Modern Problem: Everyone's an Expert

A confused man. The growing complexity of science - and the different levels at which people understand science - may require society to rethink scientific expertise. (Image credit: dreamstime)

Modern society depends on experts, or people with specialized skills and experience in certain areas. But scientists have found a growing number of people challenging their expertise, even on issues where strong scientific agreement exists.

For instance, parents and child advocates have continued to argue that some vaccines may cause childhood autism -- despite overwhelming medical evidence showing no link. That has led to cases where unvaccinated children unwittingly caused outbreaks of diseases that had largely disappeared from modern life.

"The prospect of a society that entirely rejects the values of science and expertise is too awful to contemplate," said Harry Collins, a social scientist at Cardiff University in the U.K., in a commentary for this week's issue of the journal Nature.

Collins suggests a possible start to a solution -- reconsidering how we think about scientific expertise.

Who's an expert?

People have different levels of expertise, Collins noted. This can range from the lowest-level "beer mat" knowledge of scientific facts useful for playing Quizzo or "Jeopardy," to the highest level of professional scientists who contribute to research.

Most people know to rely on the highest-level practicing experts, whether they're getting medical attention for a broken leg or finding an electrician to do the wiring in a house.

"I'm going to ask someone who knows about it rather than choose my mum," Collins told LiveScience.

Even Holiday Inn Express' "Stay Smart" ads get their humorous kick from turning assumptions about experts upside down. "You trainers are saviors, man," says a basketball player in one TV spot. "Oh, I'm not a trainer … but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night," responds the man working on the player's leg – to which the player looks confused and a bit terrified.

That same bewilderment might describe scientists' reactions to lower-level experts who have emerged on issues such as autism, HIV/AIDS and climate change. Public debates on these issues run the whole gamut of scientific knowledge, and people aren't necessarily listening to those with the most scientific expertise.

Sorting through controversy

Some non-scientists do achieve fairly good understandings of science, whether it's "popular understanding" from reading sites such as LiveScience, or even "primary source knowledge" from reading journal articles published in Science and Nature.

But work by Collins and others suggests that lower-level experts run into trouble on disputed science issues, without full working knowledge of the details and not having spent years in the scientific community. That may lead them to latch more readily onto minority scientific opinions which don't fit well into overall scientific understanding of a particular area.

In those cases, a person with primary source knowledge may not understand the underlying science much better than a chess novice understands a bishop's move, Collins said.

Science, not scripture

Collins added that scientists can also do better in communicating their expertise to the public. Trying to convey science as an absolute truth or revelation – not unlike religious truth – ultimately backfires because science is uncertain and constantly changing. And besides, he noted, it smacks of hubris that most people have little patience for.

"You do have people like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking presenting the kind of model of science that is damaging; the old `revelation of mystery,' doctrinaire atheism stuff which implicitly claims that science can authoritatively solve all cultural problems," Collins said.

Dawkins has become known as an evolutionary biologist and outspoken atheist who often spurs controversy with his criticism of religion. Hawking is a renowned theoretical physicist who has written several popular science books, but whom Collins describes as fostering a "science that looks more like religion, including himself as an icon."

However, many scientists take great pains to carefully stress the uncertainties of their work. That may provide the middle road for a modest science that can impress with its values – open debate and understanding based on observation, theorization and experimentation.

"Science’s findings are to be preferred over religion’s revealed truths, and are braver than the logic of skepticism, but they are not certain," Collins writes. "They are a better grounding for society precisely, and only, because they are provisional."

Jeremy Hsu
Jeremy has written for publications such as Popular Science, Scientific American Mind and Reader's Digest Asia. He obtained his masters degree in science journalism from New York University, and completed his undergraduate education in the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania.