Friday, 25 July 2008

He's No Expert

A while ago I had a conversation with a friend of mine who works with young people, about the coverage of crime and education in the press. To paraphrase, he put it that almost without exception, the commentators, on both the left and the right, who opine on these controversies don't have a clue what they are talking about. They work from sweeping generalisations and often make the arguments to fit their preconceptions.

At the time I thought "I must blog about that", but as with so many of these things (I should do a rundown of half-finished 'drafts' that were never posted sometime) it was put off. I was reminded of his comments today, though, when I saw this article by Dave Hill at Comment is Free.

As a PhD student and a degree-holder in Biological Sciences, I know when I see a writer who is talking about genetics from a position of ignorance. Dave is such a writer.

A belief system reasserting that microbiology is destiny has become a feature of the modern age. Fostered largely by a lazy and credulous media but often encouraged by the hubris of new frontier scientists, it privileges the hormone, the gene, the DNA molecule over all other factors in explaining why humans behave as they do. One of its key revealed wisdoms - one of its articles of faith - is that there is a gene "for" everything, some ultimate explainer of whatever we feel, think and do.
In case you didn't catch it, "...microbiology is destiny.."?!?

Microbiology is:
  • the study of microorganisms, which are unicellular or cell-cluster microscopic organisms.
Oops! Clearly the sub-editor didn't know enough about science to spot the mistake either, since he/she repeated it in the article's subheading (when I first saw it I thought it was a subediting error!). My guess is that the term Dave was fumbling for is 'molecular biology'. Not that this substitution would make the rest of the paragraph any more accurate.

Understanding of a subject is not a prerequisite for having a platform to opine on said subject. Such is clear when such a glaring error as the above is made, or factual errors that a little research would have averted are committed. However, when a topic in which such clear distinctions between correct and incorrect cannot be made, it becomes very difficult to distinguish the genuine expert from the pretender. In some cases, it may even be impossible.

Cartoon: XKCD


BenSix said...

It would be interesting for a newspaper to dispense with regular columnists and instead commission experts in relevant fields. There appears to be little point to them except to provoke familiarity in the reader.

Mark Wadsworth said...

I dunno.

If you have lots of kids which you bring up the same but they all turn out different, it sort of hits you that nature is a far stronger influence than nurture. Not that a stable happy family background isn't A Good Thing - but the f***ing lefties dispute that as well ...

Bensix, any scientist who wants his stuff to appear in the MSM is a charlatan - proper scientists keep themselves to themselves.

QT said...

@mark: If I got onto that I'd be on for the rest of the night!

I disagree regarding scientists appearing in the media, though. Surely people who know what they're talking about informing the public is in general a good thing!?