Minority Reports: Registering Dissent in Science

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Submission Summary
Consensus reporting is valuable because it allows scientists to speak with one voice and offer the most robust scientific evidence when interfacing with policymakers. However, what should we do when consensus does not exist? In this paper, I argue that we should not always default to majority reporting or consensus building when a consensus does not exist. Majority reporting does not provide epistemically valuable information and may in fact further confuse the public, because majority reporting obscures underlying justifications and lines of evidence, which may in fact be in conflict or contested. Instead, when a consensus does not exist, I argue that minority reporting, in conjunction with majority reporting, may be a better way for scientists to give high quality information to public. Through a minority report, scientists will be able to register dissenting viewpoints and give policymakers a better understanding of how science works. For an instructive epistemic model of how minority reports may work, I turn to an analogy with the U.S. Supreme Court. The court issues majority opinions, which are legally binding, and dissenting opinions when there exists significant divergence in views. The dissenting opinion is epistemically valuable in several ways (Ginsburg 2010). The dissent can help the author of the majority opinion clarify and sharpen her own reasoning, therefore increasing the quality of reasoning of the court in general. By laying out a diverging set of legal reasoning, the justice allows future legal cases to be brought and worked on using these diverging reasonings (Sunstein 2014). Furthermore, justices may also write concurring opinions when they agree with the ruling but for different legal reasons. I argue that this epistemic model of the Supreme Court which allows for minority and concurring reports can be extended to science. As scientific societies and expert panels are increasingly being called to produce consensus or majority reports to guide policy, these groups need an epistemic mechanism to register dissent on issues where there exists no strong consensus. While the majority report should be taken with the most weight, minority reports can shed light on underlying reasonings and value judgments that would otherwise be hidden in a majority or consensus report. If our goal in asking scientists for their guidance is to receive high-quality information on which to make decisions, then we should allow for minority reporting as a mechanism to gain a deeper understanding of the state of the science. Finally, I address some objections. The most pressing of which is that minority reporting may be particularly sensitive to capture by elites or special interests that seek to undermine public action. I argue for mechanisms that can limit the capture of dissenting voices by outside interests. Ginsburg, R. B. (2010). The role of dissenting opinions. Minnesota Law Review, 95, 1. Sunstein, C. R. (2014). Unanimity and disagreement on the Supreme Court. Cornell Law Review, 100, 769.
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University of Nebraska Omaha

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