Chris Mooney has an article at Mother Jones, explaining why it’s not a good idea for non-scientists to challenge the scientific consensus, in the process, reviewing Harry Collins’s new book, ‘Are we all scientific experts now?’.
Read all the online stuff you want, Collins argues—or even read the professional scientific literature from the perspective of an outsider or amateur. You’ll absorb a lot of information, but you’ll still never have what he terms “interactional expertise,” which is the sort of expertise developed by getting to know a community of scientists intimately, and getting a feeling for what they think.
“If you get your information only from the journals, you can’t tell whether a paper is being taken seriously by the scientific community or not,” says Collins. “You cannot get a good picture of what is going on in science from the literature,” he continues. And of course, biased and ideological internet commentaries on that literature are more dangerous still.
That’s why we can’t listen to climate change skeptics or creationists. It’s why vaccine deniers don’t have a leg to stand on. And, in a somewhat older example, that’s why what happened in South Africa, when president Thabo Mbeki rejected the scientific consensus on what causes HIV-AIDS and opted to base government policies on the views of a few scientific outliers, is so troubling.
I agree with Mooney and Collins that challenging expert consensus, when you’re not yourself an expert in the subject matter, is rarely wise. Often non-experts are wrong, and explaining to them why they are wrong requires substantial education in the subject matter. If you’re going to challenge the expert consensus, you first need to become an expert. (In the process of which, you’ll probably discover why the consensus is what it is.)
But the thing that bothers me about this article, is the scientific exceptionalism. It seems to draw a line between all scientists and all non-scientists. I think this is almost as dangerous a misconception as the one they’re addressing.
The fact is, it’s not much better when a scientist challenges experts in another field that they know little or nothing about than when a layperson does it, and this doesn’t apply just to expertise in the natural sciences, but to expertise in general. I’ve seen scientists demonstrate their ignorance just as quickly as a layperson when they do this.
Examples that I’ve encountered in recent months include psychologists coming up with grand but defective historical theories because they didn’t partner with historians, physicists writing things about consciousness that any neuroscientist would know is silly, lots of scientists lamenting the threat of A.I. without talking with actual A.I. researchers, theoretical physicists dismissing the entire field of philosophy, and most academics when they lecture politicians about politics.
It pays to remember that when experts step outside of their own field, they’re actually laypeople, perhaps a bit more informed than a less educated person might be, but a non-expert just the same. Scientists who opine on non-scientific matters, or even matters in science outside of their own specialty, are often just as wrong as the rest of us.