What defines a “scientific expert”?

How can a sociologist pass himself off convincingly as a physicist?

Slate magazine has an article reporting on a sociologist who posed as a physicist and managed to convince a number of experts. The case is reported also by OpenScience and Daniel Davies.

Professor Harry Collins conducts sociological research into ‘expertise’, but has also a love of science, and in particular the physics of gravitational waves. Collins has been studying the physics community for the last 30 years, and during that time has built up a wealth of knowledge about the field, albeit as a non-physicist. As part of this interest in scientists, Collins and co-workers at Cardiff University conducted an experiment which involved collecting a number of lay questions about gravitational wave detectors, and getting an expert to answer them. Collins then put together his own set of answers, based on his personal knowledge of the physics, and submitted both sets to a group of nine experts in gravitational wave physics as part of a Turing test to determine which answers were thought to be from a true physicist. Seven of the nine experts picked Collins’ answers, and I’m neither shocked nor surprised by this result.

So how did Harry Collins manage to get away with it, and what exactly defines a scientific expert? I am a physicist, but am confident that my comment below can be extrapolated to modern science as whole.

A physicist is someone able to conceptualise, analyse and model reality in terms of its physical attributes. Mathematical ability varies greatly between physicists, and it’s certainly not necessary to be a technical whizz at maths in order to do good physics. What is more important is conceptual ability, as discussed in the OpenScience comment.

Training comes into it, as does experience. PhD study, as well as being an original contribution to science, equips a physicist with certain research skills. I dare say it’s possible for someone with an educated layman’s understanding of physics to use physics terms and convince even experienced physicists who are not paying close attention. In a scientific conference setting, however, good questions show how well the one asking them understands the physics mentality. While it’s unlikely that a non-physicist will display such understanding at a deep level, one cannot rule it out, especially in the case of an individual such as Harry Collins.

Keywords: science society