Scientists: The role models of expertise

Henry Cotton.

With momentous shifts in the political landscape across the globe, many experts of differing origins have provided both fact and opinion in an attempt to help the public make well informed decisions. With the UK public trusting academics the second most (after their own friends and family) and politicians the least in the recent Brexit debate[1], we must ask; are all experts views equally valid?

To begin to answer the question proposed, we must start by defining the term ‘expert’. A quick google provides the Oxford dictionary definition of “A person who is very knowledgeable about or skilful in a particular area”[2], which immediately generates more questions than it answers. How do we define the point at which someone becomes knowledgeable enough to be deemed an expert? Do experts have to have certain qualifications or can they be self-educated experts? Further searching reveals the legal definition of an expert witness, who may be used in a court of law to “educate the court in a subject under consideration”. It is a necessity for them to have “special knowledge” which “is not possessed by the average person”, that can have been acquired through “experience, education, observation or study”[3]. This very vague definition of an expert does not help us truly identify who is an expert and who isn’t; herein lies the problem.

Expert Measurement

Not only is it difficult to identify whether someone is an expert, it is also difficult to provide a measure by which experts can be compared. In particular, it is challenging to measure the experience that an individual possesses, as this will most likely be very unique to the individual as it is based on their exposure throughout their career. Educational measurements however, can provide standardised assessments on an individual, providing the ability to rank them. Looking particularly at the academic sector, we can use the number of publications and citations to assess the expertise of an individual (h-index)[4], which is a global measure for all the disciplines. However, if we use the example of a business leader, their expertise will be heavily experience based, with a focus on their various achievements throughout their career, all of which can only be quantitatively justified and are open to interpretation.

Therefore, when we inspect the level of expertise of an individual, academics are much easier to judge, making it simpler for the general public to assess the credibility of the expert. This is a key factor in the trustworthiness of an academic, as their work is on display for all to judge and critique, unlike other professions whereby the work undertaken does not necessarily have to be presented, only the final product.

Public Perception

As mentioned in the opening statement, the general public put a large amount of trust in academics. On average, 60% of people surveyed admitted to trusting academics on issues relating to the Brexit referendum, with only 30% trusting big business leaders and a very small 11% admitting to trusting politicians[1]. To expand on this evidence, when the public were asked whether they believed employees in certain professions told the truth, 79% of the participants believed scientists did, 35% agreed business leaders did and 22% believed politicians did[5]. The publics opinion on an expert does not define whether they are knowledgeable in their field, however what it does show is that the experts can be unsuccessful in passing on their knowledge. This ability to bridge the gap displayed by the scientific profession, shows that they are more well-rounded experts.

Academic Experts

As well as comparing experts from different professions, we can also assess different disciplines within the professions. In the case of academics, it can be assumed that anyone working within the academic sector can be considered an expert in their field, as justified by the definitions previously given. If we want to then compare the different academic disciplines, the evidence used to support an experts claim can be examined.

Scientific research is primarily quantified, and relies on repeatable, measured evidence. Therefore, when a scientific expert supplies information on a particular topic, such as the global warming effect, it is usually backed up with well documented numerical and graphical data. If a historian were to make a similar claim, the evidence may arise from letters, paintings and books to name a few, which is much less likely to be precise, reliable and repeatable. In terms of objectivity, it is more difficult to argue against numerical data than it is with textual and contextual evidence.

This may seem like a large overstatement, and there will be exceptions to the trend, however it is a reasonable assumption that evidence provided by a scientific expert is likely to be more reliable than anecdotal evidence provided by a non-scientific expert. This therefore implies that scientific experts can potentially be seen as more reliable, therefore more valid experts due to the quality of their supporting material.

This would be perfectly sound, if it were not for that fact that scientific evidence can also be open to interpretation. Reverting back to the example of global warming, if the scientific expert was to go on and advise that global warming is due to the emissions from cars, this would be one of many possible interpretations of the results. Scientific evidence may be based on reliable data, however when correlations are made between the data, the experts have to make logical justifications, which are not too dissimilar from a historian reasoning with agreeable contextual evidence.

By initially examining the wide range of experts that exists within our society, it becomes apparent that it is inherently difficult to quantify the level of expertise of experts from differing professions. However, academia is the most advanced profession due to the ease by which the public can check the validity of the individuals, forcing academics to be thorough and transparent in their assessments. To then narrow the field down, it becomes clear that experts originating from scientific disciplines tend to have more accurate and reliable supporting evidence, enhancing further their expert validity. However, when correlations are found within data, and justifications are required, differing opinions can be given which may lead to a level of subjectivity.

Therefore, I believe that scientists have the ability to be the most reliable, transparent and logical experts, which in turn does not discredit the other professions and disciplines, however it gives them something to aspire to.







Scientists: The role models of expertise

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