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Scientific Expertise and the Media

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Scientific Expertise and the Media
Author(s): 
Kevin Padian, President, NCSE Board of Directors
Volume: 
18
Issue: 
1
Year: 
1998
Date: 
January–February
Page(s): 
27
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Each year NCSE officers and members are contacted by radio and television stations, newspapers and magazines to offer perspectives on science and to respond to statements made by "creation scientists". Perhaps no one is besieged by the press as much as our own Executive Director, Dr Eugenie Scott, and certainly no one that I know handles the requests so well. The challenge that she faces constantly is also one that we all must confront whenever we are called upon to "represent" evolutionary biology in a public forum.

How can one scientist deal with a well-credentialed adversary who maintains that evolution must be restricted only to small genetic changes in populations, that no major transitions between taxa are recorded in the fossil record, that a single flood can account for the world's geology, that the theory of plate tectonics is at odds with erosion rates, and that radiometric dating is flawed by the principles of physics? How do we approach these problems before the public?

The answer is that no one can deal with all of these charges, so no one of us should try to represent all scientific disciplines (see NCSE Reports 15[3]:23 and 14[2]:22). Your opponent is attacking science itself. The specific claims, which have no support in the scientific community, are only a vehicle to this end. Besides, it would take too long to defend all of science by trying to provide all the scientific background necessary for the average person to understand the misrepresentations in these arguments.

It is useful to clarify for an audience that, generally, claims of "creation science" are religiously based. Its proponents are grounded in religious, not scientific principles and thought — regardless of the specific "scientific" problem or issues they discuss or study. It is also useful to note for audiences that, although your opponent appears to be presenting a great deal of evidence against evolution, no valid scientific evidence has been presented in support of the alternative position, whatever it may be (and why isn't this position clear?) Is this position in fact religious, and not scientific?

With very few exceptions, "creation scientists" have thin scientific credentials, publish little in peer-reviewed journals, and/or are generally not trained in the fields they are disparaging. When they do publish acceptable scientific or technical work, it has nothing to do with evolution or any related science. This is not apparent to the audience which sees "credentialed" adversarial scientists as opponents who cancel each other's purported expertise. The real issue is what is the nature of the scientific credentials and what do these credentials mean? Is it the degree that makes the scientist or the dedication to "science as a way of knowing" about the world around us?

It can be tempting to dismiss the statements on evolution by an atmospheric chemist, but it is not logical (and will not win points with an audience) to do so merely because the person is trained as an atmospheric chemist. We must show that the views of evolution's opponents are not informed, miss crucial information, or have not been tempered through scholarly review by the scientific community — an essential task in doing science.

Recently, on a radio program, I tried the tactic of asking Dr X, a mechanical engineer, why he doesn't publish his theories about mechanisms of geologic change in peer-reviewed journals if they are scientific and don't require divine intervention. He could give only a weak response that creationists can't get things published in secular journals. I replied that there seemed nothing about his theory that is supernatural. He said that his theory is too long to publish in the short space that journals provide, but I replied that I had published papers of more than 50 pages in some journals. I further noted that a study had been done some years ago by Eugenie C Scott and Henry P Cole ("The elusive basis of creation 'science'. Quarterly Review of Biology 1985; 60:21-30) asking journal editors about creationist submissions. Those editors that could recognize them said that they got very few, but that reviewers rejected them not because of supernaturalism but because the papers were illogical, did not show awareness of the literature, did not perform scientific tests, and were poorly written.

The average person appears to distrust experts, but if their kids are sick they don't call a plumber, and if they have termites in the house they don't call a brain surgeon. The appropriateness of expertise and the limits of your own knowledge are important to express to an audience. (Personally, I would never feel comfortable expounding on mechanical engineering or atmospheric chemistry, but I have learned not to assume the same attitude in a "creation scientist" with whom I might be discussing paleontology.) An important question to ask is this: if your "creation-scientist" opponent has such a terrific scientific theory that will replace currently accepted ideas, why aren't Nature and Science clamoring to publish it? Why aren't the Nobel Prize people beating a path to his door? If the idea is valid and explains all the evidence better than any other, it will make his scientific career. People of all nations, creeds, races, and religions work comfortably within the scientific paradigm and include evolutionary theory as part of that. There is no division between "religious" and "scientific" scientists — only between those who proceed from religious assumptions and those who do not allow such assumptions to determine in advance the outcome of their investigations of nature.

I think that the issue of the credibility of "creation scientists" needs to be put more squarely before the public. When anyone reads an article in the newspaper about a scientific discovery, it almost always involves overturning or adding to something we thought before. You never see breaking news that says, "Theory of gravitation supported again!" Publication of results doesn't mean that they are necessarily right, or that this is the last word on the subject. It means that at least a couple of experts in the field have looked over the work and found it plausible at face value (and presumably, interesting enough to be published). Science is not afraid of challenges or of change; that's what it's all about. Dogmatism is the province of its critics. If we get this message out, we can expose pseudo-scientific charlatans for what they are.