The Value of Consensus

When we turn to scientific experts, what do we expect from them?

For some, the preference will be for the Absolute Truth of universal natural laws that unavoidably govern everything we do. Such a preference naturally entails commitment to a material reality that is independent of human affairs. It also entails commitment to that reality being amenable to empirical investigation and, moreover, to such investigation being the good and proper aim of science. Such commitments engender certain expectations of science and hence of scientific experts. These expectations I will here refer to as a realist expectations of science.
What other types of expectation are possible? People of a pragmatic frame of mind may feel that the realist view is too stringent to be useful. They may point to the perpetual imperfection of scientific knowledge; the fact that even the the most firmly established of scientific principles may need revision in the light of future discoveries. They may say that we can never be sure that any of the “natural laws” proposed by science really are natural laws but that they can nevertheless often provide useful solutions to technical problems because they allow us to make predictions with a fair degree of confidence. Being pragmatic, they may say that this is the real value of science and should be the proper basis of the expectations we place upon scientific expertise. Under this view, the job of science is to provide instruments with which we may make good bets, based on experience, on the likely outcome of any chosen course of action. Accordingly, the expectations thereby placed on scientific expertise may be characterised as “instrumentalist”. Note that the holder of such views need not necessarily deny the existence of natural laws or science’s ability to discover them. It is the expectation placed upon science (and hence the basis for deciding how much to spend on it) that is being deemed instrumentalist here.
Another type of critic may yet remain dissatisfied. They may be concerned that even if a given theory does give us confidence in certain types of prediction, it may not be the best theory. Its predictions may be less accurate than those of another or it may be able to make predictions only in a narrower range of circumstances than another.
What might experts themselves make of all this? One example is to be seen in this article by Daniel Sarewitz. Sarewitz is a scientific expert. He is invited to sit on consensus committees that are asked to “condense the knowledge of many experts into a single point of view that can settle disputes and aid policy-making”.
Clearly, the sponsors of such committees place a premium on consensus and therefore favour the realist or at least instrumentalist view of science. Sarewitz, however, distrusts consensus, saying:

“the discussions that craft expert consensus, however, have more in common with politics than science”

Indeed, he apparently sees the search for consensus as unscientific:

“the very idea that science best expresses its authority through consensus statements is at odds with a vibrant scientific enterprise. Consensus is for textbooks; real science depends for its progress on continual challenges to the current state of always-imperfect knowledge”

Here we see what is apparently an advocacy of the idealist view of science. Most striking is the contrast drawn between the certainty (implied consensus) of the textbooks on the one hand and “real science” on the other. Real science is taken to inherently in the domain of controversy. Sarewitz concludes by proposing a role for science in policy making that is quite distinct from the consensus-seeking norm of current practises:

“science would provide better value to politics if it articulated the broadest set of plausible interpretations, options and perspectives, imagined by the best experts, rather than forcing convergence to an allegedly unified voice”

“Unlike a pallid consensus, a vigorous disagreement between experts would provide decision-makers with well-reasoned alternatives that inform and enrich discussions as a controversy evolves, keeping ideas in play and options open”

Should the job of experts be to ensure the broadest range of considerations in public deliberation? Science is then not the impartial arbitrator, but simply one way of safeguarding the impartiality of those whose deliberations do make the (political) arbitration.


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