This post at Ars Technica by Chris Lee says smart things about a subject that I’ve been thinking about for a while:
One of the most important things that I’ve learned in my time writing for Ars Technica is how little I know. Look at my back catalogue of stories and you will notice that most of my articles are combinations of quantum mechanics and optics. Every now and again I venture into the fraught territory of cosmology, materials sciences, and climatology. Even more rarely, I head off into the wild and write something about medicine or biology.
I only ever write these articles if the papers on which they are based are written clearly; I want to be reasonably certain that I haven’t mangled the research entirely. Yet, if you let yourself be flushed down the intertubes, you will find physicists and engineers like myself expounding on topics that are far outside their field of expertise. These people are often so badly wrong that it is hard to know where to begin in any argument to counter them.
I find it quite frustrating because these are supposedly smart people. So what goes wrong with us physicists?
(The rest of the post is great , so go read it!)
I truly don’t think that the phenomenon is restricted to physicists, mind. I’ve met more than a few people from all different kinds of fields who feel that their Ph.D. or other advanced credentials makes them qualified to pontificate on any subject that happens to be at hand, and worse, makes them expect that they’re right without any evidence. A favourite example from my own life might be the social psychology grad student who wandered up to me during an exam we were proctoring together and told me that this evolution stuff was bunk when it came to humans and that evolution had never had an effect on humans – we’re special, damnit. And he wasn’t having any suggestions to the contrary – he nearly had his Ph.D. after all, and I was just a jumped-up Master’s student. And it’s worse these days. If I have to deal with one more engineer who wanders over and tells me about how evolution is full of holes and s/he knows just what they are (after which they usually proclaim that evolution violates the laws of thermodynamics or something equally inane and well-refuted), I’m going to scream.
Of course, I’m convinced that the same is true for people coming from my patch of the woods; I’m willing to bet money that there are plenty of biologists who wander all about the place spewing nonsense because they know about teh evolutionz. (I wonder if doctors find biologists insufferable as patients?) If anyone has examples, I’d love to hear about them!