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Scientists as a special interest

December 25, 2010 3 comments

In the context of discussing the status of science in the federal budget, Matt Nisbet asks: “as a matter of social responsibility, do scientists have an obligation to accept that reductions in scientific spending are necessary to preserve social programs?”

Nisbet’s question relates to discussions we’ve previously had on this blog.  As hopeless as it may sound, I think that we’re all wasting our time.  I suspect that there are very few (if any) circumstances under which scientists will accept that less funding serves the common good.  (Needless to say, I sometimes find myself engaged in these acts of futility.)  And as I’ve indicated before, I’m not sure that scientists are necessarily wrong in their actions.

Any group that receives public dollars or favors must lobby.  And lobbying, which inevitably brings with it distortions and exaggerations, can simply be a pejorative synonym for what some would call civic activism.  In this vein, you may even argue that the continuous drumbeat for more money helps fulfill our social obligations.  After all, some interpretations of politics insist that democracy works only when groups organize and fight for their interests.  At least in the short run, more money serves scientists’ interests.  It is a bit unreasonable to think we act otherwise.

I’m starting to believe that Nisbet and others (myself included!) take the wrong approach.  Scientists will never, ever, ever support funding cuts, and will always resist attempts at greater oversight.  In this regard we are are no different than teachers, police officers, or big oil.  So rather than trying to change how scientists interact with the public, it might be more fruitful to change how the public thinks of scientists.  As distasteful as I find it, perhaps the better approach is to try convince the public that on one level scientists are identical to teachers unions, police officer unions, and Exxon Mobil.

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Physics envy part II

December 23, 2010 2 comments

This is a bit old, but check out Jim Manzi criticizing economists for not being as reliable as physicists:

How does the economist know that her predictions, which sound like the physicist’s predictions, are reliable in a way that the historian’s are not? She doesn’t. Therefore the president would be wise to treat the economist’s prediction like the historian’s prediction, in that it should be subjected to useful cross-examination by laymen, weighing of technical and non-technical opinions, introspection concerning human motivation, and all the rest. Beyond this, he should always keep in mind the unreliability of such predictions, and treat the fog of uncertainty about the potential effects of our actions as fundamental when considering what to do. I’m not arguing that the economist’s output is valueless – I would no more advise a president to make a major economic decision without professional economic advice than I would advise him to make a decision about war and peace with consulting relevant historians – but I am arguing that we should be extremely humble about our ability to make reliable, useful and non-obvious predictions about the results of our economic interventions.

I was all set to write a brilliant exposition on why economics can be useful even though data are hard to come by and the models don’t perfectly capture reality.  I also planned on explaining that expert judgment is still useful and should be heeded, and was ready with an illuminating analogy to medicine.  But Noah Millman beat me to it, and did a better job than I could have.  Alas!

I will add that, as a former space physicist, physics isn’t even like physics.  Outside of fields like atomic or particle physics, data are also hard to come by and the models are greatly simplified.

From Millman’s response:

The technical expertise a doctor has is not the same as the technical expertise a physicist has – and, more importantly, we rely on the doctor developing a general capacity for good judgment in his field in a way that we do not rely on a physicist to develop in hers. But the doctor is also different from a historian. I would be very surprised if anybody actually relies on historians to help them make specific decisions. Rather, we rely on historians as repositories of a certain kind of knowledge that, we believe, is important for a society to retain and develop: for the sake our own social cohesion, to develop an appreciation of the texture of other societies, and because it is useful for developing practical wisdom in general (and I’m sure there are other good reasons – I’m not trying to be exhaustive here).

Economics is frequently taught and described as if it is physics, which would make policymakers more like engineers applying well-understood and tested principles in specific situations. But I would argue that it’s more like medicine – another field where what we know with the kind of scientific rigor that would pass muster for a physicist is dwarfed by what we know only imperfectly if at all, but where decisions have to be made constantly, and where we have strong reasons to believe that the knowledge and experience of the experts is very useful in helping us make those decisions.

Categories: Economics

Creationists aren’t the same as Holocaust deniers

December 21, 2010 3 comments

In a typically eloquent post on trying to understand those whose beliefs we deem abhorrent, Ta-Nehisi Coates takes an unnecessary swipe at creationists:  “Recognizing our world is filled with creationists, liars, charlatans and necromancers, we should not live for them.”

I’ve noticed his antipathy to creationists and intelligent design before (e.g. herehere and here).  On one hand it’s quite strange.  TNC’s writing is almost always clear and well-reasoned.  But in this case I’m not at all sure what he’s trying to say.  Is it that we should think of creationists as we do liars and charlatans? Or perhaps creationists are liars and charlatans?  Given that creationism denotes a specific set of beliefs about Earth and human history, and liars and charlatans are simply bad people, I’m really not sure what the comparison is meant to show.

Sadly, TNC’s attitude is all too common.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard the word creationist used as a general pejorative, as a substitute for the intellectually careless and morally corrupt.  I also can’t count the number of times I’ve heard creationists compared to Holocaust deniers, which TNC also does here.  But is that really a useful comparison?

Denying evolution means you deny a very complicated scientific theory whose findings span several hundred million years, has exactly zero practical impact on your daily life (quick: when’s the last time you actually used the theory of evolution?), and may directly contradict your deeply-held religious beliefs.  Denying the Holocaust means you to believe it’s okay to kill Jews.

Branding creationists as Holocaust deniers allows us to avoid trying to understand some 40% of our fellow citizens.  Many practicing scientists, after all, are creationists.  Many, many more are skeptical of evolution.  Are they all liars and charlatans?  Evangelicals (most of whom are either creationists or intelligent-design proponents) are increasingly active in both environmental stewardship and social justice.  Should we treat them as we do Holocaust deniers?

A conflict exists only if you wrongly assume that creationism is a window into someone’s intellectual and moral character.  If you wrongly assume that rejecting evolution is akin to rejecting the Holocaust.  But they are not at all the same.

What’s even more dispiriting about TNC’s attitude is that it contradicts so much of his other work.  More than any other writer that I’ve read, TNC has wrestled with how we portray the dignity and humanity of individual black Americans:  “I would have us depicted in all our rancid splendor–boastful and marvelous, rhythmic and self-interested, dumb, clear, hateful, and, on occasion, brave.”  Shouldn’t we extend creationists the same courtesy? I’ve personally known many creationists, and I assure you they too can be marvelous, rhythmic and self-interested.  And yet most of us (TNC is not special here) are content to paint in broad brush strokes.  To assert that a belief in creationism makes one a creationist, thereby defining the sum total of their existence and obliterating everything else about them.

It might be more helpful to think of evolution as simply another discrete, technical subject where people use trust as a proxy for detailed investigation, something TNC himself does for  health-care and cap-and-trade.  There’s actually a lot of research on the importance of trust in scientific controversies, and I’ve very briefly touched on the theme in the past.   Now I may be wrong, but I suspect that like me, TNC largely relies on trust when it comes to evolution.  We both probably cannot explain the difference between punctuated equilibrium and gradualism, or the debate over the Cambrian explosion.

None of this means that creationists’ beliefs are correct.  But since we all often substitute trust for reason and evidence, it does mean that they are not necessarily ignorant, stupid or evil.

There are ultimately many people out there who deserve our scorn.  There are actual liars, charlatans and necromancers who should be criticized, publicly and harshly.  But we must be careful at whom we direct such diatribes.  Crude generalizations are not only unfair, they distract us from the important task of determining who really deserves our condemnation.  There’s no evidence that creationists as a group should be included and we should try to avoid it.