This topic came up as I was reading "Religion and Alienation" by Gregory Baum. He mentions in passing how, in modern egalitarian society, people feel empowered by the idea that "all Men are created equal." While I wholeheartedly agree with this statement (as evidenced by previous blogs), modern society has made the jump from "all Men" to "the opinions of all Men" being created equal. This is an inaccurate and dangerous concept.
While all Men are truly equal and should have the same rights across the board, it is downright silly to view the opinions of all Men as being equal. To suggest that the technical opinion on John Coltrane of a law school graduate is equal to a music school graduate is ludicrous. This analogy could be substituted with any combinations of educational level and subject matter. In modern society, the distribution of labor has become more and more compartmentalized. The result is a higher and higher degree of specizliation among each individual in society.
I found a good example on Google books speaking directly to this point. "Intellectual Trust in Oneself and Others" by Richard Foley is an epistemlogical look on the subject at hand. He begins by pointing to John Locke, who, in an age where clerical authority was deemed the final answer, called on idividuals to decide their own opinion in defferance to the clerical elite. Foley accurately points out that the society in the time of Locke is not completely analogous to modern society. The questions Locke was calling on individuals to ponder were nowhere near as complex or small in technical scope as ours today.
Foley realizes the importance of the society at large having a say in technical matters. To bridge the gap between the vox populi and the technical experts, Foley suggests it is important for individuals to "form credible opinions about the overall workings of the system that produces specialized knowledge claims." I think we've got a pretty good grasp on this. We are able to ascertain, when we put our minds to it, the sort of person or group of people that come out with a scientific claim. There are various "watchdogs" that are looking into the source of research funding to see if it affected the result of the research, etc.
Foley next points out that modern science is its own corrector. With such a heavy emphasis placed on reproducable experiments and peer reviewed journals, the general public can rest assured that even if mistakes are made, they will sooner or later be corrected. This is all under the caveat that science will be able to continue functioning freely without censorship, etc.
When considering the most important topics at hand that have an expert opinion, I doubt there is any more important than global climate change. Everyone and their dog has an opinion on global climate change; yet few of us even approach the level of technical knowledge needed to form an expert opinion on the subject. Anyone who took a high school chemistry class is (hopefully) able to understand the process behind the "green house effect," regardless if they believe it is happening or not. The fact that it CAN happen is what is important to establish.
Heading to http://www.ipcc.ch/ anyone with internet access can read for themselves the report produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This organization was sponsored by the World Meterological Organization and the United Nations Environmental Program. This organization does not conduct their own research, but serves as a clearinghouse for any research done on global climate change. Here we have a body that provides all the checks and balances Foley mentions when forming expert opinions on technical matters. The first report from the IPCC in 1990 stated that "certain that emissions resulting from human activities are substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gases, resulting on average in an additional warming of the Earth's surface."
Now we arrive at the unfortunate point where this all-too-important topic becomes political. Why on Earth the discussion of whether Mankind has an effect on the environment and thus climate is beyond me. But it unfortunately has happened and become so divisive it makes almost any discussion on the topic impossible.
Now the whole point this post is getting at is: if there are people with Ph.D's doing years worth of research in a field requiring such intense specialization, and these people are coming up with their opinion that it is probable that Mankind is influencing the Earth's climate in a way that could cause irreparable harm, then who the **** are we to disagree? Sure, you could point to the minority of scientists who say that it is impossible, even with all the forests we're chopping down and the sub-$2000 cars that are now available, and the tons of solid waste floating in the ocean between California and Hawaii, that Manking isn't effecting the environment in any detrimental way. I'm sure these scientists have equal Ph.D's and similar numbers of years doing research in specialized fields. So let's agree that there are some scientists on each side.
Now let's return for a second to how science does it's job--it hypothesizes, conducts experiments, and then analyzes the results. What, exactly, would the experiment be to test the hypothesis "Mankind does NOT effect global climates"? Is it "let's wait 50-100 years and see what happens"? I think we can all see the danger in that idea.
Now let's imagine for a second we pluck 100 of these specialists in global climate, and we say "those who think Mankind is causing climate change stand on the left side of the room, those who don't stand on the right." And we end up with 50 scientists on the left and 50 on the right. Then what do we do?
Well the answer seems obvious. If we act based on the opinions of those who believe Man IS causing climate change, then we make changes in energy production and use. We act on deforestation. We become STEWARDS (yes, for those religious people out there--you are commanded to take care of this Earth!) of the environment. And climate change does NOT occur and the tree huggers say "we saved the Earth!" and the rest say "nothing would have happened anyway!" and all is right with the world.
If we act based on the opinions of the scientists who say Man is NOT causing climate change, then we maintain the status quo. We keep going through oil as if it were a renewable resource. We continue to destroy forest. And two possiblilties arise: everything goes on as normal and the tree huggers hide their heads in shame, or . . ..
There seems only one logical choice regardless of anyone's individual opinion OR the scientists expert opinion.
(Google Books link to Foley's work: http://books.google.com/books?id=eyRHnj2xYjIC&vq=opinion&source=gbs_navlinks_s
Amazon.com link http://www.amazon.com/Intellectual-Oneself-Cambridge-Studies-Philosophy/dp/052103910X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1248022177&sr=8-1 )