Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Doggerel #171: "You're Not an Expert, You Can't Comment!"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

Being an expert on a topic is a wonderful thing: If knowing about something is a part of your job, there's a fair chance what you have to say about the matter is worth listening to. Not always, but often. But just because you're not one of those people, that doesn't mean what you have to say is inherently worthless.

On many topics that I come across, I like to think of myself as an intelligent layman. For example, I've got an intuitive grasp of the general principles of evolution, but when I hear Sonic Hedgehog, I think of a certain thing other than a signaling pathway (well, almost). In most online arguments, however, I don't have to deal with those sorts of fine details: My adversaries typically make much more basic errors than the details the experts have to handle. Against IDiots, I more often have to point out that evolution is NOT random, or that "irreducible complexity" is a cakewalk for evolution. If I run into one complaining about protein-protein binding, I may need some help, but I seldom do.

That's why many of us non-expert skeptics can so easily deal with a lot of woos out there: The mistakes they make are often so basic and fundamental that anyone with a grasp of logic can catch them, sometimes even if they don't know anything at all about the topic. Logic and the principles of the scientific method are still the foundation of knowledge. I don't read medical journals, but I can still spot an anti-vaxxer equivocating "mercury" when they mean thimerosal.

3 comments:

Infophile said...

Heh, that was a fast one. Anyways, this one has always annoyed me, because it was brought up by woos all the time on Wikipedia. For instance, on Homeopathy-related articles, they'd claim that only the opinions of trained Homeopaths were valid sources, however flawed their logic might be. I'd counter that in fact chemists and biologists were more appropriate, as they actually had relevant scientific training - not simply coming up with canards to rationalize why Homeopathy wasn't bunk.

The thing is, you don't need to be a trained Homeopath to know that a particular substance likely has no active ingredient, and that by our current understanding of science such a substance couldn't have any physiological effect. But if you're a Homeopath, you've been pre-screened for that type of logic, so they're safe to allow you to express your opinion.

Of course, any type of quack can use this Doggerel, however ridiculous their claim is:

"If you aren't a chiropractor you can't criticize chiropractic!"

"If you aren't a bloodletter you can't criticize bloodletters!"

"If you aren't a quack you can't criticize quacks!"

Etc.

Mongrel said...

But if you're a Homeopath, you've been pre-screened for that type of logic, so they're safe to allow you to express your opinion.

Not always. One of the chaps on the UK Skeptics board took, and passed, a Homeopathy course and thought it great fun to when they insisted he couldn't comment because he wasn't trained. "Well actually..."

What can also useful is the same rebuttal, many of the people that try and argue the point aren't trained either ;)

William said...

This one was particularly funny, and painful, when it was hurled at critics of the Bush administration in general, and the Iraq War in particular.