"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Authoritarianism Claim

Ken Green and his coauthor Hiwa Alaghebandian have gone out and collected data to support their proposition that science is "turning authoritarian". This is an admirable first step, but let's apply a bit of skepticism and see where it goes.

Here's the data:

Now, the first thing I note is that all the curves are pretty much the same shape just with different scaling. So perhaps the size of the data set grows over time.

Yet G & A proceed to claim that "Some of this may simply reflect the general growth of media output and the growth of new media, but if that were the case, we would expect all of the terms to have shown similar growth, which they do not." But, um, they do. Well, these guys don't look at charts and graphs all that much, perhaps they've never thought about what that might look like. But anyway, the way they eliminate "general growth" is, um, how to put this charitably, "exactly wrong".

Anyway, the next question, of course, is whether the language is being used in the way they suggest. Their own examples are far from convincing on this score.

The climate community is probably the biggest user of the authoritarian voice, with frequent pronouncements that “the science says we must limit atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to 350 parts per million,” or some dire outcome will eventuate. Friends of the Earth writes, “For example, science tells us we must reduce our global greenhouse gas emissions to prevent dangerous climate change.” America’s climate change negotiator in Copenhagen is quoted by World Wildlife Fund as saying, “China must do significantly more if we are to have a chance to solve the problem and to arrive at an international agreement that achieves what science tells us we must.” Science as dictator—not a pretty sight.

If science wants to redeem itself and regain its place with the public’s affection, scientists need to come out every time some politician says, “The science says we must…” and reply, “Science only tells us what is. It does not, and can never tell us what we should or must do.
But the example "China must do significantly more if we are to have a chance to solve the problem" is not an instruction, it is a statement of fact: consequence X cannot be avoided without action Y. "For example, science tells us we must reduce our global greenhouse gas emissions to prevent dangerous climate change" can at least be read that way. Are these authoritaruan statements? No, they are claims of fact. They don't tell you you must avoid consequence X; they tell you that if you want to avoid consequence X, then Y is required.

So let's look for ourselves. Those of us who don't have Lexis/Nexis kind of bucks are no longer at a great disadvantage; we can ask the Google/Oogle.

And the great Oogle Bird reveals two things. The first, not unexpected, is that there are plenty of other ways you can use the phrases:

"Science requires faith"

"Science requires interpretation"

"Science requires mathematics"

"Lithuanian law on science requires online access for publicly-funded research"

"Computer Science requires critical thinking skills"

"that if the law differs from what cognitive science tells us, we should change the law to conform to the “objective” truth of the human brain"

"The increase in global temperature is consistent with what science tells us we should expect"

"That's what all the science tells us we should expect"

"But Occam's razor (a standard paradigm in science) tells us we should pick the simplest model that is consistent with the data"

So phrase counts themselves don;t tell the whole stories.

But that was to be expected. What I did not expect was how very few hits Google had. On the exact phrase "science tells us we should" (using quote delimiters) Google had exactly 49 hits, perhaps a quarter of them referring to Green and Alaghebandian either directly or at one remove, (and another quarter absurdly off topic in one way or another). So we are looking at two dozen hits from google. I can't see how this is consistent with 1500 per year from Lexis,

Note that the curves are nearly monotonic: you might even suspect that these numbers are cumulative except for the declines in 2003 and 2006. I would like to see these results reproduced (not just replicated) before I would recommend putting much credence into them.

But what is this all about anyway? It's true enough that "science tells us we should" seems to be applied to environmental issues and climate issues in particular, in the rare cases it's used. And it's clear that this is usually expressed by a nonscientist. So the nonscientist may be respecting authority, but there is no sign of an exercise or assertion of power.

Why should there be? The question comes down to the purpose of expertise. Science itself, in the pure form, is and should be value neutral. Science-based advice cannot be. In other words, expertise is one thing, and expert advice is another thing. There can be expertise without expert advice, but there cannot be expert advice without expertise. Exactly what words the expert uses, or even exactly what words the person taking the advice uses, is hairsplitting.

Many of the ideas from our critics have a dreamlike, bizarre quality to them. Apparently, Phil Jones has been doing what he has been doing because that is how to become a modern Napoleon; you collate thermometers. Before you know it you will rule the world.

Right. A good theory, demonstrated beyond doubt by a clever Lexis search. That explains everything except the 99 degree temperature in Helsinki yesterday. That and why Google only got 49 hits on their most prominent phrase.

What it really means is that freedom is just another word for ignoring informed opinion when it suits you. I guess that's why they need those think tanks. If they weren't in a heavily armored vehicle they wouldn't last five minutes in fair combat. But give them some credit. They drew a graph. That's progress...


Steve Bloom said...

Well, Rick at least should be happy now!

Actually this does point up something I had intended to mention during the last KG go-round here but didn't for some reason, which is the amazingly low standard of scholarship demonstrated by this and much of the rest of the right-wing think tank work product. There's no comparison at all to the standard at e.g. Center for American Progress.

It's as if what's wanted is not the truth but plausible-sounding lies. Imagine that.

Kaitlin said...

Thanks for this, it was a very interesting article. The various ways that statistics can be misleading are very interesting, and I had fun trying to work out the problems with drawing such drastic interpretations from that graph before I went ahead and read the rest of the article. Keep it up!


Steve Bloom said...

Rick posted his own critique in the other thread.

To make another obvious point, what's authoritarian about "should"?

Martin Vermeer said...

Hmmm, I get 47,100 hits on "science tells us we should". What is your precise search URL?

Nick Palmer said...

"freedom is just another word for ignoring informed opinion when it suits you"


The back story behind this graph is just another example of our civilisation's slow slide into, for want of a better word, decadence. That is to say civilisation is suffering a slow retraction from the values of the enlightenment, the values of objectivity, reason, reality - the bigger picture - and towards the subjective, the unreasonable, even the irrational - the personal view.

What we should get from Green's article and graph is not that some scientist's words, or their reported words, are getting more authoritarian (c'mon! only in a wishy-washy sort of way) over the last few decades, but rather that the tendency of people not to listen to what they don't want to hear, like a two year old saying NO, has grown rapidly. Scientists and science reporters are nowadays talking about far more serious threats to civilisation as a whole than ever they did before so naturally the language they use becomes a bit harder - they are looking out for their own future too! Science sees a rising tide of people not listening because what science has to say conflicts with their fond but selfish beliefs.

This narcissistic childishness of society has been increasing rapidly since the dawn of the Yuppie "Me" generation with its strong emphasis on personal values and that self-belief was what is needed, not just for achieving your own ambitions but that the sum total of all the individuals fighting their own corner, and pursuing their own personal aims would end up producing the best result for society as a whole.

This mindset has polluted the corporate environment so that only people who passionately and uncritically and whole-heartedly spout the company line are perceived as valuable to the company, no matter if the company line is irrational, short sighted or will ultimately lead to the company's collapse. By "natural" selection, they retain their jobs. Those watching learn what to believe to succeed. Appreciation of reality goes out the window.

The "Me" generation's extreme self-belief is probably on display most dramatically in the early rounds of such TV shows as Britain's Got Talent and American Idol as the most astonishingly talentless and highly deluded individuals think that they have a real shot at stardom if only they believe in themselves enough and tell anyone who listens how badly they want it.

We now have a generation of people internationally who just don't like reality intruding into their personal beliefs about how the universe works. They set up seemingly impenetrable barriers against tested knowledge influencing their beliefs. They literally seem to believe that if they just have enough faith that somehow the laws of physics will repeal themselves in their favour.

Whole industries have grown up and prospered to plug this extreme self-belief ideology - motivational speakers and authors, advertising, marketing, public relations, spin doctors. The way prospective journalists and media types generally are taught these days is that their job is not to report on, or investigate, what is but instead they have to present what people believe about what is and in order to be fair they have to present a balanced view of all the different viewpoints out there, seemingly without regard to how ridiculous, dangerous or stupid some of them may be.

Objectivity, scientific knowledge, reason and reality have always had a cortex-thin hold on the public consciousness. We are seeing what lies beneath breaking through; indeed we are seeing whole industries full of people just pursuing their careers for their own personal ends actively breaking up that thin layer, mostly without even realising it, with half truths, fallacious reasoning, baseless rhetoric and pandering to what too many people want to hear to validate and reinforce their own subjective views. B.S is winning.

Michael Tobis said...

Martin, Google is inconsistent; it reports thousands of results on the top page but only yields five pages of results. I don't know quite what to make of this.

Joshua Stults said...

Steve Bloom:...what's authoritarian about "should"?
When it's used in the sense of indicating a moral imperative rather than a likely effect/result. Which of those two senses do you think Science should "pass over in silence"?

I think the question raised is a fundamental one; I disagree with Nick Palmer about this being a symptom of our modern, fallen times. Figuring out the proper uses for different types of knowledge is a timeless struggle.

Michael Tobis, the statements of facts you site as exoneration against the claim make it seem like you agree with Roger Pielke Jr on the proper role for natural philosophy...

This particular "evidence" for authoritarianism clearly falls in the realm of silly science though, not much on that air burger.

Steve Bloom said...

So someone trying to convince you that there's a moral imperative for a given course of action is authoritarian? I beg to differ.

guthrie said...

The main problem that I have seen over the years is that the phrase "Science tells us we should" is too often used as a truncaed shorthand form of "do thist if we are concerned about the fate of wetlands/ the earths biosphere/ accept that AGW will otherwise cause massive and irreparable damage to humanities way of life".
There is too little reporting and discussion (Whoevers fault that is) of the whole opinion or story.
There are even some people who proudlys ay, in ignorance of all the evidence, that they don't care about the planet and so they don't want anything done about AGW. But it always helps when you can frame the issue more clearly, and in general, the media and many communicators have, to my mind, done a rubbish job of spelling out what the issues are and will be over the next century.

Michael Tobis said...

jstults, indeed, RP Jr. has a point, but then he garbles it beyond recognition. Much more on this to follow.

I agree that Green's muddle is related to RP Jr's muddle.

My original plan was to relate them in the article, but virtual friend PE strongly recommended "one point per posting", good advice which I frequently mess up on. She recommended two articles, but I couldn't do that. So there will be three.

manuel moe g said...

Can citizens of the United States of America file a class action lawsuit against the owners of the domain "american.com"? Reads like Stalin's Pravda.

What does defense of U.S. enterprise have to do with dissembling?

Anna Haynes said...

MT, forgive me if I overlooked this, but have you invited Dr. Green to come here and respond?
(I'd like to hear what he has to say to this...)

Hank Roberts said...

A university library will have Lex/Nex access and can run searches for you to check the claims.

These results (Scholar) I'd say argue against, not for, their conclusion, when read. Viz:

http://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=%22science+tells+us+we+should%22 (five hits, but four texts)

"Both sides argue over what the science tells us we should think about the embryo, and neither now can speak to an implicit moral intuition."

"Now, new science tells us we should embrace bacteria."

"We should not readily assume that if the law differs from
what cognitive science tells us, we should change the law to conform to the "objective"
truth of the human brain." (hit twice from different year/versions)

"Will they live up to the expectations that are upon them and take climate change as serious as science tells us we should do?" ("pre-edit version")

http://www.google.com/search?q="science+tells+us+we+should" (About 51,000 results )