Imagine this scene: A preeminent academic sits down for an interview with CNN or MSNBC about the hot scientific topic of the day. Maybe it's climate change or a blood moon. Maybe it's something even more complicated — like, say, elusive proof of the rapid expansion of the universe during the first explosive moments of the Big Bang. If you've watched the news recently, you've probably seen one of these segments, and one of these scientific authorities. And even if you haven't, you've still probably heard a newscaster mention such "authorities" as evidence of the accuracy of the scientific finding du jour.
It might turn out that the expert in question -- whose name you might not even have heard, or remembered -- doesn't necessarily specialize in the field about which he or she speaking on national television (Bill Nye, for all his admirable efforts to educate the public about the dangers of anthropogenic climate change, is actually not an atmospheric scientist. He's an engineer.) Nonetheless, the scientist acquits him- or herself admirably, speaking articulately and with poise on the topic.
So what's wrong with this picture? It turns out, a bit more than you probably imagine.
Ask most Americans, and the title "scientist" confers a remarkable amount of authority. (Notwithstanding a certain vocal minority distrustful of even the most rigorously produced scientific findings.) But not all scientists are created equal; it's practically common sense to point out that different scientists have different fields of expertise and different strengths as researchers. It's even more obvious to point out that none of those credentials even matter if the scientific data itself is bad. Yet when it comes to the dissemination of scientific information through major media outlets, there seems to be a one-size-fits-all attitude that is more than a little problematic.
And so, every time I hear a journalist or news anchor state that "scientists have discovered" or "one scientist believes," I struggle to conceal my displeasure. Such an attitude towards science gives entirely the wrong impression to the public. These declarations usual come without any discussion of the actual facts of the matter; the only supporting evidence being the "Dr." before said scientist's name.
Scientific accuracy isn't decided by fiat, and just because a scientist is involved doesn't say anything meaningful about the veracity of a claim. In the case of someone like Bill Nye, who has spent much of his career working to broaden the appeal of scientific literacy, it might seem like a benign offense. But the imprimatur of "authority" can also be used to advance much more dangerous agendas; for example, to create the pervasive sense of a two-sided debate, when one side has little in the way of compelling data to back it up -- as in the case of the current excruciating struggle to educate the public on the dangers of climate change.
Exhibit A: Fox News, which, according to new data released this week, only presents accurate information on climate change 28 percent of the time. The rest of the time, the network's hosts are prone to offer a misleading characterization of scientific authority in order to create a false narrative of doubt around global warming.
And here's the thing: A scientist isn't right because he or she is a scientist; too often scientists are treated as if that's the case. A notion of scientific celebrity has seeped into the public consciousness, where the mere fact of a researcher's pedigree is proof of his or her merit. (Imagine if a Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson were to use their platforms to espouse the dangerous junk science behind the anti-vaccination movement.)The most important question is always: Who's presenting the best evidence?
That this isn't always the case is why the climate change debate persists, despite the overwhelming abundance of evidence validating human-induced global warming. The fictitious "two-sided" debate plays out in a manner so tragically familiar by now we barely flinch when we see it: There's the authority of scientists versus the authority of God. "Who is to say which is correct?" you might hear a climate denier suggesting. And this needs to stop, because the fact of the matter is that "authority" is an overrated and dangerous concept.
The phrase "scientific authority" needs to be purged from our vocabulary. Scientists don't have authority, they have expertise, informed by the application of the scientific method. Most scientists don't care enough about this distinction to appreciate its impact beyond academia. It is not just semantics or superficial nitpicking. There is a subtle yet important difference between authority and expertise; an issue that goes right to the crux of how authority in science is viewed, and how public opinions can inadvertently be swayed in its presence. Perhaps it is the prototypical white lab coat or the title of "PhD," which morphs into something of a uniform -- like a priest's collar or a judge's gavel. Of course, scientists usually know what they are talking about and you'd be in good company to go along with them. But if you take scientist's word on authority alone, then you'd be right for the wrong reason.
The only authority in science is the method of experiment; the unbiased, unbigoted, reproducible assessment of nature. Scientists are human and can be biased, bigoted, dogmatic, and fallible, which is why any argument from authority rather than experimental evidence is in itself misleading. The scientist is simply supposed to be the incredulous, credible, and non-ideological lens through which experimental data are analyzed, interpreted, and conceptualized into a theoretical framework.
No matter how erudite a scientist, no matter how accomplished, if a word of nonsense comes out of his or her mouth, a non-scientist might not recognize it as such. And this is a problem because the authority that scientists wield can obscure the fact that they've allowed their own prejudices to inform their behavior. All the prizes and degrees in the world do not infer immunity to scrutiny.
Take, for example, Luc Montagnier, a virologist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery HIV, a magnificent breakthrough in AIDS research. He also endorses homeopathy. Also instructive is the case of neurosurgeon Eben Alexander, who relies on his own subjective near-death experience as proof of that heaven exists. Raymond Damadian was crucially involved in the invention of the MRI machine. He also believes our planet is 6,000 years old. In each of these cases, the authority of each of these figures obscures the fact that their positions are either long-discredited (in the case of homeopathy) or credulous and unfalsifiable (see: "Proof of Heaven").
The public intellectuals who I admire most don't use their authority as a cudgel. They don't boast where they got their PhD, or what awards they hold, or how many books they've sold. They let evidence and reason do the talking. Take Neil deGrasse Tyson, America's most ardent proponent of scientific literacy and host of the new "Cosmos" series on Fox. Tyson recognizes that arguments from authority alone are simply vacuous. When has Tyson ever used his title of Astrophysicist (with a capital A) when arguing that religious bigotry has stalled scientific progress, or that Pluto is not a planet? He would probably be the first to admit his personal opinions is far less important than the evidence itself. And yet, still, the power his stature confers is of a kind that could easily be abused. Scientists have a responsibility to the truth that only grows with their influence; remembering that it's the science itself that's most important -- that is the only important thing, when it comes to making an argument about science -- is absolutely essential.
The willingness to jettison fundamentally wrong claims no matter who argues for them is the life-blood of skepticism. It is my generation of scientists, economists, and politicians that will have to tackle a set of global problems that can't be solved without the support of the collective will. From anthropogenic climate change to issues of biomedical ethics, we need a culture that recognizes science for what it is -- the pursuit of truth. But first we all must recognize science for what it is not -- authoritative ideology. It is the duty of scientists and media outlets to know the difference.
Anuj K. Rastogi is a neuroscience graduate student at the University of Toronto's Institute of Medical Science.