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How far does the tether of your expertise extend?

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

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Talking about science in the public sphere is tricky, even with someone with a lot of training in a science.

On the one hand, there’s a sense that it would be a very good thing if the general level of understanding of science was significantly higher than it is at present — if you could count on the people in your neighborhood to have a basic grasp of where scientific knowledge comes from, as well as of the big pieces of scientific knowledge directly relevant to the project of getting through their world safely and successfully.

But there seem to be a good many people in our neighborhood who don’t have this relationship with science. (Here, depending on your ‘druthers, you can fill in an explanation in terms of inadequately inspiring science teachers and/or curricula, or kids too distracted by TV or adolescence or whatever to engage with those teachers and/or curricula.) This means that, if these folks aren’t going to go it alone and try to evaluate putative scientific claims they encounter themselves, they need to get help from scientific experts.

But who’s an expert?

It’s well and good to say that a journalism major who never quite finished his degree is less of an authority on matters cosmological than a NASA scientist, but what should we say about engineers or medical doctors with “concerns” about evolutionary theory? Is a social scientist who spent time as an officer on a nuclear submarine an expert on nuclear power? Is an actor or talk show host with an autistic child an expert on the aetiology of autism? How important is all that specialization research scientists do? To some extent, doesn’t all science follow the same rules, thus equipping any scientist to weigh in intelligently about it?

Rather than give you a general answer to that question, I thought it best to 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 necessarily 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. I would argue that 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 — and owning up to that when people look to you as an expert — is part of being a responsible scientist.

An ancestor version of this post was published on my other blog.

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. Gaythia 3:32 pm 08/27/2013

    I think that for matters related to science policy, items number 7 and 8 need work in how they relate to #9. I don’t think that it is necessarily true that we want to settle for only the opinion of the individual scientist who is at the cutting edge of some narrow area of research. Although the point that you make that we do need to convey the range and limits of our own expertise and world view is a very important one.

    For example, if one is in attendance at a typical national or regional meeting of the American Chemical Society, everyone there is a scientist of some ilk and at some level. An industrial pesticide chemist, who may in fact be the leading expert in some specialty, may very well make a comment about the public lack of appreciation of real science (as they see it, likely having to do with a negative attitude towards pesticide use). A chemist of more biological ecosystem orientation may respond to this in ardent opposition. At such a meeting, no conclusion between these sorts of world views may be reached, even though the debates generated are thoughtful and well informed (well, usually). But these views do collide more emotionally as their messages are conveyed to the public, which ultimately in a democracy may be “the deciders”.

    I think this is why the arguments about “scientific consensus” ring hollow with the public. It is not like there is some monolithic block of scientists out there, or that we all voted on science related issues.
    For example, the powerful message about what science knows about anthropogenic climate change to convey, in my opinion, is the diversity of the scientists involved. What the public needs to realize, as I see it, is the fact that so many different types of scientists, working independently in so many very different fields of specialization have, to an amazing degree, converged on the same conclusions. This is not quite the same as “trust the experts in the field in question”.

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