Why the Experts Aren’t Always Right

     There is, it must be admitted, a seemingly valid case for allowing expert opinion, especially where public health and safety are concerned. It goes without saying that credentialed authorities do, generally, know more about their respective fields than laypeople. And conversely, there are more than a few internet users all-too ready to accept poorly documented answers to complex and difficult problems, even if this lack of caution puts both themselves and their neighbors in jeopardy.

     But underneath the argument that degreed professionals and their affiliated institutions should have a veto over contrary opinion is a false, if widely accepted, assumption about the knowledge these experts claim to possess.  For once we get beyond the so-called “hard” sciences of physics and chemistry, much of what is accepted as experimentally true in the social sciences, education, medicine, and even biology cannot, in fact, be replicated.

     Although it has not received the journalistic coverage it should, concerns about what academics call “experimental irreproducibility” have been surfacing for nearly a decade. In 2012, scientists at biotech firm Amgen found that they could confirm the results of only six of 53 supposedly landmark cancer studies published in prominent journals.  Four years later, Nature conducted an online survey of scientists, 70 percent of whom said they had tried and failed to reproduce their colleagues’ published findings.

     In science, the ability to duplicate the results of a study is the ultimate test of its validity; and by this gold standard the deference we all have been taught to show medical and social science researchers turns out to be completely unjustified. John Ioannidis, co-director of Stanford University’s Meta-Research Innovation Center, believes that up to half the information published in peer-reviewed journals is probably wrong, an opinion he shares with The Lancet’s respected editor-in-chief, Richard Charles Horton. National Association of Scholars President Peter Wood says that many of the regulations, law, and programs routinely passed by the U.S. Congress are based on little more than research flukes and, in many cases, outright “statistical manipulation.”

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