David Sackett, epidemiologist and evidence-based medicine proponent, has died this week. I’d heard of him, but I hadn’t seen his editorial about being an expert in one’s field. Not all experts have had the thoughts that he had about their situation, and even fewer of those have acted on them the way he did:
. . .It then dawned on me that experts like me commit two sins that retard the advance of science and harm the young. Firstly, adding our prestige to our opinions gives the latter far greater persuasive power than they deserve on scientific grounds alone. Whether through deference, fear, or respect, others tend not to challenge them, and progress towards the truth is impaired in the presence of an expert. The second sin of expertness is committed on grant applications and manuscripts that challenge the current expert consensus. Reviewers face the unavoidable temptation to accept or reject new evidence and ideas, not on the basis of their scientific merit, but on the extent to which they agree or disagree with the public positions taken by experts on these matters. . .
. . .Is redemption possible for the sins of expertness? The only one I know that works requires the systematic retirement of experts. To be sure, many of them are sucked into chairs, deanships, vice presidencies, and other black holes in which they are unlikely to influence the progress of science or anything else for that matter. Surely a lot more people could retire from their fields and turn their intelligence, imagination, and methodological acumen to new problem areas where, having shed most of their prestige and with no prior personal pronouncements to defend, they could enjoy the liberty to argue new evidence and ideas on the latter’s merits.
But there are still far more experts around than is healthy for the advancement of science. . .
Sackett started his expertise over more than once, but found that he kept becoming an expert again, no matter what. We need more people for whom that could possibly become a problem, and more people who would notice that it had become one.