Saturday, March 10, 2007

Science and Politics

What do the following have in common:
  • The belief that global warming is a myth
  • The belief that we are not descended from the same ancestors as chimpanzees and gorillas, but were, as a species, created by God, more or less as we are
  • The belief that vaccines are dangerous and do more harm than good
  • The belief that animal experiments are inimical to good science, producing more misleading results than good results
  • The belief that genetically modified food is inherently dangerous (i.e. dangerous by virtue of being GM)
  • Belief in the clinical efficacy of a whole range of alternative and complementary therapies - that they frequently work as well as or better than scientific medicine, but somehow need to be judged by different standards (i.e. randomised controlled trials do not apply here)
  • Belief in the possibility of perpetual motion
  • Belief that a gyroscope correctly inclined will generate lift and hence be able to power effectively free flight
  • ...
The common factor is that they all dispute mainstream science, they all require belief in a conspiracy of scientists, or at the very least blinkered groupthink among scientists. And in every case, the debate is taken to the public sphere, scientists are denounced, and appeals are made to trust some other authority.

Now while I would dismiss all the beliefs that I have listed, there is a problem here. What are you supposed to do if you do honestly disagree with the scientific consensus, and you think that consensus is leading to bad policy decisions? I will criticise the likes of Durkin, (yes I am linking to Monbiot, although he probably believes half the anti-science above) and the creationists, for bypassing the difficult science and making shallow arguments to the public. But I recognise that they don't have a lot of choice. Our laypersons understanding of the scientific position is also fairly shallow. Of course I am not equating shallow truths with shallow lies, but the fact remains that many believers are sincere, and we can hardly damn them for lying.

Few of these anti-science lobbies have the resources to do any research of their own - global warming deniers are perhaps an exception - and even if they did, they may publish a few papers, which would go as unnoticed as almost all scientific papers are.

But it is entirely possible that science will get things wrong from time to time, and that there will be brave souls battling the groupthink. It is possible, say, that the second event theory, is true. It predicts higher cancer risks than normally recognised from particular radio-isotopes, and hence a greater risk from nuclear industry emissions compared with background radiation. It looks unlikely, but it is good that it has its advocates plugging away.

The question is how we conduct the public debate. How do we make informed democratic decisions, given that most of us would struggle to understand all the science, and that those of us who could understand it probably don't have the time. This is not really a new problem - we are also mostly not economists, not clinicians, not teachers, not police, not manufacturers, not retailers, not politicians. Yet in a democracy we have to make judgements about the work of professionals in all these fields - at least those in the public sector.

How do we do it? I guess we muddle through. We judge success and failure rather than effort, and, hopefully thereby incentivise effort. We punish dishonesty when we see it. What I would like to suggest is that the evidential standards of science are our friends in this attempt to muddle through. We would be wrong to let doctrine trump evidence. We would be right to change our minds when the evidence demands it. We would be right to be suspicious of anyone, Mr Blair, who seems to regard their personal sense of conviction as a kind of evidence. We would do well to recognise that our desires and values colour our evaluation of evidence, and that this can progressively suck an intelligent person into fringe crackpot theories, religious cults and so on.

And so how should we evaluate the work of scientists - and the work of those who accuse scientists of groupthink? By the same standards. Are they being honest? Are they doing the hard work or are they playing to the gallery? Are they paying attention to the evidence? Are they making claims that are falsifiable?

Are they using ad-hoc hypotheses to defend a bad position? Of course one man's ad hoc hypothesis is another's refinement of a good theory, and there is no substitute for good judgement. Suppose you want to argue that solar wind causes clouds causes global cooling, and that this effect has not been recognised leading to errors in climate modelling. There has to be something going for this theory other than that it allows you to claim the climate models are wrong. If that's all there is, you are clearly just pursuing an agenda, but if the theory explains other evidence as well then it may be a useful refinement. But it is always going to be possible to come up with theories like that, that can be used to attack a rival position, but which don't add any value. As philosophers occasionally like to point out, we can't prove that the whole world wasn't made 10 minutes ago complete with our memories and evidence of the past. But the defendant who tried to argue along these lines "no I didn't rob the bank last week, the universe was only created 10 minutes ago", would not be very successful, and rightly so.

Science will still make mistakes of varying degrees. This is unaviodable. But anybody who argues that because scientists can make mistakes we should instead believe that they are right and the scientists are wrong is not making a credible argument. What distinguishes the sciences is that they have all these tools for finding and correcting errors. What distinguishes crackpots is that they have thrown all these tools away.


Peter Mc said...

What do they have in common? That our future king believes in all of them.

Edis said...

One thing about science is the status of ‘mistakes’. A scientific mindset accepts the reality of making mistakes when we try to learn something new, and tries to keep open sets of procedures for testing for mistakes. Mistakes are welcome if they help discover a better way to understand the point of interest.

Karl Popper, philosopher of Science said (amongst other things) that we test our theories by finding where they go wrong, and that our problem is not making mistakes, but in not making them fast enough.

A feel for Popper is a good start for anyone trying to build up an intelligent lay approach to scientific claims. Not least because Popper, in later life, provided a cautionary example in how to fail to follow this advice. He recruited himself into a scientific rearguard action against Quantum Theory – a position shared by Einstein, no less, who spent the last decades of his career in a fruitless search for an alternative.

It is not a paradox but an essential part of science that Einstein’s failure strengthened Quantum Theory because it withstood an assault by the person best qualified to find any holes going.

Joe Otten said...


Yes I am quite a fan of Popper - and of the Open Society and its Enemies as well as of the Logic of Scientify Discovery.

I think creationists and global warming deniers take a more Kuhnian approach to science, and it is hard to see whether Kuhn was interested in the truth at all, as opposed to the question of how you make your paradigm the winning paradigm.