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What is “science” communication?

December 10, 2011 Leave a comment

According to Thompson-Reuters, eight-thousand and seventy-three science and engineering journals published just over one million peer-reviewed articles in 2010. Another two-thousand one hundred and seventy-six social science journals published over 200,000 papers. This works out to two peer-reviewed journal articles being published every minute of every hour of every day for the entire year.

At the start of the millennium, there were “only” seven-thousand three-hundred and eighty-three journals. So in a mere ten years, almost three-thousand new journals were formed. This trend will surely intensify as more nations invest in science. Brazil, China, Korea and Turkey are all publishing at least 10% more scientific papers every year. Even tiny countries like Tunisia and Qatar are getting in the game, more than tripling the share of GDP spent on research since 1996 (see here).

So what does it mean to be a scientist anymore? Is it fair to group theoretical physicists with observational ecologists? Should these groups have the same label when scientists in the same discipline don’t always overlap? I have attended several annual meetings of the American Geophysical Union. It always struck me that the soil scientists are separated—physically and intellectually—from the space physicists. The near-Earth space physicists are separated from those studying Mars, who are in turn separated from those studying Venus.

Looking at this motley array, it’s hard not to conclude that there is no “science.” There are only sciences.  It’s also hard not to conclude that “science” communication is a problematic concept. Given how vast, diverse, and balkanized research has become, what exactly are individual scientists communicating? How does any single person have the authority to speak for a $1 trillion dollar, seven million person global enterprise?
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Categories: Communication, Disunity

Another call for disunity and heterogeneity

October 4, 2011 Leave a comment

To clarify why I found Williamson’s and Rosenberg’s definition of naturalism so unsatisfying, let’s look at the former’s definition of the scientific method:

What is meant by “the scientific method”? Why assume that science only has one method? For naturalists, although natural sciences like physics and biology differ from each other in specific ways, at a sufficiently abstract level they all count as using a single general method. It involves formulating theoretical hypotheses and testing their predictions against systematic observation and controlled experiment. This is called the hypothetico-deductive method.

What does it mean to make a systematic observation? How about controlled experiment? These words are vague and imprecise, and can mean different things to physicists and psychologists. They can even mean different things to space physicists and atomic physicists. Systematic isn’t really possible when solar and magnetic field conditions change continuously, but can be if the entire experiment is run on a lab bench.

The discussion would have been much richer if they spent some time (dare I say it?) deconstructing these terms. Even at a “sufficiently abstract level” it’s not clear how to lump particle physics and observational ecology under a single general method. As I’ve said repeatedly, the various branches of science are disunified and heterogeneous.

Granted, these were relatively short blog posts and not a dissertation on naturalism. But given my longstanding desire to disaggregate science and demonstrate its intense diversity, I’m always disappointed when writers whose blogs are more widely read than mine don’t explore these themes.

Categories: Disunity

Miscellaneous hodge-podge

August 25, 2010 2 comments

Not just a hodge-podge, but a miscellaneous hodge-podge.  Here’s what I’ve been reading:

1.  A critique of the medical revolution by Emily Yoffe in Slate.  Hits on many of the ideas I’ve discussed ad nauseum.  Money quote:

But humans keep experiencing suffering and death. Why? What explains the tremendous mismatch between expectation and reality? Are the cures really coming, just more slowly than expected? Or have scientists fundamentally misled us, and themselves, about the potential of new medical technologies?

2. Roger Pielke Jr.’s review of Vannevar Bush’s Science: The Endless Frontier. Check out the post and the full essay.

3.  The overturning of Obama’s stem cell policy.  Check out Bruggeman for some analysis, as long as you remember that he is in no way, shape or form a lawyer!

4. Barbara Herrnstein-Smith’s Natural Reflections: Human Cognition at the Nexus of Science and Religion. I just started this book, which has been on my list since reading this Stanley Fish post.  The introduction has already blown my mind and I look forward to reading more.  Money quote from a follow-up response Smith wrote to Fish’s post:

Finally and most seriously, I think that the idea of science and religion as counterpoised monoliths deepens prevailing misunderstandings of both. As I emphasize throughout the book, the kinds of things that can be assembled under the term “religion” are exceptionally diverse. They range from personal experiences and popular beliefs to formal doctrines, priestly institutions, ritual practices and devotional icons — Neanderthal burial rites to Vatican encyclicals. The same can be said of “science,” a term that embraces a wide range of quite different kinds of things — general pursuits and specialized practices, findings and theories, instruments and techniques, ideals and institutions (not to mention a share of devotional icons and ritual practices).

I’ve been speaking about disunity of science for a while now and it’s refreshing to see it from a different perspective.

Science and trans-science

June 9, 2010 4 comments

Julian Sanchez recently discussed why classifying homosexuality as a disorder hinges on both science and values:

I’m glad, of course, that we’ve dispensed with a lot of bogus science that served to rationalize homophobia—that’s a pure scientific victory.  And I’m glad that we no longer classify homosexuality as a disorder—but that’s a choice and, above all, a moral victory. It ultimately stems from the more general recognition that we shouldn’t stigmatize dispositions and behaviors that are neither intrinsically distressing to the subject nor harmful, in the Millian sense, to the rest of us…The change in the psychiatric establishment’s bible, the DSM, was partly a function of new scientific information, but it was equally a moral and a political choice. [Emphasis added–PK]

Sanchez’s great example highlights what I’ve argued previouslysome scientific judgments involve values while some do not.  We can safely say that measuring the acceleration due to gravity is a purely scientific judgment.  But we can also safely say that classifying homosexuality is not.  It remains a mystery to me why some resist this idea.

Consider William’s comment on Sanchez’s post:

Well how about the mental condition called depression? Are you saying that it is a moral rather than scientific question whether depression is an illness/disorder? I’m talking about can’t get out of bed, too weak to commit suicide depression here, not a bout of the blues. How about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? You’re saying that diagnosis is a moral rather than medical (scientific) question?

Well, no William.  Neither I nor (I suspect) Sanchez are saying any such thing.  We simply accept that mental health contains both value-free and normative science.  A belief in objectivity with respect to PTSD does not conflict with a belief in subjectivity with respect to homosexuality.  There is no universal standard or set of rules that we can blindly apply in all cases.  Believing otherwise is analogous to playing the game without watching game film.

A couple things come to mind.  First, as I’ve argued before, simply using the single word science undermines rational discourse on topics like these.  Ultimately, Sanchez is trying to argue that stigmatizing homosexuality involves a different kind of science than what we’re used to.  And this kind of science necessarily involve moral judgments.  But since all we have is “science” and its associated baggage of supreme and perpetual objectivity, this subtlety gets lost.

Second: why did Sanchez have to explain what should be common knowledge?  We figured out no later than 1972 when Alvin Weinberg wrote Science and Trans-Science that some areas of science cannot be separated from values.  We figured it out again in 1985 when The National Academies wrote a report on risk assessment, yet again when Funtowicz and Ravetz introduced post-normal science in 1991, and once more in Sheila Jasanoff’s book-length treatment on regulatory science.  Scholars from fields as diverse as nuclear physics, philosophy, history, and sociology have all independently determined that science is not a monolith and that, yes, sometimes values play a role. In the end, Sanchez’s thesis is impressively mundane and uncontroversial.  In an ideal world it wouldn’t merit a shout-out from arguably the most influential political blogger alive.

None of this undermines Sanchez’s eloquence and brilliance.  I am always impressed by his writing, and he does a particularly good job here explaining a complicated topic.  But if we had dispensed with the false notion of one science that follows “the” scientific method, maybe he wouldn’t have had to.

Disunity yet again plus impolite scientists

March 30, 2010 6 comments

A couple quick points.  First, check out Joe Romm’s post on this recent Times article.  Apparently most meteorologists neither have training in climate science nor have Ph.D’s.  Romm obviously dismisses them as a source of authority.  While I more or less agree with him, I’m also somewhat more sympathetic to the meteorologists.  It’s not too unreasonable to think that expertise in weather forecasting makes you at least a little qualified to speak of its long-term trends.  We’ve returned to Paul Newall’s problem with modern science: it has become so specialized that almost no one can comment on anything.

On an somewhat different note, check out blogger Steve Easterbrook’s great post on rude academic scientists and peer review.  I’ll definitely have more to say later, but let’s highlight this for now:  “And scientists don’t really know how to engage with these strange outsiders. Scientists normally only interact with other scientists. We live rather sheltered lives; they don’t call it the ivory tower for nothing.”

Part of the problem is that scientists, and academics more generally, like it this way.  They (we?) don’t really want to worry about mundane, everyday concerns.  Harvard professor Louis Menand touched on this in his article on the professionalization of the academy.  Interestingly, this desire for isolation exists side-by-side with our self-proclaimed desire to be “the foundation of decision-making.”

This attitude especially leads me to say that Easterbrook is only partially correct when he writes “The scientific community doesn’t have the resources to defend itself [w.r.t. the C.R.U. scandal], and quite frankly it shouldn’t have to.”  While the opposition to climate change has been particularly rabid, in many cases I think we deserve some of the blame.  We can’t simultaneously say we’re the most important component of policy and then be surprised when people attack what we say.  That’s kind of like complaining when the opposing team plays defense.  It’s their job to do so, just as it’s the job of anti-regulatory zealots to distort the science.

On a final note, please take note of the elegant simplicity of Easterbrook’s blog.  Remind you of anything?  I guess great minds think alike!

The “scientific” consensus of climate change

March 13, 2010 3 comments

Joe Romm recently highlighted the large number of organizations that think man-made global warming is a danger.  Romm apparently hopes to bolster the case for global warming by contrasting dozens of science organization with the likes of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Seeking out supporters is all well and good.  And maybe we should publicize that industrial polluters are the primary opponents.  But there’s something quite strange about the list of allies.  It’s not at all obvious how Engineers Australia, the Soil Science Society of America and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics can speak on the science of climate change.   As I’ve just argued, if a random collection of scientists adds authority to climate science, an equally random collection of scientists can detract from it.

Lists like these give the false impression that there can even exist a “scientific” consensus on climate change.  The overwhelming majority of Ph.D. scientists aren’t qualified to judge climate science and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.  The IPCC is composed of the relevant scientists and they have a near-unanimous agreement.  That’s the only consensus that really matters.

Categories: Climate Change, Disunity

The disunity of science and the denial of climate change

March 13, 2010 5 comments

You often hear individual scientists preaching about “how science works.”  While I think outreach is generally a good thing, I am not sure we should be trying to to fit all of science into one neat box.  What if there is no single way that science works?  What if the different areas of science “work” in really different ways?  And what happens when scientists pretend otherwise?

The evidence, I would say, is pretty clear on the first two questions.  Atomic physicists use precise, controlled experiments while geophysicists simply make observations.  My labmates and I often discussed that it isn’t possible to experiment with the coupled sun-Earth system.  Computer simulations are critical in many areas of theoretical physics but not widely used in ecology.  Double-blind testing make sense in medicine but not in the stability of bridges and so on and so forth.  Larry Laudan even came up with a fancy name to describe this methodological diversity: epistemic heterogeneity.*  Simply put, scientists use widely different approaches when attacking their research problems.  Well before Laudan, the 19th century philosopher Auguste Comte even wrote several volumes on the differences among scientific fields.

So clearly all of science does not follow the same rules, what some would call disunity.  But scientists promote the opposite notion when we speak of “the” scientific method and “the way” that science works.  I can’t shake the feeling that this disconnect has very serious ramifications.

Consider climate change denial.  Quite a few have documented how contrarian scientists undermined the scientific basis of climate change.  Skeptics’ success, however, ultimately depended on their credibility as “scientists” with the authority to speak for “science.”  At first glance there is no reason Frederick Seitz should be trusted to pontificate on global climate models.  But if a completely random assortment of scientists can lecture Congress on the workings of all of science, why can’t a completely random physicist comment on problems with global climate models?  In both cases scientists speak outside of their expertise.  It’s just that we like the outcome in the first example but not in the second.

In the end I think all scientists share some blame for the triumph of the climate deniers.  Over the past several hundred years we’ve done everything we can to create a unified image of science.  We’ve all bought into it and we all draw upon it to enhance our credibility.  We’ve all uttered nonsensical phrases like “replication is the ultimate test of truth in science.”  We’ve all debated science and values without bothering to really look at the evidence.  As much as I disagree with them, I have to admit the skeptics are simply following the rules I helped write.  I look back on the times my friends and I discussed “science.”  I wonder how I convinced myself I had the right to speak for a $500 billion, several million person institution.

To really mute the power of skeptics’ to speak for climate change, we must mute our own power to speak for the rest of science.  I think it’s a trade-off I think most scientists aren’t willing to make.

* See Larry Laudan, The demise of the demarcation problem, in Physics, philosophy and psychoanalysis: essays in honor of Adolf Grunbaum, 1983, D. Reidel publishing company, R.S. Cohen and L. Laudan (editors), pp. 111-127