The experts

26Oct10

I’ve been putting off, all semester, writing about the experts…those warm, fuzzy cosmologists we don’t really know but perhaps still love because they’re adventurers exploring the big beyond and that’s pretty okay by us.

I read in Lerner that experts’ pronouncements are accepted on faith; he was upset about this because he thought it added to the religious-y nature of cosmology. But cosmology is science so removed from everyday life, someone like me has no experience to draw on when listening to the experts (unlike, perhaps, in medicine), so of course their pronouncements are accepted on faith… what could you possibly do otherwise? Lerner’s comment seemed extraordinarily silly to me.

Further, in a past blog post on dark energy, Ethan Siegel said that you should ‘choose your experts wisely’. There are still differences of opinion in this controversy, and some scientists who still ‘cling to past beliefs’ despite the overwhelming evidence for dark energy (of some form). If you have to accept experts’ pronouncements on faith, you need to know which experts to listen to!

We spoke a fair bit in class about experts and their role in controversies. In class, experts were defined as:

…individuals widely recognised as being especially knowledgeable on a given topic.

We also said there were two types of experts: experts about and experts at (doing something).

Cosmology is a mixed discipline, so you might find plenty of ‘experts about’ and then a bunch of ‘experts at’. Can a particle physicist make valid claims about cosmology? Can an astronomer? You could also find plenty of ‘experts’ about cosmology outside of the discipline. Can an intelligent designer be an expert in cosmology? Sure, why not—but that doesn’t mean they should be taken as an authority.

So what makes a person an expert on cosmology to whom the public should listen? Well, I’d say that they’d have to actually be a cosmologist, and should be both types of expert—they should be an expert about the field, but also be an expert at observing or data fitting or analysis. Is there an issue here with how somebody could be an expert about something so far removed? Maybe not, but I do feel like there may be an issue about how somebody could be an expert at interpretation. If things are slightly more subjective—making an interpretation based on your experience, your knowledge, and your beliefs—couldn’t just about anyone be an expert at interpretation? This feeds into what I called that controversial nature of cosmology, the result of it being based purely on observation and interpretation.

But, in general, the experts don’t really feed the controversy—information and uncertainty do. As noted by my classmates, experts really only come into play in public controversies, which the dark energy controversy certainly is not.

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