2011-10-04 10:56:01Evaluating scientific claims (or, do we have to take the scientist’s word for it?) -- Scientific American
John Hartz
John Hartz

Recently, we’ve noted that a public composed mostly of non-scientists may find itself asked to trust scientists, in large part because members of that public are not usually in a position to make all their own scientific knowledge. This is not a problem unique to non-scientists, though — once scientists reach the end of the tether of their expertise, they end up having to approach the knowledge claims of scientists in other fields with some mixture of trust and skepticism. (It’s reasonable to ask what the right mixture of trust and skepticism would be in particular circumstances, but there’s not a handy formula with which to calculate this.)

Are we in a position where, outside our own narrow area of expertise, we either have to commit to agnosticism or take someone else’s word for things? If we’re not able to directly evaluate the data, does that mean we have no good way to evaluate the credibility of the scientist pointing to the data to make a claim?

This raises an interesting question for science journalism, not so much about what role it should play as what role it could play.

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