"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Saturday, February 13, 2010


I am coming to realize that I have been inconsistent on two big questions. Here I will just raise them, hoping to point to analogies between them and hoping to show that there are meaningful principles being traded off in each.

The boffin question:

Should scientific experts on a particular topic take a position on policy? If so, what about the tendency for advocacy to color substantive opinion? If not, who is responsible for conveying scientific advice to the policy sector? The tradeoff essentially has some resemblance to that between false positives and false negatives. Should the center for disease control not be staffed by epidemiologists? Is something special about climate that causes climatologists to be inclined to eschew expressing their opinions? Is Hansen out of line for breaking this "scientific reticence" mold, or was the mold wrong to begin with? If Hansen's opinions are, for purposes of argument, correct, and yet his behavior, for purposes of argument, is not, who should be filling the gap in spreading the relevant concerns to the public and the policy sector?

What about technology experts? There's also an odd tension in the fact that engineers tend to be overenthusaistic about the matters of their expertise while scientists tend to be overly worried about theirs. The fact that the first people to hear about a technology are its advocates is a point that has been emphasized by lefty grumbler Jerry Mander for some time.

The hobbyist question

Is it true that people are uniterested in science? Or are people just uniterested in the obviously shallow nonsense that passes as science related on the major media. Should we as a soceity absorb Clifford Johnson's advice that "scientists are not special people. We are ordinary people doing a special thing." or should we accept that a degree of specialization is necessary?

To what extent should outsiders be included in the already expensive and error-prone process of peer review? How can we deal with the existence of people who cannot accept criticism, especially given the propensity of peer review to mix invalid and valid criticism anyway? How do we explain the rarity of Popperian refutation to a public looking to "disprove" inconvenient "theories"? How do we improve on the public perception of scientific process as set by high school classes or collegiate lecture halls and associated "experiments"?

What do you say to soemone who proudly announces "I'm a frequentist" as if there were two branches of statistics at war with each other? How much time and effort would it take to make the case that this isn't so? Whose responsibility is such a thing?

What do you say to people who demand rejection of a technique that a certain scientist used on a certain time series the way politicians demanded of other politicians that they renounce certain ethnic leaders who made statements that were offensive to other ethnic groups?

What do you say to people who accuse you of being shallow or evasive when there are a hundred times as many people asking questions as the number qualified to answer them? Is it possible to incerase the number of people qualified to answer the questios? Is it possible to organize the informed parties to answer effectively?

Enter Marshall McLuhan

Clip h/t Deltoid.

The medium is the message.

We have new media and new ways of processing information. Do these new ways facilitate erasing the boundaries between roles? Or do they necessitate firming them up? The fact is that many times more people have an interest in climatology (a good fraction of them, by now, doubters) requires some way of either addressing the scale or reestablishing the old barriers.

Scientists (specifically Richard Somerville) suggest re-establishing the old barriers:
Science has its own high standards. It does not work by unqualified people making claims on television or the Internet. It works by scientists doing research and publishing it in carefully reviewed research journals. Other scientists examine the research and repeat it and extend it. Valid results are confirmed, and wrong ones are exposed and abandoned. Science is self-correcting. People who are not experts, who are not trained and experienced in this field, who do not do research and publish it following standard scientific practice, are not doing science. When they claim that they are the real experts, they are just plain wrong.

The leading scientific organizations of the world, like national academies of science and professional scientific societies, have carefully examined the results of climate science and endorsed these results. It is silly to imagine that thousands of climate scientists worldwide are engaged in a massive conspiracy to fool everybody. The first thing that the world needs to do if it is going to confront the challenge of climate change wisely is to learn about what science has discovered and accept it.
Media people seem to advise continued reliance on oversimplification, on the grounds that people seem to have no interest in details. Surely this is true of most people, but people can also tell when they are being brushed off.

There's certainly not enough of a market for this sort of thing to be supported by advertising, but science itself isn't supported by advertising either. Opening the process will do more to create half-informed nuisance types (of whom there are plenty now) than actual contributors. But the science itself is being conducted at the request of the public and in the interest of the public. The demands for more openness may be in conflict with the perennial demands for frugality, but that doesn't mean they aren't persistent and sincere.

Similarly, how can we inject actual expertise into policy discussions? How can we find ways for strategies that weigh tradeoffs across multiple domains and make the best possible decisions? How can we convey to a public that sometimes no choices are available that will satisfy everybody? How do we choose the winners and compensate the losers so that the increasingly tightly knit world doesn't just blow apart at the seams? How do we collectively make the increasingly difficult decisions that our suddenly small world imposes upon us?


Arthur said...

There was an interesting comment on DailyKos earlier today that suggested to me something that might be a real route out of this:


This was a comment to David Brin's post here that you may also find apropos:


Quoting the comment:
"But the blind acceptance of the pyramid model of class domination -- a tiny élite, whether of wealth, power, education, or ideology, controlling (by direct coercion, propaganda, or other tools of domination) the "great unwashed" -- shows a lack of foresight and imagination.

Assuming it is, in fact, true that "creativity" is the province of an educated, intellectual minority, what better task could they find for their creativity than turning that "creative minority" into a creative majority?

If you get outside the bubble inhabited by politicians, engineers, writers, and other self-reflecting and self-congratulating élites, you'll find that the people of this country constitute a vast ocean of suppressed creativity -- people who have immense potential, but because of lack of access to education, lack of access to tools, lack of access to loans, lack of access to the press and publications, are simply unable to contribute creatively or get their creative contributions recognized. That doesn't mean that they have nothing to say or that what they have isn't worth saying -- just that the élites aren't interested in listening to them."

This vision of a world where a majority are "creative", not all scientists, but involved in fulfilling occupations that exercise their intelligence, sounds like something worth striving for.

The writer is correct that there is immense potential out there. How can we help it become realized? That seems a truly worthy goal.

Anna Haynes said...

How about - as an experiment - climate science tour guides? Perhaps instead of being an in-class TF, some climate-science grad students could pop over to WUWT and offer to lead 20 people through David Archer's intro-for-nonmajors course, answering their Qs and administering the tests. (open book, presumably)

Anyone who honestly wanted to learn would presumably be eager to take advantage of the opportunity.

Anna Haynes said...

Better idea, re the "online tour guides" - the online TFs should pick which WUWT (and Dot Earth, and...) commenters to invite (then iterate the invitations until the group had grown large enough)

Unknown said...

My partial answer to the first question is an honest alarmist.

My partial answer (as a kind of amateur Science-Technology-Society theoretician rather than a practitioner) to the second question is discussed in Rethinking expertise, following Collins and Evans and Will blogs facilitate "extended peer review" as proposed in Ravetz?.