There’s been a mild amount of angst on the internet in recent days over a couple of well known science communicators espousing nonsense on matters outside of their field. The first was Bill Nye, who made comments about philosophy that most charitably could be described as uninformed. The second was Neil deGrasse Tyson’s tweets about biology expressing problematic views about sex and celibacy.
(See the conversation responses to these tweets if you’re not sure why they’re wrong.)
I’m actually a big fan of both Nye and Tyson, but they’re both human, and so will occasionally have incorrect views. I’ve noted before that when a scientist (or in Nye’s case, an engineer) starts giving their opinions on things, it pays to remember that when they’re speaking on subjects outside of their field, they’re basically just well educated lay people.
But thinking about this recent couple of kerfuffles reminds me of the many cases where scientists, or other experts, do put forth ideas, often in a much more serious manner than the offhand remarks here from Nye or Tyson. This led me to ponder the hierarchy I use for evaluating such claims. This is admittedly my own personal views as a skeptic, but I’ve found it to be a pretty reliable guide to evaluating claims.
- When an expert is discussing the consensus in their field, we should pay attention and heed what they say. They’re most likely right.
- When an expert is putting forth a radical new theory in their field, they might be right, but they could also be wrong. Indeed, the history of radical new theories is that most eventually turn out to be wrong. Still, the chance of them being right is high enough to warrant listening to them. (It helps to get information from multiple experts in these cases.)
- If, several years ago, an expert put forth a radical new theory that the majority of experts in their field have reviewed and rejected, but the expert continues to push it, they’re not only most likely wrong, they may be a quack.
- When an expert is describing the consensus in other fields, unless there are issues with their research or honesty, there’s no particular reason to think they’re wrong.
- When an expert is putting forth a radical new theory in another field that they are not an expert in, while it’s conceivable that they might be right, the probability is so low that it’s usually safe to assume they’re wrong.
- If, several years ago, an expert put forth a radical new theory in a field that they are not an expert in, which the majority of experts in that field don’t take seriously, but the expert continues to push it, they’re virtually certain to be wrong, and may well be a quack.
Are there examples that violate this hierarchy? I don’t doubt it, although frankly, I’m hard pressed to come up with one. Most of the examples that people reach for are typically in the early history of science (Galileo) or experts in the relevant field (Einstein). Still, the history of science is vast and I’m sure there are examples.
But when someone with scientific or other credentials is in front of us espousing their views, it pays to remember that, except in cases 1 and 4, the statistics are against them.
Unless I’m missing something? Are there any prominent counter-examples I’m overlooking?