If you discovered that you had cancer would you (a) find a doctor who is an expert in treating your disease and follow their advice, or (b) attempt to devise your own treatment by reading about cancer on the internet?
According to some sources, Apple founder Steve Jobs may have shortened his life by relying too heavily on (b). Martina Cartwright at Psychology Today writes, "When Mr. Jobs was first diagnosed in 2003, he chose to pursue alternative therapies, including acupuncture, herbal, diet and fruit juice therapy and spiritual consultations. Many of these therapies he found on the Internet."
In the Weekend Australian Cassandra Wilkinson cites Jobs as an example of the "countless tragic cases of people delaying or denying medical treatment in favour of quackery. Jobs is only a high-profile example of a growing problem." Andrew Bolt concurs: "’alternative medicines’ are not just a danger to our health but an insult to our reason."
Also in the Australian, Brendan O’Neill complains that climate change sceptics can’t get a fair hearing because activists attack their motives rather than engaging with their arguments. This "stinks of intellectual cowardice", says O’Neil. "Instead of taking sceptics up on what they say in public, campaigners dig for dirt behind the scenes."
O’Neill wants a free public debate where "all of us can hear ideas, assess their worth and accept or reject them." What he doesn’t want is activists wasting everybody’s time by uncovering which climate change sceptics are being bankrolled by oil companies.
The trouble is, most people don’t have time to become experts in every technical field that affects their lives. Modern society functions because we have a division of intellectual labour just as we have a division of physical labour. Attempting to live a physically self-sufficient by growing your own food, building your own house and weaving your own cloth quickly leads to poverty. Attempting to live an intellectually self-sufficient life would have the same effect.
On many issues the best we can do is figure out who the experts are and which of them we can trust to offer us unbiased advice. It’s hard to figure out who the experts are without a basic science education and some background work. And it’s hard to figure out who to trust without knowing something about the people and institutions who are offering advice.
If half the experts in the media say one thing and the other half another we might think that expert opinion is divided. In the case of climate change we might decide that there’s too much uncertainty about the science to justify costly efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
That might be a reasonable decision if expert opinion was evenly divided. But what if we discover that many of the sceptics are receiving funding from corporations that will adversely affected by action on carbon emissions or being promoted by organisations that are receiving funding from those corporations?
Despite what O’Neill says, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask who’s funding and promoting the work of experts appearing in the media. The experts may be respectable scientists and completely sincere. But they may represent only a small minority. Promoting their work to journalists and the public can create the misleading impression that the scientific community is evenly divided.
While most educated, intelligent people are capable of understanding something about the science of issues like climate change, it takes time and effort. For people with jobs both are in short supply. It’s just not possible to be an expert in everything.
By asking us to ignore information on things like funding, qualifications and institutional affiliations, O’Neill is asking us to take the Steve Jobs approach to issues like climate change. Rather than finding experts we can trust, he wants us to sift through all the evidence ourselves. Is that really a good idea?