Tuesday, September 20, 2005

What scientists know (or don't)

I worry a lot about what lay people don't know about science. Sometimes the problem is that smart lay people have been scared away from thinking about science (by the people who tell them that you need a gigantic brain to do science). Other times, people seem to think they can hold forth on scientific debates despite the fact that they don't actually grasp the basics of the science they're talking about.

For an example of the "anyone can weigh in on science X" sort of person, consider the case of Timothy Birdnow, a property manager who has taken it upon himself to set out all manner of problems with the theory of evolution. Useful dissections of Mr. Birdnow's claims have been given by P.Z. Myers and The Questionable Authority. The diagnosis from The Questionable Authority is that Mr. Birdnow overlooks the fact that you can't coast on just your native intelligence here — you actually need to know some biology if you're going to weigh in on a biological debate without looking like a doofus:

In fact, scientists who dare to suggest that they might be more qualified to comment on scientific matters than non-scientists run the risk of being branded as "elitists". It's not elitism, folks, it's specialization. Modern society is far, far too complex for everyone to be good at everything. Most people select career paths that are specialized fields, and they are (normally) better at their own field than they are in other fields. This means that they are (normally) better able to develop informed opinions about matters within their fields than are people who lack the strong background in that area.

Not knowing Mr. Birdnow, it's hard for me to know whether this diagnosis is correct. My experience has been that lay people are much more likely to under-estimate their ability to "get" science than to over-estimate it. There are, of course, people who think they know everything, but they tend to be less likely to barge in to science than, say, philosophy (because how hard could philosophy be?). So my own completely unsubstantiated hunch is that perhaps Mr. Birdnow has a science coach on the side. And maybe that science coach has, um, a political agenda in whose service Mr. Birdnow is spokesmodeling. Or, maybe the science coach really does have a good grasp of biology (and the proper relation of DNA and RNA, etc.), and it's just that the cell phone keeps cutting out during the coaching.

But, it turns out, the specialization isn't just a matter of scientists doing science and property managers doing the property managing. Indeed, it would seem physicists might not know as much as they think about the state of evolutionary theory. Among other things, it seems that math-y scientists (like physicists) might not fully appreciate that theories that don't look like sets of equations can be perfectly good scientific theories. Also, physicists may not know how evolutionary biologists subject their theories to empirical test. It may all be science, but we have different scientific disciplines for a reason. While physicists may "get" the science in evolutionary theory better than, oh, property managers, they probably won't get it as well as someone who works on evolutionary theory for a living.

(Another discussion of the physicist who prompted these observations notes a certain irony in a string theorist policing the goodness of other scientific theories. I'm not going to cast aspersions. Some of my best friends are used to work on string theory.)

So: good to know some science to speak with authority about science. Good to know specific science X to speak with authority about specific science X.

But, economics? It seems a large number of economists (78% of 200 surveyed at the 2005 meeting of the American Economic Association) picked the wrong answer to what was supposed to be a straightforward economics problem. Could it be that the problem was not that straightforward? That not even economists are qualified to hold forth on economics? That economics, while dismal, is not a science?

Dude, I don't have all the answers; just some questions and some links.

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