Tuesday, 14 April 2015

A rant: "puckish", "provocative" science journalist fails to understand basic facts about scientific expertise

Time for a rant.

Last week I read a Scientific American blog post by John Horgan, and it left me fuming. It was simplistic, sloppy, ultimately misleading, and he should know better.

His post was on scientific expertise. Some people argue that we should defer to scientific experts on complex scientific questions. Sounds reasonable. Horgan instead exhorts us to be sceptical of the scientists, with the seductive cliche, "Question everything!" Which also sounds reasonable.

Doesn't that leave us with a contradiction? Yes, it does. A vanishingly small number of people have sufficient background and expertise to make a reasonable judgement on a large number of important issues, yet they may themselves be mistaken, or self-deluding, or downright lying. With our daily lives dominated by science, technology and medicine, and our planet apparently at serious risk from climate changes that only a handful of scientists are able to reliably identify, this is a severe problem indeed.