Fake experts are people who pretend to be experts. They may outwardly look like experts but they have none of the scientific knowledge, background or integrityrequired to be considered a genuine expert.
Fake experts rarely have the relevant educational background and research experience required. Claims made by fake experts are not consistent with the bulk of mainstream scientific research.
They often radically differ from the appraisal made by major scientific or medical organizations. Fake experts usually have a bad track record from having advocated scientifically flawed or disproved positions in the past. They also tend to spread nonsense in other areas.
Finally, fake experts often have severe and obvious conflicts of interests that are undisclosed, includes working for anti-science think tanks. For instance, many of the fake experts being pushed when it comes to opposing global warming or GMOs are being financed by oil companies or the organic industry. Not all claims of conflicts of interests means that someone is a fake expert. They have to be obvious from the evidence and typically undisclosed (because the fake expert does not want you to know it). In contrast, disclosing conflicts of interests where they may exist is a sign of intellectual integrity.
What does it mean to be a legitimate scientific expert?
There are many kinds of experts in science. Some experts have a moderate amount of knowledge about a large number of fields. Other experts have an extreme amount of knowledge about a tiny area in a particular scientific field, but perhaps not that much about other areas of the same field. Someone who is a scientific expert on airplane engineering is not an expert in cancer biology, a medical doctor is not an expert on high-energy physics and so on.
Generally speaking, a legitimate scientific expert is somehow who:
– have an education in the general scientific field (e. g. a PhD in biology).
– has done recent research into the specific area in the field (e. g. has done research into retroviruses like HIV).
– make claims that are supported by systematic reviews of the research literature.
– overlap substantially with that of scientific and medical organizations (e. g. CDC and FDA).
– has a good track record when it comes to being accurate on scientific issues.
– has not promoted bullshit in some other area of science.
– does not have any overt and undisclosed conflicts of interest.
Why do science denialists rely on fake experts?
There are two core reasons for why pseudoscience activists rely on fake experts. First, the scientific evidence does not support their position or actively contradict it. So therefore, they cannot reference the scientific evidence itself, so they need to create a false authority instead.
Second, there are very few (if any) legitimate scientific experts that would go on record supporting the pseudoscience movement, and so they need to rely on people who are not real experts.
Due to the strong cultural authority of science, they need to present spokespeople (their fake experts) as real experts. People have long since seen through official spokespeople for corporations and other non-governmental organizations that push pseudoscientific nonsense.
No one would trust an official spokesperson from the oil industry that insisted that global warming was somehow a hoax or that oil spills are somehow not harmful to the environment. However, if you pretend that this spokesperson is a legitimate scientific expert, it may be a lot easier to fool people into believing what is being claimed.
How to evaluate an alleged expert?
So how do you distinguish a genuine expert from a fake one? How can you spot a phony expert put forward by pseudoscience activists to give a deceptive veneer of credibility to their otherwise unreasonable claims? This is often more difficult than it seems. However, there are a few red flags that should increase skepticism against an alleged expert. One can roughly divide them into two categories.
The first category contains deductive methods. For instance, if multiple, well-designed randomized controlled trials point to one conclusion, but the alleged expert claims the opposite, then this alleged expert is probably a fake expert.
The second category contains probabilistic methods. Just because an alleged expert has been systematically wrong in many other areas or has no research experience in the field does not imply that he or she has to be a fake expert. That would be a logical fallacy. However, being systematically wrong on many scientific issues increases the risk that an alleged expert would be wrong in the area under discussion.
To reach the most reliable evaluation, both deductive and probabilistic arguments have to be taken into account. Let us start with deductive methods.
Compare claims against multiple high-quality studies on the topic
Two of the most high-quality study designs are the randomized controlled trial (RCT) and the systematic review (with or without meta-analysis). RCTs test the effects of some treatment or intervention in a rigorous way that eliminates many confounders and other methodological issues. A systematic review is a paper that systematically goes over the published research on a topic to summarize and analyze it. A meta-analysis does the same but for quantitative data.
The claims of the alleged expert should be compared with the general consensus of multiple RCTs, systematic reviews and meta-analyses on the topic. If the claims made by the expert are generally supported by such studies, the expert is more credible. If the claims made by the alleged expert is contradicted by the bulk of the most high-quality research available, it is likely that you are dealing with a fake expert.
Compare claims against scientific and medical organizations
In many areas, there are no high-quality RCTs or systematic reviews available or they are difficult to understand or interpret. However, many scientific and medical organizations may have position papers, articles or other forms of information on the issue. The claims made by the alleged expert can be compared against the information available from mainstream scientific and medical organizations. If the expert agrees with the general consensus of multiple scientific and medical organizations, the expert is likely to be credible. If not, the person probably belongs in the camp of fake experts.
Andrew Wakefield is a medical doctor (M. D.) from the United Kingdom. In 1998, he published a flawed research paper claiming that the vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) caused autism. British journalist Brian Deer spend years exposing Wakefield. Wakefield had taken money from vaccine injury lawyers and he had his own measles vaccines that he wanted to get money from selling after he had created the fear around the MMR vaccine. He also subjected autistic children to unnecessary, invasive and painful medical procedures without a valid justification. Read the entire investigation into Andrew Wakefield by Brian Deer here.
Since then, at least 13 large studies has conclusively demonstrated that the MMR vaccines do not cause autism. Systematic reviews looking at hundreds of scientific studies have also found that vaccines do not cause autism. In fact, by preventing pregnant women from getting rubella, the MMR vaccine reduces the number of children who get autism as a complication to rubella (congenital rubella syndrome). Between 2001 and 2010, it is estimated that the MMR vaccine prevented 1228 cases of autism spectrum conditions.
The interpretation section of the flawed paper was retracted in 2004. Andrew Wakefield was struck off the medical register in 2010 for “serious and wide-ranging findings against him” (equivalent to losing his medical license in the U. S.).
The entire paper was retracted in 2010.
Andrew Wakefield is an example of a fake expert because he portrays himself as an expert on the subject of vaccines, but he published fraudulent research, got struck off and continues to this day to promote anti-vaccine pseudoscience. His claims are contradicted by over a dozen large scientific studies, large systematic reviews looking at hundreds of studies and by many scientific and medical organizations.
Compare claims against consensus surveys and studies
In some areas, there are high-quality consensus studies or surveys available. They show, for instance, that most scientists accept the fact that vaccines are generally effective, that GMOs and nuclear power are generally safe and that global warming is happening. On very broad issues like these, it is easy to compare the claims on an alleged expert against what the mainstream scientific position is. If the expert agrees, it is likely a legitimate expert.
If the alleged expert radically diverges from multiple mainstream positions, it is likely someone who belongs into the group of fake experts. The person is not accurately describing the mainstream scientific position.
There are also probabilistic methods that can be used to get a general idea of how credible an alleged expert is or spot a fake expert. Notice that these are not deductive. This means that just because they are present do not always undermine the credibility of an alleged methods. For instance, just because someone has a PhD in physics does not automatically mean they are wrong on a topic of biology. So these methods are probabilistic.
Perhaps the best way to think about them is to view them as red flags. The more red flags you find, the more likely it is that the expert is a fake one. The fewer red flags, the more likely it is that you are dealing with a real expert.
Does the alleged expert have relevant education?
A person who has a relevant educational background in the field that is being discussed is more likely to get it right than someone who does not have any relevant educational background. A medical doctor is probably more credible than an engineer when it comes to human health and diseases. An engineer is probably better equipped to talk about airplane safety than someone with an expertise in French literature. If the person being pushed as an alleged expert in climate science, vaccines or GMOs has no relevant education on the topic, it is a red flag that increases the risk that it is a fake expert.
This general argument also applies within a given field. A cancer biologist probably knows more about cancer than does an ecologist, despite the fact that they are both biologists. An airplane engineer probably know more about airplane engineering than some other engineering specialty.
Example (Ken Ham):
Ken Ham is an American young earth creationist and the president of the creationist organization Answers in Genesis. This organization operates attractions like the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter. Ham mistakenly thinks that the earth is just a few thousand years old (instead of about 4.6 billion years old) and rejects evolution.
Ham has a Bachelor of Applied Science (with a focus on Environmental Biology) from Queensland Institute of Technology. Despite this, he controls what is probably one of the largest creationist organization in the world. His entire corporation is focused on spreading misinformation about the age of the earth and evolution. Thus, he pretends to be an expert and even has a degree in science, but is contradicted by the massive amount of evidence for common descent and the evidence for an ancient earth.
Has the alleged expert done research in the specific field?
Someone with a relevant education that has also spent their career researching and publishing research in the field in question is more likely to be credible as an expert than someone who has never done any actual research in the specific field, even if he or she happens to have an educational background. The more practical experience you have in a specific field, the more likely you are to know what you are talking about.
Example (Peter Duesberg):
Peter Duesberg is a Professor molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the father of the HIV/AIDS denialist movement. He wrongly claims that HIV does not cause AIDS, despite the overwhelming evidence that clearly shows that HIV causes AIDS.
His early career was quite impressive as he was one of the first people who discovered the src oncogene (encodes a tyrosine kinase) in the genome of the Rous sarcoma virus. It is known that this oncogene is a major reason for why this virus can cause cancer in birds. He was then elected to the prestigious National Academies of Science. He then began to deny the fact that HIV causes AIDS and insist that HIV is somehow just a “harmless passenger virus”. Yet, he refuses to inject himself with HIV.
HIV/AIDS denialism took a massive toll in South Africa where Thabo Mbeki blocked access to antiretroviral medication and offered fake treatments like garlic and lemon. This lead to an estimated 330 000 deaths and a loss of about 2.2 million person-years.
Thus, Duesberg may have a PhD in a relevant field and even a Professor employment in a relevant field, but he has probably never worked with HIV as none of his NIH grants involved HIV (they where about cancer) and no article listed under his name in the PubMed database qualifies as a primary research publication on HIV. Duesberg and his supporters insists that he was blocked from NIH funding, but his grants just expired and his new grant proposals did not hold up under scientific review. This is a classic denialist tactic called playing the martyr card. Thus, Duesberg qualifies as a fake expert.
Has the alleged expert a bad track record?
If an alleged expert keeps getting it wrong over and over on relatively easy scientific questions in the same general area, then that alleged expert is generally less credible than an expert that often get things right. Being wrong before does not deductively imply that the person is wrong now. That would be a fallacious argument. After all, we have all heard the false claim that science was wrong before and therefore cannot be trusted.
However, we can make a probabilistic argument that someone who is usually wrong should be given less credibility than someone who is often right. You would never pick a horse to bet on that has lost almost all races in the past if you had the ability to bet on a horse that had won the vast majority of past races. You would not keep going to a car mechanic that keeps giving you bad and overpriced repairs.
Has the alleged expert promoted bullshit in other areas?
A similar argument can be made for alleged experts talking nonsense in a different area. Again, this is not a deductive argument. Someone who make false claims about vaccines or acid rain might get it right on climate science. However, pseudoscience rarely comes alone. Believing in some forms of pseudoscience makes you more likely to believe in other forms of pseudoscience as well. This is known as crank magnetism, and basically happens because different kinds of pseudosciences are very similar when it comes to core claims and methods. Anti-vaccine activists, Holocaust deniers, and 9/11 truthers all quote experts out of context, propose a vast conspiracy trying to silence dissidents and so on.
Someone who is a consistent science advocate and consistently support well-supported scientific explanations are more likely to be credible on a new issue compared with someone who is already submerged in the swamp of pseudoscientific ignorance.
Example (Fred Singer):
Fred Singer is an American atmospheric physicist and a former Professor of environmental science at the University of Virginia and a former Professor at George Mason University.
Despite having a PhD and a Professor job in appropriate fields, he has promoted pseudoscience in a large number of areas related to climate and the environment. This includes sun tanning as a cause for cancer, acid rain, the ozone hole, secondhand smoke and global warming. In fact, Singer was funded by corporate think tanks, including the Heritage foundation and the Heartland foundation.
In other words, Fred Singer has a semi-relevant PhD and former job. However, it is not the most relevant subject that would be climate science. Positions held by Singer are contradicted by the weight of published evidence and dozens of medical and scientific organizations. Thus, Singer is another example of a fake expert that can be very difficult to identify. This is because pseudoscience are becoming better and better at impersonating real experts.
Are there any obvious and undisclosed conflicts of interest?
Anyone can invent a superficially plausible conflict of interest in just about any area. However, this is not enough to put someone into the group of fake experts. Instead, one should look for obvious conflicts of interest that can be easily demonstrated based on known facts, especially if they are undisclosed or if the person insists that they do not exist.
People who get paid by oil and mining companies to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt about the existence of global warming should probably not be seen as credible independent researchers. Someone who collaborates with vaccine injury lawyers and have developed a vaccine competitor to the vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) while attacking the MMR vaccine with shoddy and fake research should not be viewed as a genuine expert on vaccines. This is even more severe if the conflicts of interests were undisclosed or lied about. This is rather signs of belonging to the group of fake experts.
This is not a deductive argument. Someone who works for oil companies can about global warming, but because they have a vested interest in people not taking global warming seriously, they have an undeniable conflict of interest.
The more red flags alleged experts accumulates, the less likely they are to be genuine experts and the more likely they are to be fake experts.
Wherever possible, find solid scientific evidence for a statement rather than relying on statements by experts. When you need to rely on claims made by experts, try to get multiple, independent experts that are largely in agreement with the bulk of published scientific evidence on a topic.
A real scientific evidence is typically someone who has a relevant education and has done research in relevant field with respect to the scientific or medical question under discussion. They often have positions that considerably overlaps with the bulk of the scientific evidence and consensus studies, systematic reviews and meta-analyses and position statements by major scientific and medical organizations. A legitimate expert has a good track record with respect to scientific issues, has rarely promoted nonsense in other scientific areas and has very few obvious and undisclosed conflicts of interest.
Fake experts are people is someone who pretends to be an expert, but has rarely a relevant background research experience. Their positions are often in stark contrast to the bulk of scientific evidence and the conclusions from multiple systematic reviews and scientific organizations. They often have obvious or undisclosed conflicts of interest. They have a bad track record on scientific issues in the past and they spread nonsense in other areas as well.
It can often be hard to tell a fake expert apart from a fake one, but these are some of the major red flags to look out for.