Death of the Expert

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With the Brexit result and the aftermath  plus the election of Trump there is much comment about the death of the expert. The context of this is usually around economists or political scientists. But how immune are scientists? A recent IPSOS opinion poll still had us in the top 5 most trusted professions (sandwiched between Judges in 3rd and Hairdressers at 5th) with 79% trusting us to tell the truth. There is concern though, particular in the US, that public trust in science is diminishing. Why could that be? Climate change is the most obvious example to look at. This is an area where scientists are strongly associated with policy making, with not a clear demarcation between science and political decisions, which is a danger. But is it more than that, is it easier to publish papers if aligned with the consensus than against? That might be an outrageous thing to say but it has been said before. The physicist Lee Smolin in his 2006 book "The Trouble of Physics" was critical of the herd mentality (my paraphrasing) of the Physics community towards String Theory so he gave the sub-title of his book "The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of Science and What Comes Next." The Nobel Prize winner Randy Schekman has attacked the policy and operation of high impact journals such as Science and Nature in this context. It may be worth noting that Science was found to have the 2nd highest article retraction rate of those studied.

So what can scientists do to reverse the decline? The newish editor in chief of Science, Jeremy Berg, put forward a couple of suggestions: transparency on where your firm conclusions end and not to over hype early results. Closely connected to that first point, we have a duty not to present things as black and white and to be confident in our own uncertainty. A good example of that was the "discovery" of superluminal neutrinos at the CERN-Gran Sasso experiment. The results were presented to the community (with a fair amount of pizzazz) but with caveats open to critical scrutiny by the scientific community resulting in the retraction of the results. This was science in the open challenging itself and was the better for that. Of course, it easy to say we should avoid being black and white and couch our ideas and results in terms of probability. Non of these are attractive to the main stream press who want miracle break throughs and debunking of theories from great scientist from yesteryears. The Daily Mail's health coverage is usually very good (not in a positive way) for the latest scare, wonder drug and food or drink fad.

The only thing we can do is continue to be true to ourselves and our science, be critical of our own work (as well as others), be grounded around our findings and be honest when we approach the policy impact of our research.


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