Experts Assessing Experts

Mar 17, 2019

Many of our most important social and political debates have science at their core – from climate change to genetically modified foods. When policymakers want expert input on what we know about these subjects, they often turn to massive synthesis reports known as assessments. 

In fact, this practice has become so common that the National Research Council alone produces more than 200 such assessment reports each year.

The new book Discerning Experts: The Practice of Scientific Assessment for Environmental Policy explores the origins of modern scientific assessments and asks whether all these reports are actually doing what we think they are.

“We begin the book with discussion of spirit discernment in the Middle Ages,” coauthor Naomi Oreskes told Living Lab Radio. Oreskes is a professor of the history of science at Harvard University.

“There were actually expert panels of bishops and priests who were called upon to judge whether or not a person was possessed by the devil. So, there's a very long tradition,” she said.

Oreskes argues that scientific assessments have come to play an important role in both aggregating science and synthesizing new knowledge.

“The process of integrating information from many different areas of science yields new insights,” she said. “There's a kind of, ‘whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’”

The idea that scientists should reach consensus only picked up steam after World War II, when scientists started worrying that if they didn't speak in a single voice, it would give the impression that they didn't really know what they were talking about.

“Or it [would] be used or abused by people who want to exploit those differences of opinion,” Oreskes said.

Indeed, in her 2010 book Merchants of Doubt, Oreskes and her coauthor Erik M. Conway explained how a small number of politically-connected scientists were able to mislead the public by exploiting areas of disagreement about climate change and other areas of scientific knowledge.

Oreskes said it’s understandable that scientists would want to protect against this kind of exploitation, but that she doesn’t think they should.

“I think that…honesty and transparency would actually help to build the credibility of the scientific community,” she said.

Sometimes scientists are afraid that expressing dissent is like airing their “dirty laundry” and that it will confuse the public.  

“But I think the evidence actually goes the other way,” Oreskes said. “That when people are honest about what they know and what they don't know, that builds confidence [that] scientists aren't trying to pull the wool over us.”

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