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What a scientist knows about science (or, the limits of expertise).

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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In a world where scientific knowledge might be useful in guiding decisions we make individually and collectively, one reason non-scientists might want to listen to scientists is that scientists are presumed to have the expertise to sort reliable knowledge claims from snake oil. If you’re not in the position to make your own scientific knowledge, your best bet might be to have a scientific knowledge builder tell you what counts as good science.

But, can members of the public depend on any scientist off the street (or out of the lab) to vet all the putative scientific claims for credibility?

Here, we have to grapple with the relationship between Science and particular scientific disciplines — and especially with the question of whether there is enough of a common core between different areas of science that scientists trained in one area can be trusted to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of work in another scientific area. How important is all that specialization research scientists do? Can we trust that, to some extent, all science follows the same rules, thus equipping any scientist to weigh in intelligently about any given piece of it?

It’s hard to give you a general answer to that question. Instead, as a starting point for discussion, let me lay out the competence I personally am comfortable claiming, in my capacity as a trained scientist.

As someone trained in a science, I am qualified:

  1. to say an awful lot about the research projects I have completed (although perhaps a bit less about them when they were still underway).
  2. to say something about the more or less settled knowledge, and about the live debates, in my research area (assuming, of course, that I have kept up with the literature and professional meetings where discussions of research in this area take place).
  3. to say something about the more or less settled (as opposed to “frontier”) knowledge for my field more generally (again, assuming I have kept up with the literature and the meetings).
  4. perhaps, to weigh in on frontier knowledge in research areas other than my own, if I have been very diligent about keeping up with the literature and the meetings and about communicating with colleagues working in these areas.
  5. to evaluate scientific arguments in areas of science other than my own for logical structure and persuasiveness (though I must be careful to acknowledge that there may be premises of these arguments — pieces of theory or factual claims from observations or experiments that I’m not familiar with — that I’m not qualified to evaluate).
  6. to recognize, and be wary of, logical fallacies and other less obvious pseudo-scientific moves (e.g., I should call shenanigans on claims that weaknesses in theory T1 count as support for alternative theory T2).
  7. to recognize that experts in fields of science other than my own generally know what the heck they’re talking about.
  8. to trust scientists in fields other than my own to rein in scientists in those fields who don’t know what they are talking about.
  9. to face up to the reality that, as much as I may know about the little piece of the universe I’ve been studying, I don’t know everything (which is part of why it takes a really big community to do science).

This list of my qualifications is an expression of my comfort level more than anything else. It’s not elitist — good training and hard work can make a scientist out of almost anyone. But, it recognizes that with as much as there is to know, you can’t be an expert on everything. Knowing how far the tether of your expertise extends is part of being a responsible scientist.

So, what kind of help can a scientist give the public in evaluating what is presented as scientific knowledge? What kind of trouble can a scientist encounter in trying to sort out the good from the bad science for the public? Does the help scientists offer here always help?

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. ihearttheroad 1:47 am 09/29/2011

    Great post. As a scientist in training (PhD student), #s 1 and 9 resonate. When a question is outside my area, I think my best response is to demonstrate the thought process I would go through to figure out the answer (if there is one!) and then move to lit searches. In most cases, a non-scientist may not have a clue where to start with scientific literature.

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  2. 2. vladdek 6:02 am 09/29/2011

    I feel that a scientist is generally equipped to intelligently interact with and aid any other scientist, regardless of field because of the commonalities inherent in science, but it’s also important to defer to authorities in a field that you’re not a part of. I also think a scientist can research, use and help correct or improve scientific articles, essays and studies done in fields beyond one’s own, for the reason listed above. You can always research unfamiliar theories and understand the information because it’s presented in a scientific manner and being a scientist, a familiar format. I also believe that it may actually be important for scientists from other fields to critic the work of other scientists, because it’s easy to lose objectivity in your own field and other scientists can point out if you’ve strayed from the scientific path without having to even understand the specifics of your field.

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  3. 3. drfakadej 11:32 am 09/29/2011

    An item not specifically addressed is scientific ego versus scientific humility. To wit, does a scientist claim “Scientific Proof” about , where XYZ represents a reasonable and researched conclusion in their respective field . . . or does a scientist claim that “Science proves nothing, but seeks ONLY to eliminate error” about ?
    Does a scientist maintain arrogance or does a scientist remain humble when reasoning out a scientific conclusion? And does it matter? I recall the arrogance of a couple scientist claiming table-top fusion some years back. Does it make a difference to in public and scientific reliance upon the process of science and the scientific method how a scientist arrogantly defends results or humbly presents results?

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  4. 4. shorewood 11:48 am 09/29/2011

    Great statement.

    Very apropos to the global warming issue. I tend toward believing that earth is warming, but I am agnostic concerning whether humans are mainly responsible.

    The major reason for being unconvinced about the human contribution is that the major study of a few years ago cited 1,769 [I believe this is the actual number, but I cite it from memory] scientists from England who joined in deciding that humans are greatly responsible.

    I doubt that there are more than a dozen or two scientists in England who are qualified to evaluate the evidence concerning the human contribution to global warming. Hence, I question the conclusions of the study.

    As Professor Stemwedel, although I have a PhD in Finance, I am extremely reluctant to claim much ability to evaluate research outside my specific areas of expertise and more than happy to acknowledge only limited ability within those areas.

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  5. 5. parobinson 7:10 pm 09/29/2011

    This blog is timely. A week or so ago, an article appeared in the financial section of a Canadian national newspaper trumpeting the resignation of a Nobel Prize-winning physicist (let’s call him ‘G’) from the American Physical Society over its public stance in support of Anthropogenic Global Warming. The article then went on to discredit a well-known climate scientist (‘H’) because he had never won the Nobel, despite having spent his entire 30-year career in that field. (There were further egregious errors in the article, but these are common enough in the climate debate, and that’s a different story.)

    Clearly, the point of the rhetoric is to promote the opinions of ‘G’ while discrediting the work of ‘H’, simply because the former has won the Nobel, despite the fact that a) it was for work in solid state physics 50 years ago, and b) ‘G’ has never, as far as I could find, published anything on climate science. (It should come as no surprise that both the paper and the author have a known political position, and the article most likely reflects this.)

    Certainly, ‘G’ is entitled to his opinion, but if he shares the same principles as this blog’s author, then he should publicly declare that he is no expert in the field. (Whether the press would report it is another matter.)

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  6. 6. gmperkins 5:52 pm 10/1/2011

    Makes me recall an article from SciAm titled: “We only trust experts if they agree with us”

    Apparently, most people believe that they are qualified experts on any subject.

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