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Monday, March 21, 2011

Out of Expertise, Thanks to Ann Coulter

To begin with, I’d like to state that I’m no fan of Ann Coulter. In fact, I’ll be even more blunt: I know of nothing about her that makes me like her in any way, unless you could the even-more-horrible things that she hasn’t said. So feel free to take this post with a grain of salt. (Or, if you think watching me attack her sources will irritate you, please just skip this post. I won’t be offended, it’s reasonable.)

Anyway. Submitted for your consideration.

There’s a lot wrong with this, actually. (She weirdly cites her sources as the New York Times and Times of London, but then claims that the media won’t cover it, for example.) My gripe is going to be short and simple: she’s evidently basing her comments on studies by physicists. Here’s an out-of-expertise flaw: physicists know a lot about radiation, as such. It’s what a lot of us do. A lot of us even know a good bit about radiation safety and illnesses. But we’re not (at least the overwhelming majority of us) in the business of researching the health effects of radiation on humans. We might, I suppose, be involved in a study by sharing our expertise on the radiation’s physics. But if you want to study the epidemiology of radiation sicknesses, you want a physician (or other medical researcher) or a biologist. Health and medicine are biological fields; physicists generally have little real expertise there. I’ll grant you that the average physicist knows more biology than the average layman, most likely; also, some of us are biophysicists and may have a much better idea of this sort of thing to the point of expertise. But in general? Don’t trust a physicist regarding medicine.

(I’d like to add that I know of several examples of scientists famously going out of their way to may pronouncements well out of their fields about topics of public interest. Most of them are physicists. I’m not sure if that’s a selection bias at play or if it’s really the case that we’re more prone to over-estimating our expertise.)

posted by John Weiss at 22:59  

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