What Students Must Know About Scientific Expertise

We can do more to help those across the political spectrum understand how to apportion their trust in science and be less vulnerable to partisan denialism, says Michael Schwalbe.

November 16, 2022
An illustration of a textbook with various academic symbols, such as a planet with rings and an atom, sketched above it.
(Alena Butusava/istock/getty images plus)

Why has COVID-19 killed more people in the U.S.—over one million by last May—than in any other wealthy, technologically advanced nation in the world? Part of the answer lies in the partisan politicking that eroded public trust in the science around disease transmission and immunization, leading many people to reject vaccines and resist simple prevention measures, such as masking. But why was public trust in science so shaky in the first place?

One answer points to decades-long efforts by the tobacco and energy industries to sow doubt about the science that shows, in the first case, that smoking causes cancer, and, in the second, that global warming is real and caused in large part by burning fossil fuels. Such doubt-mongering campaigns aim to forestall regulation that might hurt corporate profits. They also undermine trust in science more generally, as historian Naomi Oreskes argues in her book Why Trust Science?

College graduates are partly inoculated, as most educators would hope, against the forces of science denialism. In the case of COVID-19, studies have found that people with at least a bachelor’s degree are less susceptible to conspiracy theories, more likely to be vaccinated and more likely to embrace masking and social distancing policies. College graduates are also more likely to accept that climate change is driven by human activity. And yet it’s also clear that a college degree does not ensure trust in science.

In early 2022, the Pew Research Center reported survey results showing that 86 percent of college graduates have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in science, compared to 74 percent of those without a degree. But then trust broke down along party lines: while 95 percent of college-educated Democratic respondents expressed trust in science, the figure for college-educated Republican respondents was only 73 percent. A mere 21 percent of Republican college graduates expressed a great deal of trust in science.

As those figures suggest, trust in science isn’t just a matter of understanding science. Political tribalism plays a significant and often damaging role. While educators can probably do little about the latter problem, we can surely do more to help students across the political spectrum understand how to wisely apportion their trust in science, so as to be less vulnerable to partisan science denialism.

Science educators are aware of the problem and have proposed ways to combat it. One key strategy is to downplay memorization of facts and findings in favor of teaching how science is done. If students understand that process, the argument goes, they will understand why science is the best way to figure out how the world works—and why trust in the scientific consensus is warranted. This strategy strikes me as necessary and yet not enough.

The problem is that most people do not directly access the scientific consensus in a given field. Most people rely on experts to convey that consensus. That is true even of scientists once they step outside their areas of expertise. Likewise, of course, with students; most of what they will come to know about the world will come via people held up as experts. So, in addition to knowing how science is done, they also need to understand scientific expertise, because that is what they will confront again and again throughout their lives.

Here, then, are five things we should try to teach students about scientific expertise. One needn’t be a scientist to teach these meta lessons. They can be taught by anyone who understands what expertise is and who appreciates its value. The aim, presumably shared across disciplines, is to help students become more sophisticated evaluators of scientific and scholarly knowledge claims.

  1. Expertise takes years to acquire. Students should be taught that becoming an expert requires more than spending a few hours looking up stuff on the internet. Scientists and scholars in all fields know that it can take years of study to master not only a body of facts but also the theories that make sense of those facts and the methods by which facts are obtained. Real experts, students should learn, are familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of primary sources—the studies that give a discipline its empirical footing—not just with what can be found on Wikipedia pages. If students understand that, they will be less likely to believe it’s possible to “do your own research” by watching videos on YouTube.
  2. Expertise is domain specific. We tend to grant credibility to people with impressive credentials who can speak authoritatively on a wide range of subjects. And while it’s possible for such people to know a little about many things, their expertise, such as it might be, is always narrower than it seems. A Ph.D. in economics, or even physics, is not evidence of expertise in climate science. This point harks back to the first lesson: developing expertise takes time and dedication to a field. If students understand that fact, they will be more skeptical when listening to think-tank talking heads who confidently declaim on any topic fed to them by a news anchor or talk show host.
  3. Expertise is active, not static. As scientific knowledge grows, expertise grows along with it. A failure to understand that can fuel undue skepticism about science. In matters of health policy, for example, the advice of experts might change not because they don’t know what they’re talking about, but because research reveals more about a disease, its transmission or how to fight it. Experts adjust their recommendations accordingly, as we’ve seen in the case of the COVID pandemic. If students understand this, they will be more likely to see changes in expert advice as a sign of strength, not of unreliability
  4. Expertise is rooted in community. Scientific expertise arises out of connections to predecessors, teachers and colleagues. Experts know what’s been said and is being said in an ongoing conversation; they know which empirical claims have already been proposed, tested and either accepted or rejected. Students should learn that experts engage respectfully (most of the time) with other experts in their fields. Experts might sometimes criticize their colleagues, but they know that without those colleagues, without conversation and without peer review, there would be no scientific enterprise at all. Students who understand this will be properly skeptical of views offered by professional contrarians or those who disparage science in general.
  5. Expertise knows its limitations. Experts know far more than the rest of us about their areas of interest. They know how much confidence to place in particular knowledge claims and in the prevailing consensus. They also have perspective on what they don’t know and perhaps how little they know relative to all that might be known. In contrast, nonexperts often cherry-pick weak studies to support a favored conclusion, ignore the weight of evidence that underlies the scientific consensus and overestimate the extent of their own knowledge. Students who learn that intellectual humility is a hallmark virtue of real expertise may gain perspective on the limits of their own knowledge. They may also be wary of those who purport to know more than the scientific experts who devote their lives to deeply probing a small piece of the world.

In his book The Death of Expertise, Thomas M. Nichols says that American culture has always included a healthy skepticism about expertise, but that in recent decades this skepticism has grown into active resentment and hostile distrust. It’s not that experts or expertise are no longer with us. What has died, according to Nichols, is the ideal of expertise—an appreciation for what expertise entails and an understanding of its value for society. As a result, a host of pernicious tendencies have arisen: the denial of science and the rejection of dispassionate rationality, the inability to distinguish fact from opinion and the belief that all opinions are equally valid—all of which, Nichols argues, impede the rational discourse essential to self-government.

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I take it as part of the mission of higher education to oppose these tendencies. We can do that by helping students understand, through lessons large and small, what scientific expertise is and why it’s valuable. This is not a partisan project, nor a surrender to scientism, as if everything worth knowing comes from science alone. It is a matter of trying to do better what we already do: teach students to reflect wisely on the knowledge they possess and the knowledge offered to them by others. If Nichols is right, democracy depends on it.

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Michael Schwalbe is professor emeritus of sociology at North Carolina State University.

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