It’s hard for me to think straight right now, but please check out Andy Revkin’s short write up. I’ve just lost a mentor and a friend.
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.
Last week Ross Douthat had a wonderful post on the disturbing tendency to reshape moral and political disagreements in terms of science, thereby restricting debate and giving scientists an unfair advantage:
The culture of science has a bias toward action — if something can be done, scientists almost always want to do it, or at least want the right to do it, without any interference from the civil authorities. This bias is natural enough, and even salutary, so long as we recognize that it is a bias, and don’t allow ourselves to be bullied into thinking that it’s some sort of scientific law or testable hypothesis.But such bullying is commonplace: Throughout the stem cell debate, for instance, supporters of embryo-destructive research have consistently invoked the mantle of capital-S Science to close off what debate on what are ultimately moral and political questions, better settled in a legislature than a laboratory. In such controversies — and there will be more and more of them, as our technological capabilities advance — the problem isn’t exactly that scientific findings are being “spun” by one side or another. It’s that the prerogatives of science are being invoked on questions that science has no special competence to answer.
All of this will be old ground for fans of Dan Sarewitz. What’s so dispiriting is that while Douthat, Sarewitz, et al. are most certainly correct, they (we?) keep losing. Heartfelt appeals for honesty and nuance are weak opponents for possible cures to cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Abstract appeals to improved democratic discourse will always lose to the probability, however minuscule, of concrete benefits.
Reversing the trend towards scientizing politics will not be easy. It will certainly take more than eloquent op-eds and logical arguments. The current situation exists in no small part because most of the scientific establishment–the professional organizations, the National Academies, the popular science magazines and so on–actively promote it. They expend much effort and money to achieve their goals, and at this point they’re quite good at it. There’s nothing similar for the Dan Sarewitz’s of the world and there needs to be.
I realize these recommendations may place scientists in an unfamiliar position, one that many will find uncomfortable and somewhat distasteful. Fellow scientists are not supposed to publicly question our primacy about stem cells or whether science really is the basis of policy. But such debates will not improve unless our private disagreements on such topics are publicized and publicized widely. As the education policy scholar Andy Rotherham said in a different context:
…history teaches us plainly that progress requires tension. More recently Martin Luther King reminds us that the absence of tension is often a negative peace. So at some level all this concern about tension misses the bigger picture in terms of what it usually takes to see progress for disadvantaged groups and how much of this is par for the course with change.
Andy spoke about education reform, but the same lesson applies if we substitute “more intelligent discourse about science” for “progress for disadvantaged groups.” In both cases progress requires tension and disagreement.
ClimateScienceWatch has an interview with Steve Schneider, one of the authors on the PNAS paper we just discussed (h/t Joe Romm). I recommend the entire interview (video at the end), but I’ll highlight these passages:
It really matters what your credentials are. If you have a heart arrhythmia as I do, and I also have a cardiologist, and you also have an oncological problem as I do, I’m not going to my cancer doc to ask him about my heart medicine and my cardiologist to ask about my chemo, I’m going to the experts. Who’s an expert really matters. People with no expertise, their opinion frankly does not matter on complex issues. And in my opinion shouldn’t even be quoted when we’re talking about the details of the science.
Scientists are really stuck. It’s exactly the same thing in medicine, it’s the same thing with pilot’s licenses and driver’s licenses: We don’t let just anyone go out there and make any claim that they’re an expert, do anything they want, without checking their credibility. Is it elitist to license pilots and doctors? Is it elitist to have pilots tested every year by the FAA to make sure that their skills are maintained? Is it elitist to have board certification on specialities in various health professions? I don’t think so.
In light of many of my previous posts, it should be obvious that I think Steve has a point. Cardiologists should be trusted over oncologists for an arrhythmia, and I’m quite happy that pilots are licensed.
But Steve’s analysis elides a key difference between scientists and licensed professionals. Namely, scientists aren’t licensed! Heck, much of authority comes from our self-proclaimed ability to tackle any problem whether or not we’re formally trained, a theme we’ve just just discussed. The idea that scientists actually have a fairly limited range of expertise counters what we’ve been saying for several hundred years now. At this point, I think that scientists themselves have internalized the message. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a random physicist (myself included!) wax eloquently about “the” scientific method or make a tendentious claim about all of science. Some would even call this attitude arrogant. As I said about Eugene Robinson’s op-ed, I’m happy people are rebelling against a mindless acceptance of scientific expertise. I just don’t know how successful it will be when practically every science organization out there promotes the opposite.
I’ll make one final, brief comment (complaint?) about the interview. Towards the end, Steve responds that it is “very difficult to disentangle” the policy prescription from the science expertise. While I think he may be factually correct, the attitude has also played a non-trivial role in why the field is hyper-politicized. We need greater efforts to highlight that science is not “the” basis of policy, and there are non-climate reasons to pursue mitigation and adaptation. But again, such a message would contradict what we’ve been arguing for years, and I bet there’s no interest.
Over the past year or so the paleoconservative blogger Daniel Larison has taken aim at American exceptionalism, a term he finds sloppy and poorly defined (see here, here, here, and here). The third post in particular makes an insightful point:
Confidence in America and respect for our actual, genuinely considerable accomplishments as a people are natural and worthy attitudes to have. Understanding the full scope of our history, neither airbrushing out the crimes nor dishonoring and forgetting our heroes, is the proper tribute we owe to our country and our ancestors. Exaggeration and bluster betray a lack of confidence in America, and strangely this lack of confidence seems concentrated among those most certain that mostly imaginary “declinists” are ruining everything.
While Larison leveled his critique at the American right, scientists are guilty of similar behavior. As we just discussed, exaggeration and bluster is typical behavior. And like some on the American right, scientists perpetually harp about an imaginary decline despite evidence to the contrary. Ironically, mostly liberal scientists mirror the the extreme right in their rhetoric.
I wonder if more of Larison’s analysis can be applied to scientists. Any STS scholars out there with some papers on this? I bet that a lack of confidence and an outsider mentality (along with the fact we’re just another special interest group!) contribute to our routine exaggerations. Me feels that the topic cries out for more research.
Sorry for the light blogging. Things got busy again. I remain perpetually impressed by people who can hold down a full-time job, have a life, and still blog 5 times per week. I know I can’t pull it off.
Until I get the chance to write another substantial post, check out this surprisingly nuanced op-ed from Chris Mooney in the Washington Post. From the start of the piece:
Whenever controversies arise that pit scientists against segments of the U.S. public — the evolution debate, say, or the fight over vaccination — a predictable dance seems to unfold. One the one hand, the nonscientists appear almost entirely impervious to scientific data that undermine their opinions and prone to arguing back with technical claims that are of dubious merit. In response, the scientists shake their heads and lament that if only the public weren’t so ignorant, these kinds of misunderstandings wouldn’t occur.
But what if the fault actually lies with both sides?
Mooney built his reputation on the Republican War on Science, and has been criticized for oversimplification. While I’ve argued that Mooney did have a point there, I also think he needs to calm down with the pro-science/anti-science rhetoric. I’m happy that this essay contains none of that. Also check out Matt Nisbet and Andy Revkin for more commentary.