Judith Curry has a new post about the Death(?) of Expertise. It’s based on an article by Tom Nichols in which he discusses the death of expertise. I saw the article myself and had been tempted to write a post of my own. I, however, couldn’t really construct a post that wasn’t going to sound a bit self-serving, so I just gave up.
As basic summary of what I would probably have written : it is – indeed – very tempting to sometimes respond with something like “I have a PhD in physics; I’ve taught undergraduates and graduates; I’ve got lots of research experience; I’ve published lots of papers; I’ve refereed lots of papers; I’ve submitted and received research grants; I’ve reviewed research grants; I’ve sat on a grants panel; I know what I’m talking about; you don’t”. The problem with this is that it’s very clear that simply having the credentials/expertise does not mean that you know what you’re talking about. However, if I was uncertain about my doctor’s diagnosis, I wouldn’t challenge him/her with a diagnosis of my own; I’d change doctors.
So, there’s a big difference between distrusting an expert and distrusting expertise in general. In the context of climate change/global warming, the latter seems quite prevalent. There are also many who, without any real credentials, seem to think they know more than the experts. I don’t know how prevalent this is in other areas, but it does seem that – in climate science at least – there is a distrust of experts by some, and there are some who seem to think that all they need in order to understand climate science is their own common sense. A generous interpretation would be that they know so little about science that they really don’t realise how absurd their pronouncements are. There are, other, less generous interpretations.
As part of her discussion on expertise, Judith’s post highlighted the upcoming UK Commons Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change IPCC AR5 Inquiry. Those presenting evidence to the committee are
- Professor Sir Brian Hoskins, Grantham Institute
- Professor Myles Allen, Oxford University
- Dr. Peter Stott, Met Office
- Professor Richard Lindzen, MIT
- Nicholas Lewis, Independent Climate Scientist
- Donna Laframboise, journalist.
The top 3 are arguably genuine experts (based on their credentials at least). Richard Lindzen certainly has the credentials, but appears to not be particularly well regarded by his peers. Donna Laframboise is a Canadian journalist who has written very critically of the IPCC. Nicholas Lewis is a self-professed independent climate scientist who has published a couple of papers about climate sensitivity, but seems to have the academic credentials of a good PhD student or a junior postdoc. That doesn’t mean that he’s not an expert, but would imply that the term has become rather inclusive.
I was, however, rather critical of Nic Lewis’s written submission to this inquiry. It comes across as an exercise in self-promotion and appears to be him complaining about the IPCC not taking his publication more seriously, and also arguing that the only appropriate method for determining climate sensitivity is that used by him. It also appears that his desire to do science is driven more by his concerns about the policy implications of the existing scientific evidence, than a genuine desire to improve our understanding of climate sensitivity.
Judith, however, says that his work will probably stand the test of time better than will the AR5 assessment of equilibrium and transient climate sensitivity. Really? Firstly, the IPCC’s assessment is based on a large number of published works. Is she suggesting that his paper is really so much better than any of the others? Also, as far as I’m aware, his paper was a new statistical analysis of existing data. He didn’t – I don’t think – generate new data from which he could then estimate the climate sensitivity. He simply used existing data and determined a much lower value than that determined by others. I don’t know whether his analysis is good or not, but this is a rather surprising result.
Judith then concludes with a comment about Donna Laframboise and Nic Lewis :
Their expertise on this particular topic does not derive from traditional paths, but nevertheless their expertise is acknowledged by many, and now by the UK Parliamentary Committee!
Personally, I think the make-up of the panel is a classic example of false balance. We have 3 experts likely representing the majority/mainstream view and 3 contrarians representing what is likely the minority view. It’s probably also slightly worse than this in that the first 3 will likely present a balanced view that will include some criticisms of the IPCC (which is clearly not perfect). The latter 3 will very likely have very little positive to say about the IPCC. Without knowing some of the background, the committee could conclude that there are many more problems with the IPCC than they would if they had chosen the witnesses more carefully.
If anything, the makeup of the witnesses to this committee is – in my opinion – an illustration of the death of expertise. It seems that if you want to be regarded as an expert (in climate science at least) choose to be a self-promoting contrarian. Being in a minority will allow you to be noticed more easily than if you were to simply try to quietly contribute to furthering our understanding of climate science (which includes the possibility of doing paradigm-shifting research). I don’t think that if you were to poll a large fraction of the climate science community about who they regarded as experts on the IPCC, I don’t think that Richard Lindzen, Donna Laframboise or Nic Lewis’s names would be prominent.
So, I’ll finish with a question. If a large group of doctors were to write a lengthy report about what we should do to treat a particular medical condition, and a parliamentary committee were to hold an inquiry into this report, would they invite a doctor who said the condition was not a problem and didn’t need treatment, someone who presented themselves as an independent medical consultant, and a journalist who equated what the doctors were suggesting as equivalent to a bank heist?