Science & Society

Science and Society and how they get along.

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Location: Santa Barbara, California, United States

I'm a physicist and science consultant specialized in optics, lasers and optical engineering. This blog, StarkFX, looks at what applications physics is finding today. Or, if you are looking at my StarkEffects blog, it displays my views about and interest in the interface between society and science.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Intimidated by Experts!

Activity in some of your more important brain regions such as the anterior cingulate, a part of the prefrontal cortex involved in critical analysis of what you see and hear, is suppressed at exactly the time that it needs to be engaged. Brain imaging research shows that the areas of your brain that you rely on to “watch for mistakes” are calmed down by the voice of authority. When we perceive someone to be an expert or an authority our defenses against nonsense are lowered. We are much less critical of the advice we receive when it comes from someone we classify as an expert.

Such an automatic obedience response may serve a good purpose in situations where the authority has our best interest in mind but, that doesn’t happen often. Many, if not most, of the interactions we engage in involve authority figures experts. These people advise us on financial matters, fashions, relationships, careers and religious views. A great many of these people we see as experts for no other reason than they told us so. Yet, that is enough for us to dispense with the critical analysis of what they tell us and we end up doing silly things like pouring our money into mutual funds controlled by experts, listening to the critics about movies, taking the advice of political experts and even buying that product you saw on late night TV because the “scientific expert” told you all the benefits.
The reality is our society depends on experts. Unfortunately, the light side of that reality is that experts are less reliable than random chance when it comes to decisions we need to make. Just compare several years of any mutual fund to the S&P 500 or any predictions of political experts or futurists and you’ll see that a blind fold and a dart board would have done better. And, of course, there is the dark side where people masquerade as experts simply because we are more likely to buy what they are selling when they do.

Evidence based decision making is the only way around this problem. Scientific methods absolutely depend on real evidence, but you can’t assume the scientist (expert) really looked at the evidence until you analyze it yourself. Take into account what the experts, authorities and “leaders” tell you, but then wake up and put forth the effort critically analyze what you hear. Such reasoning is not easy and the majority of people in any society will never do it, but that doesn’t have to be you. Question authority. Reason about statements you hear and follow them to their logical consequences. Think –it isn’t illegal yet.

Troy Stark


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