Scientists Are Not Created Equal
by Brian Dunning
Filed under General Science, Logic & Persuasion
February 5, 2007
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe
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.
By Brian Dunning
Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Scientists Are Not Created Equal." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
5 Feb 2007. Web.
1 Dec 2015. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4025>
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.
Tavris, C., Aronson, E. Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me). San Diego: Harcourt Books, 2007. 88-93.
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