The Standing Invitation

Posts Tagged ‘Peer Review

No Opinion

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In a pub a while ago, an acquaintance asked me this: “As a scientist, what is your opinion on climate change?”

Looking back, I can see it was the three-word prefix that changed everything. Normally my response would have been automatic and decisive; but because he’d asked me for my opinion as a scientist, I found myself saying something new. To my surprise, my answer was that, as a scientist, I didn’t actually have an opinion.

But really, what other answer could I give?

Consider the opposite case. Imagine if I’d been sitting at the same pub with a climatologist, and I’d turned to him and asked him, “As a climatologist, do you think the macrocycle I’ve synthesised in the lab acts as a catalyst, or an inhibitor?”

He would of course have looked at me as though I’d grown another head. Why on earth would I be asking him, a climatologist, a question about chemistry? How the hell should he know? To answer the question ­– to even understand it – would require huge amounts of data only I had access to, not to mention years of background study. And if he had simply volunteered an answer, without any of the knowledge required to answer the question intelligibly, then I would be perfectly within my rights to ignore whatever he has to say.

Is my chemistry question the same as the question about climatology? Certainly not: my chemistry problem affects only me and a tiny circle of other chemists, whereas climate change affects every human being on earth, myself included. But the fact that I am affected by something does not entitle me to an opinion about it. Not when there are people who have spent their entire lives studying something I only know about from the media. Not when lives are at stake.

I am affected by the global economy, but I don’t understand it. I have very clear opinions about what a functioning economy entitles me to. These closely-held and cherished beliefs about right and wrong, justice and injustice, are important to me and define me as a person, and I would love to share my ideas of Utopia with the world; but I would be horrified if the Prime Minister asked me to decide whether to raise or lower interest rates. Given enough time for study, I might be able to make an informed decision ­– but I’d rather stick to what I know.

Is the answer to put our trust in others? Yes – but not blindly. We must hold our experts to account, and remove those who fail our tests; the experts, in turn, have an obligation to be as transparent as possible, to have sufficient internal and external checks against fraud and self-delusion. The peer review process, although far from perfect, is pretty good at ensuring that once an opinion becomes widespread in the scientific community, it has resisted every possible attempt to discredit it and come out on top.

If the climatologists say climate change is happening, it is. And this I can say, whether as a scientist or not.

Written by The S I

August 3, 2011 at 8:30 pm