Monday, December 5, 2011

Warping science and hurting democracy

The full title of this brief article at Rolling Stone is "How Ignorance, Greed, and Ideology Is Warping Science and Hurting Democracy."

I suppose it's partly a review of the above book and partly an interview with the author. But mostly, it's just a big question:
"Whenever the people are well informed" an optimistic Thomas Jefferson wrote, "they can be trusted with their own government." Sure – but what if the people have no clue?

Most of the big challenges facing America and the world today – from climate change to disease to population growth – revolve around science and technology. If we – We, the People – are going to make smart decisions on what to do about these problems, we need to have at least a rough understanding of the basic science involved. Problem is, we don't.

As science writer Shawn Lawrence Otto points out in a tough-minded new book, Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America, too many Americans are either plain ignorant of science or actively hostile to it, or both. And that's as true of political leaders and journalists as it is of ordinary citizens (to say nothing of corporate leaders who see action on climate change, say, as a threat to the bottom line). We think climate change is a hoax; we're convinced vaccines cause autism; we truly believe – as Newt Gingrich claims to – that embryonic stem cell research involves killing children.

Unfortunately, there aren't any easy answers to this. Too many of us don't understand enough of the scientific method to realize that the scientific consensus is always the most likely to be correct. That's simply because there's no other way of determining the truth that works better.

Whenever you choose to believe something other than the scientific method, for whatever reason you think you have, it boils down to simply believing what you want to believe, rather than what's most likely to be true.

You don't have to become an expert in climatology, biology, medicine, or anything else. As long as there's an overwhelming scientific consensus, that's what you should accept, provisionally, as all science is provisional.
Science is always provisional, that is just the nature of inductive reasoning. Scientists are very, very careful not to say that something is absolutely true. But, it’s a mistake to think that provisional scientific knowledge is on the same level as opinion and to put someone who is telling you real knowledge that has been measured and tested and gone through peer review on par with somebody who is just giving an opinion.

It's simple, it really is. Scientists are never absolutely sure, since it's impossible to be absolutely sure of anything. Furthermore, by refusing to rule anything out, scientists ensure that new evidence will always be considered.

And because science honors successful heretics, because the real heroes of science are scientists who've proved the consensus wrong - or, more often, just incomplete - in some way, there's always a huge incentive for minority positions and other doubters in the scientific community itself.

That's a good thing. But for any of us laymen to believe a minority position, rather than accepting the current scientific consensus, again, that's just believing what we want to believe. The consensus can always be wrong, but that's never the smart bet.

I think it's simple. You don't have to be an expert on any of these scientific issues. You just need to understand and appreciate the scientific method. Unfortunately, that's what we're lacking here in America, especially - but certainly not solely - in the right-wing.

And what's not simple is how we change this. The author suggests that scientists need to "reengage in our public conversation" and recommends supporting No doubt he's right, but it's a thin reed, isn't it?

This is what I mean by "no easy answers." It's easy to learn and to accept the scientific consensus. But how do we make people understand why that's the only smart thing to do? Especially these days, when being anti-science is a badge of honor in the Republican Party?

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