Several months ago, I proposed that a court of law is another "way of knowing" just like science. I was going to start a series of posts comparing law to science and skepticism, but I got distracted, as usual. But I never forget a topic idea that I don't want to forget (ie I write them down).
There are two great things about law as a method to determine truth. The first is that law is practical, not philosophical. A court of law never has to worry about silly questions like, "How do we know we aren't brains in a vat?" Time is money, so courts don't waste it on that. What a relief!
The second great thing is that law must have explicit rules regarding all the little components of an evidence-based debate.
One of those components is the expert. In law, an expert witness is basically anyone who has special knowledge which allows them to draw inferences that the average juror cannot. Law sets the bar rather low for an expert; you only need to be above average in a particular area.
Expert witnesses are necessary because not everyone has the necessary information to make every decision in the practical world. You might say, just gather the necessary information, but often there's so much necessary information that it would be too time-consuming (and thus money-consuming) to gather it all. The worst part is that you may end up thinking you have sufficient information to draw the correct conclusion when you don't really. The solution: experts.
I think a lot of skeptics don't like to rely to experts very much. Why rely on someone else when you can be independent? If you rely on someone else's knowledge, you have no way of knowing if they're wrong. If you rely on someone else, you risk committing the argument from authority.
But perhaps we just need to get over it. Experts are a necessary part of many debates. They are on our side. Skeptics are frequently framed as the group of people who dare to question authority, but I don't put to much stock in such narratives because we could just as easily be framed as the defenders of experts.
But if we always rely on experts, what's left for the lay skeptic to do, aside from knowing what the experts say? In fact, there's still plenty of reasoning to be done. There are lots of things that the pseudoscientific fringes say that are not directly covered by scientists. Usually, it's because it's too silly, and scientists don't want to waste time on it. For example, when Creationists claim that evolution contradicts the second law of thermodynamics, that's just too stupid and doesn't deserve a penny of research funding. When a ghosthunter claims to be able to find ghosts, obviously very few scientists are interested in testing that.
Other times, it's because the scientists are trained as scientists, not trained to counter the many rhetorical and political strategies of pseudoscience. For instance, not every scientist knows the best way to respond to fear-mongering about cell phone radiation damaging our brains. They just know how to test the idea, but apparently this isn't enough, since the negative results have not significantly dampened speculations. This is the skeptic's area of expertise, because we are familiar with the behavior of pseudoscientific movements and organizations, and with the many ways that people are mislead.
(This post was partly influenced by Daniel Loxton's thoughts on skepticism's relation to science.)