Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Re: The Wisdom of Crowds

Two points on Peter and Peter's debate on whether the Observer poll suggests that crowds are wise. First, on the philosophical debate, Peter Franklin says:

"I'm concerned that the wisdom of crowds meme, like some crowds, is getting out of control. Obviously, anyone who believes in democracy has to have trust in his or her fellow citizens; but surely, as Conservatives, we should also expect a degree of trust in those who, by virtue of merit, can speak with authority in certain fields of human endeavour." [emphasis mine]

Why? That sounds like pretty much the opposite of what we should believe as conservatives. Whether it is Burke calling for caution to those who would set our private stock of reason above age old traditions, Hayek describing the importance of dispersed information or the religious among us who prefer age old moral wisdom to contemporary theory. Sometimes we might need to set conservatism to one side but it is not an ideology that should ever imply trusting experts and their 'authority'.

While science has a good record of delivering technological advances and pushing the boundaries of the human experience that does not mean that the opinions of scientists should always be taken at face value. A fascinating report for the International Policy Network by Professor Jim Chin shows how the prevalence of AIDS was massively overstated by UNAIDS, leading to poor targetting of the response; a mistake they are only now, in the face of overwhelming evidence, accepting. UNAIDS had a noble goal, trying to increase the resources available to combat AIDS, and their bias was probably not conscious but their errors clearly demonstrate how science can be distorted once it is enlisted to a political movement like environmentalism. Of course, that doesn't mean we should discount scientific opinion, just that we cannot concede our judgement on such important matters to scientists alone.

One final point, I thought Mori's poll was desperately shoddy. The proper question to test whether the public think the sceptics are a significant group isn't really whether they believe that "many scientific experts still question if humans are contributing to climate change". That humans are making no contribution isn't the position of most scientific sceptics. Also, the "still" is leading. If you asked some variant of whether "many [or most] scientific experts argue that the amount of climate change we should expect human activities to cause will not be enough to constitute a 'crisis'" that might be more meaningful.

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