"It is the unhappy fate of the scientist today that he must play the role of Cassandra in the body politic, sending his fellow men to bed with nightmares in the hope to be heard in time."

- Arthur von Hippel, in "The Molecular Designing of Materials" (h/t @upbeatprof)

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

It's about trust

By "Eriga" on a Joe Romm posting on Grist about Lomborg, all of which is neither here nor there:
I think you are right that you can't win a debate, not only about climate change, but about any reasonably complex scientific issue, with someone who knows what they're doing. I believe, for example, that it is unlikely life would be found on any planet orbiting a red dwarf star, because I have no reason to distrust the vast majority of astronomers. At the moment this particular scientific majority opinion is politically uncontroversial; but if some industry group were to find itself threatened by it and invested huge amounts of money in poking holes in tiny details of astronomy papers, accusing astronomers who talk about starspots of fearmongering and conspiracy, etc., I'd soon find myself out of my depth and unable to win the argument. So it's essentially a debate about trust in scientific authority, not about the science itself.
Update: Here's a real world example for you to consider. Does exposure to the sun increase cancer risk? Of course there's no clear evidence of that, at least according to some people wearing white coats.

John McCarthy is right in identifying something he calls "lawyer's science", but he's wrong in identifying who most commonly uses it. Unlike those of us in the public sector, industry has a "bottom line".

This leaves them unconflicted about, well, if not actually lying, at least misrperesenting the balance of information within the limits of the law. You may imagine that a well ordered marketplace would impose consequences on this sort of behavior, but we are all too overwhelmed for that to happen effectively. I would imagine that they would at least be punished by sleep disorders, but apparently the population of sociopaths who sleep like angels is sufficient to overcome this.


gravityloss said...

Because you have to be so close to the star to enable liquid water, and this means tide locking and solar flares? But is that a definite no?

I think this (again) is a bad example.

There are a lot more red dwarfs than for example sun-like G class stars in the milky way. Perhaps 75% compared to 2% of all stars.

So I think it's worth looking at. I'm not meaning there's any huge controversy about it or anything.

I'm a long time reader of Paul Gilster's Centauri Dreams blog, where I get most of the info on what's happening on the scene.

Dano said...

So it's essentially a debate about trust in scientific authority, not about the science itself.

Right. Hence the argumentation like 'robed priests', data archiving procedures, politicization, etc etc etc.

Something that is successful for me is asking someone if they trust their meds - because if their argument is true, then you shouldn't take meds because the same procedures apply (also, if a few ppmv can't harm the environment, then upping your dose by 35% shouldn't harm you either, by that logic - go ahead and increase your Valium by 3 mg and tell us how you do).



Michael Tobis said...

GL, I thought the example was completely made up but I see it isn't. For me, whether the example itself is valid is not really the point at all. See the update to the text of this posting for perhaps a better example.

Dano, presume you mean by 3 mg per day every day...

S Molnar said...

Sorry for being late to the party, but I'm a bit lost as to what your point is. The debate about sunlight exposure and overall cancer risk is perfectly legitimate (see, for example, here). I think we are all inclined to take too narrow a view of things if we aren't careful: dermatologists don't see many pancreatic cancers, so they may tend to discount them. I see no analogy to global warming or cigarette smoking, where the few benefits are overwhelmingly outweighed by the drawbacks. Or am I totally missing your point?

Michael Tobis said...

The point is simply that commercial interests can be expected to twist the evidence to support their own interests in public debates.

I don't think this is necessary; it's possible for me to imagine a culture where this didn't happen. We just aren't in one right now.

Steven said...

A more economic way of phrasing that would be that behavior will emerge that favors the actor, when incentives are present, or even possible.