Bryan Lawrence’s jetlagged thoughts are clearer than mine, even when I stay in my own time zone:
Peer Review is how we cope. We rely on a mechanism which ensures (as far as possible, it’s not perfect) that the pieces we put together are validated by peers – that is, by people who do understand in detail those pieces – and the joining together of the pieces is validated by people who understand the joining together, and then the interpretation is validated by people who understand the methodology of interpretation. And all the while we try and include quantified uncertainty, and probability estimates, and caveats, caveats and more caveats. And sometimes we find fault, we find errors in what has been done and published, and so we redo, we improve, and we move forward.
Then someone comes along, drives a truck and trailor through this, simply cannot have done due diligence, and hacks away at some poorly understood detail.
It’s always annoying, to say the least, when someone with none or limited knowledge of any given field simply argues that he doesn’t believe in the result of years and years of complex dialog among experts. It’s undeniably even harder to swallow when your daily job, as a scientist, requires justifying your choices endlessly to reviewers, making sure you’ve considered all possible aspects of a given hypothesis, and (often) even provided disclaimers and suggestions to why your own conclusions might be wrong! The contrast with opinion-based pieces that shred through all this work with absolute certainty surely has a bitter aftertaste.
Possible ways to deal with this include simply withdrawing from public discourse, but I don’t think it’s the way to go. When you compare the recent past (let’s say 20 years ago) with today, modern technologies and the internet have allowed a direct dialogue between the public and scientists, something that has simply never existed before. Of course, it makes it easy for uninformed assholes to pontificate about things they know next to nothing about, but the potential to educate and inform has never been greater. In other words, it’s now possible for scientists to get out of the ivory tower.
Even if there are temporary drawbacks, IMHO the trend is in the good direction. It seems to me like climate and environment pieces make the front page of regular newspapers every day now, and I’m not even talking about extra-solar objects, the Mars rover, is pluto a planet? etc. Issues are often over-simplified, but slowly more and more people get more and more aware of these scientific issues. This kind of public exposure is worrying for scientists, as it means they’ll have even more work to do (and they don’t have a lot of time to begin with), but in the end it also shows their work is noticed and valuable.