My friend I-Chant had a sharp response to my last post:
I’ll point out that in my first post I explicitly said “As far as I know, there’s no data either way.” Now I do know and duly stand corrected. I am interested, however, in what specifically we mean by “problem-solving skills.” I’m sure that some things do transfer. But from my personal experience theorists often make clumsy experimentalists and vice versa. So even within a single field there isn’t always strong transfer, and I suspect that when it does occur the problems have a large degree of overlap.
Nevertheless I will grant that Chu is better suited for this role than I gave him credit for, though I’m still not sure if his scientific thinking or management experience helps more. Perhaps I’ll be convinced after reading the articles or having I-Chant lecture me some more!
But there are a couple deeper issues here. First, as Ryan pointed out, the question isn’t expert versus non-expert. It is the specific type of expertise needed, and whether we assume someone with a physics Nobel Prize is the right type. Robinson’s refusal to blindly accept the latter proposition is what I most appreciated about his column. We need more skepticism along these lines, and Robinson should be applauded for the effort. We need more pushback against the conventional wisdom that scientists’ analytical powers qualify them to discuss everything. So while Robinson’s analysis may have gone overboard here, his desire to challenge the mainstream view is commendable.
As I’ve said before, climate skeptics succeed partially because more people do not adopt such a critical stance (see disunity and climate change). Scientists are viewed as a single authoritative, undifferentiated mass, and there’s no recognition of the immense diversity that exists. This attitude allows Freeman Dyson to attack global warming on the cover of the New York Times Magazine even though he has no credibility as a climate scientist. Of course if you believe that all it takes is arbitrary expertise and exceptional analytical skills, there’s no problem here. We can just assume that near, far and medium transfer makes Dyson qualified to discuss global warming.
But quantum field theory is not climate change and Freeman Dyson is no Stephen Schneider. All scientists are not equal on every issue. Even if cognitive psychologists can prove the existence of scientific thinking, I suspect the extent of transfer depends critically on the particular situation. So in the end we must decide whether the default is trust or skepticism. While there is a happy medium, the mere existence of people like Dyson and Frederick Seitz is proof enough that we’ve swung too far in one direction. You can even read entire books about the damage caused by scientists speaking outside their domain. If more people thought like Eugene Robinson this might be less of a problem.