Roger Pielke Jr. has a post on using sports to examine “questions related to decision making, ethics, politics, prediction and more.” To that list I would add epistemology, science policy, expertise, and maybe even the sociology of science. I’ve advocated using sports analogies to explain science for a long time now (since at least January 17 of this year:)), and naturally I wish more people followed suit. So I’m happy that Roger jumped on this thread.
Most Americans understand sports whether or not they are fans, and the framework can therefore be illuminating. Delineating the relevant expertise in climate science would be easier if people realized that Freeman Dyson is to global warming as Michael Phelps is to basketball. The New York Times wouldn’t have interviewed Phelps for insightful analysis about the NBA Finals, and they similarly should not have interviewed Dyson about climate change. We can accept Dyson has crazy skills as long as we simultaneously recognize that it’s in a single sport. It’s really not that hard of a concept.
I realize now that my last post sloppily blends two distinct points. I noted first that insisting on “the” rightful place of science is analogous to a football coach following the same game plan for every opponent. Towards the end of the post, I continued my long-running complaint against science-as-foundation. I neglected to emphasize that any a priori role for science is a bad idea. Permanently removing science from its pedestal is no better than permanently keeping it there. Sometimes science needs to be on a pedestal, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the game will be won by handing us the ball and getting out of the way, and sometimes we need to sit on the bench. But I’ve said this before.
I’ve suggested here that there may be real-world consequences for adopting any fixed role for science in policy, whether that role is one of deification or demonization. In contrast, my last post emphasized principled reasons to oppose scientific exceptionalism. From the final paragraph:
Now all this can seem hopelessly academic and pointless. Surely nothing much will change if scientists adopt a different vocabulary. Carbon emissions will continue to rise, the oceans will continue to acidify, and rain forests will continue to be razed. New words alone will not solve these knotty problems. Nevertheless, there’s something to be said for honesty in public discourse, and something to be said against exaggerating one’s virtues and abilities. If nothing else, minimizing the science-as-foundation rhetoric may foster a more honest debate.
At some point I’ll have to detail some specific negatives of an inflexible view of science in decision-making. But this is enough for now.
For the second time in a row I’ll simply restate what I’ve said in an earlier post. While some will take this as an impressive lack of originality, I prefer to think that my blog is on the verge of a membership explosion and so I must introduce new readers to my earlier work. Hey, we all need our fantasies. Or perhaps the recent conference I attended connects to what I’ve been saying for a while and I feel the need to blog about it. At any rate, here it goes.
As I’ve noted before, science in decision-making is highly contextual. To use Jamey Wetmore’s examples, science necessarily plays different roles in abortion and climate change. The upshot of this is that simply asking about “the” rightful place of science sends us down on the wrong path. As any sports fan will tell you, each opponent demands a new game plan. You spend hours upon hours dissecting and document all strengths and weaknesses, accounting for injuries or suspensions, and mapping out hundreds of scenarios. Simply put, you have to really spend some time watching game film. It’d be lunacy to play a game otherwise.
We take the exact opposite approach with science. It’s predetermined as the foundation of policy, and we’re always searching for the rightful place. Even the supremely enlightened denizens of CSPO apparently believe that we should be engaged in this quest. I fail to see how this attitude differs from a football coach using the same game plan every time because he knows the rightful place for the running game. Why do we want the same for science?
Now all this can seem hopelessly academic and pointless. Surely nothing much will change if scientists adopt a different vocabulary. Carbon emissions will continue to rise, the oceans will continue to acidify, and rain forests will continue to be razed. New words alone will not solve these knotty problems. Nevertheless, there’s something to be said for honesty in public discourse, and something to be said against exaggerating one’s virtues and abilities. If nothing else, minimizing the science-as-foundation rhetoric may foster a more honest debate. That’s reason enough for me to make the switch.
Over at the Galilean Library, they’ve been having a good discussion about my recent post on the similarities between scientific literacy and reading comprehension. I realize now that my use of global warming as an example may have caused some confusion. Let me try clarify with yet another tendentious sports analogy. (fyi, most of this comment has also been posted over at the above thread.)
I think what we mean by scientific thinking is a general critical thinking ability that can be applied across domains, even when you encounter a subject for the first time. It’s kind of like we expect someone who’s athletic to quickly pick up any sport. The key point is that in both cases, general skills confer only limited proficiency in a new task. An amazing basketball player will not necessarily be good at swimming or football no matter how athletic she is. Similarly, an accomplished chemist may not be able to reason about geophysics even if she is great at “scientific thinking.” Of course within certain domains it is easier to transfer skills. Tennis knowledge probably helps with badminton, and running the 100 m helps with running the 400 m and so on. But it’s a leap to assume that either a general athleticism or critical thinking ability can be applied everywhere.
So when Peter says “Anyone can develop a good understanding of scientific thinking simply by reading the scientific literature,” I would say that we really have to specify “the scientific literature.” You can understand the thinking in a field by reading its particular literature, and I’m not sure it will apply in other fields.
Has any of this made sense?
E.D. Hirsch recently wrote a great review of Diane Ravitch’s last book on education reform.* In his review, Hirsch discussed some of his more controversial ideas on reading comprehension. Whereas most education schools stress strategies and process, Hirsch believes that comprehension depends primarily on background knowledge. No amount of key words and phrases will help you get through this article about the Falcons’ quarterback if you don’t understand professional football. Consider this paragraph towards the end:
Atlanta’s offense never really had a chance to get off the ground last year. The Falcons lost receiver Harry Douglas to injury early in training camp. Running back Michael Turner struggled early in the season and, just when he started getting on track, he suffered an ankle injury that hobbled him for about half the season. Backup Jerious Norwood also was banged up and the Falcons suffered several injuries across the offensive line.
It’s not enough to have a good vocabulary and reading tricks up your sleeve. You really need to know football. The words receiver, training camp, running back, season, backup and offensive line are meaningless otherwise. As Hirsch put it, “verbal ability is not, as the schools wrongly assumed, simply a how-to skill. It is largely a knowledge-based skill.” The upshot of all this is that a content-rich curriculum is really the only way to teach reading comprehension. For more on this, read Hirsch’s book (still on my reading list!) or check out his Core Knowledge Foundation.
While I’ve known about Hirsch’s work for a while, this recent article really sparked my thinking. Is scientific thinking similar to reading comprehension? The routine calls for better scientific reasoning tend to emphasize a way of thinking rather than specific knowledge.** But is it even possible to reason about a subject you know nothing about? I used to believe it was, but now I’m not so sure.
I’ve argued repeatedly that only IPCC scientists should discuss global warming. So I’d be a little inconsistent if I now said that your average Jane reason her way to understanding the issue. We might be promoting exactly the wrong message when we insist students should know how to “think scientifically.” We might be better off if we said that thinking scientifically is meaningless unless you know physics and chemistry.
* For those of you not steeped in education policy, here’s some background. Ravitch is arguably the most important and influential education historian of the past century. She originally supported both No Child Left Behind and charter schools before recanting those views in her last book. It’s caused quite a stir.
** My girlfriend Steph reliably informs me that science education professors debate content vs. process all the time. This debate doesn’t get much attention.
If everyone has to possess specialist knowledge in order to be permitted to comment on a scientific theory, and if science has become so deeply specialised that even scientists in the same discipline can barely speak to one another, then perhaps no one can really comment on anything? In particular, interdisciplinary projects like the IPCC could never work…I will come back to this but the question remains: is this the kind of science – and political discussion of science – we really want?
Hyperspecialization may not be a good thing and may in fact corrode public discourse. That topic is several blog posts in and of itself (check out this Facebook thread for diverse perspectives.) But right now it is an incontrovertible fact that we must account for. Consider recent PhD theses from my former research group. I can assure you that people involved in hardware design aren’t familiar with the details of space plasmas and vice versa. Whether or not we ultimately want this environment, it does exist already. So if “comment” means speaking authoritatively, I think we’ve already reached the point where “no one can really comment on anything.”
Given this state of affairs, I subscribe to a rather extreme epistemic modesty. I believe that only the IPCC should be trusted with regards to anthropogenic climate change (ACC). As I’ve argued before, this approach sharply contrasts with the current situation. We all use the words “science” and “scientists” as if they’re coherent concepts. But I don’t think it is. A single word cannot describe an enterprise that involves hundreds of billions of dollars and several million people in the U.S. alone. It’s similar to talking about athletes without recognizing the immense differences among swimmers, runners, and football players.
Let me expand on something I wrote in my last post:
There’s something about scientists’ training that makes us believe we’re all qualified to speak for “science.” I would never consider speaking authoritatively on condensed matter physics even though I’ve taken a few classes in the subject. Yet in the past I have waxed eloquently about “science.” And the funny thing is that people (especially non-scientists) take me seriously. But if I’m not qualified to speak about all areas of physics, how on earth am I qualified to speak for science?
It sounds harsh, but I think that arrogance is really the best way to describe this attitude. All scientists somehow assert the right to speak for science even though they are experts in only a single area. Simply put, scientists are arrogant. Those of you who’ve spent time in academia are probably wondering why I waste time stating something so obvious. We’re used to interacting with people with big egos. But I think there’s something a bit different operating here.
Faculty at big research universities are usually the best of the best. They’ve had incredibly successful careers and there’s a degree of arrogance that goes along with it. It’s not much different from people in other fields. But consider anyone who is or has been in a science PhD program. These people are generally not arrogant or overconfident. In most cases, I think they exude humility and restraint. And yet all of us believe that we’re qualified to speak for “science.”
I said this before, but modern science is HUGE. There are millions of people and hundreds of billions of dollars involved. On top of that, science has become even more specialized. I didn’t completely understand what all my labmates worked on even though we all studied space physics. The combination of greater size with greater specialization means that your average scientists knows a very, very, very small portion of science. When it was limited to a handful of wealthy, white, Christian males, perhaps “science” and “scientists” were coherent ideas. But I don’t think they still are.
Right now your average scientist knows as much about science as an average athlete knows about sports. Michael Jordan was rarely, if ever, asked to comment about all of sports. Everyone recognized that his skill at basketball didn’t transfer to swimming or track-and-field. I suspect that he knew of his own limitations in this regard. This type of humility doesn’t happen with scientists. My friends and I all believed we knew enough to debate whether “science” was value-free. We were so confident we didn’t bother looking at the evidence! More than anything else, this is what I can’t really wrap my head around. When it comes to speaking about “science”, most scientists are pretty unscientific. I know I’ve been guilty in the past.
Somewhere along the way us scientists have cultivated this false confidence in our knowledge. I know it’s probably a stretch, but I think it might be similar to institutional racism. As I understand the concept, racism can be inflicted even if people are well-meaning. (See Racism without Racists by Bonilla-Silva.*) Society and institutions may be perpetuate racism even if individuals aren’t racist.
Somewhat along those lines, I think that science portrays an arrogance despite humility of individual scientists. It’s not a perfect analogy because I think that the scientists themselves are arrogant. But it’s a highly contextualized arrogance. I wouldn’t call my friends arrogant even though they all arrogantly speak for all of science. Maybe the institution of science engenders arrogance in otherwise humble people? I’m not sure…I’ll have to flesh this idea out some more. Right now I’m pretty sure I’m rambling and making no sense.
*I feel I should say that I haven’t actually read that book. But I thank my friend Sapna for the recommendation.
My last post discusses the possible harm of automatically placing science at the forefront of decision-making. In some cases it’s simply not true that a scientific lens is the best way to analyze a problem. It seems that we’re begging for a public vocabulary that lets us meaningfully discuss science. We need a way to accept the importance of facts without allowing them to stifle debate. See for all my problems with the current discourse, I’m also sympathetic to scientists who promote it. People shouldn’t be able to ignore facts they don’t like. It’s not okay to cherry pick data you happen to agree with. It does matter that all the relevant experts agree with evolution and anthropogenic global warming.
The solution to this dilemma, however, is not to insist that science is the foundation of policy. As I also discussed in my last post, doing so is scientifically inaccurate. Engaging in this rhetoric makes us, for lack of a better phrase, somewhat hypocritical. How can we speak about the importance of evidence while ignoring the scientific fact that science is only sometimes the foundation of policy?
We need an intellectual framework which articulates there are instances when science is crucially important, instances when it is somewhat important, and instances when it is relatively unimportant. Some decisions heavily rely on science while others do not. Certain disputes are better resolved with politics rather than science and vice versa.
I’d guess that this message will not fly with many scientists. There’s too much nuance there. It doesn’t quite fit our science is God and you’re either with-us-or-against-us rhetoric. My admittedly naive view is that with respect to public communication, science should be neither deified nor demonized. We should instead strive to highlight that it has its uses and can sometimes be very helpful.
To that end, I’ll suggest yet again that science in decision-making should be thought of as team sports. How about the image of science as a key but not superstar running back? The opponent and game plan dictates how much we play. Sometimes winning the game means handing us the ball 20 times a game. Sometimes we have to sit on the bench. How do you know when to stress the running game? By watching game film!
This image, I believe, is the most accurate one we can paint. Before jumping to any conclusions about the role of science, we must first carefully study the situation. Then and only then can we say whether science is the foundation or a cosmetic fixture. Whether we’re the MVP or 6th man of the year. But these analogies are now getting tedious and I think you get the point.
Continuing yet again with the science and teamwork idea, it’s interesting to observe that scientists rarely use the indefinite article a when talking about science. Science is the foundation, the basis, and the reason for any action. It is never simply a reason. Why not seek out other justifications for climate change policy? Why does it have to be mainly about science?
Let’s continue with the science-as-part-of-a-team meme and see how scientists neglect it to our detriment. Consider anthropogenic global warming (AGW). The skeptics who oppose any action to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions typically make this argument:
- These scientific facts show the Earth is not warming and/or humans are not the cause.
- Ergo, we should not waste any time trying to reduce GHGs.
This argument assumes that once we’ve proven a certain set of facts, nothing else matters. Now in this particular case, the specific facts employed happen to be utterly and completely wrong. Pointing out these factual errors is usually the standard response. But in doing so climate scientists are playing on the skeptics’ turf. They’re still assuming that we need science and nothing but science to make an argument for reducing GHGs. *
But why should action to reduce GHGs depend only on science and nothing but science? Surely there are spiritual, ethical, economic and social reasons to drive less, use more efficient light bulbs, etc. But that’s not how the debate will ever play out if we view science as the basis for decisions.
I hope we’re starting to see why neglecting the team mentality undermines effective policy-making. Us scientists can be the basis or the foundation for decisions-making. But then we shouldn’t be shocked when others distort or politicize it. They’re doing exactly what we want them to…using science as the basis for decisions!
If instead science is simply part of a team and there are many reasons to reduce GHGs, then the skeptics’ argument loses its power. But let’s be clear what this means. It means that science is not necessarily privileged. Science becomes simply a rather than the basis for decisions. We may end up justifying climate policy on ethics and economics more than on atmospheric chemistry. In some cases the science may be completely ignored.
This outcome shouldn’t worry us. After all in this situation those opposing climate legislation will then have to contend with a helluva lot more than the latest IPCC report. They’ll have to contend with religious leaders, economists, and philosophers along with scientists. If this approach eventually helps us win the game, does it really matter if we don’t score as many points as we usually do? Right now skeptics are triple-teaming the scientific community and we’re refusing to pass the ball! How dumb is that?
I’d really love to hear a scientist say: “You know what, who cares about the science? There are 100,000 reasons to reduce GHGs. Science may not even be that important!”
In the end we can have our glory by being the basis for decisions or we can be effective in policy-making. But we can’t always be both at the same time.
*Roger Pielke Jr, Dan Sarewitz and others have explored in great detail why this framing leads to ineffective policy-making. I don’t want to repeat what they’ve said. I’m instead trying to focus on how scientists’ worsen the situation by placing science on a pedestal and not thinking of themselves as part of a team.