I'm in the midst of reading Karl Popper in preparation for our next recording and have been thinking about the distinction between the fruits of scientific exploration, the theories and accounts of the world, and the underlying disposition of scientific argument, especially as it applies to the way we, as a community, discuss and expect to resolve disputes, what we consider as evidence, and what we expect both proponents and nay-sayers to bring to the table when making their claims.
Adam Frank has a nice Op-Ed piece in the NYTimes this week regarding this very issue. Frank cites the rise of creationism from a minor undercurrent of American culture to a well-funded ideological effort to shape the curriculum in our schools, the continuing cult of climate deniers who extend across our government, and resurgent anti-vaccine campaigners as indicative of the lamentable erosion of the importance of science and the traditions of science in our public discourse.
In 1982, polls showed that 44 percent of Americans believed God had created human beings in their present form. Thirty years later, the fraction of the population who are creationists is 46 percent. In 1989, when “climate change” had just entered the public lexicon, 63 percent of Americans understood it was a problem. Almost 25 years later, that proportion is actually a bit lower, at 58 percent.
What I particularly like about Frank's article is that he doesn't cite the truth-value of scientific discourse, but the embedded traditions regarding the use of evidence and argument making our public policy decisions. At the center of this is how we use empirical evidence and evaluate claims based upon it. Very few scientists (some thanks goes to Popper here) will say that the facts merely speak for themselves. The evidence must be evaluated and interpreted and an important part of science is the structures, processes, and habits associated with evaluating that evidence. I think much of the hullaballoo over scientific truth and whether it's "true" or not skirts this point on a regular basis. The fact is that scientific truth is regularly revised, reshaped, and recalculated. New processes are discovered and new ways of thinking are leveraged to understand the new evidence while trying to embrace the old. What sticks are rough sets of counts as good evidence and a distinction between the best we can say and what is unlikely speculation.
The history of science is full of various outliers, those who hold fervently to their best intuitive understandings regardless of the level of evidence one way or another. Einstein denied that quantum mechanics could be a satisfactory, complete, and true understanding of the world not because of some basic thought that science always progresses, but because of the disposition he had regarding how good scientific theories work. As an undergrad, I listened to the physicist Ed Witten of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton explain how no theory of the universe had been as beautiful as string theory and not been true, all in the face of the (continuing) fact that there isn't a shred of solid empirical evidence that string theory is true. (You can call up Brian Greene here as well to talk about multi-multi universes here.) However, Einstein and Witten (and Greene) and many, many others make their arguments the best they can and understand the spectrum of distinctions between better conclusions and thoughtful speculation.
On the other hand, cases like creationism, climate-deniers, and anti-vaccine nay-sayers are problematic, not because they disagree with some scientific dogma, but rather because they pervert the scientific discourse away from best judgements to merely serving their agendas. Indeed, in all those cases, the representatives make their arguments on putatively scientific grounds, either by holding onto long-ago refuted, poorly designed scientific claims or by willfully mis-representing empirical evidence under the guise of the "objectivity" of science. The problem is that despite the appearance of participating in a scientific discussion that involves the joint evaluation of all the best evidence to come to the best conclusion (which may be inconclusive) regarding a given problem or question, this category of deniers uses scientific claims as just one more tool in the arsenal of persuasion. In that way, it's an old story. If we lived in a different time, such people would be citing the clear power of witches to take over young girls or the inferiority of equatorial races as justification for their subjugation. Such arguments leverage the language of the times without regard for best assessments or best conclusions. In that way, their participation in the discussion is fundamentally dishonest, and this is the part that strikes at the heart of the best traditions in scientific work. Dishonest and insincere presentation and evaluation of evidence makes scientific discourse impossible. This is why fudging the numbers, fabricating data, and other forms of "academic dishonesty" are more than academic, but strike the very foundations of science. Without those features, it can't be done.
Frank ends his article with a kind of call to arms, one that I think is actually consistent with the attitude of thoughtful engagement we have here on PEL:
Behind the giant particle accelerators and space observatories, science is a way of behaving in the world. It is, simply put, a tradition. And as we know from history’s darkest moments, even the most enlightened traditions can be broken and lost. Perhaps that is the most important lesson all lifelong students of science must learn now.
You don't need to be a scientist to be onboard with that.
C. M. Frederick says
I agree with most of this post… but I think we need to be a little careful in how we handle the “anti-science” problem. While I think the examples of climate deniers, anti-vaccers and creationists are valid, I also think they are categorically different when it comes to their agendas and psychologies. I believe it is also important to realize that the notions “Science” and “Anti-science” are too unwieldy as terms when attacking this debate. There are many “sciences” today with their own agendas and psychologies that are more or less intellectually honest than others. The endeavor of Science is reliant on the minds of fallible people who have their own psychologies and agendas as to what we should do with this scientific knowledge. Then, when you throw in a society at large that is not expert in such matters, all kinds of problems arise. A major problem is that many, perhaps most, people fear what they do not understand and as a result nefarious leaders will leverage that ignorance to their own advantage. “Science” in general is seemingly the best method humans have invented to come to an understanding of what is the case, but I am slightly less confident of its ability to prescribe what ought to be the case, let alone how to get there. I can’t wait for the upcoming episode of PEL that deals with Popper et. al.
You’ve got it exactly backwards. “many, perhaps most, people fear what they do not understand and as a result nefarious leaders will leverage that ignorance to their own advantage” This is what “leaders” do when they DENY science. It is the repression of scientific conclusions that are used to leverage ignorance to “their own advantage.” That has always been the case, even today. How can you possibly validate what you have said?
Hi Dylan, I’ve wrestled with this one: “On the other hand, cases like creationism, climate-deniers, and anti-vaccine nay-sayers are problematic, not because they disagree with some scientific dogma, but rather because they pervert the scientific discourse away from best judgements to merely serving their agendas.” That may be problematic, and I am not a creationist, climate-denier, nor am I anti-vaccination. I do think it’s appropriate to draw attention to scientific application more so now than I did at one time because of genetics, neuroscience, and technological advances. I think there is scientific evidence that science is at a crossroads when it’s knowledge and power is applied to human activities.
” I think there is scientific evidence that science is at a crossroads when it’s knowledge and power is applied to human activities.” that’s intriguing, what is the science of crossroads?
I don’t understand your question or how you phrased your question. Is that even a question? Are you familiar with Michael Gazzaniga’s work or Francis Collins?
An essay by Tenzin Gyatso
was asking about this “there is scientific evidence that science is at a crossroads when it’s knowledge and power is applied to human activities” and wondering what scientific discipline supplied such data?
Are you saying that it comes from neuroscience and genetics, either way I would be very interested in reading the relevant research if you have a link to share thanks.
Richard A. Muller is another good reference as a case in point.
Here’s to hoping the Karl Popper one addresses his position on evolution: i.e., he didn’t think it passed the valid-science falsification test & only changed his position after a lot of pressure from other smart folks
It’s important to be aware of the downsides to embracing full on logical positivism vs. science in the sense of wissenschaft, at least IMO
can one still find practitioners of wissenschaft and if so where?
hey Dylan, peoples’ cognitive-biases aside (ha!) how much of the public’s misunderstandings of what sciences are (and are not) do you figure has to do with how poorly schools (including many undergrad programs) tend to teach what scientists actually do?
That’s a great point–cognitive biases aside–when you have lay, learned, everyday people who attempt to look at the scientific data when making formed decisions when it comes to electing politicians. Richard Muller has changed his mind because of new scientific evidence:
“What about the future? As carbon dioxide emissions increase, the temperature should continue to rise. I expect the rate of warming to proceed at a steady pace, about one and a half degrees over land in the next 50 years, less if the oceans are included. But if China continues its rapid economic growth (it has averaged 10 percent per year over the last 20 years) and its vast use of coal (it typically adds one new gigawatt per month), then that same warming could take place in less than 20 years.”
Notice Muller (unlike Adam Frank) didn’t resort to off handed theological dumb down comments for anyone interested in science. BTW, I’ve sat in many a lecture halls where the prof is a creationist, so spare me your innuendoes.
Dylan Casey says
@dmf — I think there’s something of this going on — a disconnect between scientific education and scientific practice — but, the traditions of scientific triumphalism mouthed by scientists make this a hard problem. I find most in common with the open-ended, deep-sense-of-wonder strain in science. That tribe within science has a relatively humble regard for the truths sorted-out and a hunger to sort out new ones. (I’m sympathetic with Popper’s interest in “problem solving”.) However, there’s long been a tribe within science that descends from the conquest of nature school, the school that is most concerned with being “right” than with figuring things out (i.e., solving problems). It’s that school that routinely declares that all that’s left to do is engineering — all the fundamentals have been sorted out — and are routinely left holding the bag of some new insight, solving some new problem. I find that group as tiresome as they are loud.
yeah I’m with you on the triumphalism (so foreign to the spirit of the tinkering/lab folks that I worked under). I’m always struck by how few people are exposed to doing research and the long road of trial and error, wonder and confusion. The growing tensions (or maybe the dilemmas we are facing are just so dire/escalating) between experts and the publics is surely one of the more vexing problems in our attempts to be both democratic and proactive/sustainable.
On another perhaps side note years ago I helping an organic chem prof. who was visiting from Czechoslovakia and he wanted to know why we gave PhD’s to people who have never studied philosophy, good question to this day I think, ever onward…