28 August, 2011

Dear Famous Scientists: Please STFU About Areas Outside Your Expertise

Erik Klemetti, on Twitter, had steam coming from his ears on Wednesday:
WHY, OH WHY did Bloomsberg talk to instead of a geologist about the VA earthquake? Come on, people!
That's probably because some journalists seem to find it impossible to distinguish between various types of scientist. They also want a big, recognizable name in their headline. So when an event happens and a scientist needs to be consulted, they call the first big name scientist who comes to mind, no matter their discipline. To quote Rocko's Modern Life: "Those guys are idiots."

And perhaps, just perhaps, if we smack them for stupidity often enough, they'll develop an ability to distinguish between different types of scientists, and figure out whom to call for a quote when various events occur.

But I have a beef with the big-name scientists *coughKakucough* who blabber about subjects they have little or no relevant expertise in rather than calmly saying, "Damn it, Jimmy, I'm a physicist, not a geologist. Go phone a geologist. Quote me as saying, 'I have no idea, as I did not study geology.'"

It's that simple. And someone who does science for a living should know enough to know when they don't know, and be intelligent enough and tough enough to be comfortable saying, "I don't know." Observe Professor Rowena Lohman, who teaches geophysics at Cornell. After delivering kick-ass accurate answers to a variety of questions within her area of expertise, is perfectly comfortable telling a CNN reporter that she is not omniscient:

CNN: Is the East Coast ready for an earthquake?

Lohman: That's a question for a different kind of scientist or engineer.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is how it's done. Alas, that does not seem to be how Kaku does it.

I'd love to try an experiment. Next time there's big physics news, I'd love to interview a microbiologist, say, or a seismologist, and write up a big newspaper article using only them as experts, and then stuff it under the nose of Michio Kaku. "See what happens? See how infuriating it is when experts pop off on subjects they know nothing about?" Perhaps that would help him overcome the compulsion to spout on subjects far outside his realm. Perhaps that would convince him that he doesn't need to babble any old response to clueless journalists, but hand out the phone numbers of relevant scientists instead. And perhaps after several instances of that, the clueless journalists will become clued.

Alas, I don't work for a major paper. Anyone who does willing to try said experiment? It would be a kindness to several geologists whose heads are currently feeling a little prone to explosion.

(Shot glass raised to the poor nameless writer at CNN's opinion section who was smart enough to head for an expert in geophysics and tectonics rather than a string theorist when the earth went wobbly. Kudos to you, unknown wise journalist!) 


Anonymous said...

I'm kinda glad I missed out on that interview. That man irritates the piss out of me, and as far as I'm concerned, is a crank that lost touch with reality ages ago.

Aclax said...

But... physicists are SMARTER than the rest of us "lower" scientists.

george.w said...

Not being an expert never stopped me from blathering on about whatever topic caught my fancy - but I DEFER TO EXPERTS. Most of the time this means applying the scientific consensus to whatever topic because there isn't any real debate in expert circles.

In areas where there IS real expert debate, like economics, I look to history and ethics to decide. Then anyone who wishes can decide if my choice was right.

It's a strategy that seems to prevent embarrassment most of the time.

Blake Stacey said...

As a physicist-by-training, I know firsthand how hard it is to gain enough honest knowledge about another field to speak intelligently about it, let alone make a contribution to it, so physicists mouthing off about other subjects really bug me. I mean, I put in the effort, so why can't they?

Karen said...

Then there's the Engineering Mindset. Those who suffer from it pronounce their opinions on any and all subjects as if they were dogma. In their Real World (i.e. work), correction usually comes quickly and absolutely. (I know this because I used to be an engineer -- though I didn't succumb to the EM.)

These people figure that if their correspondents on the internet don't immediately prove them wrong, they must be right. Sigh.

Cujo359 said...

As someone who used to do engineering, I'd guess that most of the people who thought that way weren't terribly good engineers.

As for talking about subjects outside my field, I usually go with George W.'s method. That is, unless the scientific consensus runs counter to my prejudices...

Harold Asmis said...

On my blog, I'll blabber about anything, but I've done a couple of radio interviews, and then I'm quite careful. But I'm a jackofalltrades on earthquakes, and I know that narrow specialists would like to have things all themselves.