Those involved in science policy sometimes seem to me to be sleep-walking through the greatest crisis to afflict the West since the Second World War. True, from the point of view of the scientist at the bench, grants continue to flow and results continue to be published. Perhaps this is why wider discourse about science’s role in society has hardly budged an inch.
For the past three years, I have grown steadily more impatient with this ‘business as usual’ approach. Whenever an academy president or research chief stands up to speak in public, I have been waiting for them to explain how they will do things differently. They never do.
Macilwain doesn’t seem to understand that scientists are already dealing with a crisis. From their perspective, less science funding is the crisis to be dealt with. Why should scientists meekly accept they change their ways when everyone is trying to maintain business as usual? Scientists see a shrinking pie and want their portion to stay the same. It’s self-preservation, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Scientists genuinely believe more science funding serves the common good and addresses the economic crisis, just as the Chamber of Commerce genuinely believes the same about lower corporate taxes. Scientists do in fact care about basic research. Asking scientists not to lobby for what they care about is asking them to abdicate their democratic responsibilities. It’s not a fair request.
Going forward, a better approach may be to stop narrowly equating science with academic basic research (something I’m guilty of in this very post), and instead try to direct funding to different kinds of science. Academics will always study what the Macilwains and Stilgoes out there are not satisfied with. So rather than attacking this type of research, Macilwain et. al. should do their own political lobbying for the type of science they want. A world in crisis demands it.
As much as it annoys me, I can’t bring myself to complain too much about Marcelo Gleiser’s short essay:
This shaping of our worldview is not restricted to abstract ideas; quite the contrary. Much of the way we understand reality and live our lives comes from technological applications of scientific discoveries, driven by engineers and designers. The recent passing of Steve Jobs is an illustration of how cutting-edge science and innovative design can literally change the way we live and communicate with each other…
Under this view, science is more than a collection of explanations about the natural world: science is a means to freedom, offering people a way to control their destiny, to choose wisely in what to believe. As Galileo insisted at the dawn of modern science, “Think for yourself! Don’t take what people tell you at face value. To not bow blindly to dogma!” And mind you, Galileo was a religious man. Being pro-science does not necessarily makes you anti-religion. Paraphrasing Galileo, “if God gave us a mind to understand the world, He surely would be most pleased if we did so.”
I could nit-pick Gleiser’s flawed take on the relationship between science and technology or criticize the mindless hagiography. (What does “science is a means to freedom” even mean?)
But as I’ve said before, there’s much to respect here. Most physicists can’t be bothered with outreach, and so it’s unfair to complain just because Gleiser doesn’t meet my standards. I’m sure he has more interesting concerns than the economics of innovation and better things to do than engage in deep introspection. Gleiser has some vague notion that basic research leads to technology, viscerally feels more science will solve all, and is admirably taking the time to write about it. Yes it’s poorly researched, relies on emotion, and employs unclear language. But we all do that from time to time.
Those of who want a different narrative can get caught doing nothing but refuting Gleiser’s efforts. I actually hope we imitate him. We need STS writers as passionate and deeply felt as he is. We need writers who recognize there’s more to science than academia and more to academia than basic research. We need writers who know “the intersection of science and culture” involves much more than physicists, biologists and philosophers. For every Marcelo Gleiser, we need at least two Jonah Lehrers.
Expanding the conversation doesn’t happen by shutting down voices you disagree with. But it can happen by shouting over them.
Two months ago TNC inveighed against reformers who depend solely on statistics to explain human motivations. They are blind to the possibility that changes leading to higher property values won’t automatically be supported. They can’t see that a neighborhood is often much more than a financial instrument. Most importantly, they often fail to note “the humanity in the actual human beings they would have reformed.”
This passage in particular struck me:
Looking back on this, the thing that strikes is the importance of journalism. I think it’s really easy to become the sort of writer who reads reports from Brookings and analyzes charts and graphs, without ever having to talk to the people captured in the numbers. People are scary in a way that think tanks are not.
He could have been describing reports on scientific literacy. The Americans are scientific buffoons porn is quite easy to find. The people captured in those reports not so much. Who are some of these people without “basic factual knowledge of science?” What do they do for a living? For fun when they get home? Do they really need more science to live meaningful lives? As I said about women in science, it’s easy to rob people of agency and assume their lives are tragic. It’s a lot harder to try understand their decisions on their own terms.
None of this is meant to undermine either the value of education or basic factual knowledge. It is not a good situation that only 20% of Americans know the Earth revolves around the sun. We should try to improve the situation.
But if we had some deeply reported science journalism to complement the statistics, perhaps there wouldn’t be so much fatalism. If we recognized that real people leading real lives can get along just fine even with their scientific illiteracy, there would be no reason to judge them so harshly. As with housing policy reform, science outreach is easier if you actually respect the people being reached out to.
Why would anybody ask a politician about his views on a scientific question? Nobody ever asks what Sarah Palin thinks about dark matter, or what John Boehner thinks about quantum entanglement. (For that matter, I’ve never heard Keith Ellison pressed for his views on evolution.) There are lots of good reasons not to wonder what Rick Perry thinks about scientific questions, foremost amongst them that there are probably fewer than 10,000 people in the United States whose views on disputed questions regarding evolution are worth consulting, and they are not politicians; they are scientists.
Let me narrow in on a specific type of claim made Chait, Drum, and Beauchamp, where they seem to use evolution and climate change (ECC) as a kind of indicator for Rick Perry’s decision-making and governance ability writ-large. Here’s Chait (emphasis added):
Likewise, Perry’s evolution skepticism signals a strong commitment to conservative values over the conclusions of data and experts. On a deeper level, he is demonstrating social solidarity with conservatives against the intellectual elites they resent. He probably won’t have to make a presidential decision on teaching evolution, but his answers to questions about it tell you a great deal about how he would govern.
This claim is rather strange. Many practicing scientists dispute evolution and climate change. These intellectual blind-spots don’t prevent them from designing circuits, writing Matlab code, solving differential equations, or analyzing datasets. (I’m thinking of specific people I know here.) If their stance on ECC doesn’t necessarily impact decision-making in other areas of science, how can it tell you anything useful outside of science?
It’s even stranger to use ECC when we have Rick Perry’s actual record as a governor, stated political views and publications to turn to. Surely these are much better governance indicators than passing comments on evolution. I see no need to use a bad indicator when better ones are easily available. Given that Chait et al. have themselves written extensively on Perry’s record, they shouldn’t have to reference either evolution or climate change.
I suspect that liberals view ECC the way conservatives view public displays of Christian piety. Both represent cultural markers as much as they do a policy agenda. And that’s okay with me. Political leaders are more than people who advance legislation we support. By that measure we know we will often be disappointed in the end anyway. When you see yourself losing on the substance, public affirmation of your values can become even more important. Liberals want to live in an America where everyone embraces evolution and climate change. Since that won’t happen anytime soon, at the very least they’ll make damned sure our President embraces them. Put another way, liberals want politicians who believe in ECC because, well, they want politicians who believe in ECC. I wish they’d just say that.
Writing in the Times, Cordelia Fine justifies confirmation bias as a tool that facilitates discovery:
Scientists are not immune. In another experiment, psychologists were asked to review a paper submitted for journal publication in their field. They rated the paper’s methodology, data presentation and scientific contribution significantly more favorably when the paper happened to offer results consistent with their own theoretical stance. Identical research methods prompted a very different response in those whose scientific opinion was challenged.
This is a worry. Doesn’t the ideal of scientific reasoning call for pure, dispassionate curiosity? Doesn’t it positively shun the ego-driven desire to prevail over our critics and the prejudicial urge to support our social values (like opposition to the death penalty)?
Perhaps not. Some academics have recently suggested that a scientist’s pigheadedness and social prejudices can peacefully coexist with — and may even facilitate — the pursuit of scientific knowledge.
Fine ends by calling for scientists to “embrace their humanity,” a request that readers of this blog know I support wholeheartedly.
Cogitating some more on “The Politics of Demarcation” by Paul Newall and Michael Pearl, I understand their dismay when scientists don’t stick to the values they promote. I get it. Paul and Michael want to right some wrongs, and they do so by highlighting scientists’ shortcomings. Shoddy analysis and cherry-picked data are bad and should be attacked. It’s especially hypocritical coming from the alleged paragons of reason. When we see those awful things happen and say nothing, we’re almost as guilty as if we did it ourselves. Irrationality and sloppy logic anywhere is a threat to rationality and sound logic everywhere. Again, I get it. I too have made similar arguments.
Paul sums up the attitude here (emphasis added):
Ultimately what this discussion suggests is that if the adoption and use of poor arguments is to be lamented when undertaken by those advocating intelligent design, surely those opposing it must hold themselves to a higher standard?
However, is the Creationism/ID issue the sort of circumstance that warrants the abandonment of the principle of philosophical rigor?
Noting that the setting is a legal/political one does not itself justify the abandonment by philosophers of the devotion to argumentative rigor to which they are presumed to be devoted. The Creationism/ID matter is anything but a harrowing circumstance; so, as exactly what are philosophers operating when they so willingly sacrifice the philosophical for the sake of the political? Are they anything more than window dressing?
Although I’ve done so myself, I’m starting to think this is a bad approach. Why exactly should scientists hold themselves to a higher standard? If the standard in question requires them to always make rigorous arguments, it’s clear that scientists never subscribed to it. In this context their highest standard is preventing ID from being taught in science classrooms.
The window dressing comment similarly misses the point. It’s not that scientists don’t value rigor. It’s that sometimes other things are more important. Like everyone else, scientists have context-sensitive desires and goals. At times these desires and goals conflict. Philosophical rigor is not the only, or even highest, principle.
We keep expecting scientists to be different than anyone else. For our public invocations of precision, evidence, and logic to be applied to everything we do, all the time. But why should this be so? When have scientists ever been uniformly consistent in this regard? Does anyone actually maintain an existence of strict, perpetual rationality? Perhaps the biggest change in my thinking over the past couple years has been my often grudging acceptance that I cannot do this. I don’t think anyone can.
I know we all want more intelligent, rational public discourse. Discourse that abides by some basic rules of logic and evidence. Unfortunately, this situation does not exist, and never has existed. In our frustration at those who violate these precious rules, who thwart our attempts to improve public debate, we take on a familiar role. We attack their arguments, emphasize their flaws, accuse them of duplicity. We keep fighting this fight even though we know there will always be too many fallacies, distortions and misconceptions to respond to. Those of us who care for public rationality know we’re in a losing battle.
Perhaps the futility of this battle is a sign it shouldn’t be fought in these terms to begin with. (I’m thinking as I write here, so bear with me.) Careless, bad arguments are an indelible feature of democracy. They will always be there. So perhaps the better way improve public discourse is not only to criticize these bad arguments. We should also acknowledge that there will be times when we all have to argue for something we deeply care about. And in those instances, it’s likely that our arguments will not be completely rational or logical. We are human after all. The exigencies of fighting for our values will ultimately trump academic concerns for reason.
This painful process of accepting our own irrationality should, I hope, temper the outrage when we recognize it in others. Yes, we still should criticize bad arguments, and especially from those who should know better. And yes, we still should note when scientists don’t live up to their standards. When we make such accusations, however, we should do it with the knowledge that at times we too exhibit such hypocrisy. It happens to all of us.
Last week evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa published the highly controversial “Why Black Women are Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women.” I’m not interested in debunking his claims (that has been done quite ably elsewhere). Instead, I’ll add my two cents to a debate that cropped up on TNC’s blog. Should we consider evolutionary psychology a science? And why does it seem to repel people and is open to “hucksterism?”
I’ve discussed the science versus not-science distraction with respect to economics, and I think a similar analysis also holds here. What matters is whether a particular piece of ev-psych research is good scholarship, not whether the field as a whole can be classified as “science.”
The second question is far more interesting, and one that I’ve been meaning to blog about for a while. I think ev-psych, with its grand theorizing on how evolution explains everything we observe today, can sometimes display really bad physics envy. Outside of physics, it’s often not possible to explain all phenomena with a single set of laws. Some would argue it’s not even possible in physics.
At any rate, here is the comment I left over at TNC. Of course I quote Natural Reflections at the end!
Frankly, I don’t think we should even be trying to ascertain whether ev-psych is “a science.” That question is too vague to be meaningful. What we should be doing is determining whether a particular claim is backed up by sound evidence, strong analysis and general good scholarship. Being officially considered “science” should almost be besides the point. Some research is very weak and must be taken with a grain of salt even if it is lucky enough to be labeled science. I would put much biomedical science in this category. On the other hand, some historical scholarship (e.g. the role of blacks in the Confederacy) is bolstered by reams of supporting evidence. We rightly trust such work even though historians aren’t considered scientists.
It’s important to note that apart from the opening paragraphs, Ryan spends almost no time questioning the scientific status of evolutionary psych writ-large. Rather, he meticulously and carefully demolishes Kanazawa’s specific research. That’s the approach we should always try to use. In this case, Kanzawa’s work is crap whether or not we deem it science. And since, as Ace Rock shows above, certain aspects of ev-psych do have explanatory power, it makes no sense to offer either blanket praise or condemnation for the field.
As for ev-psych’s being open to hucksterism, I attribute part of the problem to the false seduction of grand unified theories. That is, we’re always trying to find the single theory that will explain everything about everything. Physicists have been very successful at this, and I think other scientists sometimes unfortunately take a similar approach. But once the question gets very hard (basically anything that can’t be described perfectly with math, which is basically everything humans care about), we’re left with the rather boring, mundane statement that we need many different factors working together to explain anything.
I think that many intuitively grasp this concept–that complicated phenomena don’t have single-cause explanations. And so when they see some evolutionary psychologists boldly claiming that they have found the reason for such and such phenomena, people get understandably annoyed.
Along these lines, I strongly recommend Barbara Herrnstein-Smith’s “Natural Reflections.” While the book is about science and religion, she does an excellent job eviscerating the strong interpretation of ev-pysch. From page 66:
In seeking to account for any complex behavioral, cultural, or social phenomenon, a good starting assumption would be that it was the emergent outcome of multiple factors of various kinds, operating at many scales and levels, interacting over time. The starting assumption of evolutionary psychology and “cognitive” approaches to religion, however, is that the best way to explain any behavioral, cultural, or social phenomenon is by demonstrating that it is the outward effect of the activation of some underlying mental mechanism. A methodological tradition of this sort puts a premium on ingenuity with respect to the hypothesizing of mental mechanisms and, by the same token, encourages negligence with respect to the investigation of possibly relevant environmental, experiential, and developmental factors.
I’m glad to see Ryan Myer blogging again after a long break. His recent post does a typically good job dissecting the Obama administration’s ratcheting up the value of a human life used in cost-benefit analysis and regulatory decisions. As Ryan notes, despite their quantitative facade, such calculations ultimately hinge on subjective, moral judgments. But as often happens in these situations, the Obama administration insists their actions “utilize the best available science in assessing the benefits and costs of any potential regulation.” Ryan asks for greater honesty:
It would be great to see the Administration taking an open, straightforward approach to this. They could just come out and make a very reasonable argument that, based on their values, they feel that human life should be more important than it was under Bush. Instead, they’ve disowned the decision entirely, hiding behind a scientific-seeming method.
I sympathize with this request, and I’ve repeatedly called for simpler, more honest arguments. But methinks Ryan is a bit harsh here. Obama has not “disowned the decision entirely.” Everyone is aware that these decisions flow from Obama himself. I’m also pretty sure that everyone already knows that with respect to environmental regulation, Obama values life more than Bush did. Moreover, greater regulatory oversight is a longstanding liberal policy goal and it’s no surprise that Obama has been following through on it. The values are already widely known and so I’m not sure how much benefit there would be to Obama’s publicly vocalizing them.
As much as I would like to see more nuanced public discourse about science in decision-making, it’s a bit much to expect that from elected officials. Obama is simply doing what it’s his job to do–push his agenda with the best tools available. For better and for worse, science is often viewed as one of the best tools. And so it’s not surprising to see Obama deploy it here. Especially since hiding behind science doesn’t seem to be hurting him (and may in fact be helping), I don’t see how he can do otherwise. Sure there’s a bit of grandstanding and p0litical theater there. But are we really surprised? We are are in fact talking about the President. Grandstanding and political theater comes with the territory. Careful arguments based on logical premises is ultimately the realm of philosophers, not politicians.
Unless its power is diminished, we really have no choice but to accept that science will be used as a cover for politics and values.
I think, on some level, when we marvel at how the world has become more egalitarian, we think about King and Lincoln. But do we think about that changes relationship to, say, Louis Pasteur or Henry Ford? How much of our march toward humanism is really technological, a shift from a slavery of human, to a mastery of nature? What were the effects of, say, Koch’s work on tuberculosis on how we came to see ourselves in relation to each other? Was the retreat of death a boon for humanism? Was it a bane for religion? Laundry used to be a heavy-duty chore, mostly performed by women. When washing became automated, how did that effect women’s notions of self? How did it influence feminism? Is humanism a luxury, afforded by individual longevity? –TNC
As any good STS aficionado, my first instinct was to point out that humanism itself was partially responsible for the retreat of death. Human progress is far too often cleanly and directly attributed to the advance of science. Because of science and technology, human beings conquered abject deprivation. Because of science humans now live longer, fuller lives. But of course the story is not so simple. At least for the retreat of death, social reformers played a non-trivial role. There’s even some supporting research on this.
Also typical for STS aficionados (myself included) is the tendency to take this analysis too far. To downplay the the very real benefits science has wrought. To marginalize the importance of rationality and (as problematic as the term may be) scientific thinking. In a sharp follow-up comment abk1985 suggests I did so, and notes that “humanistic agendas [were not] pursued in a void.” The drive to improve sanitation in poor immigrant communities hinged on intelligent medical guessing and enlightened self-interest as well as an honest desire to help the less fortunate.
For better and for worse, facts about the world do affect our moral intuition. Though at times humanism did stand on its own terms, it’s often not possible to isolate it as the driving motivation. It makes no sense to say that early 20th century reformers were motivated 33% by altruism, 33% by self-interest, and 33% by science. For some, a latent desire to address poverty was surely buttressed by data that indicated epidemics in certain communities often spilled over to everyone. All of our actions are imbued with such motivational complexity.
And so while it may be interesting to argue over a beer, and while I’m sure many academics will study it, TNC’s “how much” questions are ultimately not helpful. Even attempting to determine how much of human progress can be attributed to science, or to humanism, or to the rule of law, obscures more than it illuminates. The arc of human history cannot, even in principle, be decomposed and deconstructed like this. Science and technology have always been there and have always played a role. At times they were very important and at others not so much. And that’s pretty much all we can say about that.
But now all sorts of well-established, multiply confirmed findings have started to look increasingly uncertain. It’s as if our facts were losing their truth: claims that have been enshrined in textbooks are suddenly unprovable. This phenomenon doesn’t yet have an official name, but it’s occurring across a wide range of fields, from psychology to ecology. In the field of medicine, the phenomenon seems extremely widespread, affecting not only antipsychotics but also therapies ranging from cardiac stents to Vitamin E and antidepressants: Davis has a forthcoming analysis demonstrating that the efficacy of antidepressants has gone down as much as threefold in recent decades.–Jonah Lehrer
Lehrer’s recent article on the decline effect, where initially strong and robust results shrink over time, has caused quite a stir (see here, here, here, and here). It’s similar to Freedman’s Atlantic profile of Ioannidis in that it identifies some allegedly deep problems in the structure of science.
As both Lehrer and Freedman note, the fight for funding, the bias against null results, the drive for more publications, a desire for personal glory, and conflicts of interest all make the practice of science quite a bit different from how it’s usually portrayed. Both, however, also note that there may be something fundamentally amiss here. These relatively straightforward explanations only go so far. It appears we can’t quite determine what’s really going on, and Lehrer’s subtitle asks: “Is there something wrong with the scientific method?”
I think it’s important to remember that the scientific method (TSM) was first used to solve what are, conceptually at least, fairly simple questions. Planetary motion, as beautiful, intricate and awe-inspiring it may be, is solved by high-school students every day before lunch recess. After all, it’s just giant balls circling each other. Even quantum mechanics and relativity can be described almost perfectly with existing mathematics, and it’s usually first taught to college sophomores. Penicillin was discovered in a petri dish, where we can reliably control most variables. And so on.
None of this is meant to diminish Newton, Einstein and Fleming, or to trivialize their accomplishments. They were geniuses, and we are forever indebted to them. But it appears to me that what we consider the canonical scientific accomplishments were often fairly discrete questions. If you can effectively use mathematics (as you can in much of physics), or if you can control all the relevant variables (physics, molecular biology), the problem is tractable. But determining the effect of Vitamin E on public health is a different beast altogether. After all, what we call health is really a combination of traditional medical science, economic status, level of stress, culture, pollution, and who knows what else. TSM may never be able to disentangle all these effects regardless of how many perfect, unbiased studies we run. From Freedman’s article:
But even if a study managed to highlight a genuine health connection to some nutrient, you’re unlikely to benefit much from taking more of it, because we consume thousands of nutrients that act together as a sort of network, and changing intake of just one of them is bound to cause ripples throughout the network that are far too complex for these studies to detect, and that may be as likely to harm you as help you.
And so asking what’s wrong with TSM kind of misses the point. There’s nothing really wrong with it. It’s that TSM, this crowning achievement of human intellect, the best tool ever developed to investigate the natural world, may just not be as powerful as we want it to be. Even if we disclose conflicts of interest, release all collected data (not just the pretty ones), publish more null results, and quadruple funding, some problems will be beyond our reach. There are ultimately some things in heaven and earth not dreamt of in our philosophies.