Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Expertise Matters

Like most of us, I get a fair bit of nonsense that floats by my feed on Facebook. This is actually the byproduct of a deliberate strategy of keeping a diverse group of FB friends and connections. I don't want to fall into the "echo chamber" trap, and I find it interesting to see what people who think very differently from me are thinking and sharing among each other.

Sometimes, though, I run across something so ridiculously silly I just can't ignore it. Today is one of those days:

Now, I get that there are people out there convinced that everything that pharmaceutical companies do is evil. Pharmas like Eli Lilly and Pfizer have unfortunately done enough bad things that, if you cherry-pick your evidence, it's not hard to justify this viewpoint (I don't say it's right, but I can see where you could get the evidence for it).

But the response to this belief is for folks to go out and "do their own research". Do they first bother to go out and obtain degrees in biomedical sciences so they can do that research? Of course not! Because anybody can read peer-reviewed scientific research in obscure journals and understand it, right?

I'm not surprised, but it does still amaze me that people can manage to tie their minds up into this particular pretzel. Even allowing for the different meanings of the term "research", this is an absurd proposition. If by "research" we mean here going directly "to the source" and reading the results that non-biased, non-industry scientists produce in their labs, the notion that anybody with less than a graduate education in the relevant field can do this is laughable. I have as much chance of getting into this summer's olympics as the average suburbanite with a college degree in communications has of understanding the real meaning of an article published in the International Journal of Toxicology, much less in understanding the broader scope of literature in which that article is situated.

This, of course, is one of the factors that allows for communities of people to band together and believe absurd things. The echo chamber that is Facebook facilitates this, but long before Mark Zuckerberg some folks figured out that you can ignore the rest of the world and believe whatever you want about it, so long as you discard the idea of expertise. In order to uphold this notion, you have to believe - even if you don't articulate - that education, practice, and experience don't really matter, and that anybody can master anything with just a little bit of effort. I mean, how hard can biochemistry be really?

The problem, of course, is that the world doesn't care what we think. As Richard Feynman famously wrote in the last sentence of his report on the Challenger disaster, "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled."

So folks are welcome to think that drug companies are evil (and somehow, amazingly disciplined - you'd think that more of the thousands of employees would leak the plans of their evil mastermind overlords). They're welcome to think that research that reaches conclusions they don't like isn't true, and that junk science and psychobabble that confirms their beliefs is real. What none of this will change is the reality underlying the science. Bacteria, genetic mutation, climate change - all of these things will happen whether we understand them or not, and whether we like them or not.

So if you find yourself patting your friends on the back for doing their "own research" that fits some broader conspiracy theory about science, take a step back. Adopt a little humility. Imagine for a moment that the thousands of people who have collectively spent millions of hours in labs struggling to master complex subjects might actually know something that you don't. Then imagine a world in which we struggle to find the truth together through dialogue and real research rather than snarky, self-congratulatory memes.

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