‘Trust me. I’m an Expert’

“Not trusting the experts is costing Americans their lives” was a headline in a prominent Australian think-tank. But can experts always be trusted? A sensitive article in The Hastings Center blog by Inmaculada de Melo-Martín, a bioethicist at Weill-Cornell Medical College examines the problem.

The first issue, she points out, is that experts obviously do not agree amongst themselves. Their differences are on the front pages of newspapers – about the effectiveness of vaccines or about the significance of blood clots, for instance.

In a context like the one we are enduring, where scientific evidence is limited and changing rapidly, disagreements among experts can be the rule rather than the exception. When people are asked simply to trust biomedical experts, there seems to be a discounting of the real possibility and the appropriateness of scientific disagreements. The exhortations might leave people confused, skeptical, and unsure about whom to trust.

Further, although she does not use the word, there is a certain arrogance about experts who demand that they be trusted as a matter of course: “the emphasis is on the one who is trusting rather than the one who is trusted, on trusting rather than on trustworthiness.” This is particularly problematic in for minorities who have experience of untrustworthy experts.

“Warranted trust” is another issue. Are all the pronouncements of experts to be trusted? Obviously not: only the ones related to their expertise. Scientists can reasonably ask to be trusted about science – but not about public policy. “Scientific experts have no more authority than anyone else when making recommendations about what public policies to follow, which ones are worth the risks, or how to solve conflicts between different policy options.”

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge


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