Scientists, pilots and doctors

ClimateScienceWatch has an interview with Steve Schneider, one of the authors on the PNAS paper we just discussed (h/t Joe Romm).  I recommend the entire interview (video at the end), but I’ll highlight these passages:

It really matters what your credentials are. If you have a heart arrhythmia as I do, and I also have a cardiologist, and you also have an oncological problem as I do, I’m not going to my cancer doc to ask him about my heart medicine and my cardiologist to ask about my chemo, I’m going to the experts. Who’s an expert really matters. People with no expertise, their opinion frankly does not matter on complex issues. And in my opinion shouldn’t even be quoted when we’re talking about the details of the science.


Scientists are really stuck. It’s exactly the same thing in medicine, it’s the same thing with pilot’s licenses and driver’s licenses: We don’t let just anyone go out there and make any claim that they’re an expert, do anything they want, without checking their credibility. Is it elitist to license pilots and doctors? Is it elitist to have pilots tested every year by the FAA to make sure that their skills are maintained? Is it elitist to have board certification on specialities in various health professions? I don’t think so.

In light of many of my previous posts, it should be obvious that I think Steve has a point.  Cardiologists should be trusted over oncologists for an arrhythmia, and I’m quite happy that pilots are licensed.

But Steve’s analysis elides a key difference between scientists and  licensed professionals.  Namely, scientists aren’t licensed! Heck, much of authority comes from our self-proclaimed ability to tackle any problem whether or not we’re formally trained, a theme we’ve just just discussed.  The idea that scientists actually have a fairly limited range of expertise counters what we’ve been saying for several hundred years now.   At this point, I think that scientists themselves have internalized the message.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a random physicist (myself included!) wax eloquently about “the” scientific method or make a tendentious claim about all of science.  Some would even call this attitude arrogant.  As I said about Eugene Robinson’s op-ed, I’m happy people are rebelling against a mindless acceptance of scientific expertise.  I just don’t know how successful it will be when practically every science organization out there promotes the opposite.

I’ll make one final, brief comment (complaint?) about the interview.  Towards the end, Steve responds that it is “very difficult to disentangle” the policy prescription from the science expertise.  While I think he may be factually correct, the attitude has also played a non-trivial role in why the field is hyper-politicized.  We need greater efforts to highlight that science is not “the” basis of policy, and there are non-climate reasons to pursue mitigation and adaptation.  But again, such a message would contradict what we’ve been arguing for years, and I bet there’s no interest.


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