Experts would be better to convince than coerce, both for farmers and consumers

I already liked this guy’s perspective on world growth, commodity demand and the future of the planet, but when he uttered this line he really won me over:

“This thesis could be completely wrong.”

It was uttered during a speech by Vikram Mansharamani, a Yale university economist and expert on global equity investments, as he described how he might be mistaken about the course of world economic and social development in the next few decades.

“I have to be aware that there are forks on this path and these are road signs to tell me if I’m wrong.”

He then sketched out a number of the “road signs” that he’s watching to see if he’s wrongheaded.

That’s an attitude I don’t see enough from experts in all sorts of areas. Very few prognosticators deliberately draw attention to where the bold vision they just sketched out could be completely off-base due to assumptions, wild cards and just the sheer complexity of the world as its various driving forces drive into each other. In his case, this was about future demand for crops and meat as developed nations get older and their population growth stagnates and developing nations in some areas join them, while other developing nations’ populations spiral higher.

If his view is right, and you can see what that is in this story I wrote here  in our March 10 edition, with more in the coming March 20 edition, Prairie farmers will benefit greatly from present trends, so let’s hope in from a selfish perspective that he’s right, but hope for the sake of Planet Earth that he’s wrong.

As I get older I find myself getting more and more annoyed with overconfidence and false certainty, since those seem to me to be behind so many disastrous errors we as individuals, as industries and as societies commit. I love reading about discoveries in theoretical physics (I’m not smart enough to understand the math, but I get the concepts), but find it alarming and off-putting how breezily many scientists seem to be whenever their new math gives them a bold new view of how existence and the universe actually works. I find this alarming because so often they are forced to do a 180-degree turn a few years later, reversing their views, at which point they don’t become humble and note the limitations of the methods they’re using, but instead aggressively embrace a different Bold New Reality. Being wrong doesn’t seem to bring some of them intellectual humility like Mansharamani’s.

(I’m getting to how this applies to agriculture, so stick with me.)

I’ve experienced this myself in my not-that-long-so-far life with doctors’ views on asthma treatments and dentists’ views on a number of issues. Over time I have been told, with utmost confidence, to use Ventolin whenever I need and to not worry about overuse, then told to use it sparingly because overuse can be dangerous, then told moderate use with light wheezing is OK, then told wheezing is never good so rely entirely on preventative medications like Flovent and only keep the Ventolin on-hand for backup. In a great relief to me, my present doctor did not express any breezy confidence when discussing the pluses and minuses of asthma drugs and treatments, but gave me a nicely nuanced take on the various risk and tradeoffs and admitted the various factors we do not understand about these relatively new drugs. That made me trust him and made me more confident with his judgement rather than becoming uncertain and worried. Glib overconfidence alarms me. And I feel bullied into going along with things that I don’t understand but apparently some experts do when my concerns are breezily dismissed.

This issue comes into agriculture and farming, it seems to me, through the widespread suspicion both overconfidence and bullying by experts creates in both farmers and the wider population. Farmers are often vexed by the widespread public worry and suspicion about genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), like many of the biggest crops, even though scientists are almost universally sure they not only safe but that there is no mechanism by which they could be dangerous. Farmers are also annoyed by worries about pesticides commonly used in crop-growing, worries that health authorities and most research say are not based in science.

At the same time, many non-farmers are disappointed in the widespread rejection amongst farmers of the apparent reality of climate change, even though, as we are always told, 97 percent of climate scientists believe human-induced climate change is occurring.

Both of these situations seem to grow from the same root: resistance to the breezy confidence of experts telling people not only what they need to think, but what they need to do. Many consumers seem now to have an automatic suspicion when presented with scientific innovations in food production or products. (If they are aware of them.) They don’t like being told: “This is safe. Just eat it.” Similarly farmers don’t like to be told: “The fuel your machines burn and the belches of your cows are causing global warming and we need to put taxes or controls on your activities in order to control it.”

And it’s not that either consumers or farmers are necessarily wrong to be suspicious of bold pronouncements by scientists and experts. Many of us are old enough to remember when we were told that saturated fat from meat and lard was a grave health concern, so let’s switch to healthy partially-hydrogenated oils! Then we were told: “Uh-oh, partially-hydrogenated oils are toxic, so let’s all switch to ‘healthy’ vegetable oils.” Then, very recently, we have been told that saturated fats from animal sources might not actually be bad for you, so maybe don’t worry about it so much after all. That’s a bewildering full-circle and doesn’t create much confidence in the average consumer. (For an expert who knows how to simply provide balanced views on what nutritional science does and does not suggest, go see Yoni Freedhoff’s blog here. And here is a story I did with him last year about the saturated animal fats issue.)

From the 1950s to the mid-1970s there was broad, general confidence in the pronouncements of scientists and experts. That’s waned understandably after problems from everything from dioxins to BSE to the saturated/partially-hydrogenated fats issue. But now confidence in experts has fallen to an alarming degree and no progress appears presently to be possible on all sorts of critical issues because of the widespread suspicion and cynicism.

Farmers and consumers also seem to have an inherent BS-meter when it comes to experts overstating their confidence in their own positions. This isn’t the same as the overconfidence many science types truly have in their present beliefs, but the kind that comes when they feel they’re fulfilling some social role by hectoring and badgering the public about an issue they think the public needs to understand – from their viewpoint. The tut-tutting of public concerns, even irrational ones, creates defiance amongst many, and farmers are no different. So whether that’s about the safety of food processing methods, agricultural chemicals, GMOs or global warming, the sense that experts are selling something rather than just informing about an issue engenders much suspicion amongst people who know they don’t understand enough to not have their ignorance exploited.

There doesn’t seem any easy escape from this morass of suspicion and cynicism, but perhaps it will just take patient, diligent, non-hectoring work. The worst thing that people involved in the public debates can do is lose patience and insult those they disagree with. Journalist and researcher Dan Gardner, about whom I am writing a story for next week’s paper, noted two challenging factors that those with a stake in an issue need to deal with. False information or beliefs always need to be challenged, because “silence is confirmation,” he said to me. At the same time, insulting those wrong views or information by calling them “irrational” is counter-productive because that just drives people into defiance.

So for scientists, experts and the informed, the challenge seems to be to do what Mansharamani does: inform without abusing, and accepting the reality that in the end, you could be wrong. That approach, at least in me, creates real confidence.


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