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Scientists and the economic crisis, ctd.

December 1, 2011 Leave a comment

Via the Jack Stilgoe post I just discussed, Colin Macilwain exhorts scientists to deal with a world in crisis:

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.

Mixed feelings about science literacy outreach, part 2

October 24, 2011 1 comment

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.

People are scary in a way that numbers are not

September 29, 2011 7 comments

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.

Categories: Education, Literacy, Society

Politicians’ scientific beliefs, indicators, and cultural markers

September 1, 2011 3 comments

Liberal bloggers have been attacking National Review’s Kevin Williamson for arguing politicians’ scientific beliefs don’t matter:

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.

Bias in scientists

July 31, 2011 Leave a comment

Writing in the TimesCordelia 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.

Categories: Public Discourse, Society

Hypocrisy happens

June 30, 2011 8 comments

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?

And Michael:

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.

Evolutionary psychology, demarcation, and grand unified theories

May 25, 2011 6 comments

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.

Categories: Philosophy, Society