A Guest post by Evan Jones.
We are currently in the midst of a serious policy debate on the highly technical subject of world climate change. What is it happening? Why is it happening? What are we to do? And ultimately who is to decide what we will do? I attempt only to answer the last of these questions here.
The important decisions facing this world will, in the future as in the past, be decided not by experts but by laymen: the public at large and/or our elected officials. In a significant majority of important policy cases, the decision makers are not expert in the field. They are (usually) not scientists, economists, historians, or strategists.
It is notable that a technocratic, authoritarian “solution” has been advanced on many occasions, including, recently by David Shearman, Joseph Wayne Smith in The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy, which seriously recommends rule “by experts and not by those who seek power”.
Seeking power but not in the name of seeking power is, however, an inherently self-contradictory proposition. The free citizen and his elected representatives alone have the right, and wherewithal to make these decisions.
Yes, experts must inform us. In fact, their advice is indispensable. Without expert advice, many of our decisions would be made in a fog of ignorance and uncertainty. The expert has a special status and a deserved esteem. However, it is the role of the expert to inform, not to decide. This is as it should be. The alternative is a technocracy which not only excludes the common citizen from the decision making process, but results in intramural conflict between the technocrats themselves.
A courtroom operates along the same lines. In many cases, the advice of the expert is essential. Only the expert can inform us about a DNA match, a bullet grooving, or even mundane details of, say, phone records. It may be fairly said that in many if not most cases, both the decision and the remedy hinge on expert testimony.
Yet it is not up to the expert either to reach a verdict or to pass sentence. And it up to the judge to act as “gatekeeper”, not the experts. It is very poor form for an expert to refuse to divulge data or methods. It is at the very least an anti-scientific attitude and should be regarded by the layman as such.
Experts are excluded from the jury, deliberately separated from the decision process. In the realm of politics, the unelected expert plays much the same role as in a trial: Decision makers may well call upon expert testimony and advice. But when it comes down to the hanging chads, the expert has only his vote as an expression of power, a vote with no more absolute weight than that of Joe Shmoe.
In the role of advisor, the expert has a considerable obligation. He is expected to be truthful and objective. He is expected to limit his advice to his realm of expertise. He is expected to tell the story straight and not exaggerate for effect or to ensure a particular course of action.
He is expected to be responsible. He is, in a sense, our shepherd. He must not cry wolf for “amusement” nor in response to every passing shadow. This is important. There are real wolves out there, and there are times when only the shepherds can provide us with warning. The obligation of the shepherd is not only to cry wolf when there is a real potential danger but also not to cry wolf when there is not. The decision whether or not to cry wolf is up to the shepherd, not the public at large.
This leaves the layman in a difficult position, for the public, as decision makers must pay heed to a cry of wolf. They are not experts on wolves. And the solution to a false crying of wolf is not to ban shepherds. Nonetheless, in terms of climate as well as wolves, the layman can and must play the role of arbiter, and play it well. If the public at large were not capable of deciding basic issues of policy, democracy itself would long since have proven an unworkable farce.
However if the individual expert or decision maker is found to be acting deliberately in bad faith, he may be held accountable. For example, as Steve McIntyre has pointed out, it is against the law to promote a mining enterprise using only the richest ore samples.
But where to draw the line between outright fraud, mere intellectual dishonesty, or irresponsibility becomes moot. What then of the infamous email reported by David Denning, saying, “We have to get rid of the Medieval Warm Period,” in order to “pervert science in the service of social and political causes”.
This, if true, is clearly dishonest, but it is not at all clear that it is actionable.
In the climate debate, three examples of legal though clearly deplorable advocacy spring readily to mind.
1.) Heidi Cullen’s suggestion that the AMS should withhold certification from weathermen who did not, “truly educate themselves on the science of global warming,” leaving no doubt as to what the conclusion of said education should be.
Note, however, that it would be perfectly acceptable to decertify (or even prosecute) a weatherman who deliberately misreported an approaching storm in order to make a killing by short-selling the stock of the local insurance company.
2.) David Suzuki’s challenge, “to find a way to put a lot of effort into trying to see whether there’s a legal way of throwing our so-called leaders into jail because what they’re doing is a criminal act,” i.e., those who stood in the way global warming legislation. (This is especially unseemly, coming as it does from an official of a human rights group.)
Yet it would be perfectly appropriate to do so in the case of an MP who accepted a bribe from an oil company in return for a vote against GW measures.
3.) David Roberts’ deplorable comment that, “When we’ve finally gotten serious about global warming, when the impacts are really hitting us and we’re in a full worldwide scramble to minimize the damage, we should have war crimes trials for these bastards — some sort of climate Nuremberg.”
It is the responsibility of the layman to recognize such statements, whatever their source, for what they are: advocacy of the suppression of free and open debate. He must consider only the legitimate points from both sides of the controversy and come to a rational policy decision.
No matter how complicated an issue may be, it can generally be broken down into basic questions and decision points that can be expressed on the side of a postcard. But in order to do that, the layman requires unbiased advice, or at least the advice of both sides. For the expert to rebuke him with a patronizing “read a book” is an abrogation of responsibility on the part of the expert. It is not the layman’s responsibility to become an expert on every subject requiring a decision. Furthermore, it is a practical impossibility. It is up to the expert to explain his position simply, plainly, and in layman’s terms.