An expert in one field is not the same thing as An Expert

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There's a popular blog post making the rounds this week, written by an MIT scientist, called "Why I am not worried about Japan's nuclear reactors." I saw it over the weekend, and decided not to post it here because, while it offered some good insight on how the systems of a nuclear power plant work, it also contained some information of which I was skeptical. Plus, once I actually read the thing closely, I noticed that the MIT scientist was not an MIT nuclear scientist, but, rather, a guy who studies risk management in corporations.

That distinction matters. One of the things I've become more vocal about, over the past couple of years, is the fact that an expert in one subject is not the same thing as An Expert. Scientists spend years of their lives studying specific phenomena. But, outside of their field, they might not know more about a given subject than you or I do.

When you ask an expert in a specific subject to take on the role An Expert, they're likely to make mistakes. They might also have a very different perspective on what the facts mean, and very different biases, compared to someone who studies the specific subject. This is why asking policy analysts to explain nuclear physics is a bad idea*.

It's not that these people have nothing to add to the conversation. In fact, in a crisis like this, it's really valuable to have the guys who study policy, history, and regulation come in and talk about policy, history, and regulation. But, if you want the most accurate explanation of, and perspective on, nuclear physics, you're really better off talking to a nuclear physicist.

And that's precisely what MIT has now done with that "Why I'm Not Worried" essay. On Monday, the essay was turned over to the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, which set a team of field-specific experts to editing it. The essay has now been re-posted at a new website, and it's been changed. The stuff many people liked about it—a clear step-by-step explanation of what happened during the early hours of the Fukushima nuclear crisis—is still there. But it's now been vetted for accuracy by people who are far more likely to know what is accurate and what isn't.

One of the most obvious changes the nuclear scientists made: the title. Turns out, the facts that lead a risk management expert to not worry about the problems at the Fukushima nuclear plants are interpreted rather differently by nuclear energy experts.

***Note that the title of the original blog post does not reflect the views of the authors of the site. The authors have been monitoring the situation, and are presenting facts on the situation as they develop. The original article was adopted as the authors believed it provided a good starting point to provide a summary background on the events at the Fukushima plant.***

*Tangentially, this is also why meteorologists or mechanical engineers aren't the best people to explain the science of climate change. That would be a climatologist.

Image: Some rights reserved by Mai Le

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  1. Several of my more “influential” friends started tweeting about this, the original essay, all at once. I wonder what the common impetus was.

    1. Fear.

      People don’t understand how a nuclear reactor works. The image that comes to mind for most people when they hear “nuclear meltdown” is a mushroom cloud over the power plant.

      So when someone comes along who seems to know what they are talking about people want to believe, if MIT is attached to the name it gives it even more weight.

      I had several people send me this thing too when I pointed out that this isn’t looking good, purely based on my understanding on how nuclear reactors work. The note that usually came with the link was: “Don’t be paranoid”.

  2. Is this the same tool I see on CNN from MIT who is obviously a shill for the nuclear lobby? The same guy who keeps talking about how we should be careful regarding the reporting of the disaster and what could happen…because even though there are explosions and fires and no water or generators…it is all only “circumstantial” evidence…

    Who are you gonna believe…me or yer lyin eyes?

  3. This reminds of when in UFO documentaries they try to clam that Pilots and Police Officers are some sort of uber-witness.

  4. heuristic #1: don’t trust anyone designated as an “expert” of anything.

    (hold out for “luminary”)

  5. I have already sent e-mail to the original poster pointing out a very salient error he made in describing the fuel rods; there is a teensy little difference between Uranium Oxide and Mixed-Oxide fuel (i.e., plutonium plus other actinides) which seems to have eluded him.

    Let’s see if integrity occurs and the post gets change to reflect the fact that plutonium is also burning.

    1. you know, if YOU were to provide a link to back up your assertion, it might carry some weight.

      As is, it just comes across as fearmongering know-it-all ism.

      if you have facts, provide facts. Okay? OKAY?

  6. I actually think that sometimes the best explanations are written by people who aren’t experts in the particular field, as long as the explanation is vetted and approved by people who are indeed experts in the field.

    It can be difficult for people who are very knowledgeable about a field to explain things clearly to people who are not. The problem is that sometimes you don’t remember what knowledge people unfamiliar with a topic do and do not have.

  7. An obvious quibble: the url still contains the original sentiment. Superficial detail, in the sense that it’s one of the first things people will see.

  8. I don’t understand the footnote. What’s “climate change”? Do you mean that Satanic nonsense devised to distract us from God’s work of eliminating all taxes on the rich so that everyone in the country can then become rich?

  9. A-FREAKIN’-MEN!

    I remember many years ago on Nightline, they profiled husband and wife brain surgeons. They were considered the best in their field and were obsessed with their jobs. When the reporter asked them who the President of the United States was, they didn’t know.

  10. The other key point here is that just because someone is an “expert” in a field, it doesn’t mean they are always right about that field. Evidence trumps reputation every time (it’s just that experts have better understanding of evidence and how to present it)

  11. Michio Kaku is guilty of doing this when ever TV needs a ‘scientist’. I’m sure he’s very brilliant but he loves spouting nonsense on topics about which he knows very little.

    1. To be fair, Michio Kaku is also guilty of doing this for subjects on which he IS an expert on. But hey, it’s showbusiness, can’t really blame him.

  12. I think for some people during trying times, fear drives their thinking and rational thought takes a back seat.

    • People WANT to believe nuclear power is safe.
    • People WANT to believe the people of Japan are safe with nuclear power.
    • People WANT to believe our energy concerns will be taken care with a quick fix instead of the lasting hard work and sacrifice involved with the development of sustainable, clean energy.

    Sorry, what you WANT to believe doesn’t always quite mesh with reality and walking around with mental blinders on your head doesn’t help the situation. You’re just sitting there with your head in the sand and your radioactive ass in the air.

    Tough medicine? Yes. Deal with it, please… and let’s get to work making this a better world than it is now without it being stunted by fear, dogma and delusional wishful thinking.

    Put aside your fears. Get brave and let’s face what’s ahead of us. It’s all too easy to find convenient “facts” from corporatist “think tanks” that help to allay your fears, it’s harder to look reality in the face right now and overcome fears and be a part of progressive change. But, it’s what we need right now. Do it for your family and friends.

    1. Where’s you evidence of harm to any person whatsoever from this accident?

      What’s your source for that info?

      1. Where’s you evidence of harm to any person whatsoever from this accident?

        Ugly Canuck, you’ve seriously gone off the deep end. It’s time to step away from your computer and go get some fresh air.

    2. “People WANT to believe nuclear power is safe.”

      “People WANT to believe the people of Japan are safe with nuclear power.”

      “People WANT to believe our energy concerns will be taken care with a quick fix instead of the lasting hard work and sacrifice involved with the development of sustainable, clean energy.”

      I am impressed with your telepathic ability. Call the Amazing Randi at once!

      BTW, what’s the best estimate of human radiation exposure as a result of this event in terms of bananas?

  13. fwiw my expertise is environmental toxicology (particularly metals and organic compounds). I feel literate in nuclear physics to the point of being able to read and pronounce everything and knowing an alpha from a gamma, but not so much to be all pedantic about it.

    In discussions I try to draw clear lines around what I simply do not know, which is an awful lot, and try to not speculate about what is next in ongoing disasters or speak half-truths that might spread my own anxieties to others. I also try to spot the sociopaths and make fun of them for being douchey.

    I seek expert knowledge, and in this forum those come in the form of vetted, hyperlinked, facts, from which I draw my own conclusions.

  14. A more appropriate moral to the story is “be careful judging any source and any piece of information”.

    Whether you’re judging a wikipedia article vs. a print encyclopedia, a blogger vs. the 6 o’clock anchor, an expert in X vs an expert in Y bringing their point of view to bear on a field… nothing interesting is as simple as “this is a nuclear thing, so a nuclear scientist can clear everything up for us”. Applying judgement is the information consumer’s responsibility that never ends.

  15. The original article was a very sensible piece. I think it became so popular, so quickly, because educated audiences can tell the difference between a reasoned argument, and blind superstition. Even if some of his premises were incorrect, at least he had some.

    In any case, the new version doesn’t change much. However, it does drop out any predictions and discussion of possible worst case scenarios. This disappoints me a bit. It seems perfectly reasonable to me to follow,

    “The containment structure is a hermetically (air tight) sealed, very thick structure made of steel and concrete. This structure is designed, built and tested for one single purpose: To contain, indefinitely, a complete core meltdown,”

    with a statement like, “And so it is extremely unlikely that this situation will escalate in a way that threatens human life as we know it.”

    In fact, depending on how sound the science is in the field that tests the endurance of concrete and steel structures in the face of nuclear meltdown, we might even be able to claim that the likelihood of a catastrophe like Chernobyl, for example, is as likely as dropping a ball off of the tower of Pizza, and it floating skyward. I would be interested to hear someone report on this.

    1. Even if some of his premises were incorrect, at least he had some.

      Fantastic… he had some premises… now if he could just base those pesky premises on facts, we might start to get somewhere beyond wishful thinking and wasted time?

      1. Except that the world isn’t black and white, and everyone arguing from any position is going to have an unreliable premise or two. I’d say getting most things right and a few things wrong is better than not even trying.

        Anybody that has the time can check what’s said against what others have said. The group at MIT have made this easier.

        1. Except that the world isn’t black and white,

          Except I didn’t make a black and white assertion. You’re barking up the wrong tree.

  16. PS I’m very glad that the MIT Nuclear Science and Engineering department have stepped in on this. I too was very concerned by Josef Oehmen’s non-credentials in the field he was commenting on.

  17. The article still seems to get some details about earthquakes incorrect (or at least described poorly), in ways that have been common to most media coverage.

    That sort of agrees with Maggie’s point- the nuclear scientists aren’t qualified to discuss the earthquake adequately. But if that logic holds, anything interesting can’t be described by anybody, because it’s going to cross boundaries between different -ologies. There aren’t man PhDs in nuclear earthquake risk management specifically, I don’t think, so you have to rely on collaboration or individuals with knowledge in multiple areas, or applicable to multiple areas.

  18. you don’t have to be a nuclear scientist to discuss this in an educated way.

    you need to have a decent education and access to facts. a basic (non-major) college-level understanding of radiation, thermodynamics and physics plus information about how nuclear reactors are constructed and managed – especially in emergencies – is plenty.

    sure, a nuclear scientist might add credibility. but it’s not necessary.

    1. sure, a nuclear scientist might add credibility. but it’s not necessary.

      You don’t think before you talk very much, do you?

      1. i said you don’t need to have a nuclear scientist to discuss this in an educated way. do you disagree? you think only nuclear scientists should discuss this incident and everyone else in the world should simply not discuss it? that’s one view, i guess. not very practical.

        1. i said you don’t need to have a nuclear scientist to discuss this in an educated way. do you disagree? you think only nuclear scientists should discuss this incident and everyone else in the world should simply not discuss it? that’s one view, i guess. not very practical.

          i think the point of this entire post from Maggie has been lost on you. Enjoy your FUD.

          1. No, I got it. You’re barking up the wrong tree. I didn’t take any position on the safety of nuclear power or the severity of the current incidents. Point that thing somewhere else.

          2. Dont’ worry i’ve given him a new target…he’s the one spreading fear uncertainty and doubts as to safety at present, in the absence of the possession of any evidence of actual harm.

            He can only appeal to our fear of harm – they cannot demonstrate that any has yet occurred.

            This thing is well under control: and it will be remembered as an incident which caused less loss of life than a single bus accident in NY State that same weekend.

          3. Once again… I’ll reiterate… you’ve entirely missed the point of Maggie’s post here. And, once again, you and Canuck, enjoy your FUD.

    2. you don’t have to be a nuclear scientist to discuss this in an educated way.

      Oh, come on man, be a grown up.

        1. yikes!
          few reassurances in that interview

          “…this reactor design, this containment design, has been questioned since 1972. The NRC in 1972 said we never should have licensed this containment. And in 1985, the NRC said they thought it was about a 90 percent chance that in a severe accident this containment would fail. So, that we’re seeing it at Fukushima is an indication that this is a weak link. It’s this Mark I, General Electric Mark I, containment. And we have—essentially one-quarter of all of the nuclear reactors in the United States, 23 out of 104, are of this identical design.”

          1. yikes! few reassurances in that interview

            Yeah, disturbing reality we live in, but it’s not the job of science to reassure… its job is to inform us.

            I’ll leave the “nuclear power is safe” to the FUD merchants spreading their disinformation like a deadly disease.

          2. “People WANT to believe nuclear power is safe.”

            “The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair.”
            ~ Douglas Adams

        2. Arnie Gunderson of Fairewinds Associates? Sounds like a shill for the windmill industry. Obviously in his interest to defame nuclear power so that he gets more money.

          1. Arnie Gunderson of Fairewinds Associates? Sounds like a shill for the windmill industry. Obviously in his interest to defame nuclear power so that he gets more money.

            Maybe it’d be a good idea to actually argue against any of points he made instead of making libelous, scummy, false accusations of the man?

            I noticed you also conveniently left out these details about Gunderson:

            ” … A nuclear engineer who’s coordinated projects at 70 nuclear power plants around the country. He provides independent testimony on nuclear and radiation levels to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and congressional and state legislatures. Arnie Gundersen was a nuclear industry executive for many years before blowing the whistle on the company he worked for in 1990, when he found inappropriately stored radioactive material. He joins us right now from Burlington, Vermont. … ”

  19. This is one of my biggest bug bears. I have a PhD in organic chemistry, but since i haven’t worked as an organic chemist since 2002, i never call myself ‘Doctor’.

    It really irritates me for instance that one of the biggest plonkers to have disgraced the halls of the New Zealand parliament in the last few decades is one Dr Lockwood Smith. The guy was a shockingly bad minister of all sorts of things (notably education) but never in a portfolio that had anything to do with his 1979 PhD in animal science. So why to this day must he always be referred to as Doctor fucking Lockwood Smith? It’s intended to convey some sort of intellectual authority that has no basis in fact.

    1. Great point. I think all degrees should be revocable if you do not keep up with regular updates in the field. Sort of like for doctors and lawyers. If you do not keep taking classes to keep up with your field you should lose your degree.

  20. An interesting thing to note — and one that is not mentioned anywhere — is that the author’s essay was an email he’d written to his family in Japan, that a relative later re-posted on a blog before it went viral.

    From Dr. Josef Oehmen’s MIT page:

    Josef is the author of the essay “Why I’m not worried about Japan’s nuclear reactors”. It was an email he sent to his family in Japan. When his cousin posted it on his blog, it went viral.

    As a result, a team from MIT has been working to provide a response to the interest the post has generated and the clear need for timely and accurate information. The original blog has been migrated to an MIT site managed by a team of faculty and staff in MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE). Please visit the newly launched MIT NSE Nuclear Information Hub.

    Please direct all media inquiries to MIT’s News Office.

  21. I’ve been known to spout off information about nuclear power when asked, even though I’m not even close to an expert (I am, though, a geologist which is useful in this case). However, I know enough to not publish that information as truthy, or even just as a comment on the internet. I generally only discuss such things to people who ask me in person, which for some reason has been quite a few times over the years.

    This is a common trait among scientists, and indeed a basic part of scientific education and training. You don’t say anything publicly unless you’re damn sure about it (or if it doesn’t matter too much or is clear it’s speculation – I’m sure I’ve spewed lots of geological bullshit over the years on boing boing, for example).

    People like this guy don’t act that way. So in these types of situations, you get a lot of opinions from “experts” like these, because the true experts are holding back until they have more information and 24 hour news means they need an “expert” immediately. Engineering is different, and I think a lot of the actual expert opinions that have come out are from nuclear engineers, who are actually the most appropriate people to comment in this case so that’s good.

    I can just imagine, though, the actual scientists at MIT seeing the original article distributing widely and recoiling in horror. Not necessarily because anything was wrong, but because the guy didn’t take the same precautions that a scientist would. It sullies the name of scientists and in this case MIT in particular. And as per someone else’s comment – if there’s someone from MIT spouting bullshit on CNN, that’s much much worse, and it may be because of that that the scientists have appropriated this article.

    The “expert” commentary that news outlets obtain for non-technical matters is often idiotic drivel; when they get expert commentary on science or engineering matters usually it’s just sad, but sometimes can be outrageous as has been the case here. I’ve heard some people on NPR the past few days that made me want to smash the radio in, and NPR is generally much better about these things than the cable news networks. I don’t even dare to watch cable news.

  22. Even if some of his premises were incorrect, at least he had some.

    Thus, the warning that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

  23. Thank you, Metlin! I was just about to type a post to point out the same thing. I’m surprised so many people commenting here seem to have overlooked that very important detail. Did anyone else on here RTFA? Or just the summary? It was clearly noted, so I’m surprised it is being overlooked.

    The original source was written by someone whose family is in Japan, who are closer to this situation than anyone here (unless some of you are posting directly from Fukushima). He was trying to help, and his relative posted his private message to a blog, thinking his rational, scientific approach to evaluating the situation would help others, and now MIT’s nuclear science and engineering department have stepped in to help clarify things even further (and are updating the information on an hourly basis, as news develops).

    Why should Dr. Oehemen be crucified for trying to help his family cope with a disaster? How does this make him a schill for the power industry/lobby?

  24. In G Gould’s The Idea of North composition, a geographer is one of the fugal voices. At one point he reminds us that, when receiving information from an expert, one should attend to “‘Ex’ meaning formerly, and ‘Spurt’ being a drip under pressure.” Indeed.

  25. I agree with Fiddy. This looks entirely like someone trying to get their family to stop freaking out, and as an afterthought they posted it publicly. No attempt to deceive or anything.

    We should assume best intentions.

    That said, I take a lot of what gets said by the nuclear power industry with a grain of salt (or a dose of iodine).

  26. At the other end of the spectrum is that ridiculous map of fallout that’s been popping up everywhere, claiming everyone in the western half of the US is doomed. 4chan is supposedly the source, but who knows. Certainly it was put out there by a sociopath who gets lulz from terrifying people.

    http://www.snopes.com/photos/technology/fallout.asp

    I think one of the sources of existential terror we have about radiation is the dim memory of the movie “The Day After” from back in the 80’s. It certainly scared the crap out of me. I think it took “The Road” to finally knock it out of the top of the most depressing list.

    Reality is bad enough. Long term upticks in certain cancer rates really are dreadful, and the human suffering may be immense for decades to come, but those issues just don’t excite the cable news viewership like the speculation about sudden mass acute radiation sickness.

  27. “An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field.” Niels Bohr, physicist.

  28. I remember the BBC in an article about AV saying “40 historians have said that the alternative vote system would damage democracy”. As someone studying political science I find that pretty offensive that the BBC would consider this an expert opinion. History has as much to do with political science as political science has with biology.

  29. But but but but but but, Glenn Beck can explain it all with chocolate candy and cookware!

  30. I think this concept can be a double edged sword. By concept, I mean giving preferential treatment to the analysis of an expert in a given field, on the subject of said field, over competing conclusions by others who are not experts in said field.

    Experts are routinely bought, one way or another, by those that need such credentials to back up whatever agenda they are trying to promote.

    Similarly, experts are often confined by the boundaries and aspirations of their own profession, or engage in subjects where you don’t need an expert opinion to have an equally valid argument. For example, take economics. Although economics can be defined as a politically neutral social science, economists in the real world often have an aggressive capitalistic agenda that is anything but neutral. Your opinion of how economic policy should fundamentally work is not inherently less valid than that of the economist, despite the reassurance that expert economists know best how to manage our money and what types of financial policy we should endeavor for. Similar cases can be made for all manner of fields of expert study, particularly anything dealing with politics, including both foreign and domestic policy, health, education, law, etc..

    As a general practice, I’d say that always deferring to topical expert opinion or analysis is essential in the hard sciences, but is problematic for nearly everything else. Furthermore, the prerequisite of “expert” is often used to invalidate the conclusions of those that are perfectly capable of having valid input, or might even be capable of catalyzing a fundamental change in said discipline.

    1. I think this concept can be a double edged sword. By concept, I mean giving preferential treatment to the analysis of an expert in a given field, on the subject of said field, over competing conclusions by others who are not experts in said field.

      You don’t get it, it’s not just one expert you look at here, it’s a cumulative effect from multiple qualified experts sources. The key words are “multiple” and “qualified” by the way.

      I know there’s a big anti-intellectual, anti-science, anti-facts, anti-expert thing going on with some people lately, but for fuck all… give it a rest. Take a back seat and let the adults drive.

      1. I’m confused as to how you can think preferring expert analysis in the hard sciences is somehow “anti-science” or “anti-fact”, but whatever.

        Previously, there was a general consensus among “multiple qualified” expert sources that there was no housing bubble and that deregulation of the markets was a sure path to prosperity. Heeding their expert opinion created the worst economic disaster since the great depression. But I guess we should just let the adults drive, right?

        1. Previously, there was a general consensus among “multiple qualified” expert sources that there was no housing bubble and that deregulation of the markets was a sure path to prosperity.

          Not from the people and sources I talked to. We all saw the bubble and even accurately predicted its “pop”. Same went with the Internet bubble. Maybe you should question your sources.

          I think you and some others in this thread are misinterpreting Maggie’s point, but I honestly don’t have time to explain it to each and every one of you. Try re-reading what she said.. slower this time.

          I’m confused as to how you can think preferring expert analysis in the hard sciences is somehow “anti-science” or “anti-fact”, but whatever.

          You’re definitely confused because that’s not what I said and that wasn’t my point. sigh….

  31. If anyone is interested, my brother and i have created a wiki about the nuclear situation in Japan. He is a nuclear engineer and had put up a Facebook post about the misinformation being spread. People kept commenting, so he decided to move the conversation over to the wiki.

    http://japannuclearsituation.wikispaces.com/

    1. “A nuclear engineer friend of mine just said that the reason these news outlets all have clowns as their “experts” is because everyone who knows what is going on is busy actually working. I thought that was funny.”

      Thank you for that :)

  32. Other than the workers, who are indeed supposed to be sick by our outside experts, there has been no evidence of any casualties at all from this nuclear incident.

    Give me proof, a citation, of the harm – any actual harm – caused by this as of today’s date, outside of the plant workers, and not simply a report of people’s fears: and don’t call me names if you cannot.

  33. As you cannot provide any citations, I shall stand by my claim: that other than TEPCO employees, no other people at all have come to harm so far as result of this nuclear incident.

    What fear and uncertainty and doubt I seek to spread with that sentence, eh?

    Proof of actual harm being done is not optional, if you are going to validly claim that a technology is harmful.

    1. I just saw an interview where a friend of one of the workers said he was prepared to die, as it was his duty. :o/

      IIRC the Russians had people act as living robots shuttling material into a pit while wearing lead aprons.

    2. As you cannot provide any citations, I shall stand by my claim: that other than TEPCO employees, no other people at all have come to harm so far as result of this nuclear incident.

      By that logic. You’re living proof that humans can live forever, or at least you can, after all you haven’t died yet.

      Not every action has an immediate reaction / consequence, but I guess you’re a troll anyway so that’ll ping off of you like any other argument that doesn’t agree with you.

  34. It’s a shame you didn’t share the article. It’s well written and pretty damn accurate. But what do I know, I’m not an expert. Though I do have both a BS and MS in Nuclear Engineering and spent time at a GE Mark 1 BWR….

  35. On the topic of experts.
    CNN trotted out Dr. Sanjay Gupta last night.
    The good Doctor was clearly well spoken and familiar with the camera. He was however not well versed in emergency response radiation monitoring or even radiation physiology.
    Bill Nye (The Science Guy) embarrassed himself the night before. Wouldn’t yo think that the media could do better?
    I personally would be interested in hearing from an expert from one of the nuclear power companies. I’m not talking about one of their “communications” people, and I don’t want to hear assurances. I want some clarity

    1. I personally would be interested in hearing from an expert from one of the nuclear power companies. I’m not talking about one of their “communications” people, and I don’t want to hear assurances. I want some clarity

      Here’s your guy, perhaps.

  36. @stevesilberman posted a tweet about nuclear industry astroturfing that turned out to be all about MIT’s Dr. Oehman. Like Maggie, I smelled something fishy when I went googling for Dr. Oehman’s info but the post that Steve Silberman found here: http://bit.ly/idlgDR at a site called geniusnow.com that goes quite a bit deeper into what Dr. Oehman actually does and other potentially relevant details.

    The fact that the blog post Silberman found seems valid on its face to me should not be taken lightly in this context. It is worth noting that the blog’s “about” page names no author.

    Here’s the @stevesilberman original tweet:
    http://twitter.com/#!/stevesilberman/statuses/47825705521778688

  37. I find credentialism to be troubling. I’m what Maggie would likely describe as “An Expert” in several aspects of what others here have called the hard sciences (in my case these include several more-or-less interrelated fields: analytical chemistry, proteomics, metabolomics, mass spectrometry and to a lesser extent genomics). I’ve been a professional scientist for twenty-five years and over that time one of the things I’ve come to recognize is that experts are as human as anyone else. Experts are not immune to human foibles and in fact are more likely to suffer from some that then average person — hubris being a prime example. Experts can easily become captured by their hypotheses and will often fail to properly acknowledge contrary evidence because they *KNOW* that their own hypothesis is correct. I don’t want to start a climate change debate here, but the climategate emails were a prime example of this fault. Despite all the spinning, at their core those emails demonstrated a profound failure of the scientific method and a lack of professional behavior by a group of experts and it happened — in my opinion — because they became captured by their hypotheses and were willing to violate the standards of professional science (subverting peer review, etc) to defend what they *KNEW* to be true. Discounting the views of a learned individual simply because the topic isn’t their primary field of study is not a valid means of dealing with their ideas. I’m sure that most of the Boing Boing audience realizes that much of the innovation in modern day science arises from the interaction between disciplines, where the investigators are, by definition, engaging in research outside (or at least at the boundaries of) their fields of expertise. A strict reliance on credentialism leads to stagnation and orthodoxy, not the innovation and rule-breaking that are the hallmarks of creative and vital science.

    1. Credentialism has it’s place, like during an emergency.

      I Am Not A Nuclear Physicist, but…

      1. Credentialism has it’s place, like during an emergency. I Am Not A Nuclear Physicist, but…

        Ha, right… right…

        But remember you have to respect people who spew FUD during emergencies as to not hurt their feelings. Even if that means people make bad choices and die, apparently.

      2. Credentialism has it’s place, like during an emergency.

        I agree to a certain extent, in that during an acute, life-threatening crisis with little or no access to reference material I would welcome input from a subject matter expert. However, that doesn’t mean that I would automatically discount input from a knowledgeable person who might not be considered a subject matter expert. That’s especially true if the non-expert is in possession of relevant facts that the expert is not.

        More to the point for this comment thread, I interpret Maggie’s original post as applying to both emergency and non-emergency situations, and in the non-emergency situations I have serious reservations about over-reliance on credentials, as I discussed above.

        1. Sure, experts can be wrong and opinionated and all that.
          The problem is that the non-experts don’t know jack about the complex issues at play.
          I would rather look at a few different experts and try to gain an understanding from their agreements and disagreements than, say, watch FOX news to get my info.

          As to Maggie’s original point:
          An expert from another field within the sciences is likely to be better at collecting, collating and vetting information pertinent to the new situation than a barista or bus driver. What learning science is (or should be) about is learning to trust/distrust information and learning how to sift through masses of information. Thus a fully trained scientist should be pretty good at this, certainly better than someone who has specialised in car repairs. This does not make one better than the other, but rather better at what they have chosen to do.

          Of course on the flip side, a scientist also knows not to trust anything he can’t verify, so he isn’t likely to swallow just any horse manure shown on TV just because the person dishing it out is labeled “expert”.

          1. Agreed. I’m amazed that it was necessary to explain this again to people. I think Maggie managed to ruffle some feathers of people that are so-called experts (they call themselves experts) and they came out in force to defend themselves or something. Guilty consciences, I guess.

            The funny thing here is that they probably aren’t the best “experts” if they can’t even wrap their heads around the point of Maggie’s post here. The irony.

            I’ve known these guy before where they deem themselves experts on many subjects, but when push comes to shove, they are purveyors of FUD because of their innate lack of critical thinking skills. They might hit 25% accuracy on some things, but that certainly doesn’t qualify as “expert”, does it?

            So-called experts… give it a rest.

          2. As to Maggie’s original point:
            An expert from another field within the sciences is likely to be better at collecting, collating and vetting information pertinent to the new situation than a barista or bus driver. What learning science is (or should be) about is learning to trust/distrust information and learning how to sift through masses of information. Thus a fully trained scientist should be pretty good at this, certainly better than someone who has specialised in car repairs. This does not make one better than the other, but rather better at what they have chosen to do.

            The barista/bus driver is a straw man. I don’t believe Maggie was addressing uninformed lay person vs. professional scientist. Her point is that merely being a scientist is not sufficient to be qualified as an expert and that one needs to be a subject matter expert before one’s opinion is worthy of consideration.
            Unless I’m misunderstanding the argument you’ve made in what I’ve quoted above, it seems to me that you are advocating the opposite of what Maggie is — namely that you’re saying a fully trained scientist should be good at sifting through masses of information and recognizing the reliable data. Maggie says just the opposite — that being a trained scientist isn’t sufficient to offer a valid opinion outside one’s field of study and that An Expert can only be a practitioner of the field under consideration.
            I outlined my reasons for not relying only on subject matter experts in my first comment in this thread, along with my reasons for concluding that the input of non-subject matter experts can be valuable and even necessary.

          3. That is actually a good point by massspecgeek and arikol. A degree in science (PCMB) is good training in dealing with matters in which you do not have an expertise. You have had training in the scientific method and therefore you can formulate a hypothesis and test it. Plus you are also more numerically literate and therefore can distinguish between various kinds of risks.

            Can a mechanical engineer and risk management expert get something wrong about Japan. Sure. Can s/he be more responsible than cable news? Definitely. Should we take his/her word as gospel? No. Should we completely ignore it? Ignorance is an inalienable right.

          4. That was exactly what I meant. Partly inspired by one of your earlier posts.

            As to the Barista argument being a strawman… not really. I am merely pointing out the possible problems in transferring knowledge between domains. For that purpose I am defining information collection and analysis as a single domain (consisting of multiple fields of study), while other types of work (such as the example of barista work) belong to a completely different domain. Workers such as waiters have shown remarkable skills in laboratory tests, showing that their specialised training may indeed transfer to other tasks, but only as long as the task itself belongs to the same class of tasks (memorising logical lists with grouping, for instance). As soon as the break between domains is strong, then skills seem to transfer less.
            As scientists generally specialise in collecting and rating the quality of information it seems reasonable to say that they may in fact be much better suited than a regular reporter or a layman to give an “expert’s” view on a matter, even if it lies at the periphery (or even somewhat outside) their field.

            So, that was my point.

      1. I find your lack of paragraph breaks troubling.

        Sorry. After typing my comment into the form I realized I wasn’t logged in. Knowing that I’d lose the contents of the form when I logged in, I copied into Notepad and then pasted back into the form. Somewhere in the process I lost the formatting and didn’t notice until I’d submitted. I don’t think it’s possible to edit BB comments or I’d fix it.

  38. The overall point and the point about this article is valid, but does anyone else think the author took it too far? For an article that criticized unquestioningly believing things said by people With Qualifications Presenting Authoritative Information – which is an point that should be repeated again and again – the article seems to end with… make sure whoever you’re listening to has the specific right qualifications.

  39. One of the things I’ve become more vocal about, over the past couple of years, is the fact that an expert in one subject is not the same thing as An Expert.
    What are you an expert in?

  40. I agree with the author about the “expert” issue. I think two things help contribute to this problem. The first is that the media often do not distinguish between different types of expertise.

    The way this usually causes problems is not that a journalist would go to seismologist for information when a biologist is needed; rather, that during an interview the journalist may follow lines of questioning that increasingly stray from the bounds of the interviewee’s expertise.

    Compounding the problem is what I call “male answer syndrome” (I should note that this a phrase coined by another person several decades ago and I merely borrow it; I should further note that the syndrome actually can affect both sexes), which is defined as the tendency of a male to attempt to answer any question put to him regardless of his actual level of knowledge/expertise on the subject.

    I can attest to this from personal experience. I am a subject matter expert in an area and as a result have been interviewed hundreds of times. So often a journalist will end up straying from my expertise to ask me questions about psychology (especially), legal affairs, and other matters. It is an innocent straying; the subject matter can blend into those areas. But if the interviewee is not careful–and most aren’t–they may soon find themselves expounding on subjects on which they are really at best armchair experts. More than once I have caught myself starting to answer a question like that, and have had to pull back and explain that I was actually not qualified to answer the question. I’m sure that there have probably been times where I have not been so self-aware.

    So a reader or viewer always needs to be aware of the subjects an expert (assuming the person really is an expert, which is another matter entirely) talks about, because even if the expert is initially approached on a matter directly related to his or her expertise, the interview may soon take a turn into an arena in which the expert no longer is an expert.

    Food for thought.

  41. He’s not an MIT scientist. He’s not even really a mechanical engineer, since his work is basically all in business planning.

    Marion D.

  42. “it also contained some information of which I was skeptical.”

    What was the basis of your skepticism? Are you an expert in the nuclear engineering? What are your credentials? Given that your degrees are in anthropology and journalism shouldn’t you stick to those topics rather than forming opinions on nuclear engineering? I would say a mechanical engineer knows more than you regarding nuclear engineering and risk management.

  43. “Tangentially, this is also why meteorologists or mechanical engineers aren’t the best people to explain the science of climate change. That would be a climatologist.”

    I agree. This is also why meteorologists or mechanical engineers aren’t the best people to explain the science of astrology. That would be an astrologist.

    Sarcasm aside, does Maggie think that climatologists have the policy expertise to suggest policy responses to global warming (forgive me but I am not too tolerant of branding for the sake of pandering) or should we trust economists?

  44. Tangentially, this is also why meteorologists or mechanical engineers aren’t the best people to explain the science of climate change. That would be a climatologist.

    An extraordinary tangent. If you want to talk to an expert in climate science, the last person you need to talk to is a climatologist. If you want to talk about the geological impact of climate change, talk to a geologist not a climatologist. If you want to talk about the effect of climate change on sea life then talk to a marine biologist not a climatologist. If you want to talk about historical temperature reconstructions, talk to a statistician not a paleoclimatologist. If you want to talk about tree rings as a proxy for historical temperature, talk to a dendrochronologist not a climatologist. If you want to talk about the physics of the atmosphere, talk to a physicist not a climatologist. If you want to talk about the general circulation modelling abilities and limitations of supercomputers, don’t think you’ll get useful answers out of a climatologist because you won’t. That is not where you will find expertise. If you want scarelore prophecies of doom, though, sure. Go ask a climatologist. Or an astrologer. Either’s as good as the other, and there’s not much to separate their junk sciences.

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