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Prophecy versus prediction: when experts are no longer experts

When does an expert become a prophet in the age of post-truth politics?

Hugh McLachlan
30 May 2017
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Michael Gove. Wellington College/Flickr. Some rights reserved.The question of experts in public political debates was vaguely suggested although not explicitly addressed by Michael Gove when he made his provocative and ambiguous claim, in the throes of the recent EU referendum, that: ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’. Implicitly too, fashionable terms and notions that are applied to current political views and assertions such as ‘fake news’; ‘post-truth society’; ‘populist politics’; ‘Trumpism’; ‘anti-elitism’ and ‘anti-intellectualism’ lead one to ask whether and when we should trust supposed expert commentators.

Experts are experts only within their particular spheres of expertise, when they speak outside that sphere, what they say should not be confused with expert comment and advice.

Many of the claims made by experts with regard to political decisions, events and public policies are not trustworthy. In particular, we should be wary of supposed experts when they make ‘prophecies’ rather than predictions and when they express ‘value judgements’ rather than statements of fact.

According to the celebrated philosopher of science Karl Popper, we should not expect individual scientists to be objective. They are no less prejudiced and biased than the rest of us. He argues in The Open Science and Its Enemies that, ‘…science and scientific objectivity do not (and cannot) result from the attempts of an individual scientist to be ‘objective’, but from the friendly-hostile co-operation of many scientists. Scientific objectivity can be described as the inter-subjectivity of scientific method…’

So science can be objective if and when scientists present theories in such a way that they can be publicly tested by experience and such tests can be repeated by other scientists. This constitutes ‘scientific objectivity’.

Even though scientists might disagree over particular competing theories, they do agree about the sort of evidence that would settle the disagreement and about the sort of procedures that might produce such evidence.

Types of statements that cannot be tested by an agreed method by a community of scientists might happen to be true but they cannot have the authority of science, according to Popper. Not all statements that scientists make actually are scientific in this sense. Putative experts frequently say things that have not been and cannot be so tested.

There are two sorts of statements that we should be particularly wary of. One is what Popper calls (non-scientific) ‘prophecies’ as opposed to (scientific) predictions. The other is what the German sociologist, Max Weber calls ‘value judgements’. For Popper, a scientific prediction is a logical deduction from a scientific theory. If such a prediction turns out to be false, the truth of the scientific theory is called into question. Scientific predictions are qualified, conditional statements. On the other hand, for Popper, a prophecy is the unconditional, unqualified assertion that something or other will occur. The non-occurrence of the prophesied event does not serve as evidence against a scientific theory.

For instance, to say that if the water in my kettle is heated to 100 degrees centigrade, at normal air pressure, it will boil is to predict. This (conditional) prediction is derived from a long-established and accepted scientific theory that has been supported by the evidence of commonplace experience as well as by strictly controlled and monitored scientific experiments that are publicly replicable. If the water were so heated and did not boil, the theory as expressed here would have to be abandoned or modified in some way. 

To say, for instance, that Spurs will win the Premier League next season is to prophecy. This (unconditional) prophecy is not derivable from an accepted theory that has been corroborated by relevant evidence. If the prophecy is not fulfilled, the reputation of the prophet might suffer, but none of the theories that are currently accepted as scientific truths by a scientific community will require modification or abandonment.

With regards to prophecies as opposed to predictions, there are no scientific experts and there is no scientific expertise. Hence when supposed experts say, or are reported as saying, that such and such will happen, that, for instance, the outcome of a particular election will be this, or that, or there will be a second referendum in Scotland on independence, it is typically appropriate to regard what they say with some scepticism.

Experts, when they are speaking qua experts say things such as: ‘if A occurs, B will occur if the relevant, tested and accepted theory from which the prediction is derived is true’. People, whether or not they happen to be experts, speak qua prophets and soothsayers when they say things like: B will occur.

It is one thing to say that, if the electorate as a whole replicate the voting pattern that is suggested by a supposed representative sample of voters on the assumption that they were speaking truthfully to us and do not change their minds, the outcome of the election would be one way. It is something else to assert the outcome of the election will be this way without doubt simply because it will.

Value judgement should be expressed as just that. It should be made clear that an individual is expressing their own value judgements. 

Max Weber argues that social sciences, like all other sciences are and should be Werturteilsfrei, i.e. value free. Weber makes a distinction between, on the one hand, statements of what does, have, or will exist or occur, and on the other hand, statements that express our evaluation and approval or disapproval of such phenomena and occurrences. This is the distinction between statements of fact and value judgements.

Sciences, whether social or natural, can deal only with matters of fact rather than with value judgements, according to Weber, since science deals only with objective evidence and objective methods of testing.  Whether or not there might be grounds for having a rational preference between conflicting and competing value judgements, we cannot choose between them in the same sort of objective way that we can choose between statements of the other sort.

Weber thought that ‘value judgements’ are subjective rather than objective in the sense that they describe the speaker’s feelings about the phenomena. We need not agree with this interpretation of ‘value judgements’ in order to accept his conclusion. What matters is that the possible means of choosing between ‘value judgements’ is different from the possible means of choosing between ‘statements of fact’.

When people disagree about what we ought to do and what policies we ought to adopt, there is, as Weber points out, no agreed methods for testing or procedures that they can agree on as a means of objectively settling their disagreement.

This is not to say that value judgements are not important, or that social scientists should not express them. Weber’s point here is the value judgement should be expressed as just that. It should be made clear that an individual is expressing their own value judgements. When they are making statements within their sphere of competence as social scientists i.e. scientific sorts of statements about what does exist and occur, what has existed and occurred and what will exist and occur then they are speaking qua social scientists.

For Weber, it was a matter of intellectual honesty that social scientists made this distinction in their public pronouncements including their lectures and general teaching. It is wrong to pass off their own value judgements as if they had the aura and authority which is due to and rightly given to scientific assertions is wrong. It is misleading to the public. It is misleading to their students.

As Weber convincingly argues, there can be no scientific expertise in the making of value judgements.  When people who might well be experts in some other sphere make what are in Weber’s terms value judgements, we might, quite rationally, reject them.

Speculation is fine as is the expression of mere opinion as long as we do not confuse such things with knowledge and scientific expertise. Not all specialists are experts.  

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