"Why is Richard Dawkins such a jerk? asks Matthew Francis.Some recent laboratory experiments help shed light upon this.
Researchers at Microsoft first looked at professional pundits' predictions for the NBA playoffs - which are best-of-seven matches - conditional upon seeing the results of previous games in the series. They found that the professionals' forecasts were more internally consistent than amateurs' forecasts, suggesting that the experts are more rational than the amateurs. However, when the pundits were then asked analogous questions about the probability of seeing red and black balls drawn from an urn, this superior internal consistency disappeared. They conclude:
Expertise fades in the lab even when the lab explicitly mimics the field.
This is consistent with some earlier research (pdf) by Steve Levitt and colleagues, who have found that professional poker players' ability to use minimax strategies deserts them when they are asked to play abstract games in the lab.
This corroborates the claim made by Dan Davies in a classic post: there is no such thing as a general purpose expert. As Richard Feynman said, "a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy.”
Instead, as George Loewenstein has said (pdf), "all forms of thinking and problem solving are context-dependent." When they are taken out of their context, experts lose their expertise.
Richard Dawkins is the poster-boy for this. He's a brilliant popular scientist, but can be a prat in other contexts. But of course he is not alone. Think of Niall Ferguson or James Watson or Tim Hunt or Steve Levitt, or many businessmen in politics. Peter Spence's advice seems, therefore, reasonable:
It'd be great if we all treated the opinions of Nobel prize winners outside of their field of expertise as basically irrelevant.
For me, there's something sad here. It seems that the scientific approach - such as the question "what counts as evidence here?" - is hard to apply outside of one's own field. In this sense, perhaps science and religion are closer than Professor Dawkins would like to think: just as many Christians forget their Christian principles when they are outside the church, so scientists forget their scientific principles when they are outside the lab.