No One Can Be An Expert on Everything

This post by Andrew Sullivan, about GOP denialism of climate change, raises fundamental epistemological questions about how we know *anything*.

I’m not a scientist either. I have no expertise in measuring carbon levels back thousands of years; I have no clue how to balance measurable heat in the oceans as opposed to the deserts; I cannot say what would likely shift in weather patterns if we keep boiling our planet like the proverbial frog; and on and on. But I can read temperature charts and I can read the IPCC report and I can glean something relevant from the crushingly overwhelming majority view of the relevant climate scientists.

And that simple act of amateur reasoning is all we ask of ourselves as citizens, and it is all we can ever ask of our elected representatives. We elect them to make decisions about the future of Afghanistan, the sectarian conflict in Syria, the intricacies of Internet regulation, and any number of complex questions usually grasped only by experts. Sometimes, they can become kinda experts themselves. But what’s vital is that they simply use reason – a core democratic practice – to figure stuff out.

Sullivan’s jabs at Republicans, however well-deserved, aside, there’s a basic, unexamined issue here of how any person decides, however provisionally or certainly, whether he or she takes something to be true. No one is an expert on everything, or even (with rare exceptions) any one thing; no one can travel the world and verify the existence of every place in the world. (Certain creationists train their children to challenge evolutionists by asking “where you *there*?” – a cartoonish, reductionist version of this epistemological question. Was there really an Abraham Lincoln? Is there really a city called Paris? How do you know, were you there?)

There must be some skill or basic instinct that guides human beings to make provisional judgments that are more or less accurate – for the sake of survival, in an evolutionary sense. This leaves judgments about things that don’t necessarily affect survival, judgments that are realized via certain kinds of superstitions and religious beliefs, that survive in a no-harm no-foul sense. (E.g. there’s little harm in avoiding black cats or walking under ladders.)

But our society seems to have entered a realm where such beliefs have hardened into ideologies that actively resist understanding of and engagement with the real world. An extreme example, vis a vis climate change: the fundamentalists who are so sure that God created the Earth just for human beings, and couldn’t possible let it come to harm, that they refuse to believe that human activity could be having the effects that climate scientists claim. Or even worse: the fundamentalists who so welcome the imminent apocalypse (apparently including the long-delayed second coming of Christ, and their own [of course] ascent into heaven) that they *welcome* the calamity of climate change. These are the people who are truly dangerous, and could possibly drag the rest of us down with them.

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