The Arbiters of Truth: The Role of Experts and Belief in Shaping RealityRead Now
A while ago I saw a documentary entitled Murder Among the Mormons. The documentary is about the exploits of the accomplished forger Mark Homann who created many seemingly old documents that were able to fool even seasoned experts. Some of these documents seemed to shed light into the early days of the Mormon Church creating conflicts with church teachings. Eventually Homann’s schemes unraveled when he accepted money for forgeries he could not deliver fast enough while living a lifestyle beyond his means. In 1985, overburdened by creditors, he looked for a way out by resorting to a bizarre scheme where he planted bombs which killed a couple of people and wounded him too.
One of the things that caught my attention about the documentary was something that Homann did in his early teens. He had developed a technique for forging mint marks on coins, and he sent one such forged coin to the treasury department for evaluation. The department evaluated the coin and let him know that it was genuine! This for him was an epiphany that pretty much set him on his life as a counterfeiter. He reasoned that if the experts declared something to be true, then for all practical purposes, it becomes true. Thus, he also reasoned, he cheated no one when he sold a forgery, as long as the experts declared it to be true. Later on, he also came to understand the power of belief in determining truth. People are unwilling to give up their beliefs, especially if the acquisition of those beliefs has involved personal sacrifice. Thus, if the experts or leaders whom the people trust say it’s true, and if people believe it is true, then IT IS true. Facts and evidence become irrelevant. Beliefs generate their own reality, and as long as people keep living by their beliefs, this is the reality that matters.
We may tend to see this as a cynical view of life. We may reason that this is the sort of thing that only a sick mind like Homann’s, capable of deceit and murder, would come up with. Sadly, however, in my opinion this view of reality is often true. Homann may have been a criminal, but he was highly intelligent and talented. He grasped an important aspect of how the world works, and he used it to his advantage.
If you want a more general example of what I’ve outlined in the previous paragraph, look no further than the economic meltdown that occurred during the financial crisis triggered by the housing bubble in 2007-2008. Rating agencies were assigning excellent ratings to bundles of high-risk mortgages (mortgage-backed securities) that were all but guaranteed to default. Investors and bankers nevertheless trusted these ratings and poured a lot of money into the housing market which shot through the roof. The rating agencies declared the mortgage-backed securities to be sound, investors believed them and bought the securities, and the US economy nearly went to Hades.
So what am I getting at here?
Science is a highly technical and complex subject that is often only accessible to the experts. Average people, and even scientists in other fields, most of the time do not have the knowledge and training to figure out what is true or not within a given complex field. This is why we often rely on the word of the experts when accepting science. But with people questioning the safety or efficacy of vaccines, the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, the efficacy of masks and other mitigation measures, the reality of global warming, or the accuracy of evolution, what is a non-scientist to do? Do we trust what the naysayers are saying about science, or do we trust the experts? However, if we trust the experts, how do we know that we won’t end up like the persons who bought Homann’s forgeries or like the investors who bought faulty mortgage-backed securities?
There are certainly no guarantees. Yes, experts can be fooled, or they can even be dishonest, but here it must be pointed out that while Homann fooled many experts, he didn’t fool all of them. Some experts eventually detected his forgeries and sounded the alarm. Similarly, several savvy investors figured out that the edifice of the mortgage-backed securities was nothing but a house of cards, and even regular folk who didn’t know enough about the matter figured out that all the crazy mortgages that were being offered could not lead to anything good.
All I can tell you is that science nowadays is a diverse endeavor. The scientists involved in research live in many countries and are funded by different funding agencies. And these scientists who have different beliefs, ways of thinking, life histories, and opinions get together at meetings, present their work, vent out their disagreements in public, and publish their results in peer-reviewed journals. There are bloggers, science writers, and journalists who follow what scientists are arguing about and cover the dissenting or skeptical views. Of course, there are dishonest scientists, and there are attempts to influence the scientific process ranging from the political to the corporate. But at the same time there are organizations, watchdog groups, and individuals who are on the lookout for these dishonest people and influences. This diversity and openness make it less likely that a “cabal” of dishonest experts will mislead the public about a key issue.
My advice is to listen to the experts, but keep up with the scientific debate regarding the issues that interest you. Review what the critics have to say and what the experts reply to them. Read what others including factcheckers have to say about the debate. Above all look for reputable individuals that communicate their opinions in a sober fashion in respected media outlets and avoid those people making sweeping sensationalistic claims alluding to vast unsupported conspiracy theories in media outlets notorious for pushing these claims.
Image by Nick Youngson taken from Picpedia.org is used here under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.