Experts and skeptics

Sayings of Richard Feynman, Nobel prizewinning physicist:

  • There is no harm in doubt and skepticism, for it is through these that new discoveries are made.
  • Science is organized skepticism of the reliability of expert opinion.

In our response to covid, we are witnessing the lack of expertise of experts.

We assume that science is incontrovertible. It may well be.

Scientists, however, are not. They are human. When they “speak science” to us, we do well to remember that actually they are speaking not science, but science as interpreted by scientists. Not the same thing at all.

We observe scientific phenomena. Observations rely on our senses and intellects. We measure scientific phenomena. Measurements rely on instruments and techniques. In biological science we observe and experiment on animals, human and non-human. Animals have “personalities”. They are not predictable. Personalities influence responses.

When a scientist inspects cells or tissues under a microscope, they have been pulverised in all sorts of ways to render them observable. If yesterday’s work is to be compared to today’s and next week’s, you need to be pretty damn sure that all the conditions and chemicals and temperatures that held yesterday are absolutely identical to today’s and next week’s. This can never be. 

There are so many variables in biological science. It is very messy. Mathematics is pure. Physics is almost pure, but is a bit messy since it has to be observed. Chemistry is messier still. Biology is very messy indeed, as I explain above. Messiest of all are things like psychology and social science, the latter once defined as the study of those who don’t need to be studied by those who do.

In the biological sciences, it’s necessary to amass a large amount of data. Those data must be tested, time and again, and robust statistical analyses applied, before even tentative conclusions can be drawn. 

I’m not saying that it’s not possible to draw conclusions in biological science. But it is time consuming and laborious, and it requires meticulous work from researchers whose personalities are well suited to meticulous work: focussed, capable of paying attention to detail and possessed of almost infinite patience. A bit anal you might say. Being on the autistic spectrum certainly helps.

Most of all, scientists must be impervious to the pressures from themselves and others to get their results to conform to expected patterns that suit their own ideas or those of the organisation and funding bodies for whom they work. 

In short, scientists need to be uncontaminated by personal bias. Good luck with that.

You see, the problem is that scientists—experts—are human.

Back in the 4th century, Evagrios the Solitary said “there are three groups [of demons] who fight in the front line: those entrusted with the appetites of gluttony, those who suggest avaricious thoughts, and those who incite us to seek the esteem of men. All the other demons follow behind and in their turn attack those already wounded by the first three.” Evagrios clearly had a profound knowledge of human psychology.

The third of those demons, seeking the esteem of men, is by far the most insidious and dangerous. And that is at the root of the sin of the expert, of the scientist in general, and indeed of humanity.

We all want to be well thought of. It is good for the sake of pay, pension, reputation, self-esteem and ego. But seeking the approval of others requires that we choose those whose approval is worth having. Therein lies the problem.

The ego of an unscrupulous scientist can lead to his ignoring inconvenient results, even fabricating data. It can lead to a pet model overriding observed data, the latter being squeezed and deformed to fit the model just as the ugly sister’s toe was amputated so her foot might squeeze into the glass slipper. Researchers employed by drug companies are particularly vulnerable to such pressures in order that their results will best enhance company profits, and thus reputations and prospects.

I need not perseverate. You can see how the demon of seeking esteem infects us all—and in the realm of science, you can I hope see how such pressures and biases can distort the interpretation of biological data.

And that brings us to covid.

In the covid case we are dealing with a novel virus. People use that word, and yet they don’t see that novel carries with it uncertainty and unpredictability, for if something is novel we can not reliably assume or deduce anything on the basis of what we have known heretofore. When a scientist comes along with a model, people latch on to it. “We need something,” they cry; “this is something; this will do”. 

Well, it might not do. Indeed, it did not do at all.

They, we, should assume nothing but instead proceed cautiously, adjusting and refining our ideas on the basis of data, rather than on the basis of some preconceived model. Instead we did the opposite: “we have a world expert modeller; we know better than the rest of the world; we know what the virus will do”. We certainly do not know what the virus will do, or how we will respond to it. 

What we need is constant wariness, a readiness always to adjust, refine, question. As Richard Feynman is reported as saying, “Science is the organized skepticism in the reliability of expert opinion.” 

Experts, I repeat, are human and subject to all the deceptions and foibles of human nature. The problem is that we put too much weight on what they say. We treat them as infallible. We do not question them. We should. We need dissenters to say, “hang on a minute; what if … ?” Unfortunately dissenters, whistle blowers, are rarely if ever applauded. Richard Feynman could himself be a skeptic, for former US Attorney General William Rogers said of him “Feynman is becoming a real pain in the ass.” 

We need more, many more,  pains in the ass.

Looking ahead

I suspect that Floyd and Colston riots are in part manifestations of frustration and inconvenience of a policy drawn up on the basis of expert opinion insufficiently questioned and now seen to have been ineptly handled. The spark, I’m in no doubt, was anger at the behaviour of the Prime Minister and his adviser.

We are in for months of civil unrest—the rest of the year and possibly more. The privations, unemployment, business failures and shortages of covid will be as nothing compared to those resulting from the now almost inevitable hard brexit. The shysters in government will use the former as serendipitous cover for their treacherous and self-serving pursuance of the latter.

Politically, I have no axe to grind. In my time I’ve voted for everything except the Greens. But I come to the view that the best option for the immediate future would be an early uprising that would replace this morally bankrupt government with a “war cabinet” that includes Mr Starmer who already has acquired the gravitas and discernment that eluded most of his predecessors and that far exceeds anything in the present administration. Quite how this uprising could be provoked is something to ponder. 

It’s interesting to note that following the Irish general election months ago, there is still no government in Leinster House. And yet Dr Varadkar remains Taoiseach, the Irish go about their business, and two days ago the lockdown was eased considerably. 

Who needs a government? Who needs politicians? We urgently need loyal dissenters.

7 thoughts on “Experts and skeptics

  1. Thanks for this, Stanley, and I’d also like to make the observation that we need to acknowledge that scientists seriously and honestly disagree about the interpretation of perfectly sound data. The danger lies when politicians seize on the scientific opinion that best suits their policies and personal ambitions and claim to be ‘following the Science’. There’s been rather a lot of this going on lately!

    • Yes. Scientists whose egos lead them to think of themselves as infallible need humility. People who look to scientists need to remember your point. We need more robust skepticism (to use Feynman’s US spelling), And people in general need to learn to cope with uncertainty – and, my constant refrain, that life is terminal.

  2. Thanks for this post, Stanley. For many years I was one of those working with data in the messy world of population biology so I know where you are coming from. I think part of our problem may be that science has been sold and possibly even taught as giving certain and immutable answers, whereas it gives the best answer within the bounds of current knowledge. Especially in something like this pandemic people and governments are looking for certainty and reassurance which research can’t give and certainly not with a new organism. And I suspect this is compounded by an idea of leadership which is sure, strong and certain. Add in the various political machinations and manoeuvres going on re Brexit and all seems to become smoke and mirrors…

    • Yes indeed. People in search of certainty latch on to scientific pronouncements as if they were infallible. And some scientists are stupid enough to act as if they too are infallible. I fear that since medics can be prosecuted for malpractice and incompetence, so scientists might be. They need humility, and we need to come to terms with uncertainty.

  3. The scientific experts days are probably numbered anyhow. Pure data collection and interpretation appear to be shifting more and more to AI. The issue will still be how that information is then used. Good data and clean interpretation faciliate good decision making, though clearly decisions can be made with no data or information. And stuff will happen whether decisions are made or not!

    The Orange one in the USA is great example of a decision maker who has no need of data or information other than his own feelings and a world beating Confirmation Bias, the sort of thing that if it goes unchecked will lead to another dark age and the rise of mystics!

    • Thanks for this. Good stuff. We’re in that intellectual dark age now, IMO. I have nothing against mystics of old – their mysticism was based on, took off from, the reality of existence – they didn’t deny it. I fear that the mystics of the present age are reality-denying as you imply, and therefore will lead followers to misery. Still, we get the government we vote for, and the society we manufacture. A conflagration might concentrate people’s scatty minds. There well be some catastrophe in the not too distant future.

  4. I only learned the word “heuristic” late in life. In Ireland, I suppose it would be called, “ah, sure, it’ll do” approach. It was fascinating to discover the name for the attitude that suffices in much of human existence, it might not be optimal, but it is sufficient to satisfy.

    Dr Jenny Harries, one of the Downing Street regulars, insisted in one press conference that the government would do “precisely the right thing at precisely the right time,” which might have been possible if the scientists were not being undermined by the politicians who have decided a heuristic approach finds more favour in the media. “We’ll have lockdown, but we will only lock down enough to make it do. Lots of people will unnecessarily die prematurely, which is not ideal, but we’ll keep people happy by allowing them to shop at The Range.”

    It was a surprise to me that the government included the insights of social scientists as well as those of medical scientists in their response, which I think has made it significantly more difficult for the medical scientists. The heuristic responses suggested by the social scientists must have inevitably muddied the waters for those attempting medical modelling and forecasting.

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