Thursday, December 15, 2011

Peter Hadfield Exposes McExperts

"McExpert" is perhaps my favourite word that I have learned this year.  The term, which seems to have been coined by former New Scientist journalist Peter Hadfield, describes a person who speaks authoritatively on subjects for which they have no expertise.  More specifically, it describes someone like, say, Glen Beck, who applies a fast-food approach to his own learning and then disseminates it to his disciples.

It might be reasonable to fault Beck's followers for being so gullible and for considering him a credible source, but to focus criticism on them rather than Beck would be like faulting misbehaving children rather than their neglectful parents.

Indeed, Beck is a classic McExpert; he is endowed with a super-sized ego, but is completely devoid of any reason or integrity.  The label is just so fitting - ten minutes listening to him is akin to downing a fast-food combo, which is calorie rich and nutrient deficient.

There are, of course, many media pundits who proudly flaunt their McExpert tendencies (Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, etc), but maybe the word is best exemplified by actual scientists who speak authoritatively outside their own area of expertise.

Professor Larry Bell merits such a designation: he is a professor of architecture who has published a book about climate change.  It is easy to get climate science wrong when you are not educated in any way about the atmospheric sciences; it is even easier to mislead your readers when you yourself have not read the scientific documents that you gleefully paraphrase and misinterpret. 

The term McExpert need not be reserved solely for media pundits and McScientists.  There are millions of McExperts who scavenge online message boards to share their wisdom (or lack thereof) on the hot topic of the day.  Such McExperts appear to garner joy by regurgitating partially true or utterly false claims, thereby perpetuating the problem of misinformation on the web.

The crux of the McExpert phenomenon is that those less educated in a given field cannot decipher the actual facts provided by actual experts from the misinformation.  The ultimate result of this confusion is a misinformed public, and perhaps worse, an indifferent public.  It is not always easy to determine what information to trust, and the frustration that this causes can be enough to cause one to just throw one's hands in the air and give up.

Fortunately, Peter Hadfield has done more than invent a very agile and descriptive word.  The gifted journalist is fighting the misinformation epidemic head on through his YouTube channel "potholer54".  This channel, to which I subscribe, features thorough and researched commentary on many controversial issues from creationism to climate change.  What makes the hours of content so refreshing is that he does not provide his opinion.  Instead, he does the harder thing - he hunts down science papers and actually reads them.

The boldest move taken by Hadfield is to ask his followers not to perpetuate the vicious cycle of misinformation.  If they have a question for him, he will research the answer, but he asks that you extend the same courtesy: research your comments.

In this age of instant information, many of us assume that the answers to complex science issues should be arrived at instantaneously.  This assumption is as flawed as the information it so often leads us to.

Although I enjoyed all of the hours I spent engaged on Hadfield's channel, his five videos (about one entire hour in total) spent debunking just one McExpert was perhaps the most fascinating.  The McExpert so deftly exposed by Hadfield is Christopher Monckton, a British information spinner with an all too common narrative: climate denier.  If you wish to imagine Monckton, think Rodney Dangerfield with less aptitude for science.  Dangerfield may get no respect, but Monckton truly deserves no respect - anyone who knowingly misquotes scientists, spins information, and then transmits it upon a captive audience is undeserving of such courtesy.

Over the course of one hour of video, which no doubt required hundreds of hours of research in order to produce, Hadfield clearly exposes no less than twenty-one false claims and major blunders made by Monckton during his talks to his followers and even to policy makers in Britain.  Here are just two of the false claims: (1) The abundance of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the temperature variance on Earth are unrelated and (2) Solar radiation alone drives climate change.  These statements are in direct discordance with the scientific consensus, and yet Monckton claims that it is the scientific consensus.

The reality is that those of us that only want accurate information do not have the tens of thousands of free hours that it would require to debunk the hundreds of Christopher Moncktons out there.  Rather, we desire a quick and yet effective way to avoid being duped by McExperts.

I think that if we follow these four simple rules, we can avoid the noise, and be confident that the scientific information we receive is factual.

1.  Track Record of Source

From where do you receive your science information?  Is the source reputable?  The best sources of scientific information for the general public are science magazines, like Scientific American and New Scientist.  This is where science journal articles, which are often difficult for non-experts in a given field to understand, are interpreted by science experts.  Not only are the writers and editors of such magazines scientists, but so are many of the readers, who will usually catch any errors that are made through editorials.  It is in the best interest of such science magazines to be factual, as any false content threatens to degrade their reputation, thereby alienating the readers that finance them.

2.  Expert or McExpert?

This one seems easy.  If the medium is television or radio, does the person being interviewed have actual expertise in the content he or she is conveying?  Well, as Hadfield shows, some McExperts falsify their credentials, so deciphering truth from fiction can be difficult here.  For this reason alone, television and radio should not be the sole media upon which one bases one's scientific knowledge.  If something from TV or radio disagrees with a science magazine or science journal, then ninety-nine times out of one hundred, the TV or radio got it wrong, and should be ignored.

3.  Calmness of Delivery

If you, like me, enjoy consuming your information in an entertaining fashion, then completely eliminating TV and radio from your content diet is out of the question.  In this case, simply ask yourself the question, how much caffeine does the interviewee appear to have consumed?  People like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson have no reason to inject artificial emotion into what they are saying, because the science that they teach does not require that any belief be attached to it.  When Bill O'Reilly tries to debate with Richard Dawkins, O'Reilly is loud and obnoxious, while Dawkins is calm and composed.  It is similar to when a salesman tries to sell you a magnetized bracelet that will cure all of your ills: the salesman must inject passion into the pitch, because you will not buy this crap based on its merit alone.

4.  How Fantastic?

This is perhaps the most intriguing method of weeding out the fact from the fiction.  It works so well most of the time, but in some cases, fails so spectacularly.  The concept is this: how great a leap is being made by the science claim of the day?  If a scientific claim differs greatly from the scientific consensus, it is most likely bunk.  However, in rare cases, this is not a good method for sorting truth from fiction, because certain scientific breakthroughs in history have been fantastic.  A young Albert Einstein appeared to be a quack to most physicists who read the abstract of his 1905 paper that claimed that time was a relative entity.  I suppose the balanced approach is to remain open-minded, but be reasonably skeptical when the latest scientific breakthrough seems to counter the established scientific consensus.

Some Final Thoughts...

Perhaps there should be legal repercussions for purposeful falsification of information.  I am not advocating for the imprisonment of Monckton, but should there be no legal ramification of any kind for the inherently evil acts that he has committed?  I am in favour of the freedom of speech for all, but in the end, you are still responsible for what you say.

One might argue that McExperts will suffer in the end once they are outed.  I suppose so.  I mean, shouldn't science phonies who regularly get it wrong disappear from the discourse naturally?  Once discredited, they ought to fade away with the rest of the noise.  Unfortunately, the important work that Peter Hadfield has done is not being done enough.  Also, there are billions of people for McExperts to try to reach and sell their false claims to.  How many of these people take the time to examine the track record of the source?  An all too high proportion of people today are scientifically illiterate, politically alienated, and ultimately disengaged.  These same people would, however, be happy to have all of their problems cured by a mystical piece of jewelry.

It would be of great value if McExperts graciously removed themselves from all scientific discourse, but I do not think they will go away willingly.

My expertise is in mechanical engineering.  While it is a broad field, it does not encompass all of science.  Still, my science background allows me to competently follow most science discussions.  But, my lack of expertise regarding climate science means that I should not be among those leading that particular discussion.

My greatest source of frustration stems from the scientific illiteracy of those disseminating scientific information, be it in the media or on message boards.  A little bit of science education can provide two things for the myriad of McScientists out there.  First, it would empower them to follow the discourse from the sidelines, where they belong.  Second, its complexity will instill in them a certain sense of reality and humbleness, and it will become clear even to them that they are in no position to lead the scientific discourse on every topic known to man.  I suppose there is an inverse relationship between knowledge and ego.

In a perfect world, McScientists would develop respect for the actual science experts whose nutrient rich voices are too often muddled in the midst of nutrient deficient noise.

1 comment:

Samir said...

Your post makes alot of sense, sir! I see a lot of youtube videos claiming they have all the answers but most of them only do a small cursory look using google and such. They don't actually check the proper sources, and just assume that what they found was correct. And this is on all sides.
It's called intellectual laziness, it can affect the best and worst of us. We can't be arsed to look for sources nowadays. This has to change.