Tuesday, March 05, 2013

The expert exception to consensus reliance

I've really enjoyed Chris Mooney's Point of Inquiry podcasts, so it's too bad the latest one with pro-GMO activist Mark Lynas failed to wrestle significantly with real arguments about GMOs (Chris, you talk about GMOs too much to say you don't want to delve into technical issues).

One interesting issue did come out of the podcast - at one point Lynas says the Union of Concerned Scientists' rejection of the National Academy of Sciences position on GMOs is a contradiction of UCS arguments that we should rely on the consensus opinion on climate change.  I've argued something similar before, that the expert consensus should basically just plug in as fact in policy discussion, but there's one exception - if you yourself are an expert in that field, I think you could conclude that you're right and the consensus is wrong.  Presumably UCS could make this conclusion.

It takes a lot of hubris to conclude you're right and the other 90% of the experts are wrong. You might carefully examine whether you're missing something little or something big, and withhold judgment for a while. In the end though if you feel like you really understand the issue, you don't have a choice but to conclude what you conclude.

So what should happen next depends on who you are.  If you're the dissenting expert, you should work to move the consensus in your direction.  If you're someone else, the dissenter is just a dissenter, and only if there's enough of them to disrupt the consensus do we need to worry about them.

So no change to the big picture, but I disagree with Lynas that experts are required to toe the line of an expert consensus when they disagree with that consensus.