Kate points me to a real head-scratcher from Slate, about Harry Collins posing as a physicist. Collins is a sociologist who studies expertise, and also has a very strong interest in gravitational wave detection experiments. Collins and co-workers collected a bunch of qualitative questions about gravitational waves and detectors, and got an expert in the field to write answers to them. He then wrote his own answers, and sent both sets of answers to a bunch of people in the field, and asked them to guess which set of responses was from the expert in the field.
The surprising result from this is that the majority of the experts (seven of nine) picked Collins’s answers as the one written by the real expert. Slate ties this in to Alan Sokal’s famous stunt of a few years back, and gets some quotes from Sokal himself, but I really don’t see what the point is.
I mean, is it really surprising that a non-scientist can master a scientific subject well enough to write a good, coherent qualitative explanation of it? After all, some of the very best science writers in the business are people who don’t have science degrees. If you don’t need a Ph.D. to write a book explaining physics to the masses, why on earth would you need one to answer a half-dozen qualitative questions?
The key qualifier here is “qualitative.” Even Slate admits that Collins couldn’t fake the mathematical details of the work he talks about– he can present himself in the manner of an expert, as long as he doesn’t need to actually demonstrate any real expertise. He’s no more able to calculate the expected signal for LIGO from some odd configuration of colliding neutron stars than I am, but he can talk intelligently about the basic features of the field. But, then, so could just about anyone who spent enough time reading about the projects, and talking to people in the field.
The one really interesting thing in the actual article (PDF linked from Collins’s page above), other than the fact that sociology journals apparently like to publish cartoons, is the reason why the experts picked Collins’s answers: he didn’t use any math. The real expert threw in a lot more technical jargon, and the expert judges thought that it sounded like somebody trying too hard to impress people. This probably indicates that most experts are deluding themselves about the degree to which they avoid jargon in explaining things to each other and to the public. Again, this isn’t really news to anyone who reads science blogs, but it’s sort of cool to see it confirmed.
But, really, I just don’t see what the big deal is.