Just because they’re a scientist, it doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about.
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We’ve been told recently to “listen to the scientists”, especially when it comes to the recent novel coronavirus pandemic. Is this always the best move?
For sure, there are benefits. Scientists are, by definition, experts in their fields, and certainly know what they’re talking about in those fields. When we encounter something new and unexpected like a global pandemic, it’s easy to sink into our own biases and preconceived notions, developed and derived everywhere from passed-along “wisdom” to downright rumors.
These biases and preconceived notions can lead to direct harm for ourselves, our friends and loved ones, and the wider community. For example, if we believe that COVID-19 is “just a cold” or will “just blow over” and treat it as something minor, then we will act to spread it to at-risk groups.
Doctors, scientists, and other experts are hard at work to contain the spread of COVID-19, and are doing their honest best to guide the rest of us to the best course of action to minimize the damage from the pandemic.
So yes, we should – largely – listen to their advice. They know what they’re talking about and they’re trying to help.
But, like most things, we should be careful. For one thing, a scientist in one field doesn’t make them an expert in another. An astrophysicist may understand the general principles underlying epidemiology, but I wouldn’t turn to them for expert advice on how to limit the spread of diseases – always check the qualifications of the expert you’re listening to.
Second, while experts may be…experts…they may not be the best at communicating. Their journal articles and research reports could be stellar but entirely incomprehensible, and a lot can get lost in the process of translation from expertise to the language that everybody else uses. An expert may be unintentionally miscommunicating their own knowledge and advice, or may accidentally spark panic. They may know what they’re talking about but not know how to say it best.
Lastly, when it comes to something like a surprise global pandemic, the state of knowledge is constantly and rapidly evolving. The data can be confusing. Conclusions can be hard to come by. Recommendations can be wrong a week after they are issued. The researchers themselves are human – probably tired, overworked humans – who can say wrong things.
In the end, it takes effort. Check multiple sources. Read up for the deeper version of soundbites. Take your time to understand for yourself how the experts arrived at their conclusions. Become an expert yourself.