Experts of Convenience

Written by Professor Roger A. Pielke, Jr.

Modern science rests upon “a bald-faced but beautiful lie” from which it draws its “political and cultural power.” That is how Dan Sarewitz describes the myth that underpins modern science.

That lie holds that scientists following their curiosity, motivated by little else and certainly not political considerations, advance understandings and thus our ability to make wise decisions. THB is also an effort to critique this “beautiful lie.” trust me

A key element in that lie is that scientists are neutral arbiters of truth, who sit above the rough and tumble of political debates. Like philosopher kings, their neutrality should be used to arbitrate our difficult debates. Sounds great. Most myths do.

In the New York Times this week is a wonderful illustration of the real-world dynamics of expertise, and its got less to do with science than the idea of science. The NYT article is about Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor who became embroiled in the Flint water crisis.Like many academics these days, me included, Edwards is fully engaged in and open about activism on issues related to his expertise, in this case water quality. In Flint, he joined with those in the local community who claimed that their water was polluted to lend his expertise to their cause.

He was hailed as a hero when he helped the Flint community stand up to government agencies and show that they really did have a water quality problem. But, as the NYT relates, other activists emerged on the scene, including actor Mark Ruffalo, ostensibly defending the community but in Edwards’ view peddling bad science.

For the community, Edwards’ intervention against Ruffalo was unwelcome. For the community, the importance of expertise was not the validity of their knowledge, but the fact that the experts were on their side. Here is an excerpt from an email that a local resident sent to Edwards included in the NYT article:

We’ll go back to doing the work on our own with those willing to work WITH us in the community as we discover more and vindicate what the residents here already know by THE PAIN WE ARE IN, that it is not safe to bathe.

We live in an era where science and other forms of expertise are called upon to legitimize political views and policy preferences, often irrespective of whether these views and preferences are actually supported by that expertise. But don’t worry, no matter your views, an expert can almost always be found to legitimize it, and to delegitimize the views of the experts favored by your opponents.

It is in this way that science becomes window dressing to politics. Or as Sarewitz writes, “the boundary between objective truth and subjective belief appears, gradually and terrifyingly, to be dissolving.”