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Do we place too much trust in experts?

02 Apr

Over the weekend I spent about 4 hours making some videos, writing some short Powerpoints with some images from online sources and assembling some rather random terms and making up “Shtuff” for April 1st. The result was the video shown below…and if you want to get the full story watch it end to end. See if you UNDERSTAND what I was talking about and whether it was convincing enough to be believable. The results might be different if you are a chemist versus you being a friend or family without a scientific background.

The next day I came clean. It was an April Fools joke. I described in detail how I created the effect in a separate video.

I expected most chemists to call me on the scam very early but that didn’t happen. In fact a number of scientists I know quite well commented very positively on it. Some were in emails and some on the social media platforms. Only one person called me on it early. Maybe lots of other chemists spotted the problems. Maybe they didn’t watch the video through and just trusted me. Nevertheless I know that people I respect were ready to repeat the experiment with their kids, try it in class and so on. One person commented on Facebook what I thought would happen “I think it is more a reflection of the credibility you have with the science community …”. I think this is likely true…for my family, my friends and many others. I am “trusted” by people and seen to be credible….but on April 1st I am not to be trusted for sure!!!

I have many examples of where credible people are trusted when there are obvious flaws in their statements. In the Open Science/Open Access/Open Data arena I see trust simply granted to many so-called experts when their arguments are full of assumptions/declarations/opinions and not fact-based. I encourage more questions and less granted trust!

I also believe that the premise of my second video is correct…language in our specialty areas allows us to isolate, confuse and, for some, stay aloof. The brilliant people I know around me are able to tell their stories of science in language that non-specialists can understand. That’s a special skill that we should all work on. Except, of course, on April 1st, where it helps!

 

About tony

Antony (Tony) J. Williams received his BSc in 1985 from the University of Liverpool (UK) and PhD in 1988 from the University of London (UK). His PhD research interests were in studying the effects of high pressure on molecular motions within lubricant related systems using Nuclear Magnetic Resonance. He moved to Ottawa, Canada to work for the National Research Council performing fundamental research on the electron paramagnetic resonance of radicals trapped in single crystals. Following his postdoctoral position he became the NMR Facility Manager for Ottawa University. Tony joined the Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester, New York as their NMR Technology Leader. He led the laboratory to develop quality control across multiple spectroscopy labs and helped establish walk-up laboratories providing NMR, LC-MS and other forms of spectroscopy to hundreds of chemists across multiple sites. This included the delivery of spectroscopic data to the desktop, automated processing and his initial interests in computer-assisted structure elucidation (CASE) systems. He also worked with a team to develop the worlds’ first web-based LIMS system, WIMS, capable of allowing chemical structure searching and spectral display. With his developing cheminformatic skills and passion for data management he left corporate America to join a small start-up company working out of Toronto, Canada. He joined ACD/Labs as their NMR Product Manager and various roles, including Chief Science Officer, during his 10 years with the company. His responsibilities included managing over 50 products at one time prior to developing a product management team, managing sales, marketing, technical support and technical services. ACD/Labs was one of Canada’s Fast 50 Tech Companies, and Forbes Fast 500 companies in 2001. His primary passions during his tenure with ACD/Labs was the continued adoption of web-based technologies and developing automated structure verification and elucidation platforms. While at ACD/Labs he suggested the possibility of developing a public resource for chemists attempting to integrate internet available chemical data. He finally pursued this vision with some close friends as a hobby project in the evenings and the result was the ChemSpider database (www.chemspider.com). Even while running out of a basement on hand built servers the website developed a large community following that eventually culminated in the acquisition of the website by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) based in Cambridge, United Kingdom. Tony joined the organization, together with some of the other ChemSpider team, and became their Vice President of Strategic Development. At RSC he continued to develop cheminformatics tools, specifically ChemSpider, and was the technical lead for the chemistry aspects of the Open PHACTS project (http://www.openphacts.org), a project focused on the delivery of open data, open source and open systems to support the pharmaceutical sciences. He was also the technical lead for the UK National Chemical Database Service (http://cds.rsc.org/) and the RSC lead for the PharmaSea project (http://www.pharma-sea.eu/) attempting to identify novel natural products from the ocean. He left RSC in 2015 to become a Computational Chemist in the National Center of Computational Toxicology at the Environmental Protection Agency where he is bringing his skills to bear working with a team on the delivery of a new software architecture for the management and delivery of data, algorithms and visualization tools. The “Chemistry Dashboard” was released on April 1st, no fooling, at https://comptox.epa.gov, and provides access to over 700,000 chemicals, experimental and predicted properties and a developing link network to support the environmental sciences. Tony remains passionate about computer-assisted structure elucidation and verification approaches and continues to publish in this area. He is also passionate about teaching scientists to benefit from the developing array of social networking tools for scientists and is known as the ChemConnector on the networks. Over the years he has had adjunct roles at a number of institutions and presently enjoys working with scientists at both UNC Chapel Hill and NC State University. He is widely published with over 200 papers and book chapters and was the recipient of the Jim Gray Award for eScience in 2012. In 2016 he was awarded the North Carolina ACS Distinguished Speaker Award.
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Posted by on April 2, 2013 in Humor

 

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