Science’s Oversight -Denny GaytonTweet
Non-scientists, laymen, and those ‘who don’t have a scientific bone in their body’ must judge science.
The examples given earlier, which are not at all atypical, show that more than being stupid, it would be irresponsible to accept the judgment of scientists and physicians without further examination. A matter important to a small group or to global society must have this judgment subjected to the most painstaking scrutiny. Duly elected committees of laymen must examine whether the theory of evolution is really as established as biologists want us to believe, whether being established in their sense settles the matter, and whether it should replace other views in schools. Laypeople (non-scientists, etc) must examine whether the safety of nuclear reactors in each individual case and must be given access to all the relevant information. They must examine whether scientific medicine deserves the unique position of theoretical authority, access to funds, privileges of mutilation it enjoys today or whether non-scientific methods of healing are not frequently superior and they must encourage relevant comparisons: traditions of tribal medicine must be revived or reinvigorated and practiced by those who prefer them, partly because it is their wish, partly because we thus obtain some information about the efficiency of science (or the lack of it). The committees must also examine whether peoples’ minds are properly judged by psychological tests, what is to be said about prison reforms – and so on and so forth. In all cases the last word will not be that of the experts, but that of the people immediately concerned.
Scientists, educators, physicians must be supervised when engaged in public jobs; but they must also be watched most carefully when called upon to solve the problems of an individual, or a family. Everyone knows that plumbers, carpenters, electricians cannot always be trusted and that it is wise to keep an eye on them. One starts by comparing different firms, chooses the one making the best suggestions and supervises every step of their work. The same applies to the so-called ‘higher’ professions: an individual who – engages a lawyer, consults a meteorologist, asks for a foundation report on his house – cannot take things for granted or he will find himself with a large bill and problems even greater than those for whose solution he called in the expert. All this is pretty well known. But there are some professions which still seem to be exempt from doubt. Many people trust a physician or an educator as they would have trusted a priest in earlier times. But doctors give incorrect diagnoses, prescribe harmful drugs, cut, x-ray, mutilate at the slightest provocation partly because they are incompetent, partly because they don’t care and have so far been able to get away with murder, partly because the basic ideology of the medical profession which was formed in the aftermath of the scientific revolution can deal only with certain restricted aspects of the human organism but still tries to cover everything by the same method. Indeed, so large has the scandal of malpractice become that the physicians themselves are now advising their patients not to be content with a single diagnosis but to shop around and to supervise their treatment. Of course, second opinions should not be restricted to the medical profession for the problem may not be the incompetence of a single doctor, or of a group of doctors, the problem may be the incompetence of scientific medicine as a whole. Thus every patient must be the supervisor of his treatment just as every group of people and every tradition must be allowed to judge the projects which the government wants to carry out in their midst and must be able to reject those projects it does not regard as adequate.
In the case of educators the situation is still worse. For while it is possible to determine whether a physical treatment has been successful we have no ready means to determine the success of a mental treatment, a so-called education. Reading, writing, arithmetic and knowledge of basic facts can be judged. But what shall we think of a training that turns people into second-hand academics? What shall we think of the idiocies propagated by our sociologists and the atrocities regarded as ‘critical productions’ by our artists? They can palm off their ideas on us with impunity unless pupils start checking out their teachers just as patients have started checking out their doctors: the advice in all cases is to use experts, but never to trust them and certainly never to rely on them entirely.
That the errors of specialists can be discovered by ordinary people provided they are prepared to ‘do some hard work’ is the basic assumption of any trial by jury. The law demands that experts be cross-examined and that their testimony be subjected to the judgment of a jury. In making this demand it assumes that experts are human after all, that they make mistakes, even right in the center of their specialty, that they try to cover up any source of uncertainty that might reduce the credibility of their ideas, that their expertise is not as inaccessible as they often insinuate. And it also assumes that a layman can acquire the knowledge necessary for understanding their procedures and finding their mistakes.
This assumption is confirmed in trial after trial. Conceited and intimidating scholars, covered with honorary degrees, university chairs, presidencies of scientific societies are tripped up by a lawyer who has the talent to look through the most impressive piece of jargon and to expose the uncertainty, indefiniteness, the monumental ignorance behind the most dazzling display of omniscience: science is not beyond the reach of the natural shrewdness of the human race. This shrewdness should be applied to all important social matters which are not in the hands of experts (scientists among others).