Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Why science loses in public what it has won in the lab

I am coming to a realization that the arena in which public opinion is fought over is anything but fair, open minded, considerate or even grounded on the most basic understanding of how science, as an agnostic discipline, goes about finding answers. In those matters where science should have some weighty insights to add to the debate, it enters the arena with one hand tied behind its back. The newspapers, most news-and-opinion blogs and even Fox News all try, relative to their own sometimes narrow world views, to get clear answers for their audiences. The scientifically unprepared news writer can't even "report the controversy" without making fact-sausage by giving the preacher and the geneticist each a 150 word sound bite.

The scientist may admit, but if honestly hewing to process rather than answer will at least discover, that all science ever does for certain is eliminate answers and refine questions. In a winner take all match with parties that wield certain truth before a market that wants certain truth, the scientist taking care to have the tentativeness of a scientific finding captured in the sound bite will mostly lose.

It is not just a problem of inconclusive sounding questions pitted against alluringly simple twaddle and politically acceptable religious cant. It is a failure to equip voters with the awareness that a good question tells you more about the world than a simple answer. That audience needs an education that leaves it able to function when asked to make its decisions on "the preponderance of evidence" or the "best theory we have" rather than falling for one-sentence offers of "truth".

A list of the issues where the science has better claim to guide us than any other source is long with some items absolutely critical to human survival. It would have to include global warming, the need to eliminate toxic byproducts of industry entering the environment, the imbalance of human population with its dwindling resources, vaccinations etc, a long and vital list. I blog this generalization because the disadvantage of the scientific point of view is turning up frequently as I think through various posts I am drafting. It is a meta-problem to so many other problems and one to be tackled explicitly if we are going to make progress in any of those vital debates.

UPDATE: I found this great quote from a scientist the Bushies tried to muzzle for his sounding the alarms loud and early regarding global warming: Hansen is interviewed in MIT's Tech Review
He often employs a favorite quote from the late physicist Richard Feynman to explain his approach: "The only way to have real success in science ... is to describe the evidence very carefully without regard to the way you feel it should be. If you have a theory, you must try to explain what's good about it and what's bad about it equally. In science you learn a kind of standard integrity and honesty." Hansen invariably points out the shortcomings in his own arguments. When another scientist presents only the points that support his conclusion, Hansen will chide him for acting "like a lawyer."


etbnc said...

I think you're on to something here. And I think this would be a good topic to develop further.

I see you have a link to George Lakoff's Rockridge Institute. Lakoff's writing about frames and metaphors and methods of persuasion has changed the way I interact with people. Have you been influenced that way, too?

Besides Lakoff, I've been influenced by Peter Senge's book, _The Fifth Discipline_. His ideas about systems thinking and learning organizations have inspired me to think about the ways that we play character roles out of habit.

Being a scientist can be a sort of character role, with a set of habitual behaviors.

Being a journalist can be a role, with habitual behaviors.

Being a consumer seems like a role, too, and a habit.

It seems to me that much of our public discourse is just the interaction of scripted habits of character roles. Lakoff and Senge (and me, and probably you, and others) see value in stepping out of our habitual roles.

One hurdle I've noticed, however, is that few of us want to be the first to step out of character. There's a kind of deadlock situation that develops even when we see what needs to happen:

"Sure, I'll think differently and change my behavior, if you do."

"Ok, you go first."

"No, you first."

Finding value in being the first to break character seems like a hurdle.

Does that correspond to what you see, too?

I like your quote at page bottom, too. I think it might be relevant to this topic also.

Thanks for this contribution to public dialog. Cheers

GreenSmile said...

I have to confess, I found out about rockridge institute long before I knew who Lakoff is. I don't read enough!

Yes, how we set up our debates has as much to do with the impressions they leave as what gets said in the heat of the debates.

Did you know about Political Strategy's Framing Project? I wonder if it wound up making any waves.

etbnc said...

Coincidentally I read about the Strategic Framing Project just a few hours before I noticed your reply here. I can't tell from the web site what the project's current status is. It sorta looks like it's gone behind the scenes. That's fine with me. Significant political influences often occur behind the scenes. The neocons built their framework over the course of twenty years before anybody really started to pay attention to their technique.

If you haven't already, do find a copy of Lakoff's book, _Moral Politics_. It's well worth your time. It has useful information that isn't (yet) online. (Moral Politics descripton at Powell's books,

Thanks, greensmile, for your contribution to thoughtful public discourse. Cheers!

GreenSmile said...

Thanks for the pointer, I will dig it up and read.