Expertise matters: a response to a COVID critic on Facebook

This scanning electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 (yellow)—also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19—isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells (blue/pink) cultured in the lab. (Image credit: NIAID-RML)
Today I came across a guy who I’ve “debated” with previously who wrote the following:

Blindly listening to scientists is the problem! We need to question things. Collusion with the government is a major issue that distorts science into a politically motivated outcome. Society has lost the ability to think critically.

My first response was to point out that many aspects of science and technology are so complicated that individual citizens literally cannot have sufficient background to think critically about complicated subjects. He responded that this was an excuse to stay ignorant and that people should educate themselves, to which I wrote the following.

Names have been removed.

I do. But I also don’t assume that I can know as much about a subject as the experts do.

Example: I’m an electrical engineer who designs hardware. I have a Master’s degree and over 20 years of experience across four different industries, currently working in aerospace. In my area, I’m an expert, partly because I’ve made so many mistakes over the years that I know what to do, how to do it, and when something doesn’t look right.

Your average Facebook user cannot look at one of my designs and say anything intelligent about it, or understand the math that I used to analyze it, or the physics underlying it, without the equivalent of a two year associates degree at an absolute minimum. Depending on the design, a full BSEE and 5+ years of experience is more likely. And that’s just to understand the basics and be somewhat knowledgeable.

And the same thing is true of any electrical engineer with a similar degree and a similar number of years of experience.

Some fields are even more complicated than electrical engineering, and so even more years of study and/or experience are required to become an authentic expert. Climate change-related science, for example. I’ve studied the subject as an interested citizen and a part-time environmental journalist for over 15 years, which makes me more knowledgeable on the subject than 99.9% of non-climate scientists who do it professionally. That doesn’t make me an expert on climate change. The scientists who do it as a living – who eat it, drink it, breathe it, and bathe in it – they’re the actual experts.

Have you put in 6+ years of full-time college, got your advanced degree under the tutelage of an expert just like apprentice tradesmen study under masters, with respect to epidemiology or infectious diseases? No?

Then your opinions are not expert and certainly not equal to theirs. Expertise matters, and you are not an expert. Perhaps you should listen more and talk less.

At the moment I have the following aside about opinions pinned to the front of my homepage. It remains true even if you don’t like it, and it applies here.

Not all opinions are created equal. Opinions that are informed by facts, data, logic, and science are better than opinions that are not. And opinions that are based on fantasy, misinformation, wishful thinking, and ignorance are the least of all.

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