I bet James Bond never had to put up with this … why are there so many “experts” on biological issues?

In the film Notting Hill, the character Max (Tim McInnerny) turns around in his car to face the passengers squabbling about the route to take, tells them to shut up because he’ll decide the route, and exclaims:

I bet James Bond never had to put up with this $%&#!”

This is something to which many biologists can sadly relate.

Thanksgiving has just finished in the US, and many scientist friends and colleagues have returned with tales of relatives (who have no science expertise) expounding to them on why scientists are wrong on a myriad of issues such as: MMR vaccines causing autism and other medical issues, the non-existence of evolution and, currently, their opinions on how to deal with Ebola.

Why is it that Americans have such a poor understanding of biology, and have so little respect for the opinions of those that are trained in the field?  You don’t hear members of the public weigh in on the nature of mesons, bosons, or string theory, and we would certainly not take their opinions seriously in a policy setting when set against the opinions of a trained physicist. So if, like James Bond, physicists and mathematicians don’t have to put up with this, why do biologists? The media often give equal credence to the opinions of the general public, with only a high school level of biology, compared to expert scientists. Even worse, policy makers with little understanding on biology weigh in with opinions on biological matters with confidence, despite a lack of training and understanding.

For example, Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), a member of the US House Committee on Science, Space and Technology (who has degrees in history) stated in a hearing on UN Climate Policy:

“Is there some thought being given to subsidizing the clearing of rainforests in order for some countries to eliminate that production of greenhouse gases?” 

In a previous House hearing, he had posited an interesting argument on changing levels of carbon dioxide in geological history:

“We don’t know what those other cycles were caused by in the past… Could be dinosaur flatulence…”

Where I am currently sitting in Virginia (a long way from my British homeland), high school students are taught different branches of science in subsequent years, i.e., for one year students will be taught physics, for another chemistry. As biology is apparently considered a “simple” science, it’s usually taught first, for one year, and then never taught again. Consequently, the level of biology in public schools is at a very rudimentary level, so as not to go over teenagers’ heads, and never revisited at a more sophisticated level, unless those kids are college-bound. Biology is basically taught so kids whose brains are not developed enough yet to realize that Justin Bieber is not in fact a musical genius can understand. For the majority of the public, that is the only level of biological education they will attain.

In Europe, typically sciences are taught in incremental levels, simultaneously, dealing with progressively more and more complicated subjects. The average person, having gone through a general program of state education, has covered biology up to a more complex level. Perhaps this is why my European relatives are less likely to pooh-pooh the opinions of biologists in preference for something a friend told them one time down ‘t pub.

There is a syndrome called the Dunning-Kruger effect , when those who are not skilled in something or not trained on an issue, have the delusion that they are more knowledgeable or skilled than they really are. Basically, this is because they lack the knowledge-base to know how little they do not know. This seems to be commonly encountered in the life sciences. Frequently with medical doctors, patients may argue with their physicians about treatments because what they read online or saw on TV gives them expertise that trumps the years of specialist training their medical practitioner underwent. Watching five seasons of “House” clearly gives one the equivalent training to an oncologist or neurosurgeon.

How do we fix this? Well, the solution is easy – more and better education in the life sciences. As author Terry Pratchett says:

They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it’s not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance.

Although if biologists get frustrated by tirades on evolution by ‘young earth’ creationists, they should spare a thought for those poor scientists who work on climate change and give thanks…