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