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Naval Academy Philosopher: Laypeople Are Entitled to an Opinion on Science Questions

Sarah Chaffee


This sounds more than a bit like Douglas Axe. It’s a presentation given at the Conference of the Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice this past June by Larry Lengbeyer, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the U.S. Naval Academy. The talk, “Defending Limited Non-Deference to Science Experts,” explains logically why laypeople are not barred from disagreeing with scientists.

Of special interest is the section defending disagreement based on a perception of “untrustworthy science.” Lengbeyer acknowledges that this is a tricky call for laypeople to make. However, he notes that people have access to credible scientific sources. And “some of the time, the outsider will have the ability to offer evaluations that deserve respect, including critical evaluations…” This is not common, but it happens. He lists more than 17 different logical flaws that a layperson may identify.

Let’s take a look at some of his “critical evaluations” in light of the evolution debate. A non-scientist can reasonably take issue with scientists when:

[T]he theory has been confirmed/validated in highly artificial conditions, or with a data set that is limited in important ways, calling into question its applicability to other contexts…

This sounds a lot like the problems with current scenarios for the origin of life. Self-replicating RNA is designed in the lab, the Miller-Urey experiment was conducted under conditions very different from those scientists believe were the case on the early Earth, and hydrothermal vents may not be totally nurturing to life.

[T]he stated findings or conclusions are not convincingly warranted by the study results, on account of one or more methodological failures [overgeneralization, overstatement, cherry picking, possibly p-hacking]…

What are the problems with neo-Darwinism? Generally that natural selection acting on random mutation leads to microevolution (such as changes in the Galápagos finches) rather than macroevolution. When researchers claim that they have observed speciation in action, a closer look often reveals only small changes — instances of breaking genes, not innovation of new information. Overgeneralization and overstatement are rampant.

I could list more — “conclusions depend[ing] upon questionable factual assumptions” reminds me of multiverse explanations for fine-tuning, etc.

Axe explains the importance of allowing laypeople to weigh scientific arguments, using their own power of reason to arrive at a plausible opinion. He notes in Undeniable:

…[O]pen science brings an end to authoritarian science by emphasizing the scientific value of public opinion. Because everyone practices common science, public reception of scientific claims is arguably the most significant form of peer review. For professional scientists to assume that public skepticism toward their ideas can only be caused by public ignorance is just plain arrogant. If ignorance is the cause, clearer teaching should be the remedy. When that proves elusive or ineffective, professional scientists need to be willing to find fault with their ideas, not the public.

This leads to the third piece of good news: Embracing open science empowers people who will never earn PhDs to become full participants in the scientific debates that matter to them. Instead of merely following expert debates, nonexperts should expect important issues that touch their lives to be framed in terms of common science. Once they are, everyone becomes qualified to enter the debate. This doesn’t apply to intrinsically technical subjects, of course, but the matters of deepest importance to how we live are never intrinsically technical.”

Logic wins over scientific groupthink. Lengbeyer concludes:

Many self-styled defenders of science call for a populace better educated in science, thinking that this will produce people who happily and humbly comply with science-based pronouncements. Now, the laity is indeed ignorant about the scientific method, but this produces an excess of deference, not a deficiency thereof, as there remains great ignorance about the contributions of imperfect, interested, biased, perspective-laden human judgment to scientific method. And this is compounded by an ignorance of the laity’s own capacity for more direct involvement in science-based policymaking. The typical layperson is something like the woman of 1800 who believed the (perhaps sincere) assurances of the men in her life that she did not have the necessities for having a say in political or financial or intellectual matters.

If I am right, then the scientific world ought to take some of the medicine it prescribes to its public opponents, and humble itself intellectually. Acknowledging frankly the serious limitations of science (and not only the convenient one about the provisionality of its claims), and respecting non-scientists’ rightful exercise of intellectual autonomy, might enhance the credibility of the scientific community and recoup some of its lost cultural authority. Science deserves a good deal of deference; science hubris and over-exclusivity do not.

In any case, non-scientists are decreasingly willing to diffidently place their personal choices in the hands of distant science-based authorities. There is likely no going back to such a world. Better to embrace the emerging participatory model, and to concentrate on elevating laypersons in respectful and empowering ways so that they can play their limited role competently, perhaps gradually increasing their science understanding so as to narrow the gulf between them and the experts.

The “participatory model” is a worthy complement to Axe’s “common science.”

Photo credit: http://www.cgpgrey.com [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.