"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Two Cultures

Living in Austin is fun, but sometimes you wonder if you can actually participate in anything important if you don't live on one of the coasts, something I have peculiarly never managed. This weekend, I am just beside myself with frustration that I can't possibly attend the New York Academy of Sciences meeting reprising C P Snow's famous "Two Cultures" lecture. I guess we can hope that it's captured and logged somehow. Who knows?

(Chris Mooney, who is not only attending but is on the panel (jealous fume) recently said it had not yet filled up. Not sure if this is still true, but if you are in commuter train range of the City, you might want to consider attending.)

This comes to mind because of two photoblog windows that happen to be open in the usual smattering of attention deficit evidence on my desktop. (Hmm... We live in a time when desktops have windows...)

From the wonderful thingsihavelearnedinmylife.com (which is largely about text as art), we have this quote: "There is no way to draw anything wrong."

And from the marine biology blog Guilty Planet, which I discovered via an alarming bit of historical fumetti about fish catches in the Keys, we have this in Jennifer Jacquet's blurb:

"As a kid, she read 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth and would come to discover that while those 50 things were indeed simple, saving the Earth was not."

Which to me says this: in the arts, there is respect for every opinion while in the sciences there is disrespect for every opinion. Accordingly, in a society where, as Paul Murray recently pointed out, almost everyone who understands science is a scientific professional, the encouraging, positive, go along-to-get-along relativism of the arts is considered social adept while the challenging, skeptical, everything-you-know-is-wrong absolutism of the sciences is considered maladroit, arrogant and offensive.

So, last night, I managed to meet my old friend King of the Road, who showed up among the In It readership a few months back, for dinner at a little barbecue place halfway to Houston. (Again, the blog habit makes my life better while holding down a fringe science job just seems to get in the way.) I guess we had chatted on the phone once in the twenty years intervening since we last met, but it was interesting to see how quickly patterns of an old friendship reassert themselves sometimes. Anyway, Rob's (King's) take on all this is something like "the world is put together in a certain way, and science tries to be put together that way, so there can't be a better way to understand the world". He also said that if you just want to eat, sleep and play guitar, he could perfectly understand that, but then you probably should defer to people who like to think when you put together your opinions.

Anyway, that's the choir; there are many more blogs addressing this group (I mean teh science group, not the guitar group) than our population would presently warrant. Why do we talk to each other and not the world? Because we like to think. Because we do not know how to talk to the rest of the world very effectively. Because the world isn't very interested. Because most people form ideas and then look for evidence to support those ideas rather than looking for evidence to shoot their ideas down. Because most people are taught to trust their intuitions while we are taught to treat them with the deepest suspicion.

What's really at issue is the gap in cognitive style. People simply do not accept that some people are much better at thinking about certain subjects than most everybody else; even though they are quite content to have basketball superstars and guitar heroes.

Paul Murray has quoted one member of the Texas Board of Education as saying "If I don't understand it, it isn't science".

This person's opinion is consequential; he was deciding on the next decade of science education in Texas and indirectly of many of the rural states that follow Texas's lead.

So my view of the two cultures isn't science vs the arts; it's science vs. everybody who doesn't get science. Most politicians, lawyers and business people are included in the "don't get it" group.

As things become overwhelmingly complex, what we need is a society in which intellectual humility is tied to respect for scientific process. When I was a boy, I thought it obvious that this was emerging, but my intuition, alas, was wrong.

So finally, Mr. Obama is increasing the profile and the budget for science. Rob and I discussed what this would amount to. I moaned about all the ways the scientific enterprise itself is broken (partly due to the decades of neglect, partly due to its own internal contradictions). Rob quickly picked up with the question of whether a sudden influx of resources would help very much; indeed, whether there was all that much of use that science could do. I think if the influx is quasi-permanent (which is to say, that the collapse of the republican coalition is permanent) it may attract some of the people science has been losing to such unproductive pursuits as law or finance, but that's a very slow process.

If Obama wants to support science, shoveling money into grant programs may not be the way to do it. There are very serious problems in the way science is designed, conducted and communicated. Business as usual with a few extra bucks may return the halcyon days of the 50s and 60s for a short while. We could re-establish the PhD mill for a few years but isn't sustainable. Science cannot go back to growing, as a professional enterprise, faster than society as a whole. It's that growth rate/sustainability thing again. There is a limit to how many people can be paid to do science.

The main point, though is this. There is no way to draw anything wrong. But there is only one way to think anything right.

I think science desperately needs improvement on two fronts. The first is science that is less effective at writing publications and more effective at reading them, doubting them, testing them and making the winners accessible.

The second, and this is even more important, is to take science education and science promotion and amateur science seriously. That is, people need to reassess the relationship between opinion and fact such that fact wins.

I'll try to make this case to Obama's RFC. We don't, for the most part, need more science. We need better science, and we need better connections between science and the rest of the world.

Picture from Jerry Mikeska's Barbeque at I-10 exit 698. (in Texas of course; does anybody else have an exit 698?) Turn your sound volume down before clicking, or don't say I didn't warn you. Jerry stopped by our table said hi. Like any small business type in Texas, he is a very nice man, but in the interest of scientific accuracy I have to say his brisket is nasty. Stick with the sausage which is fine.


John Mashey said...

"So my view of the two cultures isn't science vs the arts; it's science vs. everybody who doesn't get science. Most politicians, lawyers and business people are included in the "don't get it" group."

Hmm, let's do *social science*:

1) "most" is a mathematical term, which means more than 50%, of some population. Specifically, the median position is in the "don't get it" zone.

a) What is the population to which "most" applies:


b) Can you cite high-quality surveys/research that backs up "most" for whichever domain you're talking about?

It may well be true in some places, like TX. (I'm not sure how to count Austin, having been told by a resident that it wasn't really TX, just surrounded by it.:-))

I know plenty of businesspeople and lawyers, and the few politicians I've met have ranged from sharp to very, very sharp on this. I'd speculate "most" is wrong "here", at least up through CA and Schwarzenegger. I'm under no illusion that NorCal is particularly representative of anything, except perhaps Ecotopia, as per Nine Nations of North America.

2) However, here's something more important,although it verges on "political science":

Thinking "Group X gets it, and most people with label Y don't get it" may not be the best way to achieve the (admirable) goals espoused later in the piece.

Dividing the world in "us" and "them" is reminiscent of "all or nothing" or "black or white" thinking. The last I heard, scientists think in distributions, not just means or medians.

Well-crafted scales for beliefs or expertise work a lot better than yes/no categories, and good social scientists try to use the former.

I'd suggest that the following worldview might be more actionable:

People with label Y follow a distribution from being totally clueless (0) to really getting it (10).

A subset Y' gets it well enough (say 7). Do they differ fundamentally from the ones who don't {Y - Y'}? Are there different subgroups, and different sets of reasons? Maybe a linear scale isn't the right thing either.

In any case, there is a reason that politicians often focus on the uncommmitted middle... and politicians often have some useful expertise, even if such expertise is used to obfuscate reality.

How do we approach education and communication in general to shift the distribution?

For some people, I can imagine no workable arguments.

On the other hand, last Fall, I gave a lecture to Penn State students in a program that combines business and science, i.e., students who want to be in businesses in which science is involved, but not themselves be scientists. Very encouraging - there is some hope.

John Fleck said...

Mashey, as usual, is asking the insightful question here: "How do we approach education and communication in general to shift the distribution?"

I would suggest a foundational one, however: *Can* we shift the distribution? If not, what are the approaches to these science-policy-politics questions that are robust to the distribution as it currently stands?

Aaron said...

We do not need more "high-end" science, we need more basic science applied to problems. For example if everyone at the CIA had a basic understanding of science, then they would have known that there were no Iraqi WMD. That the folks in the Whitehouse accepted the WMD concept means there was nobody in the Whitehouse that considered science immportant.

That we had those kinds of people in the Whitehouse means most voters do not consider science important. And that is the problem. As long as the voters do not consider science important, science education will lag and we have a feedback loop.

I think I have just proved with two elections that most American voters do not consider science important.

King of the Road said...

I think people consider science "situationally important." I hate to dump everyone into a "they" category so I will say the typical scientific layperson is aware that science has made possible computers, cell phones, video games, plasma televisions, anesthesia, the internet, etc. She (I'm so politically correct)is glad science has accomplished these things and is also happy to buy these things from those who bring them to market.

She doesn't believe science is important in the fundamental aspects of how the world works. She has a way that she wants it to work (infinite resources, an all knowing and all loving God, secure knowledge that she and those like her are the good guys and those unlike her are the bad guys, among others) and refuses to subject such desires to the unforgiving reality tests posed by the laws of physics.

And it's getting worse, helped by the flack machine. Angels on Earth, Astrology, UFOs, etc. are mainstream beliefs.

So there's the problem. I'm not the first to think of it and I offer no solutions, but Michael is right in his summary of my thoughts, i.e., if one isn't predisposed to enjoy or be good at scientific thinking or understanding, one had best seek out those who truly are to do it for her. Failure to do so leaves a vacuum (which, by the way, neither nature nor propagandists abhor) that will be quickly filled with self-serving drivel from those who know how to exploit it. Again, this is not a novel analysis and it's the presentation of a problem with no accompanying solution.

Interestingly, my humble little blog which Michael so kindly linked, is a tiny attempt (albeit in a self-indulgent way) to light a candle.

Finally, I must concur with Michael - stick with the sausage.

Michael Tobis said...

As usual, John makes good points.

In this case, part of his point is that unnecessary polarization isn't helpful. I do always try to qualify my generalizations. I did say "most" in this case, and I'm well enough trained as a scientist that I hardly ever say "all" outside of mathematical context except in reference to very small finite collections.

But there's a less general point as well. Business people are in a world of hypothesis testing, so they can't escape something of the scientific worldview.

All this said, there is still a huge cultural gap between the type of business John is familiar with and the sort of business my father and his three or four employees were in. This is obvious in the way "conservatism" is pitched to small business people. The mistrust of large institutions is fed by a huge cultural distance from those institutions.

Most people's encounters with science are essentially limited to Hollywood fantasies and the day-to-day workings of the medical profession. The real nature of scientific skepticism escapes most people who haven't at least dabbled at the advanced undergraduate level.

It seems passing the junior year (third year) is enough. You don't need a Ph.D., but you need to experience the flavor of butting against reality and having some sort of mathematical coherence emerge.

Anyway, I'd venture all of the above to John's 1A, and might barely concede the contrary for a few of the high tech suburbs of San Mateo county. But indeed, I am just guessing, and haven't really got a clearly defined threshhold of "getting it".

At the risk of another polarizing generalization, Ecotopians, I suspect, tend to believe reasonable things about the earth as a whole system and stupid things about medical science, as I understand it. See Huffington Post on vaccines, e.g. So that doesn't fit into "getting it".

"Getting it" is the opposite of the Hollywood way. "Use the Force" is the opposite of thinking. Even the new Star Trek franchise, entertaining as it finally promises to be, celebrates the newly radical Kirk's impulsiveness, contempt for rules and wild intuitions over Spock's logic.

Mistrusting one's own first impressions is something best learned from experience, and our world seems ill-constructed to allow enough people the experience. We get pretty much unjustified hubris as the output.

And if California is so advacned, it's hard not to wonder why the richest civilization in human history has a government that is bankrupt. The Californian direct democracy that demands high levels of service and low levels of taxation is pretty obviously an example of intuition triumphing over reason.

That's sort of a nasty note to end on, so I'll add that we are completely agreed on the bottom line. How do we go about shifting the distribution?

John Mashey said...

California bankrupt government comes from an accumulation of things that sounded good, including a 2/3 rule for budgets, and some awkwardnesses of referenda that have gotten out of hand. The other problem is that CA is a bit of a nation-state, without having the unusal perks of a nation.

I don't if this is true now, but CA certainly used to be #1 in negative balance of payments with Washington, DC. See balance of payments.

In 2001, CA sent $63B more to the Fed than we got back. TX sent $23B more.

Census 2000:
CA: 34M people
TX: 21M

$23B * 34/21 => $37B, the balance CA would have had, had the per capita subsidy been the same as TX ... compared to the actual $63B. Some states of course get more than they send, and the rest goes to run the Federal govt.

SO: some of the budget problems are our own accumulated screwups, and some is because a *lot* of our money goes somewhere else. Numbers like $63B-$37B=$26B, or even $16B would do a lot for our budget deficit.


More seriously: as I noted, where I live (now) is not represented as typical, but I did grow up on a small farm, and actually, decently-educated modern farmers (small business people) tend to be pretty OK with science. Of course, that's at most ~2%.

Also, where I grew up (Western PA, a bit more representative than San Mateo County, perhaps) had lots of small (non-high-tech) businesses. My best indicator was the widespread support of good science education in our school district, which I know because:

a) I could see the results in my own education.

b) Dad was either President or VP of the district school board for ~20 years, and we often talked about it.

c) and since the school district is currently ranked #7 of 500 districts in PA, they probably still do OK.

This was a nice middle-class, but not very-affluent area, i.e., not Mount Lebanon.

Around Pittsburgh, apparently-similar areas offered schools of widely-varying quality.

Unsurprisingly, good education depends a great deal on differences of the teachers, administrators, and support of the community, over a long time.

CA is not consistly good at this for K-12, although it somehow remains awesome at the university level.

Anyway, the *main* point is that when it comes to social science, personal, anecdotal experience is *not* science. *I* don't know the statistics, or even whether they've been properly gathered.

People making comments about climate based on anecdote get it wrong. I'll happily buy "most" if I see some studies.


a) First one studies the existing distribution. That probably takes various scientists, including good social scientists and pollsters.

b) One does the same thing politicians do: segment the population and craft messages appropriate to the relevant segments.

In addition, I'd love to see some application of some educational techniques I saw in Singapore in 2007. For instance, I saw 17/18-year-olds who would have had no trouble with noisy-trended time series. Some approaches wouldn't carry over, but some might work. (more later)

Michael Tobis said...

I am not proposing Texas as a model of anything. Irene and I do enjoy living here, but it's not a civilization we would have designed.

Texas does have, in common with California, such an enormous scale and geographic isolation from anyplace else that matters very much.

There are a lot of things that actually strike me as very Calfornian here. And some things that are southern and and Mexican and even a smattering of Louisiana. But there's a whole lot that is just Texas.

An inherent problem is that the biggest states are underrepresented in the Senate.

Texans are taught in school that we have a unique constitutional right to split into five states and get ten senators (and ten extra electoral votes), but the affection for the jaunty shape of the Texas map alone may be so intense that it will never be put to the test.

But in general, Texans make little distinction between the state and department of transportation. Although the highway expenditures are exuberant, pretty much everything else publicly funded is about as shoddy as you can imagine.

Robert Grumbine said...

Michael, I think you need to put some more work in to describing what you mean by 'get it'. If I take it to mean 'understand enough of the scientific method that they accept overwhelming consensus by professionals in the area', then rather few scientists 'get it' either. There are plenty of scientists involved in the anti-science movements on climate, evolution, vaccination, etc. etc.. Their opposition is not founded on evidence, experimentation, scientific theory, and so on. So clearly, they don't 'get it' enough to arrive at scientifically reasonable conclusions even in relatively simple areas.

In that case, you're left with the problem that very few people -- even among scientists -- 'get it'. And, worse, if many scientists don't get it, then are you sure it's science they're not getting?

Irrespective of any of that, it's also poor strategy to approach it as science/scientists vs. the rest of society, and making it the rest of society that must change. You're outnumbered 99:1 or worse. The 1 seldom moves the 99 by frontal assault. "Back off man, I'm a scientist." works fine for Ghostbusters, as a laugh line. Makes for poor approach to public policy.

What I'll suggest instead as a focus is "Reality-based decision making." This includes having to suck it up and move on when an idea you like turns out to be wrong, or one you don't like turns out to be better. One reason I prefer this is that it is neutral w.r.t. people -- all people find it difficult to do. That includes scientists, hence the scientists in the denialist crowd. On the other hand, it doesn't intrinsically exclude anybody. Business people can be reality based. More accurately, they generally are reality-based. But, and this is a different merit of my phrasing, it is a good idea for you to pay attention to the reality that they (and ditto lawyers, doctors, politicians, plumbers, ...) are concerned with.

Anonymous said...

If it's any consolation, living on one of the two coasts isn't all it's cracked up to be (says the New Yorker who missed the Two Cultures lecture on account of getting way too much of that sort of chatter when he worked at Seed). That said, it's hard to put a price on not living in Texas (says the San Antonio native who regularly visits Austin but still wouldn't want to live there).