If you want to drive the Bus...
This is a phenomenon that defies common sense - the very same people who take offense at being told they lack the proper education to make scientific and medical assertions are often "professionals" of another stripe - MBA's (and here), lawyers, and stock brokers - who would be aghast at the suggestion that a neophyte off the street could do their job with equal skill. Imagine their outrage (or amusement) if I, a humble biologist, announced that I was as competent as they were to, say, formulate a business plan for a multinational corporation, set up a tax-sheltered annuity or render an opinion on federal law.
The sad fact of the matter is that it takes a certain amount of education to be a scientist, or even a doctor. There are facts to learn, techniques to practice, skills to acquire and mental habits to develop. You can't get these from watching "ER", "CSI Miami" or even the Discovery Channel.
This is not unique to science. Lawyers, MBA's, stock brokers, plumbers, electricians, truck drivers, firefighters, bicycle racers, and even the folks flipping hamburgers all have to spend a certain amount of time learning how to do their job. If your education, training and experience is solely in business, law or marketing, then you have no more expertise in science than you have in firefighting - and what's your plan if the stove catches on fire tonight, eh?
So, why is it that people who wouldn't think about redoing the plumbing in their bathroom suddenly feel that they have innate skills in science? Part of it has to do with our education system, which gives everyone a small taste of "science" in the primary and secondary grades but fails to instruct them in the real methods of science. The average person thinks that a scientist is just a huge repository of "facts", since that was what their "science" classes in high school were all about. That couldn't be farther from the truth.
A real scientist has to learn a prodigious amount of information, true enough, but the real emphasis is on learning how to think. It is much easier to teach a student the Periodic Table than it is to teach them how to formulate a testable hypothesis. And it is far easier to teach the Kreb's Cycle than it is to teach how to draw an accurate and supportable conclusion from experimental data. This is probably why most college graduates with "science" degrees don't end up doing any research - they end up selling or being technicians or technical advisors.
Although there have been some excellent self-taught scientists in history, they are few and far between. And there haven't been too many of them since the middle of the last century. So, it seems pretty unlikely that someone is going to read a few semi-technical books and emerge able to compete head-to-head with an educated and experienced scientist when it comes to, say, critical evaluation of a scientific study. Yet there are numerous people who claim to be able to do this very thing.
I once witnessed an amazing exchange between a research physician and a parent of an autistic child. The parent had a degree in business and had been a fairly successful business person for many years. The physician had been researching autism for over thirty years. The discussion I overheard (and oversaw) was about - couldn't you just guess - whether or not autism was caused by mercury.
After the physician had explained the reasons why he felt that mercury didn't cause a majority of the cases of autism - along with the caveat that the research so far couldn't eliminate mercury as a minority cause, the parent said:
"Well, my assessment of the data is that mercury is the only cause of autism and that genetics has nothing to do with it."
The physician paused for a moment, clearly debating whether or not to reply, and finally said:
"You'll excuse me if I feel that you lack the qualifications to give that assertion much weight."
The parent then retorted, angrily:
"That's just typical physician arrogance - I'm just as qualified as you to decide what causes autism!"
I was stunned. Not because this parent "talked back" to a physician - I actually enjoyed that part - but I was stunned by the appalling ignorance of that statement. I was stunned that someone with no significant scientific education and a few years experience as a parent of an autistic child could honestly think that they were equal in qualifications to someone with an advanced degree inscience and thirty years of research in the field!
OK, this isn't "PC" - it's not "polite" to tell people that they don't know what they're talking about. But it's true! Just because someone has an autistic child does not make them an expert in the science of autism. Sure, they know a whole lot about raising an autistic child, but that does not give them any insight into the biochemistry or neurophysiology of autism.
In other words, if you want to drive the bus, you need to go to bus-driver school, first.