Thursday, 22 May 2014

Experts in a Haystack

Tomorrow I talk with Harry Collins at the Hay Festival about his new book, "Are we all scientific experts now?"

Harry confronts a common scary phenomenon: ordinary people assuming that they are qualified to judge science. One example is good old Climategate, which I've talked about here. I repeated the same point Harry made: the public might have thought they were given sudden privileged access to the seamy underworld of science, but in reality all they were seeing, and inevitably misunderstanding, was science as it has always been, and as it should be.

The main point of the book -- that there really is a big difference between a scientific expert and an ordinary person -- may seem completely obvious. But sociologists of science (and Harry is one of them) spent a great deal of the late 20th century arguing that scientists are nothing special, and science itself is merely a social construct. As laughable as that sounds to anyone as clever and sensible as myself, this intellectual woolliness has seeped out into the real world, and infected many softer, more innocent minds. And now we have a situation where the same people who will boast "I was never any good at maths" when it's time to split the restaurant bill, also presume to be qualified to dismiss widespread expert scientific opinion on evolution, the big bang, the efficacy of vaccines, and of course climate change [1]. Now a few sociologists are putting up their hands and saying, "Just a minute, there's something to science after all." This book aims, if not to put scientists back on their pedestal, to at least give them a little stepladder to stand on.

It also aims to help us understand what it means to be a scientific expert. In particular, it doesn't mean just reading a few books about science. It doesn't even mean reading the primary literature. Just because you've read a few papers on climate science, or perhaps thousands of them, you still don't have the expertise to judge the results. You may have a better understanding of what the results are, but unless you start turning up to the conferences, and interacting with the other scientists in the field, and writing your own papers for their top peer-reviewed journals (as opposed to the bargain-basement, "open access" scam journals [2]), then you are not in any position to pretend to have a useful opinion. This includes -- and this was the lesson for my presumptuous physicist self -- highly qualified self-important clever-cloggs scientists in other fields. I may have a PhD in black-hole physics and be able to trampoline on a differential manifold, but if I subscribe to Environmental Research Letters, I have no more qualification to assess the worth of any article than a window washer, a web developer or, for that matter, a TV weather presenter.

The difficulty with all this is that even an expert may not really be an expert. Scientific disciplines bunch together, and it can be hard to tell them apart, and yesterday's expert can be today's crackpot. The book provides the striking example of anti-retroviral drugs in South Africa, where Thabo Mbeki was able to argue that they were toxic, and to prevent their introduction to the country, leading to tens of thousands of additional cases of HIV. This was partly on the basis of evidence from a distinguished Nobel-prize-winning leading scientist, who just happened to be ten years out of date.

The scientific expert may also be a fraudster. In the late 90s a medical researcher, Andrew Wakefield, claimed that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine caused autism, and the subsequent media frenzy caused a severe reduction in vaccination rates, to the extent that there was a brief measles epidemic in Swansea last year -- and it was all in aid of marketing an alternative vaccine that Wakefield just happened to have a financial stake in.

So, if you are an innocent member of the general public (and that includes me, on all but an embarrassingly narrow range of obscure topics), how are we to identify the real experts who we should listen to? One of the reasons I blathered on so much about climate change was because I thought that provided a nice clean example of where you can identify the experts, and you can identify their message. Not only does a massively clear and overwhelming majority of expert scientists support the notion of anthropogenic climate change, but there are even other scientists going to the trouble of documenting this support. That is the source of the famous 97% statement. It is not a hoax, a fake meme, out of date or roundly refuted. It was the result of a through survey of the scientific literature, and was published last year in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. How much clearer could that be?

But it seems that it is not clear. Many people haven't got the message, and they are not all crackpots. An innocent sailor on the seas of knowledge can be easily blown off course by the strong winds of confusion. Maybe the scientists really have been overtaken by rabid environmentalists? Maybe the people doing honest work really have been silenced? All these things are in principle possible, and how are we to tell, apart from becoming experts ourselves [3]?

And many topics are far less clear than climate change. Which of the latest medical studies trumpeted in the media should we believe? What should we eat, and what should we spit out? It could be that, despite the meaningless media noise out in the wide world, close to the centre of the scientific activity the experts really do have a very clear picture. Perhaps I should sneak along to a medical conference and wait in the hotel bar and nab a few scientists after the last session and buy them some drinks and loosen their tongues. Should I take statin drugs for my cholesterol? Is the answer blindingly obvious to them, or is the jury out? Yeah, that's a great idea -- except that I can never be sure that I went to the conference in precisely the right sub-field. Or that I didn't just find a group of old professors who have been irrelevant for the last decade and were delighted to finally find someone who would listen to them.

So: how do I find the true experts to listen to?

I have no idea, which is why I will ask Harry Collins this question tomorrow night. It may be that he cannot answer it, either. But the best I can do is to ask an expert.

Tickets are available on the Festival website, for £5, although we receive no money ourselves. I assume that the cost is to run the lights, and to pay someone to clean up in the event of a riot.


Annoying Pedantic Footnotes
1. Just yesterday I read this article that reeled off some US statistics. And before any of my UK neighbours smugly disregard those stupid Americans, I would invite them to take a look at the seething masses shambling down any British high street and to claim with a straight face that the situation here is any better.

2. Proper "Open access" means that any moron who wants to can read the journal, but not that any moron can publish in it.

3. It is also possible that the scientists will discover that they have been wrong. But this is a different point. There may be a new discovery next week that changes everything, but that doesn't diminish the fact that, if you have to decide which way to vote, to follow the current expert opinion is your best option. If the experts don't know that a new discovery is just around the corner, then the non-experts certainly don't know it either!

1 comment:

  1. "...Harry confronts a common scary phenomenon: ordinary people assuming that they are qualified to judge science..."

    Ah, but ordinary people are qualified to judge hubris and intellectual arrogance. Mark, do you still not get this scientific evidence thing? When some self-appointed expert tells you something, you compare it with the scientific evidence. And when it doesn't square because Chicago had its coldest winter on record, you challenge him. If he then says the oceans ate my global warming you challenge him with the 3000 ARGO buoys which have detected no ocean heating since 2003. And then if he starts huffing and puffing and spitting feathers saying you are not qualified to speak of such matters, you tell him to fuck off quack. Have you got that yet?

    Now, I'm an expert on relativity, gravity, and black holes. And I'm looking forward to hearing you speaking of such matters. And meanwhile, why is your blog called The Fictional Aether?

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