Sunday, August 8, 2010

Science Turns Authoritarian!

At least, that's the suggestion from this investigation.

From the article:

In the past, scientists were generally neutral on questions of what to do. Instead, they just told people what they found, such as “we have discovered that smoking vastly increases your risk of lung cancer” or “we have discovered that some people will have adverse health effects from consuming high levels of salt.” Or “we have found that obesity increases your risk of coronary heart disease.” Those were simply neutral observations that people could find empowering, useful, interesting, etc., but did not place demands on them. In fact, this kind of objectivity was the entire basis for trusting scientific claims.

But along the way, an assortment of publicity-seeking, and often socially activist, scientists stopped saying, “Here are our findings. Read it and believe.” Instead, activist scientists such as NASA’s James Hansen, heads of quasi-scientific governmental organizations such as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, editors of major scientific journals, and heads of the various national scientific academies are more inclined to say, “Here are our findings, and those findings say that you must change your life in this way, that way, or the other way.”


I'm skeptical that this is some recent turn. In fact, I suspect the prime difference between now and in the past is that now scientists attempt to lecture the laity directly, whereas before their lectures were aimed at political leaders and other in the right social circles.

If science wants to redeem itself and regain its place with the public’s affection, scientists need to come out every time some politician says, “The science says we must…” and reply, “Science only tells us what is. It does not, and can never tell us what we should or must do.” If they say that often enough, and loudly enough, they might be able to reclaim the mantle of objectivity that they’ve given up over the last 40 years by letting themselves become the regulatory state’s ultimate appeal to authority. Hey, you know, perhaps Biba has something there—maybe science does need better PR!

Of course, left aside here is that science isn't all that great at "telling us what is" either, at least in some respects. Actually, anthropomorphizing "science" in general tends to be something I'm wary of. Science doesn't say a word. Scientists do. Human beings examine and extrapolate data. They make models. And, they also exaggerate, misrepresent, misunderstand, rely on consensus, etc at times too.

Sadly, I suspect many scientists would view the suggestions in the article as pointless. After all, what's the point of having a great reputation if you can't do anything with it? What's the point of being respected for knowledge if you don't cash out that reputation in the form of political and social currency?

3 comments:

Ilíon said...

"If science wants to redeem itself and regain its place with the public’s affection, scientists need to come out every time some politician says, “The science says we must…” and reply, “Science only tells us what is."

I'll let his reification and anthropomorphizing of ‘science’ slide. For, the more important issue (at the moment) is that science can’t even say what is. At best, it can say, “Given these assumptions, it appears to be the case that …”

Crude said...

Don't let it slide! I was trying to make the same point in my comments. Given how slippery people can get with "science", being that specific is important.

Ilíon said...

Yeah, I hadn't read that far to see your point when I posted that.