A physicist agrees with me!

So I guess they can’t be all bad. Yesterday, I chastised Michio Kaku severely for stepping out of his expertise as a physicist to say something stupid about biology. James Kakalios agreed with me, and sent along a little essay about the subject that also makes the point that expertise is important.

In Defense of Elites

James Kakalios

Following the recent mid-term elections, the consensus of many pundits is that this past November the American public sent a strong message of “anti-elitism.” The good news is that nothing could be further from the truth.

Americans are certainly not anti-elite, nor are they anti-intellectual. Everyone, after all, wants their doctor, lawyer, or auto-mechanic to be an expert in their field. Few would willingly choose a brain surgeon who was at the bottom of their graduating class, no matter how much fun they may be to share a beer with.

However, Americans are anti-snobbery and have no patience for those whose insecurity compels them to tell us why we’re “wrong” to like what we do, whether it’s NASCAR, fantasy baseball, comic books or Star Wars (OK, the critics may have a point about Episode II: Attack of the Clones). Given the demands of the ever-expanding modern work-week (forget about the jetpack, what I want to know is where’s my four hour work week that was similarly promised to be here in the 21st century!), it is no wonder that that many Americans might devote their limited free time to learning the starting nine players of their local baseball team rather than the nine justices on the Supreme Court.

But there is a real issue that goes beyond a lack of free time. Nearly every week brings another news story of the low regard in which the general public holds intellectuals and scientists. From doubting claims of climatologists concerning the source of changes in the Earth’s average temperature, to persistent attempts by some local school boards to sabotage their children’s education of the principles of Darwinian evolution, the view of many seems to be that “science is just another opinion.”

As a physics professor who is also an avid reader of comic books, I know that it was not always so. Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, superhero comic books reflected the popular zeitgist and, whether the planet was threatened by invaders from planet X or superpowered master villains, it was typically a scientist that saved the day. Science fiction comic books whose stories took place in the future (sometimes all the way in the year 2000!) often promised that we would live in a gleaming utopia brought to us by scientific advancements.

And in many ways the comic books have been proven correct. Diseases and ailments that were fatal just a few generations ago can now be easily treated, we can peer into the body without the cut of a knife using Magnetic Resonance Imaging, there are few points on the globe that can not be reached by wireless communication, and the computing power of a laptop exceeds that of room-size calculating machines that represented the state of the art in 1950. All brought to us through the efforts of elites.

And this is where the current distrust of scientists becomes a major concern. For there are real problems that need to be addressed, but we can’t handle them without the advice of experts, which are often not respected by both the general public and the scientific community.

The findings and conclusions of scientists and engineers who have devoted years and years to the mastery of their fields of inquiry should be accorded the respect they deserve, and not dismissed for ideological reasons. Few people second-guess the political motivations of their dentist when informed that they have a cavity – why would they do the same with atmospheric scientists when they discuss a hole in the ozone layer? Strong science, elaborated by experts, is the foundation for sound policy.

What happens when experts disagree? More good news — this happens much less than one might think, at least concerning questions of fact (interpretations are another matter). Of course, it is important to realize that not every scientist is an expert in every branch of science (I am concerned here with scientific communication, and not interdisciplinary research). If my cardiologist tells me that I need open heart surgery, I may seek a second opinion before having a difficult and expensive operation — but I won’t consult a dermatologist.

It pains me to say this, but — physics professors are not experts in all fields of science. While we may be able to address, for example, the quantum mechanical mechanisms by which carbon dioxide ignores visible light but absorbs and re—emits infra—red radiation, and can discuss the application of the scientific method, we are not climatologists, and should respect the conclusions of those who have devoted the same time and effort to their field as we have to ours. As the science fiction author Robert Heinlein wrote: “Expertise in one field does not carry over into other fields. But experts often think so. The narrower their field of knowledge the more likely they are to think so.”

Most couples therapists will tell you — miscommunication is a two-way street. Scientists and the general public need to stop talking past each other, so that we can all benefit from the counsel of elite experts. For the problems that we as a nation face are as serious as a heart attack!

James Kakalios is the Taylor Distinguished Professor in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Minnesota, and the author of The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics (Gotham, 2010).