“Democracy encourages the majority to decide things about which the majority is ignorant.” – John Simon

“I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society, but the people themselves: and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their controul with a wholsome discretion, the remedy is, not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.” – Thomas Jefferson

Many noteworthy issues of the day are controversial because of the disparity between the level of risk as determined by experts and that as perceived by the public. A common example is the difference between the risk of flying in a commercial airliner vs. driving one’s own car. For trips of equal length, driving a car is statistically much riskier than flying, but most people’s perception of the risk is reversed. John Stewart recently juxtaposed two sentiments expressed by the Governor of New Jersey in justifying first the quarantine for Ebola of a woman who had arrived from west Africa, and second his state’s policy on vaccinations. In both cases, the Governor sided with public perception over a position that would concur with the advice of informed experts. Other controversies that arise from the same source are climate change and GMO foods.

The only way a democracy can effectively function is with an informed electorate, yet the electorate seems to be becoming less and less informed as the years go on; being educated enough to make decisions on complex issues has become far more difficult since Jefferson’s time, largely because the sum of human knowledge has expanded to such a vast extent. How, then, can we as voters make the best decisions possible under the circumstances? We can’t all become experts. One possible answer lies in knowing the motives and qualifications of the experts we choose to trust. In judging information about a topic in which you yourself are not an expert, ask yourself:

  • What are the qualifications of the person(s) espousing this position? Being highly qualified in one area does not qualify someone as an expert in other areas. A Nobel prize-winning physicist is still not qualified as a medical practitioner.
  • What kind of financial or personal interest do they have in policies that might result from this position?

Then ask the same questions about those who hold the opposite position, without relying only on what these two groups say about each other.