:

  1. In general, believe strong global consensus among experts (where it exists) on questions concerning which you do not have expertise.
  2. Recognize that it’s possible to find fringe experts who depart from strong global expert consensus about nearly anything. That, all by itself, is no reason to disbelieve expert consensus.
  3. Recognize that when global expert consensus is discovered to have been false, that does not, all by itself, vindicate the reasonableness of the non-experts who dismissed expert consensus all along. You can be unreasonable and right at the same time.
  4. Practice sensitivity to different kinds of questions. The relevant scientists are the experts about how many deaths will likely result from the unchecked spread of a virus. We should believe the deliverances of the models deemed best by the strong consensus of the global scientific community. But the scientists are not the experts when it comes to the socio-economic impact of government policies. Nor are they the experts when it comes to what governments should and shouldn’t do with all the information (economic, scientific, etc.) they’ve gathered. Some questions are, more or less, purely scientific. Others admit evidence from any number of disciplines (e.g., the hard sciences, psychology, economics, theology, ethics, etc.).

It’s one thing to say, in our current context, that you believe the scientists when they tell us that extreme social distancing is effective against this virus — that the cost in human lives will be very, very high if this virus is allowed to burn hot — but to insist on easing social-distancing policies for reasons having to do with the competing costs of quarantine (economic and otherwise).

It’s quite another to respond to the hardship of quarantine by expressing skepticism about the deliverances of mainstream science concerning the effectiveness of social distancing and about the likely costs of prematurely easing the enforcement of social distancing and to go in search of fringe scientific experts expressing similar skepticism. The latter response exhibits an unreasonable failure to defer to experts. It is both the manifestation of and fuel for the tendency in some of our communities to be insufficiently deferential to the strong global consensus of experts.

Gregg Ten Elshof (M.A. ’96) is a professor of philosophy at Biola University and a scholar-in-residence at Biola’s Center for Christian Thought. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Southern California.