When science and experts go wrong

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Jemy Gatdula

Being Right

Thirteen Days, a film about the Cuban missile crisis, is quite instructional regarding decision-making in government. Faced with the possibility of mass human extermination by a possible World War III, US President John Kennedy had to carefully weigh options as presented by the various experts.

And, as you guessed it, the experts were also the problem.

The thing with any expert is that their high training in their field, the focus that made them reach the level of “expert” in the first place, also serves as their limitation. When asked by Kennedy for answers, human nature kicked in and every expert’s proffering was practically exclusively within the confines of his specialty: a general urged unilateral attack, diplomats pleaded diplomacy, and the lawyers naturally suggested legal action.

But as with the high-stakes game of foreign relations, a government faced with this pandemic’s demand for life or death decision-making is courting a fool’s choice if it goes exclusively by way of the experts.

People, especially those of the liberal progressive bent, with an aversion to religion, tend to raise science to an undeserved pedestal. Thus, their mantra: “go with science.” Which is their way of saying that anything un-empirical, anything “un-sciencey,” is (like religion) mere superstition and thus to be ignored.


Such people, Schopenhauer would say, are indulging in “shallow-pated rationalism.”

Obviously there’s a lot to be said for science. But people oftentimes rely on it selectively. Scientific facts about the fetus being human, that children are better off with their biological father and mother together, as well as de-substantiating calls for alarmism at so-called “climate change,” have all been snubbed for not falling in line with liberal narratives.

And if it is truth that one is really after, then this needs to be acknowledged: science and religion are both built on faith. And like anything involving faith, it requires a leap into the unknown.

People say: “rely on data.” But doing so requires having “faith” (etymology: fides, trust) in an unknown number of factors. Faith that the data, collected by persons you don’t know or haven’t met, is correct. And setting aside the fact that not everything can be captured by numbers, data needs to be analyzed through the lens of scientific “theories” or “laws” made by people you don’t know personally, whose studies you’ve likely never read completely, and quite likely won’t be able to review. The studies themselves are built on a chain of studies, that readers are trusting was researched impeccably and reviewed stringently.

And it doesn’t end there: even assuming everything checks out, data and experiments accurate and done correctly, science can’t still get us an actual truth we can continuously rely on 100% tomorrow, the next day, or days ahead.

Our current experience with scientific models demonstrates that.

And because science rests on human knowledge, which, as is clear to anyone who has bothered to think, is limited and will always be so, science will be bound by the same constraints.

Here, Karl Popper has this to say (at least as summarized by Bryan Magee in Confessions of a Philosopher): “We are never able to establish for certain the truth of any unrestrictedly general statement about the world, and therefore of any scientific law or any scientific theory.”

Thus, we “never can in the traditional sense of the word ‘know,’ know the truth of any of our science, all our scientific knowledge is, and will always remain, fallible and corrigible.”

Or, to paraphrase Kant: our knowledge is limited to make room for faith.

This doesn’t mean we disregard science but only to be conscious of its limitations. Should we base policy decisions on science? Indeed. But as Magee cautions, with this caveat: “The rational way to behave is to base our choices and decisions on ‘the best of our knowledge’ while at the same time seeking its replacement by something better; so if we want to make progress we should not fight to the death for existing theories but welcome criticism of them and let our theories die in our stead.”

The key phrase is “the best of our knowledge” because that’s all we’ll ever have. We ultimately — for better or worse — have to rely, not on fallible experts, but on the prudential judgment of our elected leaders (as discussed in “Duterte and prudential judgment,” BusinessWorld, April 2).

Remember that every piece of information moves not within a single realm but inevitably touches upon other areas of human relationships. Hence the need for a holistic and multi-disciplinary viewpoint detached from the deep, albeit narrow, confines of expertise.

The point here is not to bash experts or downplay the value of academic credentials or specialist training. Such provides us with an utterly invaluable forward baseline or starting point, far superior than proceeding from ignorance, upon which to build various options for our eventual decision.

But, clearly, that starting point can not be where we should end up.


Jemy Gatdula is a Senior Fellow of the Philippine Council for ForeignRelations and a PhilippineJudicial Academylaw lecturer for constitutionalphilosophy and jurisprudence.

Twitter @jemygatdula