Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Public competency in science: Are experts the best at setting the standards?

Please check out this essay by Baruch Fischhoff of Carnegie Mellon University.  In the essay he explains that experts, by establishing unrealistic standards of "knowledge", can actually under estimate the public's scientific competency. This can seriously impact public affairs and the public's well-being. I also think it is an important question because it may impact young people by keeping them from regarding science as accessible and relevant, and from seeing themselves as adept as thinkers.

Fischhoff describes three pathologies of those who are guilty of  "confusing ignorance with stupidity [and] casting those who don’t know as being incapable of learning." They are:

  1. placing the onus on citizens for not knowing facts that would be easily understood, had they just heard them (effective and thoughtful communication by experts is key!);
  2. accusing people of hypocrisy, when they fail to adopt every specific behavior that is conceivably consistent with a general attitude (just because you agree global warming is a problem, doesn't mean you can't take a plane when you vacation in Greece); and
  3. accepting the accuracy and relevance of expert opinion without question or qualification (Always take advice with a grain of salt!)

Not only can citizens play a role by communicating their needs and interests, but the so-called "experts" must also listen.  Fischhoff claims that relevant testing is possible, but the testers must be disciplined when designing the test. They should set and adhere to standards for listening carefully to the needs and wants expressed by the citizenry and making sure that the question they ask are clear and understandable. "Without such a disciplined approach, " Fischhoff declares, "competence testers can do bad, while feeling good."

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