Opinions without expertise

While I’m busy plugging blogs I like, I thought I’d mention that A Photon in the Darkness is another one of my favorite skeptical blogs. Lately, in all the turmoil over my move to ScienceBlogs, I failed to mention two good pieces that Prometheus has posted in the last few days:

Why anecdotes aren’t data (I suspect this one will really annoy a certain lurker who occasionally likes to trash me on his blog)


Opinions are like…; everybody’s got one

Of the two, the second is my favorite, because he does quite a nice takedown of the apparent belief among many alternative medicine devotees (and “mercury equals autism” activists) that their untrained and uneducated opinions should be taken as seriously as opinions of experts who have spent their careers studying a field:

What would these same people say if I, a humble molecular biologist with no training in law, investing or marketing presumed to tell them that they were dead wrong about something in their fields? I imagine that laughter would be the nicest thing I could expect – and it would be well deserved! After all, who am I to think that my uneducated opinion about those matters amounts to anything?

Yet, strangely enough, they seem to think that – despite their lack of training, experience or education in biology, medicine or chemistry, they have mastered all of the subtleties of the issues surrounding autism.

Yes, life is stranger than fiction!

Let’s dispose of the “elephant in the living room” at the outset. These people (and many more just like them) have no idea what they’re talking about – they are just repeating what they’ve been told. For the most part, they have no more comprehension of the biology of autism than my goldfish does.

These same people, who wax eloquent on the “devastation” that mercury has wreaked on the immune system, couldn’t describe the functions of B-cells and T-cells to save their lives. Likewise, they dismiss out of hand any suggestion of a genetic contribution to autism without the slightest understanding of genetics. In fact, I would be willing to bet that most of them don’t even know how many chromosomes they have (answer: 46).

I’m sure I can think of more than one person whom this describes nicely. (Hint: I think he’s the venture capitalist to whom Prometheus refers earlier in his piece.) There’s at least one other to whom this applies who also happens to have made appearances here very recently.


  1. #1 John M. Burt
    February 24, 2006

    Everyone knows (incorrectly) that T.H. Huxley humiliated Bishop Wilberforce by answering Wilberforce’s idiotic rhetorical question about his ancestry (in reality, the exchange was given short shrift at the time, and Huxley was credited with a win int he debate because he was well-prepared and incisive).

    Far more important is that Huxley pointed out that by Wilberforce’s own admission, he had been briefed for only a couple of hours on what Darwin wrote. Huxley asked if, after a couple of hours’ study, he should be entitled to pronounce on Anglican theology. A much more pointed and devastating rhetorical question.

  2. #2 moioci
    February 24, 2006

    Late one night I stumbled on a replay on CSPAN of a hearing where Dan Burton was browbeating a rather softspoken female epidemiologist from CDC, insisting that vaccines really do cause autism. (he was, I mean) He, of course, is an expert since his child is affected. Thank God Henry Waxman was there to inject some reason from time to time. He also pointed out that the opinions of all the leading researchers on the CDC’s advisory committee were to be discounted, because they had consultancy relationships with the vaccine manufacturers. Same mentality.

  3. #3 Camille
    February 24, 2006

    Wait, was it Burton or Weldon who took a turkey (like from the freezer section of your local grocers) and shot it with a gun to show something or other about the death of what’s his name, the guy from the Clinton White House who was either a suicide or a murder.

    I think Burton’s grandchild is autistic. Burton and Weldon have both pushed the mercury autism thing into politics. I think Burton is best buddies with Bradstreet (rolls eyes).

    Let’s all say it together now, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

    Also, “the road to perdition is paved with good intentions”.

    This quote is from a presentation made at the recent AAAS meeting,

    “There’s no sense in being precise when you don’t even know what you’re talking about.” John von Neuman 1903-1947

    this was also included in that presentation, so I hear:

    “To paraphrase Goethe:

    …truth and the search for it can be suppressed not only by ill will but also by good will.”

    It was a presentation on autism and vaccines.

  4. #4 dlamming
    February 24, 2006

    Then again, a number of people (ie, Ed Brayton) don’t believe that non-biological scientists (even including chemists and doctors) should be able to talk about their beliefs on evolution. Discussed at some further length here. So I for one am very glad that you at recognize that people who have degrees in “biology, medicine or chemistry” are likely able to discuss biological issues with some degree of authority.

  5. #5 Kristjan Wager
    February 24, 2006
  6. #6 Orac
    February 24, 2006

    I happen to agree with Ed’s post that you referenced. The list of scientific “dissenters” from Darwin is used by IDiots to argue from authority, implying that the signers are authorities on evolutionary theory. They’re not. As a commenter on your own blog said:

    Ed Brayton isn’t upset because the DI collected a list of mostly non-biologists to criticize evolution. He’s upset because the DI is holding this list up as proof that there is a scientific controversy over the validity of evolution.

    Precisely. The DI is using a false argument from authority.

    If you don’t have any training in an area, you are, of course, perfectly free to comment on it, but, unless you demonstrate through your writing that you know what you’re talking about and have taken the time to become well-versed in the issues involved, you won’t be taken seriously. Nor should you be, particularly in science. Science isn’t like politics, where most opinions are based on ideology more than evidence; there is objective data, evidence, and experimentation.

  7. #7 dlamming
    February 24, 2006

    Well, Orac, I won’t try to threadjack your discussion – but I will say this: for whatever a petition about evolution is worth (and I agree it’s not much), Ed argues that the views of chemists shouldn’t be given any weight. Maybe I just have a more optimistic view of things than yourself and Ed – but every chemist I know has taken classes in biology, biochemistry, and most of them have also taken classes in genetics, cell biology, and so forth.

    And quite frankly, I think (given your willingness to allow chemists to weigh in on autism, which is a more “specialized” and obscure area than evolution anyway) you agree with me that chemists can comment on biological matters with some authority.

  8. #8 Orac
    February 24, 2006

    I looked at Ed’s post, BTW, and don’t see where he says that chemists’ opinions on evolution shouldn’t be given any weight. What he did say is that they should not automatically be accepted as an authority on evolution just because they’re scientists.

    The autism example is a good example of what I’m talking about. I was never trained in autism specifically. I just know human physiology, molecular biology, clinical trial design and interpretation, crtical thinking skills, etc. However, I took that related knowledge and applied it to autism, but not before I had educated myself by delving into the relevant literature and educating myself.

    In any case, there is no reason why, before I became interested in this topic, anyone should have taken me as an authority simply because I’m a doctor. The reason that I ultimately became accepted as and authority (and a very minor one at that!) in the blogosphere in autism by those combatting autism quackery is most assuredly not because I’m a surgeon. It’s because, over the last several months, I have proven myself by posting informed commentary and analysis.

    It’s because I have earned it.

    Any chemist who wants to earn the right to be taken as an authority on evolution can do the same. Signing the DI petition, however, is prima facie evidence to me that one probably does not know much about evolution or has serious misconceptions about it.

  9. #9 Kev
    February 24, 2006

    “It’s because, over the last several months, I have proven myself by posting informed commentary and analysis. It’s because I have earned it.”

    Amen to that.

  10. #10 BronzeDog
    February 24, 2006

    In any case, there is no reason why, before I became interested in this topic, anyone should have taken me as an authority simply because I’m a doctor.

    Yup. You’re a good authority because you make valid arguments. Being a doctor just helped you get a good start on those arguments.

  11. #11 NJ
    February 24, 2006

    It’s because I have earned it.

    Spoken with a John Houseman intonation, I presume…

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