"The only way forward," said actress Jenny McCarthy, "is for Germany to support Italy and Spain, whatever it takes."If you read the above in a story about the European economic crisis and saw Jenny McCarthy quoted as the go-to expert for commenting on sovereign-debt economics, would you do a bit of a double take?* Sure, you would (she wasn't really the one who said it). You probably just did. Yet news media outlets across the land, hand in hand with Larry King and Oprah, have gone to Jenny McCarthy as someone who has relevant insights into autism and vaccines.
Jenny McCarthy is an actress. She dropped out of nursing school and graduated from a liberal arts high school. She has no training in infectious disease, developmental neurology, virology, physiology, or medicine. Her exposure to autism itself consists of her son Evan, who may not have autism at all.
When we read stories in the news media about economics or history or English literature, we have an expectation that the sources in that story will be experts. No one goes to Viola Davis, as wonderful an actress as she is, for commentary on economic policy. Reporters don't turn to Ashton Kutcher for in-depth insights into whether or not Shakespeare really wrote those plays. I've yet to see Kim Kardashian selected to offer her perspective on the dynamics of 19th century European politics that set the stage for World War I.
There's no cult of celebrity around history or economics or literature involving non-expert celebrities mouthing off with the shallowest of understanding. But vaccines? Autism? Science? Apparently, fame matters more than facts.
But, you may say, people can turn to the interwebz for more information, to get beyond the cult of celebrity. Sure. Yet anyone searching for information about vaccines on a simple Google search turns up, on the first page, links that go straight to anti-vaccine propaganda sites.
These sites take the typical approach of presenting half-truths--literally, they tell half of the information about vaccines--and leaving out the rest. It's as though I were telling you, "My grandmother has a lot of dead roses in her garden," but stopped at the word "dead."
Imagine if you did a search on "economics" and turned up sites that didn't provide expert information about economics. Here's what you do get when you search "economics" in Google:
No "faux news" economics links there.
What about a search on autism and vaccines? Here's what Google kicks up for you:
You'll note that one of the top links on the page is to the anti-vaccination site Age of Autism, the most virulently anti-science, anti-vaccine, anti-autism website in the world. A faux "news site" that, by the way, has no experts in infectious disease, vaccines, physiology, medicine, or developmental neurology as editors.
What about the news media? What do they tell us when we search "economics" in Google News?
How about "autism and vaccines" in Google News?
You'll notice that two of the visible links on that page go to...the Age of Autism website. Did I mention that this site is the most virulently anti-science, anti-vaccine, anti-autism website in the world and lacks editors with any expertise in any of the areas it "covers"?
Why do these hits matter? For two reasons. First of all, when people--students, for example--perform Web searches, they seem to be most likely to take the first links served up as the best ones, regardless of their provenance. That means that when an Age of Autism page is served up on a Google News search as "news" (and believe me, people have tried to tell Google that it's not a news site), searchers who aren't neck deep in the autism and vaccine controversy may not be aware of how egregiously anti-scientific the site is.
The second reason these hits matter, the reason it matters that the news media quotes with seeming impunity non-experts in stories about autism and vaccines, is that expertise makes a difference. Commenters on web posts about vaccines, mothers on Facebook spreading misinformation about chicken pox, the purposeful/grossly ignorant (it has to be one or the other) and cynical misinformation of "guess who profits" Mercola and Natural News? This is information not from experts in virology or infectious disease or vaccines or developmental neurology or physiology or medicine. And expertise matters. Or, at least, it should. Sometimes, even people who should know better sell out for celebrity, adoring audiences, and the more tangible payoff of benjamins by the bucket.
When it comes to science, though, the news media have even avoided going to actual scientists to determine how scientists earn their expertise. The case study here is a Fox article in which a woman with a bachelor's degree in a humanities field presumes to describe the role of graduate students in science. She dismisses graduate students as "not on the radar" and as appearing as authors on papers only because they help with the "laborious" task of writing. She clearly has no idea whatsoever about how scientists are trained. In fact, her lack of understanding about training of scientists and the relevance of that training is so profound, she ought to look into joining the editorial staff of the Age of Autism.
Here's why expertise matters and why Jenny McCarthy's stint at Google U does not. By the time a scientist-in-training enters graduate school, she has likely already (a) completed four years of studying the sciences. For a biology major, these courses start with several classes in introductory biology, physics, and chemistry plus labs and then move to upper division courses in genetics, neurobiology, developmental biology, molecular biology, cell biology, organic chemistry, and biochemistry (for biology majors).
The usual calculation for how much time one spends on a given course to do well is three hours of study for every hour of class attended each week. For the sciences alone, most undergraduate majors will take a total of about 80 hours in the sciences, or an average of 10 h/semester for a four-year degree. For a 15-week semester, that's a total of 600 hours of study and classes (10 h x 4 h for classes/studying x 15 weeks). For a four-year course of study and eight semesters (a conservative estimate), that is about 4800 hours of studying science.
Add to that the fact that many undergraduates applying to graduate school also put in time in labs as research assistants or technicians while completing their studies, and a graduate student in the first year of graduate school is already someone well trained in both the general sciences of their field of study (biology, physics, chemistry, biochemistry) and in the basics of laboratory research.
Graduate students intending to earn the PhD do not typically obtain a master's degree first (although some do, which would extend hours invested). Many instead move from the bachelor's to the PhD. At the institution I attended, in my field of study, the average time to the PhD was five years. We were in our laboratories every day--yes, also on weekends, but let's not count those--for eight hours a day or more.
We attended graduate-level courses in our field, studied, parsed, analyzed, and cited the literature in our field, designed and conducted research in our field, evaluated data in our field, wrote grants and papers of our own, assisted each other where our studies overlapped, attended weekly or more frequent seminars in our field, attended and presented at meetings in our field, and eventually defended dissertations typically consisting of about five or six chapters, most of which were already published in or submitted to peer-reviewed journals as first-author papers.
If we take the above as constituting only a 40-hour work week (a very conservative estimate), then the average graduate student at my university who earned the PhD in five years spent 10,400 hours immersed in their science. Ten thousand and four hundred hours. MDs who also earn their PhDs? I can't even calculate the investment.
The grand total then, on average, for someone who has earned the PhD in science is at least 15,200 hours of study.
That, Dear Reader, is expertise. That kind of investment...one that often then extends another two or four or six years in postdoctoral appointments...that's an investment that qualifies someone to speak about science from the perspective of deep, years'-long knowledge earned in the trenches, earned by studying--and practicing--science for years. It's the kind of expertise that should lead to the news media's turning always and only to scientists for quotes, for information.
But scientists, with few exceptions, aren't celebrities. They don't appear on the big screen, in magazines, on Larry King and Oprah. As varied a group as they are, apparently few are interesting enough--or maybe it's interested enough--to achieve the cult of celebrity required for people to trust what scientists say, to give their expertise the imprimatur of a high-definition image on national television. They can't even get word count in an article from a major news outlet that's focused on how they're trained.
The reality of modern culture is that your face in high-def on a big screen earns you attention and credibility, no matter how shrill or hysterical or misinformed you may be. The deeper reality, though, is that Jenny McCarthy--short of a major educational and career shift--will never have scientific expertise. Real harm to public health and scientific literacy is the outcome when the news media and Google search engines highlight the deeply misinformed...and when scientists prove incapable of effective counterpoint.
The actual quote was from Harvard professor Kenneth Rogoff, someone who also presumably has earned the label of "expert."