Expertise is real and it matters

The title of this post is a quote from PZ Myers at his blog Pharyngula from a few months ago.

I’m reminded of the time a creationist tried to invite me to a creationist geology talk – that would have been a waste of effort. Expertise is real and it matters, and I have none in geology at all – but I do have a Ph.D. I’m sure my glazed-eyed bafflement at what any geologist would have recognized as truly stupid mistakes would have been taken as an affirmation, and that’s exactly what they want, to confuse their audiences and declare victory. They win when we’re all as ignorant as they are.

It’s worth repeating, expertise is real and it matters, if you have a plumbing question who’s answer would you consider to be the best, an electricians or a plumbers? I hope you’d choose the plumber since there may be health and safety consequences from a wrong answer. Within any particular field of expertise there are also specialty subfields and the same rule applies. Sticking with the plumbing example, if the plumbing question is about a special hazardous waste pipe in a factory you don’t want to just call a residential plumber or even a commercial plumber. In this case you need to talk with an industrial/commercial plumber licensed for hazardous waste pipes because it could be extremely dangerous if the wrong specialty materials and techniques are used.

On a recent Infidel guy show (part of “The Triad of Reason” podcasts) was a 2002 interview with Massimo Pigliucci . It’s a good interview and in the middle they talk about the importance of expertise. Massimo says:

Just because you’re a scientist that doesn’t mean you get everything right, especially if it’s not you’re field.

He continues to explain why you shouldn’t ask him to comment on quantum mechanics or even the evolution of sex because they are not fields of study in which he is expert.

I stumbled upon a blog post soon after reading PZ’s post and thought it was a good example. The excellent musician and AFAIK all around nice guy David Byrne has a blog, and back in April he posted about the bee problem that was all over the news. The following quote from David’s blog was often stated in the media and other places including Bill Maher on his HBO series Real Time.

According to Einstein we’ve got a little over 4 years. Here’s a quote from him:

“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. …..

David Byrne and the others using this quotation show there lack of expertise in science history, the life and words of Albert Einstein in particular. No one has yet found any actual reference for this alleged Einstein quote and when asked, an Einstein Biographer says he’s never encountered it. Even if the quote turns out to be real, the bigger problem is Einstein’s lack of expertise. Albert Einstein was an expert theoretical physicist, one of the greatest to ever live, but he was not an expert biologist. If you want the best information on bees and the colony collapse problem the type of expert you want is an entomologist, the insect biology experts.

Determining who is a real expert in a field of study is not always easy, the denialism blog has a nice article that should help in sorting the real experts from the fake experts.

When it comes to evolutionary biology there seems to be an abundance of fake experts, you can find a whole bunch of them listed at the Center for Science and Culture. Ed at Dispatches from the Culture Wars wrote about one of the worst of this bunch in his post, Dembski Offers Money Again.

It’s quite common for Dembski to question the credentials of critics rather than engage their arguments; … But what’s funny about this is that it’s coming from a guy with absolutely no training in biology telling virtually every biologist in the world that they’re wrong.

For some more reading on this topic check out the article “Amateur experts”

3 Replies to “Expertise is real and it matters”

  1. Oh! Thanks! *blush*
    I actually explored the Einstein issue:

    I thought that the behind the scene discussion at Wikipedia were more interesting than the actual article. 🙂

    A corollary issue, though, is how discussions of scientific validity get skewed in the media, so pretty much every one who has a tame scientist that espouses a view gets equal billing, even if the vast consensus of scientists don’t agree with that one person.

    1 scientist


  2. huh. well, apparently you can’t post equations, because everything I said after “one scientist” disappeared!

    well, i was just continuing to rant, so you probably didn’t miss much 🙂


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