Thursday, December 27, 2012

Opinions on opinions on science's influence on opinions' influence on science

A post at NewStatesman by guest editors Brian Cox (British particle physicist and science popularizer) and Robin Ince (comedian/writer) highlights the danger of political controversies in undermining public trust in science. It's been responded to several times (read this or this or this or this or this), but it's worth pointing out some key passages.

Cox and Ince begin by contrasting pre-Internet times to modern times, which illustrates an important difference in how the public perceives science (bold emphasis mine):
The story of the past hundred years is one of unparalleled human advances, medically, technologically and intellectually. The foundation for these changes is the scientific method. In every room in your house, there are innovations that in 1912 would have been considered on the cusp of magic. The problem with a hundred years of unabated progress, however, is that its continual nature has made us blasé. We expect immediate hot water, 200 channels of television 24 hours a day, and the ability to speak directly to anyone anywhere in the world any time via an orbiting network of spacecraft. Any less is tantamount to penury. Where once the arrival of a television in a street or the availability of international flight would have been greeted with excitement and awe, and the desire to understand how those innovations came into being, it is now expected that every three months you’ll be queuing outside the Apple store for a new wafer-thin slab of brushed metal, blithely unaware that watching a movie in the palm of your hand has been made possible only through improbable and hard-won leaps in the understanding of the quantum behaviour of electrons in silicon.
It's pointed and true. We have more technology now than ever before; scientists even within disciplines are unable to explain it to each others (how many organic chemists, for instance, have a grasp of how LCDs, which are built on small molecules, work?). There's more to know -- more availability of wonderment -- than ever before, but given how common electronic devices are, it's easier to use them than to try to understand them.

The authors describe nature as an "arbiter above opinion." They quote Feynman with the assertion that if an opinion or guess conflicts with the available evidence, it is wrong.
The assertion is surely uncontroversial, but implementing it can be prohibitively difficult, primarily because it demands that everything be subordinate to evidence. Accepting this is fraught with cultural difficulty, because authority in general rests with grandees, gods, or more usually some inseparable combination of the two. Even in a secular democracy, a fundamental tenet of the system is that politicians are elected to reflect and act upon the opinions of the people, or are at least given temporary authority by the people to act upon their own. Science is a framework with only one absolute: all opinions, theories and “laws” are open to revision in the face of evidence. It should not be seen or presented, therefore, as a body of inviolate knowledge against which policy should be judged; the effect of this would be to replace one priesthood with another. Rather, science is a process, a series of structures that allow us, in as unbiased a way as possible, to test our assertions against Nature.
Cox and Ince then offer up climate change denialism as an example. From their piece:
The loud criticism of climate science is motivated in the main not by technical objections, but by the difficult political choices with which it confronts us. This is important, because there must be a place where science stops and politics begins, and this border is an extremely complex and uncomfortable one. Science can’t tell us what to do about our changing climate. It can only inform us that it is changing (this is a statement based on data) and tell us the most probable reasons for this given the current state of our understanding. For a given policy response, it can also tell us how likely that response is to be effective, to the best of our understanding. The choice of policy response itself is not a purely scientific question, however, because it necessarily has moral, geopolitical and economic components.
The key passage, I think, is this one, which comes near the end of the article (bold emphasis mine):
Science is the framework within which we reach conclusions about the natural world. These conclusions are always preliminary, always open to revision, but they are the best we can do. It is not logical to challenge the findings of science unless there are specific, evidence-based reasons for doing so. Elected politicians are free to disregard its findings and recommendations. Indeed, there may be good reasons for doing so. But they must understand in detail what they are disregarding, and be prepared to explain with precision why they chose to do so. It is not acceptable to see science as one among many acceptable “views”. Science is the only way we have of exploring nature, and nature exists outside of human structures.

Though several of the responses to the piece have been negative, with respondents misreading the piece as an insistence that science and politics be divorced of each other, Jon Butterworth at The Guardian agrees with Cox and Ince and attempts to clarify the argument:
My reading of Cox and Ince is that they argue that the boundary between these cases, tricky though it can be, should be kept as clear as possible. This is not a claim for the supremacy of science, nor complete separation between science and politics, but is an attempt to direct political debate to the areas where it can be fruitful.
I don't see any suggestion there that science is, or can be, separate from politics. Not only are scientific results important input to political debate - often setting the boundary conditions of what is known to be possible - but politics at all levels influences the science we do. Taking examples from my own experience - CERN was set up with political as well scientific goals, to raise the level of European cooperation in an important science area - "Bringing nations together through science". The European Space Agency is explicit about having the political and economic goal of supporting the European aerospace industry, yet enables enormous amounts of science. The decisions as to what experiments are done are often influenced by politics, ranging from office to inter-governmental level. Suppression of results and cherry picking, as discussed for example in Ben Goldacre's books, are explicitly political, moral and economic issues. The progress of science is also potentially warped by journals, by funding reviews and by appointment panels. But progress it does, nevertheless. The evidence is all around you.
Agreement all around. Head-in-the-sand denials that politics has (or should have) any influence on scientific practice, or that science has (or should have) any influence on public policy are misguided. As a society, we need to be able to recognize what is political ideology and what is scientific truth/fact so that we can harness science to best influence policy and the public welfare. Science can't, and shouldn't, be separated from politics, but politics shouldn't be the bird droppings on the Windshield of the Car of Science that make it hard to see while at the wheel.

One of my favorite comments comes from a user named TheBabelFish, who offered this response to Butterworth's piece:
We have made specialists of our politicians. The career path is inexorable. They spend their entire careers learning to play the game of politics, how to get elected, how to spin stories, events, even facts, to their own advantage. It's a system that is very good at turning out politicians, but very bad at turning out leaders. 
If scientific data, to pluck a random example wildly out of the air, requires a 'hard sell,' persuading the electorate to make a sacrifice, then they won't do it. They just won't. They've been trained, in their speciality of politics, never to give the public bad news if it can possibly be avoided.
It's a good point. A symptom of our political system; with a dearth of scientists in government (they're trained as specialists in something else, after all), I don't see an easy cure.


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