I’m a few weeks late to this, but this smart column from Communication Breakdown (a blog devoted to science communication) is something I can't pass up on highlighting. The focus of the piece is on climate change, but much of what University of Georgia's Marshall Shepherd, PhD, writes can be applied to other scientific “controversies” (note the quotes), such as the benefits of vaccines. Shepherd writes:
...All kinds of people with virtually no expertise are comfortable speaking on climate science.
I can be in the grocery store and if someone finds out that I am a meteorologist-climatologist type, they often feel comfortable telling me “the climate changes naturally” or launching into some zombie theory (i.e. a theory that I have heard a million times and has been disproven by the science). I am usually cordial, but in the back of my mind, I am thinking: “Really? You think the director of a major university's atmospheric sciences program (Go Dawgs) with a BS, MS, and PhD in meteorology from a top program (Go Noles) doesn’t know that the climate changes naturally?”
He goes on to write (and I couldn't agree more):
...you must consume information from credible or expert sources. Ask yourself if the author of that blog or Op-Ed has a background in the science, has published in peer-reviewed journals, or at least put forth their position in a forum that can be evaluated, tested, or scrutinized. Additionally, it is important to remember that just because people have “equal access” to experts in formats like Twitter, it doesn’t mean “equal expertise.” My 7 year old could tweet his view on the onset of El Niño, but it doesn’t mean it is credible.
Second, the public must understand that just because you know a TV personality, it doesn’t signify that they are an expert on climate or vaccines. While this may sound trivial, many celebrities reach millions of people, and I am convinced that some fall into lock step with celebrity viewpoints just because they like them or their show...