Somewhat belatedly, I’ve found this post by Jane Galt saying in a nutshell that halfwitted criticism of the Lancet study is acceptable because the experts are not always right.
It’s a reaction I get surprisingly frequently. And whenever I start to doubt myself, I imagine this conversation:
Executive: The new product is a failure. It may put the company out of business.Market researcher: No, you’re wrong. Our reasearch clearly shows that 90% of Americans prefer it to our old product, and our competitor.
Executive: But they aren’t buying it.
Market Researcher: Who the hell do you think you are to question my scientific credentials! I have an advanced degree in statistical methods! I have 20 years of experience!
Executive: I’m not questioning your scientific credentials. I’m just saying no one is buying it.
Market Researcher: We did multiple studies using the most up-to-date methodology! It was the largest market research study ever performed! All the experts in the field agree with me. America loves it!
Executive: Then why are they boycotting it?
Market Researcher: Bow before my expertise, mortal! NEW COKE IS THE BEST PRODUCT OF ALL TIME!
Actually, this example of an expert who gets things wrong is instructive, but not in the manner Jane thinks. The executive begins with the empirical observation that the new product is flopping. He can tell it’s flopping because he knows exactly how much of it warehouses are ordering and how much of it people are buying. Given that basis, he throws out the researcher’s theory because it contradicts the facts.
But what the executive doesn’t do is ignore the researcher because he contradicts his prejudices. The executive doesn’t say, “I can’t believe that the product is succeeding.” He doesn’t respond to the researcher based on a wrong understanding of basic statistics such as death rates.
Compare that to the conservatives who oppose the Lancet study. They don’t have solid data about Iraq’s death rate; they only have data of media reports of death rates, which are underestimates. They dismiss expert opinion not because they have better facts, but because they think their personal views trump evidence.
Saying that the experts can get things wrong is nearly trivial. Of course they get things wrong; everyone does. At times even entire systems of experts do. But these times are rare enough that without solid facts, you can’t ever conclude that your heterodox view is right. If you do that you’re not a brave writer defying conventional wisdom, but a creationist-style crank.