Scientists Are Not Created Equal

Does calling someone a "scientist" mean that he knows anything at all?

by Brian Dunning

Filed under General Science, Logic & Persuasion

Skeptoid #25
February 5, 2007
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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.

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Brian Dunning

© 2007 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

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. 19 Dec 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4025>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 40 comments

I attend religious services. Most not by choice.

People decide to have religious ceremonies surrounding rites of life.

Being a scientists and attending religious services of a sort is unavoidable.

But if you meant attendance by choice, why not?

One can also infer that most people who attend religious services do not understand what is going on and why people do it.

I would counter, most people couldnt spend a second considering their own religion and cherry pick it.

We have almost a 100% strike rate on that regard if you read skeptoid comment.

Mud, At virtually missing point, NSW, OZ,
January 2, 2013 9:34pm

Science can neither prove or disprove the existence of God, since by definition God is a super-natural being, and science is the systematic study of the behaviour and structure of the natural universe.
Therefore whether God exists or not is a matter of faith, of belief only.
The question of His existence lies outside the scope of scientific enquiry.

I have no problem with scientists who are Christians, or of other religions.
I note however the readiness of some skeptics to ridicule those that believe in Reptoids or Grays, never seeming to take into account they may "exist" in the same realm as God.

I wager that if a generation of children were brought up in an organised widespread religion that worshipped a benevolent Reptoid figure called Liz-Ard as their goddess, she would be as real to them throughout their lives as God is to our religious scientists.

Mud
"I attend religious services. Most not by choice."

Are you saying you are dragged off to church every Sunday against your will ?

Macky, Auckland
March 5, 2013 10:39pm

Macky, I am sorry to realise that you've never attended funerals.

I am sure reptoids et cit live in the same plane as god. So does harry potter. How is this a valid point.

The ceremony and culture that goes with religion is real.. That is how religion is validated. By the numinous.

Not by crack pots scoring non points in an endless debate coming back to the "you cant prove it" fallacy.

The fact that reptoids and grays are less likely and far less accepted than the monks of Buddhism walking on water to get to a conference gives you an idea of their validity;

In very poor science fiction or some hilarious comedy.

Francis Collins is a religious man. He doesnt include his personal beliefs in his science. He does represent his personal creationism in debate. In doing so, he is not acting as a scientist. Any finger pointing to that would be made by creationists who for the most, Collins' personal creationism actually is disparate to the unread and effectively biblically illiterate creationism who you read here.

For once, look up what this scientist has done rather than polish away in public.

Greys, reptoids, etherics etc are your personal problem if you have to find such a tenuous link.

I'll mention it to god next time he phones..

Mud, Pho\\\\Pho's Slave palace, Gerringong the Brave, NSW
March 18, 2013 4:25pm

I have to admit to a certain enjoyment of your posts sometimes, Mud.

The sheer number of descriptive twists and turns, and unfounded assumptions leaves me with a feeling of breathless anticipation for what your next sentence will say.

Grays, reptoids and etherics are not personal problems for me. I know some people who seriously state they have actually seen them.
I have yet to find someone who has seen God.

That is not to say I don't believe God does not exist. You don't either, if you were honest enough to come out with it.

I have no problem with Francis Collins being a scientist, and a creationist of some sort at the same time.
His field of science may still leave him plenty of scope for his personal creationist beliefs, without affecting his excellent science in any way.

I have attended funerals. Some of them, especially Maori tangi, had events happen that there is no "normal" explanation for.

I've seen a casket (containing one of my brothers-in-law) which was easily lifted to the ceremony by six strong men, become almost unmovable by the time it was going to be taken from the ceremony to the cemetery.
They stood up with great effort, barely holding onto the handles while they staggered around until they were forced to lay the casket back down on the ground.

The minister called the bereaved wife over to the casket, and after she spoke earnestly to her "deceased" husband, the six pall-bearers lifted the casket with ease and placed it in the hearse.

Macky, Auckland
March 18, 2013 11:53pm

The funerals was in answer to your question Macky, but thanx for the unneccesary commentary.

Are you making a point about Collins that I havent made a long time ago?

As to the casket story, I am glad you found his life enjoyable enough to write such a nice recollection.

Mud, Sin City, Oz
March 19, 2013 2:12am

"The funerals was in answer to your question Macky, but thanx for the unneccesary commentary."

Thank you Mud.

"Are you making a point about Collins that I havent made a long time ago? "

On 4146# I asked you why should Collins be used as a comparitive example with the pseudoscientist and fraud Dr. Steven Austin, who clearly distorted science to support his creationist beliefs.

You haven't answered yet.

"As to the casket story, I am glad you found his life enjoyable enough to write such a nice recollection."

I did. He died of a heart attack at only 33, which is why he obviously didn't want to leave this world.

Caskets that suddenly appear too heavy to lift at funerals are not unknown in the Maori world.

Macky, Auckland
March 19, 2013 6:04pm

Sorry I havent seen this one in the side bar..

Francis Collins has presented as a creationist and a scientist at debates and lectures.

Where he is inventing his own religion for public scrutiny or acting as a scientist gets blurred.

As to caskets getting heavy, its generally because of the casket. Superstition is just superstition.

I take it this covers my religious attendance?

Moral Dolphin Back in Mud Suit, Greenacres by the sea Oz
June 5, 2013 3:09pm

Well that doesn't really cover why a casket takes on so much weight that six strong men can't lift it, when only a couple of hours before they easily carried it to the ceremony.

But a few words from the wife, and the casket is once again picked up and carried with ease.

The power of nagging ! Women always seem to have the last say..

Macky, Auckland
June 11, 2013 10:16pm

As to caskets getting heavy, its generally because of the casket. Superstition is just superstition.

Your scenario valid if you actually had someone with measurement experience weigh the casket during the ceremony. Otherwise, its just another subjective claim. These superstitions abound in all cultures.

As to sexism, I am not in a position to comment.

Magnanamous Dinoflagellate, sin city, Oz
June 12, 2013 12:11am

The casket and staggering men had over a hundred observers that clearly saw in the bright afternoon sunshine six strong men having to lay the casket back down again before they dropped it.

The minister called over the grieving wife, and after she spoke a few words into the casket, the six promptly and easily lifted the casket straight up, and walked it without any strain to the hearse where it was placed inside without any further ado.

Either one hundred people plus the six carriers were under mass hypnosis, and didn't actually see what they thought they saw, or what happened, happened.

Just because such events seem to be outside your experience, and there were not enough bustling little men in white coats with their measuring instruments, unable to record their findings in the latest science journal, doesn't mean that it didn't happen.

One hundred observers can certainly be wrong at times, but the accounts of one or two of the six carriers clearly spoke of they nearly losing their grips on a very heavy casket.

As for "subjective claim", I'm not claiming anything. I am simply telling Skeptoid what I saw, and what another hundred people saw also, from a close distance.

Believe what you like...

Macky, Auckland
December 1, 2014 7:19pm

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