Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Science and Politics

I would imagine I don't have to tell you that I think objections to the March for Science on the grounds that science shouldn't be "politicized" are absurd. Science is already politicized, which is exactly the point. Here's one take that's worth reading from Tim Requarth.

We eggheads get all scrambled trying to understand why people just won't listen when we 'splain the scientific truth to them. As Requarth explains, the problem isn't that they have a knowledge deficit that we can plug with our smart words. It's that they are motivated to believe by particular interests or loyalties. Scientists spend years getting their brains trained to apply certain standards of evidence and to change their conclusions when the evidence calls for it. But that makes us weird.

Here's Dave Levitan on the ways politicians deny and distort science. One pull quote I like:

Q. The “I’m not a scientist” line has become all-too-common, and it’s the basis of your book title. Why is this refrain bullshit in your view?

Dave Levitan: The basic reason is it's absurd for politicians to have to tell us what they're not an expert in. They don't say I'm not an economist. They don't say I don't have a degree in Middle Eastern studies or civil engineering, yet they're still perfectly willing to opine on these issues. So it's sort of a bizarre subset that they think it's a reasonable thing to say.

Here's why this is hard to talk about. We do claim to be experts in our fields, and we do make a privileged claim to truth. Cosmologists do not consider the age of the universe to be subject to debate (within a margin of error); biologists do not consider the fact of evolution and the antiquity of life (again, within a range) to be matters of opinion; climate scientists state that anthropogenic global warming is a fact, no longer a hypothesis. An if you disagree, you are just wrong. We know more than you do.

People don't like to hear that. However, as Levitan suggests, they commonly make exceptions. They respect the expertise of their physicians, plumbers and auto mechanics. On the other hand, I have to agree, all three categories of professional are capable of corruption, and of fudging or even lying in the service of a bigger paycheck. People might think that scientists are doing the same, to get grants or whatever.

Here's what's wrong with that. We aren't one auto mechanic trying to sell you a transmission rebuild that you don't really need. Science is a community of millions of investigators, graduate students, research assistants, and administrators. There is nothing that a scientist wants more than to prove that everybody else was wrong and get credit for a breakthrough. And there is no way that all those people are somehow going to successfully conspire to fool the entire world, and nobody is going to blow the whistle on them.

But it's also hard to explain to people that errors do happen -- in fact, we think that in some sense, everything we think we know is wrong because we can ultimately find a more precise answer. But the errors get fixed, the precision increases. Newton's theory of gravitation has been supplanted by Einstein's. In a sense Newton was "wrong," but he was a lot closer to the truth than Ptolemy. There is some question now about whether general relativity is exactly correct. Maybe physicists will improve on Einstein some day. They're trying really hard! But relativity works well enough for the Global Positioning System and robot probes to Jupiter, so you'd be a fool to deny it.

So I'm not sure what to do. Trying to explain stuff to people that they are motivated not to understand isn't going to get us very far, especially if they feel they are being talked down to or what they think is their own expertise isn't respected. Well sorry, but if you aren't an expert in physics and biology then no, you don't know as much as somebody who is. You should try to learn more if you are interested, but you need to approach that learning with a truly open mind. And if you can't be bothered, that's fine too, but then you need to stop thinking you know better.

* Mine is policy and practice related, so it's factual basis does inevitably get mixed up with values. But I find a lot of critics here don't succeed in separating out my factual assertions -- they end up arguing against facts because they are unwilling to state their value disagreements.


Anonymous said...

I see the your frustration. It's the same frustration that others feel who are experts in other fields such as economics or business science when discussing their findings to the public.

Imagine trying to explain to a bunch of liberal professors that in the history of the world, no other economic system has created more wealth for more people than capitalism. It just goes against their deeply held socialist and political beliefs.

What's not helping the anthropogenic global warming crowd is the myriad of instances that appear to show a willingness to bend the truth to sell their ideas.

It doesn't help that Al Gore's book, "An Inconvenient Truth" was determined by a British court to have serious untruths or that the earlier earth temperatures are constantly being revised downward by the warming community and the more recent are being revised upward to show a more dramatic warming trend. The crazy predictions Mr. Gore (and others)made ten years ago have turned out to be false.

Also not helpful were the leaked emails from the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia, today's leading authority on climate warming, showing a willingness to play fast and loose with the facts and also to suppress critics.

Critics also will point to the big money at stake in grants and jobs on the line as well as investments in new forms of energy.

As you say, science has been politicized and it's not just on one side. All of these and other incidents create mistrust of the scientific community when discussing an issue in which these same scientists' livelihood depends.

My best advice would be to understand that people are political by nature and even in a famine... you still have to sell the bread.

Cervantes said...

Every single word of what you just wrote is factually false. You are completely, irretrievably ignorant. Just so you know.

Anonymous said...

Have you seen the march for science?

These demonstrations only happened when it appeared funding might be cut back.

The grant-sucking scientific community were always incensed that the public didn't bow down to their scientific opinions.

But when you tell them funding cuts are coming and their tenured jobs may be on the it's a fuckin' crisis!

Here's a tip: When someone starts a conversation with "It's not about the money...", you can bet it's about the money.