On ‘experts’

How do you define an expert? Relative to the average palaeontologist I am an expert in dinosaurs, relative to the average biologist, the average palaeontologist is probably an expert in dinosaurs, and relative to the general public, the average biologist is a expert in dinosaurs, even someone with an A-level education in biology probably knows a bit more than average (the median or modal average) about dinosaurs. We do pretty much all know the difference between a genus and species, understand the basic principles of evolution by natural selection and so on. I know it’s a bit more complex than that, but you can see where I am going with this – it’s all relative, but there are certain fundamentals to any field that anyone with a passing knowledge of the subject should be familiar with. I posit this question about experts as I recently came across a large a sprawling online magazine who claimed that their entire content was written by ‘experts’. I read through a few of their dinosaur and palaeontology posts and fond them to be disappointing at best and full or errors at worst. Mostly they were simply reviews of basic issues (like what stegosaur plates may have been used for) and even then based on research papers, yet they still (and repeatedly) managed to get simple things wrong. There are three or four people writing these columns and only once did one of them italicised a Latin binomial and often they capitalised the species (i.e. they put Tyrannosaurus Rex and not Tyrannosaurs rex) as well as other basic errors like mixing up family and species names, capitalising names that should not be and vice versa, ‘Brontosaurus’ rears it’s damned head *again* despite another article in the dinosaur section on why the name isn’t valid!, and *honestly* one article cited as it’s only source the ‘New book of dinosaurs’ and while it was written by Mike Benton, was also aimed at kids and came out in 1986! This is a source for a magazine article aimed at a general audience written in 2008?! Surely an expert would have access to better sources or understand that this is not an appropriate or up-to-date source. Frankly I would hope most normal people would know this.

Anyone with high school biology should understand about the use of Linnean names, and even many lay people at least know the name Brontosaurus is problematic, enough one would expect to at least check it out before committing it to paper. One article discussed whether or not Herrerasaurus was a dinosaur or archosaur. On the face of it this is an interesting point (where exactly does this animal fit) and allows one to expand on a further issue (how exactly are larger groups like dinosaurs defined). However, the article seemed to me to imply that while this was a debate over position, it was not one of definition. That is, it was written as if groups of taxonomists were bickering over where Herrerasaurus fits in the archosaurian tree, and NOT where exactly the line for dinosaurs should be drawn. We know where Herrerasaurus goes – it’s either a very basal dinosaur or a very derived dinosauromorph. In other words, depending on exactly how you define dinosaurs, and how you interpret the fossil, it may or may not be a dinosaur, but at the very worst, it is a very, very, very close relative of dinosaurs. To ask “is it a dinosaur or an archosaur” rather implies that it could be linked to anything from a crocodilian to a pterosaur which is very far from the truth, and misses the crux of the matter entirely. It also suggests that the authors does not know or understand the issues at hand. This is important. The website has presumably gone out and deliberately hired these people (they are paid to write articles for them) which implies some kind of selection / application etc. and specifically refers to them as experts. Experts who apparently did so poorly in biology they can’t write a species name correctly. This is bad. It especially concerns me because with a site like AAB (to pick a pertinent and non-random example) we specifically advertise ourselves as experts, since everyone on there has (or is working for) a PhD, or is specifically employed in science communication, yet apparently these people are ‘experts’ too. I am well aware of the fact that no-one can be an expert in everything, but my endless berating of the media is based around the fact that they are supposed to be experts at transmitting this information, or at least should be able to repeat the words of real experts correctly. Even then I can understand some mistakes – the science writer for a newspaper will (one hopes) have a degree, but probably did not cover all of biology, palaeontology, chemistry, medicine, physics, geology, biochemistry and engineering in great depth at university. Even then, they still get the italics right on species names, (and certainly should copying them correctly out of published papers) which is more than this lot manage between them. I suppose the central point is this: the public have a hard enough time to decide who to trust on certain matters, (and often enough make terrible choices) without making their jobs harder. Who on earth though that these people were ‘experts’ and what qualifies them as such? I do not know who hired them, or on what grounds, or based on what qualifications (and one suspects that they have been shunted in and told to make a decent fist of reviewing a few dinosaur papers when they should be doing something else) but they are clearly not experts. To advertise them as such is disingenuous and it not only misleads the public as to the quality and accuracy of their work, but also does a disservice to the word (and indeed the person) ‘expert’ when so little knowledge is required to apparently fulfil the title.

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