Experts in the nuclear debate

In class last week, we had a discussion about experts, and their role in scientific controversies.

First of all, what do people designate as an expert? If you listen to those who are concerned with evidence, lack of bias and rational choices, these experts must fulfill a variety of criteria. Most importantly, they should be currently publishing in their field, their field should be highly relevant to the items being discussed and they should be free from commercial interests.

While most people will understand the need to be free of commercial interests, comparatively little thought is given to the question of the expert’s expertise.

By this I mean, someone may be an expert in, say, nuclear reactor design, and then try to opine on the ability of renewable energy to cover the base-load energy demand in a region. Unlike what TV scientists like Dr. Samantha Carter (a physicist with a remarkable ability to do biological, geological and pathological research) lead us to believe, scientists who are experts in one particular field, do not have the requisite expertise to comment on loosely related fields, and they shouldn’t be allowed to.

In my example, above, the nuclear physicist should be considered an expert when the debate surrounds the safety of modern nuclear reactors, or the efficiency of the nuclear reaction itself, or even the costs associated with building a nuclear reactor, but as soon as that physicist comments on how well renewable energy works, they have ceased to be an expert, and merely become an educated commentator.

Unfortunately, this is the sort of ‘expert’ we see on both sides of the nuclear debate. This is partially because the arguments for and against nuclear power cover a wide variety of scientific fields and sub-disciplines, and most formal debates want to limit the number of participants. These debates (like the one I posted a couple of weeks ago, from TED) often rely on the drawing power of ‘celebrity’ scientific personalities. While these people may be experts in their respective fields, their opinions tend to become much more emotional, and combative, as they tend to argue similar points in the opposite directions. Where an expert would have an advantage in this part of the debate would be to be able to cite the most recent and relevant literature, to move the argument on either way.

In the TED video linked in an earlier post, we saw a debate between two people who were put forward as ‘equals’: Mark Z Jacobson and Stewart Brand. But this is not what was actually going on. Mark Z. Jacobson is a civil and environmental engineer and the director of the Atmosphere and Energy Program at Stanford University, where he researches the environmental impacts of different technologies on the environment, so far so good. Stewart Brand, however, is not an expert; he studied biology at university in the 1960s, but is really famous because of his involvement in the Whole Earth Catalog, a series that promoted communal living in the 1970s. From there he has been involved in many different projects, but his current position seems to be campaigning for a pragmatic approach to addressing climate change. I’m not saying that he is not an important figure, but he attempts to use rational arguments for most of this debate, which is lacking in an ethos angle, when you know he does not have the credentials to back them up.

There is another common type of debate seen around nuclear power, one where there are no experts. Often this comes in the form of ‘debates’ on news shows, that pits two commentators against each other. Obviously, this sort of debate lacks any rigour or accountability, but it is often used because it draws a crowd.

Say something controversial.