Editorial: Opinions of the ignorant can't beat research

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Enthusiastic amateurs are entitled to disagree with experts, but they must produce convincing evidence to back their claims

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

It is a quirk of modern life that expert opinion is often tossed aside as if it has little relevance. We live in a time when some people accord the views of quacks a status as high as that of health authorities, and where the view of an overwhelming majority of climate scientists is ridiculed for no good reason.

Conspiracy theories also abound, whether concerning the 9/11 terrorist attacks or the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. For some, the mundane official explanations for these events do not suffice.

It was into this arena that Patrick Stokes, a lecturer in philosophy at Melbourne's Deakin University, stepped recently. In an Opinion article in the Herald, he suggested that not every Tom, Dick or Harry's view deserved to be treated as expert and aired in public discourse.

A false equivalence between experts and non-experts was an increasingly pernicious feature of public discourse, he said. It encouraged enthusiastic amateurs to think they were entitled to disagree with the likes of climate scientists and immunologists and have their views respected.

But there was, said Mr Stokes, no equal right to be heard on a matter in which only one of the two parties had relevant expertise.

It was easy to imagine the outcry from those who like to think their views should be given equal space in the media when vaccination, fluoridation, climate change and the like are being debated. They would doubtless dismiss Mr Stokes' view as elitist. They would also assert that science is never settled and that the views of experts should be questioned continuously.

Their case is wafer-thin. When people claim something unexpected and contrary to expert opinion on a subject, a burden of proof falls on them. At some point, they must, rather than simply criticising the view of authorities, come up with convincing evidence to support their own claims. A failure to do this is one more reason for surrendering any right to be have their views respected.

In the interests of rational discourse, it is helpful that Mr Stokes has not been alone in his criticism of enthusiastic amateurs. Only last month, during a High Court case, Justice Geoffrey Venning told a member of the New Zealand Climate Science Coalition that his views on the way the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research collected temperatures was of no interest to him. The man had no applicable qualifications and his interest in the area did not sufficiently qualify him as an expert, he said.

Everyone is, of course, entitled to their opinion. That right is a byproduct of the all-consuming sense of equality that underpins our society. But not all should be accorded equal weight when they must be grounded in the likes of scientific or legal expertise. Years of study and experience in a field must count. They deserve to be given more value than views motivated by the unpleasant consequences of a scientific consensus or the failure of a conventional practice to offer a satisfactory outcome.

Such ill-founded grounds and others, including attacks on the honesty of scientists and health professionals, invite instant dismissal. Unfortunately, this does not always happen. Thus, an irrational fog has descended over a number of issues. Expertise deserves respect. Everyone is free to disagree but ignorance does not have an equal right to be heard.

- NZ Herald

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