There’s an interesting paper that someone (I forget who) highlighted on Twitter. It’a about when science becomes too easy. The basic idea is that there are pitfalls to popularising scientific information.
Compared to experts,
laypeople have not undergone any specialized training in a particular domain. As a result, they do not possess the deep-level background knowledge and relevant experience that a competent evaluation of science-related knowledge claims would require.
However, in the process of communicating, and popularising, science, science communicators tend to provide simplified explanations of scientific topics that can
lead[s] readers to underestimate their dependence on experts and conclude that they are capable of evaluating the veracity, relevance, and sufficiency of the contents.
I think that this is an interesting issue and it partly what motivated my post about public involvement in science.
However, I am slightly uneasy about this general framing. I think everyone is a layperson in some contexts; it’s not as if scientists (physicists, in particular) are immune from thinking that they can suddenly step into a new field without having developed the deep-level background knowledge. I think most are susceptible to thinking that they understand something better than they actually do.
One issue is that the norms of science are often presented as suggesting that one shouldn’t judge a scientific idea on the basis of who presents it. In a sense, science is open to all. However, this doesn’t mean that people can suddenly step into a field and make some kind of substantive contribution without developing the requisite skills and knowledge. Most fields require years of study. We really shouldn’t pretend otherwise.
My own view of the issue is that we probably don’t spend quite enough time explaining what it takes to do research, and how science is actually done. We often, as the paper suggests, tend to make it sound like everything is quite simple and straightforward, when this is typically far from the truth. Not only is the actual topic often more complicated than it sometimes seems, the processes involved are also typically quite complicated.
Rarely is it as simple as collect data, analyse data, present results. The instruments typically need to be calibrated, the data needs to be properly assessed, and the analysis methods need to be carefully checked. There might be models that also need to have been developed and tested. In fact, one of the hardest parts of doing research is deciding what question should be asked. It takes time, effort, experience, and often requires a set of skills that take years to develop.
If there was one thing that I would stress, it’s that if you think someone has missed something obvious, or made some kind of obvious mistake, they probably haven’t. This is especially true if you’re considering an entire research field. It’s not impossible that a layperson could notice something obvious that a large group of experts have missed, but it’s extremely unlikely.
So, even if science communicators have done too good a job of making science accessible, I suspect the issue of over-confident laypeople is much more complicated than that; hubris is a not uncommon human trait. My own view is that it’s important to make scientific information available and accessible. Maybe what we should do more of is make it clear that the process through which we develop scientific knowledge is far more complicated than it may, at first, seem. If it looks as though a group of experts have missed something obvious, it’s probably more complicated than it seems, and they probably haven’t.