Monday, December 10, 2007


Sometimes I forget that I'm an expert.

Seriously! I know more about evolutionary biology and ecology than a good, solid 99.9% of the population (notice that that number still leaves room for at least 300,000 people above me in America, or 6,000,000 worldwide, so I feel pretty safe in making the assertion). I can explain not only the basic concepts like selective pressure and genetic drift - "basic" being relative since I imagine no more than one person in ten would even recognize those to me commonplace phrases - but figure out carrying capacities and projected growth rates, hypothesize about the evolutionary pressures driving speciation of creatures I've never seen before, and discuss at length the life and works of Thomas Hunt Morgan and Rosalind Franklin. I can understand articles in professional medical journals and peer-reviewed genetics journals by building on basic principles. I can understand the risks of the various carcinogens we hear warnings about every day because I know the mechanisms by which they damage DNA and the effects different types of mutation can have on genes.

So why did I feel the need to brag about myself today? Well, the thing is, I don't think it's just me. I think there are an awful lot of potential experts out there who, for reasons of self esteem, caution, or distraction, simply don't share what they know, and that's a damn shame.

I thought about this while I was listening to the Skeptics' Guide, which I've mentioned a few times lately. Every show, Steve Novella, the host and a practicing and teaching neurologist, gives his friends and panelists three science news articles to choose from, one of which is a fake he invented before the show, and they have to try to figure out which is the sham. They also go over real science news in every podcast. My own unusual talent came to mind while I was listening to them discuss evolutionary principles in relation to some rather dubiously legitimate theory advanced by a British "scientist," and mentally adding to and expanding upon virtually everything they said. I suddenly realized that it wasn't fair of me to be disappointed in these people and their coverage of the story; after all, they're not trained in this kind of theory like I am, and even Steve's education in evolution was probably both cursory and quite some time ago, before medical school. That's not to say they don't keep up with science news, because they do, but that's not the same as the rigorous, formal training you get in a genuine course of study. I had had that, and they hadn't, and for once in my life - and it's a rarity for me, because, falsely or not, I tend to be pretty humble about the validity and authority of what I know if it's ever questioned - I felt like I knew a lot about something. It was pretty nice! I actually felt like sharing what I know, instead of just worrying that, well, obviously someone will know more than me.

I think more people need to have that experience. We all know things, and generally there are at least one or two things that any given person knows well. Certainly, yes, a lot of what we know will be wrong, especially about things that are outside our area of expertise, and maybe even to a surprising degree within it. But who cares? How will you ever know unless you share?

It's funny that if you frequent discussion boards, social gatherings, and anywhere else where folks talk, especially if they're really getting into it, you'll generally find people willing to get upset over and try to sound authoritative about just about anything except what they do. Sure that's not always the case; there are no doubt plenty of people willing to just beat you down with whatever perceived authority they have. And, of course, there is the infamous "PhD effect," whereby those who are bestowed with that title seem to relinquish their ability to ever admit fault or ignorance. But by and large, people really like to argue about politics, religion, sports, and any of countless other things on which very few of us are actually expert.

So I'm going to go out of my way tomorrow to get into a situation in which I can really make a contribution. I'm going to join a discussion or find some questions I can answer where I can, for once, actually talk about evolutionary biology, and do it in a way that's actually constructive. If it works out, maybe I'll make a habit of it. Collaborative knowledge is the foundation of human society, and I figure maybe it's time I joined in.

After all, I know things.

What are you an expert in?