Friday, May 09, 2008

How Did We Get to the Point Where Scientific Authority Is So Easily Challenged?

A very good and interesting article from Scientific American Mind. This is a crucial issue in that fewer than 35% of Americans believe in evolution, and even fewer have any idea how most of the machines they use every day operate. Science has been all but replaced by superstitious belief, which is partly what Dawkins and Harris (and the rest) are fighting against.

In a world where the advances of science account for nearly ALL of our conveniences, it baffles me that so few people know even the slightest bit about science, and worse, distrust anything coming from the mouth of a scientist.
Scientists Know Better Than You--Even When They're Wrong
Why fallible expertise trumps armchair science—a Q&A with sociologist of science Harry Collins
By JR Minkel

If you take scientists at their word, human-induced climate change is well underway, evolution accounts for the diversity of life on Earth and vaccines do not cause autism. But the collective expertise of thousands of researchers barely registers with global warming skeptics, creationist movie producers and distrustful parents. Why is scientific authority under fire from so many corners? Sociologist Harry Collins thinks part of the answer lies in a misunderstanding of expertise itself. Like Jane Goodall living among the chimps, Collins, a professor at Cardiff University in Wales, has spent 30 years observing physicists who study gravitational wave detection—the search for faint ripples in the fabric of spacetime. He's learned the hard way about the work that goes into acquiring specialized scientific knowledge. In a recent book, Rethinking Expertise, he says that what bridges the gap—and what keeps science working—is something called "interactional expertise". Collins spoke recently with about his view of expertise; what follows is an edited transcript of that interview.

How did we get to the point where scientific authority is so easily challenged?
The high point of the authority of science was perhaps the 1950s. In those days one would see on the popular television programs a scientist wearing a white coat with license to speak authoritatively on almost any subject to do with science—and sometimes on subjects outside of science. But things go wrong in the progress of science and technology. If you see the space shuttle crashing, you can see that these guys in the white coats don't always get it right.

When you discover the jagged edges of science, you start to think, wait a minute—maybe scientists' views aren't quite as immaculate as we thought they were. Maybe ordinary people's views can weigh a little more. And I think there's some truth to this, but not as much as some of my colleagues think. Having studied esoteric sciences from the outside, I know that ordinary people have no chance of grasping the details of them.

What's wrong with ordinary people weighing in on scientific subjects?
It is easy to imagine all sorts of horror stories if we abandon the idea that there are some people who know what they are talking about and some who don't. Most scientific disputes that concern the public are at the cutting edge—the place where things are not completely certain. Examples are the safety of vaccines, the true importance of global warming, the effects of farming genetically modified food crops, and so forth.

Even now, in the U.K., the relatively dangerous disease of measles is becoming endemic as a result of a widespread consumer revolt against the MMR vaccine about 10 years ago. Parents believe that even though doctors assure them that vaccines are safe, those doctors may be wrong. Therefore, the parents think they are entitled to throw their own judgment into the mix. Quite a few social scientists are pushing this trend hard.

Why should the average person acknowledge that scientists might know better than they do?
It is possible to make an argument from the common sense idea that scientists know what they're talking about because they've spent much more time looking at the areas of the natural sciences that we're interested in. Normally, if somebody's spent a lot of time in an area, you'd tend to take their opinion as more valuable.

We believe that you can work out whether someone has the right scientific expertise and experience to make some sensible contribution to scientific debates. It doesn't mean they're right. What you have to do is not sort out the people who are right and wrong; what you have to sort is the people who can make sensible contributions from those who can't. Because once you stop doing that, things go horribly wrong.

That seems like it cuts both ways. Are evolutionary biologists like Richard Dawkins fanning the flames in the way that they engage creationists?
Once scientists move outside their scientific experience, they become like a layperson. I'm not a religious person, but if I want to talk religion with someone, it won't be a scientist; it will be with someone who understands theology (who might be either an atheist or a believer). I believe people like Dawkins give atheism a bad name because their arguments are so crude and unsubtle. They step outside their narrow competences when they produce these arguments.

In our book we too criticize creationism's pretensions to be a science, but we don't treat it as a trivial problem. Our critiques of creationism are: (a) that it stops scientific progress in its tracks by answering questions in a way that closes off further research; and (b) that there is no real attempt to meld the approach with the existing methods of science. We know that the creationists say this is not true, but their hypotheses relate to books of obscure origin or to faith rather than to observation.

Read the rest of this interview.

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