Knowledge and the application of knowledge

In some of my recent posts I was, it is fair to say, highly critical of people who leave comments on forums, online articles and the rest many of whom seem to think that they know far more than they actually do about science. There are two aspects of this misestimation of knowledge that are worth commenting on that are important, and for once do not overlap with each other to any great extent.

The first is that there seems to be a misunderstanding that science is purely about knowledge. Science (or the scientist) either knows something or does not. If they do not know it, they simply have to find it out and then it is known, or so the logic seems to run. However this itself misses two key points. First is that of course a great deal of scientific information is not in a state of known vs unknown (even if we know we know things, or know we don’t know things) but is the subject of debate. To pick an obvious candidate we do not know exactly what oviraptorosaurs were eating and this is not simply a case of not knowing, it’s pretty hard to find out and the subject is up for debate. We can discuss all manner of issues (shape of the beak, the claws on the hands, gastroliths, ancestry etc.) without really settling on an answer so while much is *known* the answer is *not* known with any great certainty even if we have lots of evidence and good clues.

In addition there is the idea that scientists simply acquire knowledge by just reading books or if something is new just somehow ‘finding out’. Science is not just about knowledge but also the application of knowledge. You could read every paper ever on tyrannosaurs next week and learn a colossal amount about them, but without an understanding of evolutionary theory, how bone strength metrics are calculated, stratigraphy, anatomy, population ecology and animal behaviour you might struggle to put any of it in context. Even if you could dot hat, if you wanted to find out more about them through actual research you would have to know how to get a grant / perform a palaeontological dig / collect the right data / analyses the data correctly / put this in context / write a paper etc. (and that hardly touches on which stats you should use etc.). In short, just *knowing* something is hardly the sum total of science. So to return to those kinds of ‘but I already kinda knew that’ comments – great. Who cares? Did you know what it *means* and what that can *tell* you as well and what you can *do* with it? If not, don’t bother.

The second major issue here is one I have touched on before but can be put forward more explicitly thanks to one of the most awesomely title papers of all time. Basically people who don’t know much don’t realise they don’t know much and don’t realise that people who do know a lot do know a lot. To put it another way, the less expert you are in a field or skill, the more you overestimate your ability *and* the worse a judge you are of the skills of others. This has actually been demonstrated in the fantastically titled paper “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments” (by Kruger & Dunning, 1999 if you are interested). Also very much worthy of note here is the fact that those who are *most* skilled actually tend to *underestimate* their abilities as well.

You can therefore have the situation that I largely hint at in my annoyance of these comments where the ignorant think they know it all and the expert is useless AND the expert thinks he is not quite as good as he actually is. It’s an understandable recipe for disaster (or at least conflict) and even when mediated (such as when ‘both sides’ are covered by a journalist or a chair in a debate) unless that mediator is an expert too, the situation is unlikely to improve as they will then miss what is and is not valid / right / good as well. One can see how in an especially technical field like science which is then watered down (and I don’t necessarily mean in a bad way) for a media report that a non-expert reading it thinks the expert has got it wrong and he knows better.

From a science communication perspective, sadly the solution to this problem would appear to be that either we have to train everyone in the world to our standards for any given subject for them to appreciate it effectively, or to patronise them horribly by pointing out that actually they are wrong and know nothing and they should just believe. There is a third (and less sarcastic) solution too of course: to carry on doing what we are doing – presenting the evidence as best to can to as wide an audience as possible and know that for every commenting idiot, there are people who understand and appreciate what is being done and respect the work and the commitment it takes to produce that work, and if they don’t understand will seek out further knowledge.

However, this is not to say that this idle slating of people is not valuable (apart from it providing further catharsis for me). The better knowledge and understanding you can have of the lack of understanding of others, the better it can be dealt with. Here I think are two critical issues to understanding science that are missed by a large part of the public – knowledge is not understanding and *your* knowledge and understanding is not *all* knowledge and understanding.

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