“Generic” scientists are reasonably competent in their own specialized fields and very probably have discovered new information—a requirement for successful defense of their theses for an advanced degree in a specialty.
However, they are human. Accordingly, they are no more likely to be better informed about areas of science remote from their special expertise than a well educated historian, economist, clergyman, etc. This does not prevent their opinions from being sought in such areas especially if their name recognition is high or if they have an opinion contrary to the consensus in a (temporarily) controversial topic such as evolution or climate science (see below for flat earthers and geocentrists).
Linus Pauling is a near perfect example: so far he is the only individual to be awarded two unshared Nobel Prizes (Chemistry and Peace). His eminence indirectly contributed to the confusion about the benefits of vitamin C for a generation because of his well articulated statements about the benefits of vitamin C in situations where such benefits had not (and have not) been demonstrated. Many in our population still take vitamin C to prevent or treat colds. Could knowledge of Linus Pauling’s heavy investment in vitamin C manufacture have mitigated this error in the public’s thinking? Incidentally, has anyone ever been convicted for insider trading on Wall Street in spite of the tip being in error? Fortunately vitamin C is one of the least toxic substances known. See What Could be Less Toxic than Water on www.frantzmd.info.
A modern example is the controversy about climate change. The vociferous deniers are not climate scientists. The scientists’ disagreements are in the details such as how much carbon dioxide (CO2) can the oceans absorb. In this detail a mistake occurred among scientists because those in error assumed that the oceans could continue to absorb CO2 at the present rate indefinitely. Actually the increased absorption occurs as a result of increasing levels in the atmosphere. When a new and higher steady level of CO2 in the atmosphere is reached, further absorption by the ocean will cease as equilibrium is achieved between atmospheric CO2 and oceanic CO2. Furthermore, if we ever succeed in lowering atmospheric CO2 levels, the ocean will release some back into the atmosphere gradually. This will be good because CO2 makes the oceans more acidic, which disturbs some fisheries.
Another error in thinking about climate change shared by many climate scientists is that carbon capture and storage (deep underground) of CO2 is a long term solution to climate change. This is an error because oxygen from the air will be stored permanently along with the stored carbon. For a billion years or so the oxygen of CO2 in the earth’s primordial atmosphere has been released into the air by photosynthesis; this now includes CO2 produced by fire and animal respiration. Photosynthesis is so efficient that atmospheric CO2 is still below 0.04% up from 0.028% before the industrial revolution started burning fossil fuel. The salient arithmetically logical fact is that successfully burying CO2 will ultimately reduce oxygen from 21% to the percentage corresponding to the percentage of fossil fuel that remains unburned because there was virtually no oxygen in the primordial atmosphere—no grant application or research needed, but more complex mathematics will be required to estimate the geologic time necessary for significant trouble to ensue from carbon capture and storage of CO2.
Summary: Take your cues about climate change from experts not from news reports giving equal time to the controversy. The error of giving equal time to the controversy just seems to be fair. We don’t give equal time to kooks who think the world is flat or who think that we are the center of the universe.
John Frantz, MD, February 23, 2011, revised March 18, 2011