Thursday, September 14, 2006

Expert Opinion

When I was in chemistry graduate school, I followed a typical program- a couple of semesters of core classwork, a series of cumulative exams, an oral qualifying exam, and then several years of research with the odd course here and there. The purpose of the classwork is to get you to the point that you can understand the scientific literature, and so that you can think analytically and, ultimately, creatively, in whatever subspecialty of chemistry you choose. The focus of the PhD program, however, is a multiyear research project, or more likely, a suite of projects that explore some area or topic, through which you are ultimately able to make an original contribution to your field. The process culminates in publication of your work in scientific journals, and the writing of a dissertation, which is read and used to grill you in a final hurdle, the dissertation defense. This is an oral examination focused on your research. By the time you are ready to finish, you probably know the details of your specialty as well as anyone on Earth, so most people pass without incident. The professor that you work for, your advisor, is unlikely to allow you to get up and make a fool of yourself, because you would be doing the same to him. Nevertheless, there are horror stories.

Mine was relatively uneventful, with the exception that I had pissed off one member of the committee, someone who came in from the outside of our department as required by my university. After the end of the grilling, when I had left the room, he groused a bit, I understand, but was mollified by the people who knew what I had been doing for the past few years. I had stepped on his toes regarding the scheduling of my defense (I had already moved 500 miles away to start a postdoctoral position- I was not able to reschedule. There was some miscommunication, I guess, and I think a Dean had to get a bit ugly with the fellow to get it done. The Dean then let me have it for a while. I had it coming, I’m sure.) In the end, I passed, made a few revisions to my dissertation, turned it in, then had it rejected 3 times by the Dean of the graduate school’s office for a) some of the paper it was printed on, b) some margin violations c) the fact that the new paper was different from the old paper, though both met the university specs (I had a friend FedEx me 6 sheets of paper to finally get this finished. For one single page. I ended up needing them all, somehow.) Finally, it was done, and accepted, and I was granted the degree. Some months later, I got a lovely diploma. My even lovlier wife had it framed.

What does this set of letters signify, PhD? Doctor of Philosophy? I try to be philosophical, but I am a scientist. It seems to carry a lot of weight in court cases, for expert witnesses, for self-help book authors, and is a minimum requirement for professorial positions in academia. I got a job in industry as a research scientist that required a PhD.

I think that there are a variety of ways to parse what a chemistry PhD means- competence, original work, ability to make independent contributions to one’s field. But I like the idea that, ultimately, that it is signalling behavior, in the sense that economists use the term. I would argue that in my research job, for instance, I do nothing like what I did as a graduate student, or postdoc, but the signal that I send- that I am able to do creative scientific work, and the metasignal, that I am generally independent, alert, resourseful and willing to invest a lot of energy into achieving goals- give potential employers useful information about how I can be an asset to them, irrespective of my specific skills.

The PhD education is predicated on aquiring necessary skills and knowledge along the way. By definition, original research is something new.

That isn’t to say that specific skills aren’t an asset, and sometime critical. I would not be a good hire for someone needing a lot of formulation expertise. Could I aquire this now? Certainly. But if it was needed out of the gate, I would be a bad pick. I was not trained originally as an electrochemist, and I am not yet an expert, but my skills improve as I have to use this in my work. I go to conferences, and I read the literature. I would be a good hire as an ‘electrochemistry savvy’ organic chemist. In a few years, I think the transformation will be complete enough that I could market myself as an electrochemist if I wanted to. This transition, too, could serve as a signal.

Unfortunately, the general public gets an entirely incorrect signal from the PhD. There are many misconceptions about scientists, some overly negative, like we’re all godless, morality-challenged Frankensteins ready to do whatever suits us for knowledge. (OK, that’s not that far off in some cases). But even more destructive at times is the opposite suppostion- that we are omnibenevolent braniacs, selflessly seeking knowledge for the good of all humankind, and that we know everything. That we are experts. Not about anything in particular, just experts, and our opinions should be followed as somehow superior.

Depending on what you want to know, my opinions may be superior. Synthetic organic chemistry, especially of semiconductive molecular crystals, conducting polymers, organometallic compounds, and charge transfer salts, I am reasonably aware of the current literature, and I can tell you how to make stuff, and how to make things from the stuff. I’m not doing much of this now, but I keep up with it, and I know first hand how to do it. Stuff I now do every day, I know even better, but I’m not at liberty to discuss this. My opinion is sought and my recommendations relied upon; I am paid to provide expertise and to use it for our business.

Stray a bit from this, to something like drug design, and I am not an expert. I can follow the literature, and I understand the synthetic techniques, but I am not familiar with the details of how and why they make what they do.

Going farther afield, to biochemistry or metallurgy, and my expertise falls off even further. Here, I would have to read a lot to be able to follow the literature, if only because the terms and techniques are ourside what I ever use. Occasionally, a problem will arise that involves metallurgy or entomology (yes, really) and I have to go read a bit to get up to speed. I can learn specifics quickly, and I can learn enough to ask experts to help, which is also really important. But it takes special effort, and I am careful to not trust my judgement until I have had a lot of experience.

If you want medical advice, I’m not the one to ask. If you wonder about studies of a treatement or medicine, I know enough statistics and experimental design to evaluate what is published from that perspective. But I am lost without a lot of background already being provided. I read studies of various medications for my parents, and probably know the studies and statistics as well as their physician, but I am not a physician, and want them to ultimately defer to the doctor that they know and trust. But if they want to know how many people got a certain side effect, or how likely it is, or possible drug interactions, I can extract that for them.

Get outside science, and what the heck do I know? I try to follow current events. In that sense, I take citizenship pretty seriously. I probably know more than average, because I read newspapers and keep up with news. I have a little background in economics, but just a little. But I have no special insight.

It worries me when scientists use their platform to advance extra-scientific agendas. I don’t begrudge them using their voice to make a point or to air an opinion- this is their right as citizens. But if they imply that they know something special because they are scientists, and that they should be obeyed or followed, they step beyond that into behavior that I think is unethical, and all the more so because so much of the population has serious misconceptions about science. It is wrong to use this vulnerability to signal something that is not true, and it is antithetical to the aims of science, in my view.

My advice would be to be skeptical of nebulous claims of expertise, and take with a grain of salt the opinions of an electrochemist about the stockmarket. There are no generic ‘experts’.


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