Post No.: 0291
Journalists seldom just ask random academics for their expertise – they’ll tend to actively attempt to find experts or ‘experts’ who’ll say the things they hope will be said for the sake of a more dramatic story. For example, rather than ask for the opinion of any impartial doctor regarding a new drug, they’ll seek a doctor who’ll say sensationalised things, such as that the drug is tremendously risky or conversely the most amazing thing ever.
Alternatively, they can choose who or what gets edited in or out and how it’ll all be presented to make implications seem to exist where there were none or to colour the audience’s emotions (e.g. by using techniques such as visual mattes/filters and emotional background scores within their reports or documentaries – basically the same peripheral manipulation techniques that work on the audience’s unconscious as used in movie making and advertising).
One can virtually always find at least one academic somewhere in the world who supports a certain hypothesis or claim. One can also virtually always be able to find scientific or ‘scientific’ support for one’s beliefs somewhere via the web – but not all scientific studies are equal since some have methodological flaws, chance results, misinformation or fraud, for instance. And those asked for their expertise can be paid to say certain things or they could have commercial conflicts of interest (i.e. check out who their employers are and/or what financial interests they hold in which companies).
Some scientists may gladly admit that they’re funded by certain corporate sponsors but claim that they can say whatever they want with their research – but the reality is that as soon as they say something that’s contrary to one of their sponsor’s interests, that sponsor will (perhaps rationally, to protect their own interests) cut their future funding for this research or use another lab next time, meaning that there is always at least a tacit and subconscious incentive to not counter a corporate sponsor’s (the organisation or individual who pay’s) interests, meaning that conflicts of interest cannot be completely negated under these arrangements. (It’s similar with the case of giving away free products in return for published reviews.) Their research, expertise or opinions cannot be considered totally independent, even if they’re ultimately trying their genuine furry best to be truthful.
Or if their research is honest but it’s not what their sponsors want to hear, what happens is that those sponsors will try their very best to keep those results quiet, whereas they’ll seek all the publicity they can for any findings that favour them and their products – which therefore presents a biased picture to the public. That’s advertising in a nutshell – highlight all the favourable things you want the world to know but hide everything else, unless there are regulations forcing you to disclose them for the sake of enabling consumers to make better informed decisions.
And indeed, direct company executives, spokespeople or employees for an organisation are not likely going to be impartial in their views regarding the organisation that pays them their livelihood, or regarding the consequences of their own work if it’s their own personal project, even though journalists will want to give them a chance to air their points of view or sides of the story too out of fairness (a right of reply).
So of course a spokesperson for the fossil fuel, pharmaceutical, agricultural, motor, banking, technology or whatever industry or sector is highly likely going to try his/her hardest to object to claims that there are problems within their own industry, products or interests (just like spokespeople for the tobacco firms around just after the middle of the 20th century refuted claims that their products caused any health problems). And of course these same people are conversely highly likely going to try their best to claim that their companies, activities or products are great (the tobacco lobby even tried to make smoking sound good for people’s health! There have been parallel strategies used by the fossil fuel industry regarding carbon dioxide emissions and global warming more recently).
So always take note of who is giving an opinion or sharing their ‘expertise’ and what their linked (financial and other) interests are – never just take an opinion or piece of expertise claimed by somebody on its own. It doesn’t necessarily mean that their opinions or expertise are invalid but they’re not likely going to be unbiased. We can try our best to be independent and impartial but at least on an unconscious level we won’t be able to help but want our own vested interests to be served or validated.
Also, being famous is not the same thing as being an expert. A celebrity status doesn’t automatically confer one any expertise on a particular matter, even though many celebrities hold strong and vocal opinions about things. Yet the media frequently asks for or reports on the views of celebrities who have no special expertise on the matter at hand but are only given a voice on air or in an article because they’re famous over those who likely know more on those subjects. Every celebrity needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis though because being a celebrity doesn’t automatically mean one will be clueless either. It’s just that they’re specially granted platforms and opportunities to share their views widely when, on average, they’re not likely going to be any more clued-up on an issue than the average person in the population.
But what the media says, and what dubious ‘authorities’ such as celebrities do, holds so much power over the general public’s opinions, decisions and actions – people should be more trusting of empirical data, and should have the courage to withhold expressing a firm opinion or from gossiping if they don’t have the specific information or if they don’t confidently understand something (such as whether an identified suspect is actually guilty of a crime or not, despite us not being there on the night of the incident or seeing any evidence with our own eyes, and only basing our opinions on circumstantial evidence or mere speculations provided by the media. Post No.: 0238 investigated the hazards associated with breaking news and speculative information).
Ideologues and some activists can sometimes be just as narrow-minded as some experts on their one idea or solution too. Simple ideologies, big ideas, can unite a populace like nothing else to build ‘a utopian society of our dreams’ (whether religious or secular ones like equality, democracy or nationalism) but history has shown us that simple ideological visions have also been used to justify atrocious acts. We should instead understand reality for how it really is – i.e. it’s messy and complex – and therefore be ready to accept compromise and to consider a combination of ideas from a diverse range of perspectives on a case-by-case basis. Woof!
Even if someone does possess specific expertise on a matter at hand, the opinions and predictions of even scientists (and note that a scientist in one field is only a scientist in that specific field), never mind entrepreneurs, celebrities or the like, won’t ever count as scientific proof for a conclusion on their own. Their input may seem to carry weight, but no matter how smart, correct or successful they may have been before – opinions never count as evidence and making accurate predictions typically isn’t easy. We should neither trust nor distrust a statement or prediction based solely on who said it – everything is rightly able to be criticised if there are grounds for criticism, based on providing evidence and/or logic, reasoned arguments and counterarguments. This is one way science is different to religion – no one has absolute authority on a matter or is therefore able to present statements or predictions that are beyond questioning. Therefore scientists aren’t absolute authority figures – after all, scientists frequently disagree with other scientists!
Not all opinions or predictions are equal for some are based on more assured evidence than others. Yet it’d arguably be dangerous to totally silence certain unpopular or controversial opinions or predictions for they may one day gather support or evidence in the future? This has happened a lot in the past hence the evolving nature of cultures, scientific understanding and even what’s considered moral or ethical. We hardly understand everything yet.
…However, after everything we see, hear and are exposed to – what tends to happen is that we’re biased to believe and side with the expertise or opinion that personally suits us the most! It’s just like if you were trying to sell an antique and two expert antique dealers gave you very different ages and therefore valuations for it, you’ll likely believe that the piece was nearer the oldest estimate and therefore commands a higher reserve price. Whenever there are opposing views, we’re more likely to be more easily persuaded by the set of views that we’d personally rather believe in. So beware of this.
Woof. Then again, why heed my words(?!)