Monday, February 21, 2011

QOTD: In defense of elites

Quote of the Day:
Diseases and ailments that were fatal just a few generations ago can now be easily treated, we can peer into the body without the cut of a knife using Magnetic Resonance Imaging, there are few points on the globe that can not be reached by wireless communication, and the computing power of a laptop exceeds that of room-size calculating machines that represented the state of the art in 1950. All brought to us through the efforts of elites.

And this is where the current distrust of scientists becomes a major concern. For there are real problems that need to be addressed, but we can't handle them without the advice of experts, which are often not respected by both the general public and the scientific community.

The findings and conclusions of scientists and engineers who have devoted years and years to the mastery of their fields of inquiry should be accorded the respect they deserve, and not dismissed for ideological reasons. Few people second-guess the political motivations of their dentist when informed that they have a cavity - why would they do the same with atmospheric scientists when they discuss a hole in the ozone layer? Strong science, elaborated by experts, is the foundation for sound policy.

What happens when experts disagree? More good news — this happens much less than one might think, at least concerning questions of fact (interpretations are another matter). Of course, it is important to realize that not every scientist is an expert in every branch of science (I am concerned here with scientific communication, and not interdisciplinary research). If my cardiologist tells me that I need open heart surgery, I may seek a second opinion before having a difficult and expensive operation — but I won't consult a dermatologist.

It pains me to say this, but — physics professors are not experts in all fields of science. While we may be able to address, for example, the quantum mechanical mechanisms by which carbon dioxide ignores visible light but absorbs and re-emits infra-red radiation, and can discuss the application of the scientific method, we are not climatologists, and should respect the conclusions of those who have devoted the same time and effort to their field as we have to ours. As the science fiction author Robert Heinlein wrote: "Expertise in one field does not carry over into other fields. But experts often think so. The narrower their field of knowledge the more likely they are to think so." - James Kakalios

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