"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Role of Scientists and of Scientific Authority

Paulina Essunger sends along this quote for the quotations file:
“We need to adopt a broader view of what it means for researchers to fulfill
their obligations to society. It is not enough for them to make findings and report them in the scholarly literature. As citizens in a democracy, they must engage, and not just when their funding is at stake.”

-Cornelia Dean
Hmm. I don't entirely agree with this as stated. It confuses the singular and the collective. It seems to me to claim that each researcher must engage in democracy as a researcher. It seems clear to me that the resulting cacophony would help very little; it's hard to imagine any broad issue on which scientists' opinions would not span an enormous range. What the democratic process needs to know is the narrow facts; what's deemed certain, what likely, what plausible, what unlikely, what impossible.

On climate change, IPCC (and especially WG I) has done a creditable job on reporting these things, notwithstanding the Himalaya glaciers blunder, and yet they are busily being discredited anyway. So one wonders what the point is; one could do worse that to take the IPCC position and defend it even though it rather understates the risks. Those of us who are willing and able to engage the public's confusion ought to do so, and if I may say so, ought to have some way of being rewarded for it.

But it should be noted (and in some circles it isn't noted) that this itself is a radical claim. The primary role of scientists has always been to impress other scientists in a scientific meritocracy. A very few of the most elite scientists are then consulted by the policy sector. This is seen as an end-of-career perk for the best of the best, and is conducted outside the purview of the scientific culture. From the point of view of science, being appointed to a national or international commission is a hobby, and being appointed to the cabinet is a form of retirement.

It is only recently that the substance of specific scientific issues have become matters of policy-relevant general public interest. This has created a role for propagandists, in some disciplines including climate well-funded ones. And this is responsible for the emergent gap in the set of necessary roles.

Simon Singh made a similar point in the recent Wired interview you shouldn't miss.
A researcher could be doing really important work on global warming, and then somebody writes a column in a national newspaper that completely undermines what they’re saying. But the scientist doesn’t think the column is important—it’s just some nincompoop writing a column—so they don’t take that writer to task in the way they should. It’s a case of saying, “How do we make a difference?” We certainly don’t make a difference by just moaning over coffee the next day.
These ideas, with which I agree, are totally in opposition to traditional scientific culture, and with good reason. Once you say something like "I can't believe Tom Fuller's latest, um, topsy-turvy piece. He really has hid head, um, in the sand, that guy." you are doing two things. One, you are calling additional attention to something that you don't feel deserves much attention. But more important, you are taking a public position outside the peer review process on a matter that itself is outside the peer review process. That is, you are stating an informal opinion, and therefore calling the neutrality of the scientific process into question. It's nowhere stated in some indoctrination session that you shouldn't do this. But it's important to realize that until recently this was the expectation.

Indeed, this is the nugget of truth in Roger Pielke Jr.'s meandering and ultimately unsatisfying book "The Honest Broker"; that an advocate cannot be a scientist and that a scientist cannot be an advocate. On this key point, Roger is not saying anything new or controversial. On the contrary, it is people like Dean, or Singh, or myself who are searching for something new.

A scientist is a person who wakes up every morning asking "How could I be wrong?" Such a person cannot hold their own in a public debate against an advocate who wakes up asking "How could the scientist be wrong?" Yet, the scientist who surrenders to the conventional techniques of public relations and influencing public opinion, that is, to politics writ large, really does end up surrendering objectivity.

The public is more and more alienated from the scientific method and the scientific world view. (The ivory tower is increasingly populated by second and third generation academics.) The desperate need is for more people to understand not just what we know and what we suspect, but why we know and suspect these things. This is a non-trivial task, and doesn't get any easier.

Defending science is not about yelling back. It has to be about the nature of objective inquiry. Not everyone is going to be interested or capable of understanding this very well, but there are smart people everywhere. We cannot afford to lose them. Winning them back is more than a matter of making counterclaims.

On the other hand, we have to remain willing to say "no, that's wrong", in other words "science is open-minded but skilled; our skills do not allow room for your hypothesis". And we have to claim that authority. A model of biology that does not include evolution is simply wrong. We should not be taking polls to establish how many people "believe in" evolution. The press and the schools and the political elites should be treating this as fact.

Authority is not authoritarian. We are not telling people what to do about evolution. We are simply stating the facts.

We have reached the point where superstition has better marketing than science. Fantasy may have better appeal than reality at first blush. Reality is a refined, developed, adult taste. We can't live on candy bars forever, and a society that tries is not long for the world. Why can we sell olives but not charts and graphs?

Does advocating for science undermine scientific objectivity? I think this is a pointless paradox. The missing role must advocate for objectivity and yet connect objectivity to real-world situations where advocates for fantasy are prevailing.

Can we call the missing role "science journalism" or "science writing" or "science outreach"? Perhaps, but its funding model and its conduct are obviously in great need of redesign.

I don't find this role among Pielke's taxonomy. It's crucial. It isn't really policy advocacy. I think it needs to be distinct from the role of those conducting the scientific enterprise. I think that the failures of the recent past are to be blamed on people deliberately muddying the waters, but it's foolish to ignore the fact that no serious resistance to organized misinformation came from either the scientific community or the press.


pough said...

We have reached the point where superstition has better marketing than science.

When has it ever not?

Tom said...

Michael, thanks for the kind words.

If you don't practice what you preach regarding this, why would you expect others to listen to you?

And you vastly overrate the pr skills of those pushing ignorance. You just don't look at the historical record to see how far general knowledge has advanced. You probably think it's a scandal that x% of the US population don't believe in evolution, or your particular version of global warming.

But huge percentages have crossed over from superstition and ignorance--and more will, given time.

Topsily-turvily yours...

Michael Tobis said...

"My particular version?"

You mean this one?

Hey, it's not my idea.

I wonder if acceptance of evolution in the US is not in decline in percentage terms. I was certainly taught in high school that creationism is a laughable anachronism, but then I didn't go to high school in the US. So I may be confused on this.

Michael Tobis said...

This site indicates no significant change in attitudes toward evolution since 1982.

turboblocke said...

Please warn us if you're going to link to WUWT: I don't want my head to explode. Just the first comment to the article was enough.

Tom said...

Michael, take a longer view. What was it in 1930 when Darrow met Bryant? What was it a century earlier?

Anonymous said...

In Germany the numbers are very different. Overall, about 60% accept evolution, 25% subscribe to ID and 12.5% believe in Creationism. As expected findings are strongly correlated with faith. For undenominational people the numbers are 86%/10%/4% respectively. For Catholic and Protestants the numbers are about 52%/33%/15%. For Catholics and Protestants believes are strongly correlated with church attendence, ranging from 10%/46%/44% (Evo/ID/Creat) when attending every Sunday to 57%/27%/15% when going to church less then once a year and 69%/19%/10% when never attending church. Also younger people believe in evolution rather than ID.

However, in recent years ID and Creationism seem to be on the rise; it is attributed to increased efforts by Creationists to bring their teachings into schools. Quite shockingly, one German university found that 8% of its freshmen wanting to become biology teachers(!) had creationist leanings.

Deech56 said...

Joel Shore deserves a medal for his perseverance in that WUWT thread.

Oale said...

Now... Only in it for the Gold, Michael TOBIS! will speak of philosophy of science! On the opposite corner...

Thanks for this.

The cretionist would probably like their kids to resemble none of their parents.

William T said...

A very thoughtful post Dr Tobis. Scientists have opinions too and should be able to contribute them as anyone else to help in the public debate.

However, I don't think you need to be too hard on the difficulties of "speaking out". Even Mr Fuller has it right when in the linked article he says that the opinions of climate scientists should be given somewhat more weight in the debate than laypeople. I think that most people understand this and generally weight people's opinions according to their perceived expertise in the topic under discussion. Think about another situation - for instance if you're down at the pub talking about what went wrong on the gulf oil spill. If one of the people there happens to work on an oil rig you're most likely going to take his opinions more seriously than the fellow next to him who runs a web company.

Of course if you've got two oil rig guys arguing opposite things then you're stuck, unless you like one of them better and he's got the same political views as you...

So it comes back to credibility (or perceived credibility). Which is why there's been so much effort to destroy the perceived credibility of scientists and the IPCC. Your link to the joint statements of the scientific academies is something that carries credibility for many people - but probably not those who have been persuaded that there's a conspiracy involved.

Anonymous said...

Oh boy. GRACE under fire.

Now proudly putting his innumeracy on display to as wide an audience as possible.

DirkD said...

William T, I fervently hope that most Americans share your opinion on the value of expertise. However, a growing proportion of folks appear to challenge this apparent self-evident truth. Just head over to WUWT and see what passes as "science" there, or read the illogical musings of Tom Fuller on climate science, or - more worryingly - wait for the results of the November mid-terms for proof.

Charles Pierce says it better than most:

"The rise of Idiot America, though, is essentially a war on expertise (my italics)...The rise of Idiot America today reflects - for profit, mainly, but also, and more cynically, for political advantage and in the pursuit of power - the breakdown of the consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good.

"It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people we should trust the least are the people who know best what they're talking about.

"In the new media age, everybody is a historian, a scientist, or a preacher, or a sage. And if everyone is an expert, then nobody is, and the worst thing you can be in a society where everyone is an expert is, well, an actual expert."

- Pierce, Idiot America, p. 8.

PS: This book is really worth the read. It makes much more sense than anything in RPJr's oeuvre.

Tom said...

Rust never sleeps, what numbers in the article are incorrect?

Happy to change them and credit you for the correction, if warranted.

Zen Faulkes said...

"The ivory tower is increasingly populated by second and third generation academics."

I don't think a single faculty member in my department had a parent who was an academic. Are there stats on this somewhere?

Joel said...

Thanks, Deech56, for your kind words (and Michael for same in the WUWT thread itself)!

Not sure if I will be able to keep it up now that my life has gotten much busier here, but I'll try.

Michael Tobis said...

Talk to the grad students, especially those from your country and other western countries.