when everybody is an expert

June 10, 2009

Once upon a time, if your research wasn’t good enough to pass the peer review process, there wasn’t all that much you could do. Sure, you could appeal to the media and get a little attention until your theories were put under the microscope in public and the reporters lost interest after they were shown to be less definitive than you claimed. You could also try and start a small, devoted movement, picturing yourself as a Galileo and every scientist who rejects your ides as an Inquisitor for The Establishment. Or you could go back to the lab and get more evidence to build a stronger theory. But today, you have another option which allows anything you dream up to easily compete with almost any extensively reviewed scientific literature in the mainstream media.


Now, instead of mucking about with having your work dissected by experts, you can take your ideas directly to the people and discard the scientific method as a tool to silence anyone who dares violate the dogmas held near and dear by Big Science. Rather than looking like a rogue crank who can’t get any other specialist in his field to read his papers and confirm their conclusions as well founded, you’ll look like a dashing rebel who’s thumbing his nose at the stodgy, calcified establishment. And everybody likes a dashing rebel who was able to stick it to The Man and get away with it. There’s just one problem with the entire setup. At the end of the day, you’re still a crank and all your research still isn’t up to snuff. You just have better PR and the means to spread your sloppy work around the word under the banner of being oppressed by establishment dogmatists.

The funny thing is that cranks like to point out how long it took for scientists to come to terms with some of the most profound theories about our universe. And that’s true. Any new and game-changing idea is going to be scrutinized for years until enough questions are settled to accept it as a viable scientific theory. That’s exactly what the theories’ authors did. They answered questions, experimented to refine their work and earn a seal of approval from other experts and their discoveries fought long and hard to earn the respect they have today. For anyone to use the time it takes for something truly new to be fully accepted by the scientific community to state that their theories must be true, is history abuse plain and simple. They want the fame and the reward without having to do the hard work needed to prove their conclusions. And they really hate when someone asks them about peer review and independent confirmation of their claims.

Just as easily as they use the web to turn pseudoscience into a competitor to serious scientific works, cranks will wield it to ban or silence critics from their sites, take advantage of poorly designed laws to sue skeptics into submission and tap into deep seeded cultural biases to promote quackery and demonize competition which uses evidence-backed approaches. The tactic of ignoring science to wage a war of semantics also has a nasty side effect. It creates false experts out of cranks and gives them undeserved respect which they use to unleash their potentially harmful and dangerous misconceptions on the world. With the web as their soapbox and an army of followers, they can trample over real experts with real training, blissfully remaining in their own little world where they’re admired for all the wrong reasons…

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  • Jypson

    Well, if Oprah says its legit, what more do you want?!

  • Ignorance about science and the scientific method is rife. You might experience some of that ignorance in the beliefs and practises of your own family and friends. If your friend tells you they’re seeking guidance from a psychic or that they’re treating their child with homoeopathic remedies, you might be inclined to confront them with the facts of the matter, backed up by scientific research. But don’t be surprised if they dismiss your arguments and care little about the masses of evidence showing that psychics possess no supernatural powers and that homoeopathy simply does not work.

    The fact is that people, on the whole, prefer the simple answers in life. If those answers come from a well dressed, attractive personality, so much the better. Or perhaps from a maverick on the fringes of science whose ideas are rejected because Big Science hates to admit being wrong. Semantics and good PR will often triumph, simply because people don’t want to think too hard; they have enough to do just getting the kids out of the door in the morning, doing their job and paying the bills.

    It is a sad situation and I can only suggest that the solution lies in better education, both for the children and for the adults they become, because there are a lot of cranks out there and their voices are indeed getting louder. If everyone had a better understanding of how medical trials were conducted, what peer review meant, and how to apply critical thinking to grandiose claims, for example, we’d be living in a far more progressive and successful society that we do today.

  • Bruce Coulson

    Sadly, in addition to a lack of knowledge about peer review and the scientific method, there’s a lack of plain critical thinking in general.

    There’s nothing necessarily ‘wrong’ about consulting a psychic or reading a horoscope; any more than it would be ‘wrong’ to go to a minister when faced with an ethical or moral dilemma for guidance and advice. But when you substitute belief for critical thinking in concrete matters (such as medical treatment or evolution) the door is open for all matter of abuses.