Was Stephen Hawking right to be worried about people being sceptical of scientists and other experts? In posts so far we’ve looked at how money and conflict of interest can influence not only the priorities and goals of research, but also the outcomes and findings.
We have seen how both researchers and their studies from many fields have been totally discredited, whether because their results are not reproducible, or because the researchers have deliberately created fraudulent results or manipulated data in order to further their careers, enhance their reputations, or secure funding. All of these factors warrant a significant amount of doubt when considering a lot of what scientific and academic research claims to tell us. However, we have still not looked at the greatest reason for always questioning what experts (or any authorities for that matter) say.
Aside from the doubt cast on the research and credentials of experts in their respective fields, it is also prudent to take with a grain of salt whatever experts say when they share their opinion on different subjects, whether it be on social media, the traditional media, or in other public forums.
The underlying reason stems from the fact that everyone has an opinion, and oftentimes experts are called on to share their views about various topics of public interest. In conjecture about enthralling topics such as whether intelligent extra-terrestrial lifeforms exist, a field where Stephen Hawking often speculated, putting his support behind the search for them and also warning of the dangers of contacting them, it is popular for experts – often from totally unrelated fields – to weigh in and give their two cents worth.
Considering the example of Stephen Hawking as a useful lesson, even though he may be revered as an expert in his own fields of physics and cosmology, many people may be tempted to unquestioningly accept his (unqualified) opinions about aliens because of his fame as an expert. Did Stephen Hawking ever see evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligent lifeforms? Of course he didn’t, so he was just speculating. Some might argue that he was speculating from a more authoritative position because of his research, but in reality he was someone who knew nothing more about aliens than a science fiction writer creating imaginary worlds populated with aliens knows.
It is important to see the difference here between subjective beliefs, such as Mr Hawking’s opinion about the existence and intentions of extra-terrestrial beings, and objective facts, for which he presented none on this topic. The same issue is seen in the second article listed below, where two supposedly reputable (because they work at a famous academic institution) astronomers claimed that an asteroid is actually part of an alien spacecraft.
Aside from the fact that this is total nonsense and not backed up with any evidence whatsoever, it will give them even more exposure and help to develop their reputations. In other words, it does not matter at all whether experts are correct or even reasonable in their assertions – something that seems more akin to claims made by religious leaders than scientists – people will still discuss and potentially even put faith in their unqualified, unjustifiable claims. From the public’s point of view then, wariness of expert opinions is extremely wise if we don’t want to be misled, misinformed or used as unwitting tools in the self-promotion of others.
Stephen Hawking warns over making contact with aliens
Oumuamua: Did an alien spaceship just pass through our solar system? It's unlikely, experts say