Scientists Are Not Created Equal
Does calling someone a "scientist" mean that he knows anything at all?
by Brian Dunning
February 5, 2007
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By Brian Dunning, Skeptoid Podcast
Episode 25, February 05, 2007
You hear on the news all the time that scientists say this, scientists say that. For example, some friend of mine will try to convince me that the Earth is only 6000 years old because there are some scientists now supporting it. I often reply with something like "Sure, it's easy to find some whack-job who will say just about anything."
"No, no; not whack-jobs," they'll quickly say. "Scientists."
Oh. Well there are no whack-job scientists. News flash: Wherever you go, you'll find all kinds of people. All kinds of people, in every group. As if bearing the arbitrary, unsupported label of "scientist" means that you automatically know your ass from a hole in the ground. Does it?
What exactly is a "scientist", anyway? Is it someone with a degree in a scientific field? Is it someone who works in a scientific field? Is it someone who's won awards, or written articles in a scientific journal? Can it be a guy in his basement who has taught himself a great deal about a given subject? Can it be anyone who applies critical thinking to the world around him? Do you have to have the word "scientist" in your job title? Can someone simply call himself a scientist? Whatever it is, it seems that your word is cast in gold as absolute truth if someone refers to you as a scientist. Many people accept that too readily. If the 6:00 Action News team reports that a scientist says it, it must be true.
Not all scientists are people that we should listen to at all. Even the Nazi doctors who performed experiments on living humans during World War II were, by any practical definition, scientists. Would you want any of those guys telling you what's right and what's wrong? Nevertheless they held advanced degrees and were among Germany's top medical experts. It's weird to say it, and it's politically incorrect, but you can't disqualify Nazi doctors as valid scientists just because they were evil. Now go to the other end of the spectrum. Most people in the world — and thus, by extension, most people in the world with post graduate scientific degrees — attend religious services. The only thing that tells us is that those scientists do not apply skeptical critical thinking to the theological aspect of their lives. Beyond that, many of them are top experts in their scientific fields, Nobel laureates among them. You can't necessarily disqualify a scientist only because of certain aspects of what he does. Many detractors try to, but it's often not right. I'm considered a top expert in my professional field, and I absolutely have differences with most of my colleagues. Should I be cast out, or is it healthy to have diverse viewpoints within a community?
I submit that we shouldn't give any weight to someone's statements just because some person calls him a scientist. So then, what quality must a scientist have to be authoritative?
Maybe we should accept the word of a scientist if he has an advanced degree. Have you ever known an idiot with a degree? The fact is that practically any motivated person can eventually get any degree they want, if they're willing to put in the years. I'm sure that if James Randi wanted to, he could work hard and get a Ph.D. in Divinity from Oral Roberts University. The reverse is also true: A staunch Creationist could no doubt become a doctor of astrophysics — indeed, many astrophysicists out there undoubtedly are Creationists. Thus, when you hear a Creationist defend his position by quoting from a scientist (name any astrophysicist) who believes in it, that hardly means that the entire science of astrophysics has concluded that the universe was created by a magician. Not only is the fact that someone holds a particular degree not a reliable indicator that he is an expert in that field, many degrees are themselves pretty worthless as indicators that the holder has a scientific mind. Legitimate accredited Ph.D.s are available in many fields not associated with science, such as divinity, philosophy, dance, or fiction. Many people can go around rightly calling themselves a doctor, but having no scientific background at all. Really the only thing a degree tells you about someone is where they drank themselves into a stupor when they were 19. I refer you to my own Ph.D. on ThunderwoodCollege.com. Is a scientist automatically qualified because he has an advanced degree? No.
Maybe we should accept the word of a scientist if he works in a certain industry. Have you ever had a boss who didn't know as much as you? Have you ever worked with someone who hated his job or didn't care about it? Think about the company where you work right now, and think of that one guy in the office that everyone thinks is a kook. Is he a kook for a reason? There may be people at your company who would make good representatives of your work if you put them in front of a group to speak. Are there also people at your company that no way would you want them representing what you do? Is a scientist automatically qualified because he works in a certain industry? No.
The fact is that calling someone a scientist doesn't mean that he's smart, that he's right, that he thinks scientifically, or that he's anything more than a waste of space. You can't easily qualify someone just because they're called a scientist, and you can't easily disqualify a scientist because of some stuff that he does. All of this means that the label of "scientist" is pretty darn worthless by itself. When you hear any claim validated by the fact that some "scientists" support it, be skeptical. You need to know who they are, what their interest is, and especially what the preponderance of opinion in the scientific community is. You need to know if the scientist being quoted actually has anything to do with this particular subject, or if his specialty is in an unrelated field. Look to see if this scientist has authored a good number of publications on the subject in legitimate peer-reviewed journals. Find out what other published scientists in his field say about him. Determine whether his views are generally in line with the preponderance of opinion among his peers in his discipline. Fringe opinions are on the fringe for a reason: they're usually wrong.
© 2007 Skeptoid Media, Inc.
References & Further Reading
Barden, Laura; Frase, Priscilla; Kovac, Jeffrey. "Teaching Scientific Ethics: A Case Studies Approach." The American Biology Teacher. 1 Jan. 1997, Volume 59, Number 1: 12-14.
Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy. On Being A Scientist: Responsible Conduct in Research. Washington DC: National Academy Press, 1995.
Dyson, Freeman. The Scientist As Rebel. New York: The New York Review of Books, 2006.
Ecklund, Elaine Howard; Scheitle, Christopher P. "Religion among Academic Scientists: Distinctions, Disciplines, and Demographics." Social Problems. 1 May 2007, Volume 54, Number 2: 289-307.
Latour, Bruno; Woolgar, Steve. Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.
Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Scientists Are Not Created Equal." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 5 Feb 2007. Web. 24 Oct 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4025>