Science

When Should Lay Voters Defer to the Views of Scientists?

My 2015 post on this subject includes points relevant to our current situation.

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In the midst of the current crisis over the coronavirus pandemic, we often face decisions about the extent to which we—as ordinary citizens and voters with little or no scientific expertise—should defer to the views of scientists. Back in 2015, I wrote an in-depth post assessing this question (see here for non-paywall version), based in part on my academic work on political ignorance. I reprint it here in is entirely in the hopes it might be useful to at least some readers in these difficult times.

The post contains a number of nuances and qualifications. But the bottom line is that we should indeed defer to scientists on technical  issues within their expertise, especially if there seems to be a cross-ideological consensus among the relevant experts. That most definitely applies to the epidemiological aspects of coronavirus (rate of spread, death rate, how it's more dangerous than the common flu, etc.).

On the other hand, there are issues of policy and morality that cannot be resolved by scientific/technical expertise alone and/or that require the expertise of economists and other social scientists as much or more than "hard scientists." Those issues likely include a number of the policy questions surrounding how best to respond to the pandemic. "Hard" science is an essential component of those decisions, but not the only component.

I would add that these precepts are especially difficult to follow—but also especially important—when the expert scientific consensus goes against our ideological priors. In the 2015 post, I noted one such example where I try to practice what I preach (global warming). Coronavirus is another. It would be ideologically convenient for me, as a libertarian, if this pandemic were no more dangerous than the flu. That conclusion would significantly weaken the case for using massive government intervention to address the crisis. But I nonetheless believe it unwarranted to challenge the broad expert consensus that says coronavirus is indeed much more dangerous than either the flu or various other recent epidemics.

What follows is the 2015 post reprinted in full:

A recent Pew Research Center study shows that scientists and the general public disagree on a wide range of science-related public policy issues. For example, the survey finds that 87 percent of scientists, but only 37 percent of the general public believe that it is safe to eat genetically modified foods; 68 percent of scientists believe it is safe to eat food treated with pesticides, compared to only 28 percent of the public. Relative to the public, scientists are much more supportive of nuclear power and the use of animals in scientific research, and much less supportive of offshore drilling. Also, some 87 percent of scientists believe that climate change is mostly due to human activity, a view shared by only 50 percent of the public.

I. The Case for Deferring to Scientists.

This raises the question of whether voters should defer to majority scientific opinion on these issues. Given my research on political ignorance, it is tempting for me to conclude that the answer is almost always "yes." The majority of the public is often ignorant about basic facts about government and politics, and their scientific knowledge is also far from impressive. You don't have to believe that scientists are always right about scientific issues to conclude that they are on average more likely to be right than generally ignorant voters are. To the extent that this is true, an electorate that defers to majority scientific opinion on these issues would make fewer mistakes than one that does not, even though neither would be completely error free.

The above reasoning has some merit. But it is important to avoid conflating two different kinds of "scientific" issues. Some of the questions addressed in the Pew survey are almost purely technical questions. For example, the issue of whether GMO foods or foods treated with pesticides are safe, or the issue of whether human activity is the main cause of climate change. On these sorts of technical matters, scientists are indeed likely to know much more than most ordinary people, and there is a good case for deferring to them. But some seemingly scientific policy issues actually include major nontechnical components on which scientists are not likely to have specialized knowledge.

II. The Limits of Scientific Expertise.

Some of the questions raised in the Pew study are actually mixed questions of scientific facts and moral values. For example, the issue of whether animals should be used in scientific research partly depends on the scientific benefits of using them—a question on which scientists have special expertise. But it also depends on the moral status of the animals in question, and whether it is ethically permissible to inflict certain types of harm on them. On that latter issue, scientists have no special knowledge. If there is a group of experts that does, it is likely to be moral philosophers and political theorists; and these groups are—on average— more sympathetic to animal rights arguments than the general public is.

Other issues on the survey raise questions of political economy rather than pure science. For example, many more scientists (82 percent) than ordinary people (59 percent) believe that growing population will be a "major" problem in the future. Whether it will be or not depends largely on whether the possible costs of population growth (e.g.—environmental externalities) will outweigh the benefits, such as increased innovation and a greater division of labor. On these latter questions, economists are likely to be more expert than natural scientists are, and economists tend to be much more skeptical of Malthusian arguments than either natural scientists or the general population. They like to point out that Malthusian predictions have proven wrong for some two hundred years, which does not prove that they will always be wrong, but does suggest reason for imposing a high burden of proof on them.

Even on issues when scientists really are expert, there is occasionally a case for discounting their views based on ideological bias, or narrow self-interest. For example, if we find that scientists are in favor of increased government subsidies for science, their position could be based purely on disinterested expertise; but it could also be special interest pleading.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss all or most expert opinion on such grounds. Many of the issues on which experts and the public diverge have little direct connection to the self-interest of the former. Large lay-expert disagreements persist even in studies that control for self-interest and ideology, as Bryan Caplan did in his work comparing the views of economists and lay people on economic issues, and we have in our joint work comparing the views of laypeople and political scientists on political influence (coauthored with Eric Crampton and Wayne Grove).

In the case of the Pew survey, it is striking that scientists endorse what are usually considered "right wing" positions on nuclear power, GMO foods, and pesticides, even though scientists are generally much more left-wing in their political views than the average voter is. The scientists could be wrong about these issues. But if so it's not because of ideological bias.

Cynics will argue that I'm only advocating deferring to scientists when they happen to agree with my own libertarian views. Not so. There is indeed congruence between my views and those of the scientists on GMOs and pesticides. On the other hand, it would be very convenient for me and other libertarians if global warming were not a serious problem or were not caused by human activity. One of the standard libertarian arguments against government intervention is that the problem people want the government to solve doesn't really exist in the first place. Nonetheless, I am sufficiently impressed by the majority view of scientists on this question that I think libertarians should avoid the temptation to ignore or dismiss it. Recognizing that the scientists are likely right about the nature of the problem does not mean that they are also right about possible solutions (which will often depend on considerations of ethics and political economy on which scientists are not very expert). But it is still an important issue on which scientists are likely to know much more than laypeople. Unless and until the scientific consensus shifts, libertarians who are not themselves scientific experts should defer to the majority scientific view on the extent and causes of global warming.

In sum, it makes good sense to defer to the views of experts on areas that are actually within their expertise. But not on questions that may seem related, but actually are distinct. Telling the difference isn't always easy. Here, as elsewhere, being a responsible, well-informed voter turns out to be a lot harder than we might think.

Finally, I should note that I recognize that many people believe that voters have an absolute right to make decisions based on ignorance, regardless of whether deference to scientists or some other strategy could enable them to make better-informed choices. I disagree with that view of the ethics of voting for reasons outlined here and here.

NEXT: "Working from Home During a Global Pandemic Bingo"

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  1. When you reference ‘scientists’ as a class as ‘experts’ on a subject, is this limited to scientists with relevant expertise on that subject, or opinion polls of all scientists.

    I mean, I’m willing to grant scientists tend to be better informed about scientific topics regardless of discipline, but it would seem weird to treat your average ecologist as having expert knowledge of nuclear power, for example. Relevant expertise is a lot different than simply better informed in some general sense.

    (it’s also not clear to me that simply taking an opinion poll of scientists is the same as getting a technical conclusion. Global warming is a case where the relevant scientists have participated in the fearmongering by promoting a worst case scenario where we dramatically ramp up CO2 emissions super fast as ‘nothing changes’, when the real nothing changes is a much less severe scenario. I’m far more persuaded by the technical conclusion than the ‘opinions’ of said scientists – admittedly, i have enough of a scientific background that I can follow the technical explanation. The problem in such cases: who can be trusted to explain to the public what the real evidence says?)

    1. Excellent point. A long time ago, I had a Professor that was one of the top-5 in his area of scientific expertise yet had trouble making a VCR record a program. I really enjoyed his classes because he was so enthusiastic and acknowledged his deficiencies. Unfortunately we have too many people that think they know more than they really do about a subject matter.

    2. “But the bottom line is that we should indeed defer to scientists on technical issues within their expertise

      Emphasis added.

      1. Even “within their expertise”, deference is frequently not due.

        A great deal of all modern science requires a thorough understanding of statistics yet a truly frightening number of professional “scientists” fail at that critical skill. The reproducibility problem is most often traced to statistical failures or misinterpretations of the original data. Scientists deserve no deference for their use (or abuse) of statistics. And statistics are not a highly specialized domain – anyone with a basic math or science background can review and critique the use of statistics even in entirely different fields.

  2. Here’s what I don’t get (maybe I’ve missed something critical), and why I’m starting to see real anger rising up from people who were going along with the social distancing recommendations:

    States are now ordering bars, restaurants, etc. closed for 8 weeks. Lots of industries are simply shutting down for weeks or months. Schools are closed for a month or more, with working parents unable to work in many instances. But when the government issues these edicts, they never say what the hell people are supposed to do! Seriously, what are all the restaurant owners (for example) who will probably go out of business (margins are insanely tight in best of times), and who may have their life savings or only source of income in the business, supposed to do? Just say OK, sucks that my business is destroyed and my family’s retirement and finances will be gone?

    At least the workers may get unemployment. But what are people supposed to do? How will they pay their rent or afford groceries if they literally have no money coming in and have insufficient savings to cover such a massive shock? I never hear the politicians issuing the orders even acknowledging the real world consequences of those edicts on the other side? Is this not like the traditional justification for compensation for public use takings? Not shouldering the costs on one class of property owners when society as a whole are benefitted? Have any takings claims been filed yet? Any talk of such a claim?

    I’m just really perplexed by the lack of discussion re what will happen with those ordered to comply who lose their house, business, and/or life savings as a result. Or those workers who are paycheck to paycheck and whose entire industry will have no jobs for months?

    Any answers? Will those people not react or protest out of fear or frustration? I think we’re unfortunately going to see increased defiance out of anger or fear, with potential dire public health consequences, because no one in the government is acknowledging the elephant in the room re the financial destruction caused by these orders (as beneficial or even necessary as they may be). And (again, for better or worse) I think more and more of those affected people will question whether the health predictions are real or are grossly exaggerated, especially if we’re not seeing tens of thousands dead in a relatively short time.

    1. Sane people are going to see the pandemic—not government actions to cope—as the cause of financial destruction. One rational method to redress loss would be for government to provide funds to make up losses. As always, it would be better if when government needs money, it turned to folks who have money to supply it, but that is probably asking more than prevailing public wisdom can deliver.

      As for the nightmare of premature recovery you posit. That is what public health policy delivers when it is working at its best. If it works, then grousing about it is stupid. My guess? It is not going to work all that well this time, so the need to scorn and ridicule complainers will not be great.

      1. People who understand math are going to see the government over-reactions and mis-reactions as making the problem worse, not better.

        People who understand math are also going to see that the “government” has no funds of its own. The government does not create wealth. It can only redistribute what private people create. So appealing to “the government” to redress loss just means taking money from someone else. Who do you think we should take that money from? Are you willing to fork over all of your savings to bail out people who failed to plan for themselves? Are you willing to keep handing over your savings for feel-good plans that do little to nothing to actually fix the root problem?

        1. “People who understand math are also going to see that the “government” has no funds of its own. The government does not create wealth.”

          People who understand both math and economics, however, know that the government does in fact own some wealth-generation mechanisms which can be and are used to generate wealth. For example, in the Pacific Northwest, the federal government owns a number of hydroelectric dams which allow it to sell electricity to the many local industries, generating billions of dollars and subsidizing the local aluminum-production industry and a number of datacenters for large Internet companies.

    2. Nick:

      For those of us who believe that one of the proper purposes of government is to reduce the cost of catastrophes for individuals, this is an easy question: We’re all in this together and the government should help those who are being hurt, even if it means taxing those who have abundance. That’s also the rationale behind single payer health care: You spread the risk so that single individuals aren’t disproportionately harmed.

      If you’re a libertarian, on the other hand, you say that government should do nothing, people who get infected can sue if they can prove that somebody else was negligent, and if people suffer financial catastrophe, it’s their own hard luck.

      1. You don’t know much about libertarians or people in general.

        1. In my youth I was active in the Libertarian Party for about ten years. By “active” I mean I served on both a state governing board and the national governing board, ran for office as a libertarian, and volunteered on maybe a dozen or so campaigns. So I think I know more about libertarianism than you give me credit for.

          I stopped being a libertarian when I realized that almost none of its proposed solutions were actually workable, that it was premised on assumptions that mostly aren’t true, that it would lead to massive predation of the weak by the strong, and that it would prevent fixable problems from actually being fixed. Oh, and also once I figured out that corporate oppression is just as bad as government oppression and often with fewer remedies. Other than that, I guess it’s a fine system.

          But perhaps you could share what exactly I said that you consider to be based on ignorance of the premises of libertarianism.

          1. The claim…

            If you’re a libertarian, on the other hand, you say that government should do nothing

            …suggests that you in fact do NOT “know more about libertarianism” than you are given credit for.

            1. I meant nothing that would actually be effective if doing so would constitute the initiation of force.

          2. “I think I know more about libertarianism than you give me credit for.”

            The thing about libertarians is that no two of them agree about much of anything, including specifically what exactly it means to be “libertarian”.

      2. ” people who get infected can sue if they can prove that somebody else was negligent”

        Assuming that they live long enough to fill out all the paperwork.

    3. Policymakers in America value risk to human life over property to a near absolute degree.

      Libertarians may disagree, but that’s the nut of why no one is talking about that issue.

      1. “why no one is talking about that issue.”

        When unemployment hits 10% [very soon] people will.

        The entertainment industry has in effect ceased to exist. 3/4 of the catering and restauant industries gone. Airlines hammered.

        The downstream effect [rent not paid, loans not repaid] will be massive.

        I see no understanding of this from government at all.

        1. Yeah we shall see when businesses start to argue their bottom line is more important than lives.

          Such a policy weight may not be practical or optimal but it is our current moral system.

        2. Bob:

          Does it occur to you that part of the reason for that is that conservatives have spent the last 25 years dismantling social safety nets and telling people that building strong communities isn’t government’s job? So now that we really need a safety net and a sense of community fostered by government, we don’t have it. We’re about to see the results of the every-man-for-himself sermons you guys have been preaching. Congratulations; those conservative chickens are about to come home to roost in flocks.

          Your concern is the functional equivalent of cutting down the orchard in June and then wondering why there’s no fruit harvest in the fall.

          1. What “safety net” has been “dismantled”?

            1. Oh, we can start with stripping a billion dollars from the budget that would have paid for testing kits and masks:

              https://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2020/03/14/susan-collins-is-objectively-more-evil-than-joe-lieberman/

              There are lots of other good examples but that’s a pretty good one to start with.

              1. It was a one time bill 10 years ago. For flu, not coronavirus.

                How can nonexistent net be shredded?

                Anyways, you said “conservatives” which in no way describes Collins.

                1. You don’t think she’s conservative because she’s pro-abortion and pro-gay, and on those two issues you’re right. But on economic issues, including safety nets, she may as well be Tom Cotton or Mike Lee.

                  And you’re missing the forest for the trees. Yes, that particular bill was one single bill ten years ago, but it’s an example of repeated GOP chopping away at a social safety net. The attempts to abolish Obamacare, the inadequate funding for public health, the inadequate funding of the CDC and the NIH, what exactly do you think the result of all that will be when there’s a health care crisis? As there is now.

                  1. And it isn’t “chipping away at the safety net” to set the CDC and NIH to spending their inherently limited budgets, (Whatever they are, they’ll be finite.) on other things? Insisting these agencies spend that finite money on things other than, say, controlling disease?

        3. Oh, and another thing:

          Now that we’re in the middle of an actual crisis, maybe it wasn’t such a hot idea to elect as president a self-absorbed narcissist who won’t follow expert advice, thinks everything is about him, and makes policy decisions based on personal loyalty. Even if the alternative was poor children having health care and you not being able to meddle in the affairs of pregnant women.

          Maybe we should do something about the electoral college to keep it from happening again.

          1. You are just spouting ideological nonsense.

            Trump has followed expert advice, he appointed two of the leading experts [Faluci and Brix] to lead the technical side of the US response.

            I get it “orange Man Bad”.

            1. Appointing good technical people to handle the technical aspects of it, while at the same time telling people this is nothing to worry about, the flu is worse, and he’s not going to personally follow recommendations, falls short. And if you think this is about Orange Man Bad, you’re not paying attention.

              1. Another optic objection as usual. Not substance.

                Trump does right thing but does not mouth approved statements so is bad.

                1. How is it not substance to basically tell people to ignore the experts? That’s not cosmetic. That’s advice that can kill people.

            2. “I get it ‘orange Man Bad’.”

              The only people who ever say “orange man bad” are Trump apologists trying to cut off any legit criticism of their man. Sorry you have to hear this, but your guy is a buffoon who has no business making decisions of any import.

    4. You raise very good points. I myself would support a program of generous government assistance to business owners and their employees affected this way.

      1. bernard….I agree that this is a time where some kinf of assistance is a must. It is a national emergency, and now different rules apply.

        I think in the last bill, there are a number of smart measures to help businesses. In the bill recently passed by Congress (which took over a week for Pete’s sake) one very helpful provision was for refundable tax credits to small business where they can get immediate cash advances upon from the IRS….they can make payrolls right now. What we don’t want is mass layoffs and that provision helps to prevent that.

        1. Going through the tax system seems unnecessary to me, but if it’s the only way the GOP will get on board…

          1. Leave them alone. They love love LOVE to complain about how complex the income tax system is, so of course they can’t keep from tinkering with it, to give themselves more ways to evade it.

  3. Good essay and I broadly agree. However, re: “Unless and until the scientific consensus shifts, libertarians who are not themselves scientific experts should defer to the majority scientific view on…global warming.”,
    I think you should strike the first 7 words (you don’t really mean them).

    1. I should hope he doesn’t really mean them. Taken literally, he’s saying, “If scientists change their minds about global warming, libertarians should stop listening to them.”

      1. If scientists change their minds about climate change then libertarians (and everyone else) SHOULD stop listening to them.

  4. Finally, I should note that I recognize that many people believe that voters have an absolute right to make decisions based on ignorance, regardless of whether deference to scientists or some other strategy could enable them to make better-informed choices.

    One should separate out whether something is happening, and what to do about it.

    1. “One should separate out whether something is happening, and what to do about it.”

      Absolutely true

  5. The basic problem here, which I missed you addressing, is that as soon as the product of a field of expertise becomes politically relevant, can influence the outcome of political controversies, that field tends to become corrupted. Especially if a significant fraction of the field’s funding comes from government!

    Not 100% corrupted, of course. But to a significant extent.

    Politics tends to co-opt everything that influences politics, in its effort to control everything that might effect a political outcome.

    You can do things like looking at whether an expert’s position is against political interest, but in the end, there isn’t really anything that substitutes for being informed enough to have a chance of detecting BS.

    1. Brett:

      Yes and no. Remember when the tobacco companies insisted that the link between smoking and cancer was junk science (much like oil companies insist that global warming is junk science)?

      The problem isn’t with science; the problem is with those who are self interested in science being ignored and also having the resources to create confusion where there really isn’t any.

      1. If there is a conflict between “experts” a layperson should look at who has a dog in the fight. With the global warming debate it’s perfectly obvious that short-term profits for the petroleum industry is driving the opposition to the relatively modest solutions proposed by the true scientists.

        1. And nearly every scientist proposing increased government powers is funded by government, directly or indirectly. That’s just as big a conflict of interest.

    2. I’m all for not listening to scientists when they give policy prescriptions.
      But when they give predictions or data? Then your argument that you know better than the scientists just makes you look silly.

      Especially since I now know the grantmaking selection process, and your theory about a governmental thumb on the scales is impossible to do across the entire field. The NSF, for instance, doesn’t employ civil servants to do it’s peer review at all.

    3. ” Especially if a significant fraction of the field’s funding comes from government!”

      Not really. The real determinant is whether or not the science suggests that somebody’s income might come into question. ( for example, habitat preservation to protect the endangered Northern Spotted Owl presented limitations on logging old-growth forests, which led to a number of owls (not all of them Spotted) being crucified in timber towns throughout the Northwest.)

  6. I suspect that the ability to recognize and defer to expertise correlates with IQ. Below a certain IQ level, talent declines for recognizing that there are things other people know better than you do. Somewhere along the descent, Asimov’s famous observation, “Democracy means my ignorance is as good as your knowledge,” takes over.

    I think everyone intelligent suspects that intuitively, but it ought to be sufficiently studied so we could either say it with confidence, or debunk it. I am not aware of any proof.

    1. I suspect that the ability to recognize and defer to expertise correlates with IQ. Below a certain IQ level, talent declines for recognizing that there are things other people know better than you do.

      Given your own penchant for telling Constitutional scholars how wrong they are about aspects of the law…not to mention experts in just about every other field when their positions don’t line up with your partisan ideologies….

  7. From a strictly scientific point of view, rape is just as good a way for a male to propagate his genes as any other, and shooting people who fall sick is often a more efficient way for a society to control an epidemic than isolating and/or trying to cure them. Scientifically, there is no reason for a society to care much about individual survival, or for an individual to care much about population survival,

    As Bertrand Russell succinctly put it, he felt that his distaste for torture was somehow more important than his distaste for broccoli. But he couldn’t explain why.

    Bertrand Russell is right in this. There is, in fact, no scientific explanation whatsoever. Any explanation lies outside the realm of science.

    Science is an extremely powerful tool, a very useful servant. But its claims to be a master are limited.

    1. You have an odd view of science.

      You are talking about ethics, which can be explained perfectly well by science, in particular the theory evolution. Prehistoric tribes which developed ethical systems stayed together and progressed, whereas those that didn’t fell apart (or maybe couldn’t get together in the first place). Ethics is a product of natural selection.

      1. Social evolution is a pretty dodgy area though. Not really accepted by current social science; too many confounding variables.

      2. So you agree, then, with my two examples, rape is a scientifically normal means of reproduction, and shooting people with an infectious disease is a scientifically appropriate means of dealing with an epidemic? Also that racism and slavery are scientifically normal?

        All completely consistent with the theory of evolution.

        1. That is, I don’t disagree that current ethics can be explained perfect well by scientific theory, just as current events can be explained perfectly well by Bible verses. See a current event, and you can fimd a scientific theory or a Bible verse that appears relevant and helps you feel that you understand it. If you claim science gives you enlightenment in the same way the religious devotee claims about the Bible, I couldn’t disagree.

          My disagreement arises only if you claim the reverse order – that you can start with scientific theories and get normative ethics (That is, you that you can do things predictively, not retrospectively, that you can establish causality scientifically rather than treating science as a belief system). It’s true that current ethical concepts can with some work be made consistent with evolutionary theory. But so can many things that are completely contradictory to current ethical concepts.

          1. Science as a basis for normative ethics-
            I like an approach advocated by Sam Harris (going from memory, those who have read about this more recently please fix any errors): The best plan is the one which maximizes the expected well-being of conscious creatures. Science can be the basis for identifying proposed plans, and evaluating them per this criterion. In this way, Harris argues, it can be the basis for normative ethics.
            We are of course far from being able to do this at all well right now, and many thorny subproblems exist (quantification of well-being, tradeoffs between quantity and quality of life, distribution of well-being across the population, temporal tradeoffs, handling of risk, achieving consensus, etc.); but as Harris points out, such challenges should not stop us from getting started (many of the same issues, after all, apply to the improvement of human health, yet we have made significant inroads already).

            1. The idea that the well-being of conscious creatures should be maximized is no more grounded in science than the idea that superior races should dominate inferior ones.

              This is pseudoscience. This is no more science than a cargo cult is aeronautics.

        2. ” rape is a scientifically normal means of reproduction”

          Ask any mallard

          ” racism and slavery are scientifically normal?”

          Ask a horse (you might have to take the bit out of it’s mouth to get an answer.

          On the other hand, ask any human parent if “but they were doing it, too!” is an excuse for wrongdoing.

    2. From a strictly scientific point of view, rape is just as good a way for a male to propagate his genes as any other, and shooting people who fall sick is often a more efficient way for a society to control an epidemic than isolating and/or trying to cure them. Scientifically, there is no reason for a society to care much about individual survival, or for an individual to care much about population survival,

      I have no idea what you mean by the terms “scientific” and “scientifically” here. But I think you are wrong.

      An individual successful rape may be as likely to result in conception as a consensual sex act, but that hardly makes it a decent reproductive strategy. Some attempts fail. Lots of rapists get arrested. Being in prison does not improve one’s chances to reproduce. Women who conceive as a result of rape are probably more likely to seek an abortion than others. And if they don’t they may not be as caring about the child, who will in any event lack the presence of a biological father. So, no.

      As to shooting sick people, that depends on the objective, the nature of the epidemic, and alternative methods of dealing with it. If the point of stopping an epidemic is to keep people alive then killing a lot of people is a strange way to go about it.

      1. If the point of stopping an epidemic is to keep people alive then killing a lot of people is a strange way to go about it.

        Not if you do the killing soon enough.

        1. We are not a utilitarian society though.

      2. “but that hardly makes it a decent reproductive strategy.”

        And yet, after several hundred thousand years of evolution, rapists still exist. Whatever exists is the product of evolution. If one believes that evolution is normative then it must mean having a few percent sociopaths must be “correct”. It would also mean that the desire to punish sociopaths is also correct, since it exists. And turtles all the way down.

        The conclusion, I think, is that evolution isn’t a tool for normative arguments. It’s solidly on the “is” side of the is-ought boundary.

        1. Whatever exists is not the product of evolution.
          There is nurture as well as nature.

          Evolution is not some all encompassing optimizing force. It’s a threshold – will you probably reproduce. Eyesight, homosexuality, loads of mental illnesses, sexual selection…All counterexamples to his simplistic essentialism.

        2. That’s also my point. There’s no scientific basis whatsoever for considering anything that’s normal human behavior – behavior a substantial fraction of humans regularly do – wrong. And the essence of the #metoo movement’s message is that rape in our current society is normal human behavior.

        3. ” Whatever exists is the product of evolution.”

          There are other factors which you’re choosing to ignore. Absent rocks in the sky, evolution said we should all be big reptiles. But with just that one big rock, evolution decided that we should maybe be mammals. Give us time to have a thermonuclear exchange, and evolution will turn out to favor insects.

          evolution favors species that can adapt to disease, but it also favors disease that an adapt to species.

      3. You are too unimaginative. We are talking about ethical norms. So of course when I am talking about rape I am talking about an entire society whose ethical norms support rape, not an individual rapist in our present society. A society that severely punished women who resisted rape (for violating its ethical norms) would be just as evolutionarily viable as our present one.

        Same with a slave society.

        That’s the point.

  8. There is no “should” here. Think for yourself, full stop. That includes deciding to defer to experts.

    1. Fortunately most of us have regard for facts.

      If you’re sick and your doctor recommends antibiotics, do you defer to him? Or do you “think for yourself”?

      1. Depends on what the doctor claims to have diagnosed you with. This is why people often get second opinions for major diagnoses, such as cancer. Doctors are frequently wrong. It’s not because they’re stupid or evil; people just don’t appreciate how difficult their job really is. That goes for most jobs. People will inherently make mistakes, so check their work. Don’t feel bad for asking questions. I don’t know why so many people seem to be programming us to be Chinese about authority, but it’s scary.

        1. Laypeople can’t check the work of experts in most areas.

          1. Sure they can. It’s not practical, but those experts weren’t born that way. They became regarded as experts (I hope) through years of experience and success.

            What most people don’t realize about medical diagnoses is that it’s just as important to know what you’ve been doing up to that point as well as all the medical knowledge the doctor has. That’s why they keep track of your medical history. Doctors have to assess you with the information they have. Sometimes patients lie or exaggerate. It’s actually an extremely common problem.

            1. It’s not practical is usually taken as equivalent to can’t.

              Moreover, even if one could manage to get the years of learning to become a subspecialist, there’s a reason Doctors are advised not to treat themselves as a patient. People are not actually that great at self-assessment.

      2. I have rejected antibiotics after asking if they were necessary for recovery or would just accelerate it. I have also refused immune suppressants to treat an immune disorder because the side effects are worse then the condition.

    2. ” Think for yourself, full stop.”

      Assumes facts not in evidence: specifically, capability.

  9. Not only hard science, but social science also should not be ignored.

    The Supreme Court has blithely said, “The death penalty is a deterrent”, when in fact hardly any social scientist who has studied the issue believes that.

    The Supreme Court has also blithely ok’d six-person juries, where one would more often see a single dissenter than in a twelve-person jury, ignoring the findings of social science evidence that if it’s only one person, he/she is far more likely to end up going along with the rest than if there is another person who shares the same view.

    Disregard of social science reached comical heights with Scalia. In holding that an accused child abuser has the right to confront the child, he relied on Shakespeare rather than psychology or anthropology or even basic humanity and decency. Coy v. Iowa, 1988.

    1. “Disregard of social science reached comical heights with Scalia. In holding that an accused child abuser has the right to confront the child, he relied on Shakespeare rather than psychology or anthropology or even basic humanity and decency. Coy v. Iowa, 1988.”

      6A is a constitutional right – disregarding 6A also brought us several disasters “Believe the children” such the McMartin Preschool and others,

      1. Unrelated to the issue in Coy. Scalia wanted the accused to be able to stare the child in the face. If anything this would make the child less likely to single out the (terrifying) true abuser.

        1. That IS what “confront” means, after all. We can have a fine debate about whether confrontation actually dissuades people from lying, and whether such a supposed effect is worth the psychic cost to some of the witnesses, but that’s all irrelevant until we start debating whether or not to repeal the confrontation clause.

          As a judge, Scalia’s job wasn’t to determine what the Constitution should mean. It was to determine what it did mean.

          1. It obviously did not mean that. I don’t know if you’re being ridiculous or just cruel.

            1. “If anything this would make the child less likely to single out the (terrifying) true abuser.”

              “For the children” always leads to bad policy, no exceptions.

            2. It obviously did not mean that.

              “Confront” obviously didn’t mean “confront”.

              Were you Bill Clinton’s adviser on that whole, “What the meaning of ‘is’ is” defense?

              1. No, “confront” does not apply here. The Constitution, as far as I can tell, does not place obligations on children.

                1. It does place an obligation on the state in its prosecution.

                2. “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right…to be confronted with the witnesses against him.”

                  No, it doesn’t place obligations on children. It places obligations on witnesses. Some of whom may happen to be children.

                  You’re literally criticizing Scalia for not being willing to say the Constitution doesn’t mean what it obviously says.

    2. The social science says that witness identification is frequently inaccurate. But the convictions stand.

  10. The problem is that the definition of science has changed.
    Years ago the idea of scientific consensus would have been seen as oxymoronic, as science was considered to be an ever changing and evolving thing.
    Galileo fought against scientific consensus and in favor of science.
    The examples of erroneous scientific consensus in history are many. The left’s obsession with deferring their own reasoning to committees of scientists is both disheartening and maddening.
    If global warming were scientifically verifiable, through reproducible experimentation, then conservatives would be more persuaded.
    However, citing the oil and gas industry as propagandists (the industry that heats your home, powers your airline and car) is not reasoning about climate change. It is weak sophistry.

    1. “If global warming were scientifically verifiable, through reproducible experimentation, then conservatives would be more persuaded.”

      It is, and they aren’t.

  11. Define a scientist. That’s the real problem here. We might change the words, but “deferring to the experts” is just an appeal to authority. Why are they experts? Who decided this? Are they correct because they are experts, or because their arguments withstand scrutiny? How many experts disagree with them? What points are the “experts” disagreeing on?

    The same nonsense happens with AGW theory. I don’t really question the scientific basics; I believe the Greenhouse Gas Theory is sound and I have no reason to doubt its premise. What I repeatedly question is why people think massive socioeconomic overhaul and global government are the solution and why people think they can make this decision based on highly flawed statistical models. I don’t take the conspiracy angle with modelling and I trust the folks at the IPCC, but I simply admit the inherent flaws of regression analysis that exist no matter how good you are at it. The conclusions are hardly settled and it often puts me, a scientific layperson, at odds with the experts.

    1. ” What I repeatedly question is why people think massive socioeconomic overhaul and global government are the solution ”

      You’re confusing the part that is science and the part that isn’t. You should defer to the scientists about what they’re observing, which is higher sea and air temperatures. You don’t have to defer to anyone on the question of what (if anything) should be done about it.

    2. “Define a scientist. ”

      A scientist is seomeone who uses he scientific method to understand a problem.

  12. The problem is that much of the time ‘scientists’ are flat out wrong, only to contradict themselves at a later date.- They stated that ulcers were caused by stress, only to find out that’s not true. Is coffee good for you today or bad? That changes weekly.
    Polar bears are going to go extinct, oops we meant multiply 500%.
    Also, too much of scientific funding depends on government, thus setting up incentives to skew findings in favor of whatever narrative their benefactors prefer.
    Scientists are no more moral than anyone else and most people do what is in their best interest.

    1. “The problem is that much of the time ‘scientists’ are flat out wrong”

      Find an old essay by Isaac Asimov titled “the Relativity of Wrong”

      the scientific method is about making guesses about why certain observations are made, and about predicting future observations. the “correctness” of science is measured by the accuracy of the predictions you can make with it.

  13. Scientist is just another epithet.

    In the current mass hysteria context, defer to epidemiologists, not even MD’s that are barely scientists (medicine is arguably not a falsifiable science).

  14. Per CDC, in the last decade, flu deaths in the US have be running between 12,000-80,000 (2018) per year. This season up to 2/1, at least 12,000 have died and it may be as high as 31,000. WHO estimates the regular flu kills 290,000-650,000 globally per year. With numbers like this, one would think the world would have been in quarantine for half of every year but life goes on.

    1. The point of the quarantine is to keep the numbers from increasing exponentially. This bug seems to be more deadly than the flu on a per case basis, and spreads very fast.

      If we can slow that spread, even if the same number of people end up getting it, we can avoid overwhelming the hospital system, which is what has led to huge deaths in Italy. Also, they’re accelerating vaccines through the system, and if we can slow it down enough, vaccination can protect people at particular risk.

      Remember when you compare this to the flu, that you’re comparing it to the way the flu behaves with massive annual vaccination drives. What would this year’s influenza have looked like if nobody had been vaccinated? Pretty ugly, probably.

      1. Aside from 1917, no one panicked about the flu before we had a vaccine. (The flu vaccine is relatively recent, after all). People are panicking because Covid-19 is new. (It’ll also probably depress this year’s flu deaths, since both are most severe with the same sorts of populations.)

        1. People are panicking because Covid-19 is new.

          People are panicking for a lot of reasons, most of them irrational and based on ignorance. But the very rational fear (or “concern”, if you want to be less alarmist) is, as Brett points out, suffering the same fate as Italy…or worse. As he also points out, COVID-19 has a mortality rate that appears, at least for now, to be an order of magnitude (or possibly more) than the ubiquitous influenzas’.

          1. The real risk of influenza is that it weakens your ability to resist other illnesses. The flu puts you on your back and then the pneumonia sweeps in and finishes you off.

  15. Somin needs to accommodate the Alzheimer’s discontinuity. The phenomenon of government exclusive support of a scientific consensus which, twenty years later, is shown wrong.

    By supporting only one avenue of investigation, a consensus will arise all right, but that ain’t science.

    1. There is no need to specifically talk about any failing or success.

      Anecdotes are a bad way to make policy, whether governmental or personal.

      1. Is there some sort of handbook for the left, with “Always reject efforts to put things in context!” as one of its recommendations?

        Dwshelf is right: While science, in isolation, has a great record of converging on better and better approximations of truth, it also has a record of conspicuous failures to do that when it becomes too dependent on other institutions for its resources, especially government.

        Nothing does any better than science under that handicap, but that doesn’t mean science does well under that circumstance.

  16. “When Should Lay Voters Defer to the Views of Scientists?”

    When the question at hand is of the type that can be, and has been, answered by science.

  17. Scientists are good at hazard identification and risk assessment, and their views on these matters should be accepted and respected. Risk management, however, is an inherently political process that weighs non-scientifically quantifiable societal factors as well as the scientific risks. Scientists are not generally too good at this (neither are politicians, for that matter).

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