Fake Experts

You know who they are – those organizations that have words like “freedom” and “rights” “choice” and “consumer” in their names but always shill for corporate interests…those occasional MDs or engineers creationists find that will say evolution has nothing to do with science. They are the fake experts.

But how do we tell which experts are fake and which are real?

To figure out who is a fake expert you have to figure out what a real expert is. My definition would be a real expert is someone with a thorough understanding of the field they are discussing, who accurately represents the scientific literature and the state of understanding of the scientific enterprise. There has been some other other discussion on scienceblogs from Janet at Adventures in Ethics and Science, it also reiterates some of the same points in relation to what she feels comfortable discussing as an expert. It also stresses the importance of context in evaluating the validity of expert opinion. But I’m not the god of the dictionary so let’s consider some other definitions.

The OED gives the definition simply as “One whose special knowledge or skill causes him to be regarded as an authority; a specialist. Also attrib., as in expert evidence, witness, etc.”

I don’t think this is adequate to describe what we really mean though, that is, how do you identify a trusted source of scientific information?

Legally (in the US), scientific expertise had been defined by whether the testimony the expert provided conforms to the so-called Frye rule from 1923 until 1993 when the Daubert vs. Merrel Dow Pharmaceuticals case changed the definition to be consistent with the federal rules of evidence. The Frye rule was that scientific testimony was valid if the theory it was based on was “generally accepted”, that is it was admissible if the theory on which the evidence was based had a somewhat arbitrary critical mass of followers in the scientific field.

In many ways Daubert was a big improvement, although it puts more onus on the judge to determine if the science presented should be considered valid as it merely stated that experts were defined by the federal rules of evidence which allow the judge to determine:

If scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise.

(A good article on this issue here from the NEJM and a more updated article.)

Luckily the justices didn’t just leave it at the federal rules of evidence and Blackmun created a set of guidelines for judges to determine if the expert was “reliable”. They require the theory presented by the witness to have undergone peer review, show falsifiability, empirical testing, reproducibility, and a known error rate for a scientific theory to have some validity in addition to the general acceptance rule of Frye. While the individual states remain a patchwork of Frye, Daubert, and Frye-plus rules for admissibility of evidence, at least federally this is the new requirement (although it still does suffer from being a bit vague).

The experts that present such evidence must have some credentials and/or experience with the discipline, and the evidence they present must pass these tests. It’s actually not a half-bad way to identify a trusted source, in particular if the judge is intellectually honest about the witness meeting these requirements. Although the law currently allows a lot of latitude on this as it’s really up to the judge to determine if the expert testimony satisfies the Daubert requirements.

The commonalities between the different accepted definitions are that experts have experience in their field, and they can provide answers that are consistent with the state of knowledge in that field that are useful. The legal definition appears more stringent, in that it requires the expert to speak in a clear fashion and discuss science that actually meets Popperian requirements of epistemology(falsifiability, testing, etc.) – but I’m not about to jump into that quagmire today.

Clearly, the exact definition of what an “expert” is still eludes us, but it becomes readily apparent from the legal, dictionary and common practice definitions employed by scientists what experts are not. They aren’t merely an empty set of credentials and they aren’t merely people who have at some point published in some random field. Even the rather silly expert wiki would seem to agree on this.

Therefore I would say a fake expert is usually somebody who is relied upon for their credentials rather than any real experience in the field at issue, who will promote arguments that are inconsistent with the literature, aren’t generally accepted by those who study the field in question, and/or whose theories aren’t consistent with established epistemological requirements for scientific inquiry. Sheesh. I just described Michael Egnor, Bill Dembski, Michael Fumento, Patrick Michaels, Steven Milloy, Richard Lindzen…

So, in honor of the false experts hired by everyone from creationists to global warming deniers, I present to you, the thinking chimp. Our mascot of the false expert, who isn’t as good at telling you accurate information about science as he is at flinging poo.

**Janet points us to another post of hers discussing how to identify a trusted source.