With us or against us

One problem with Bush’s crude dichotomy was it forced potential allies into an uncomfortable choice. Every country had to unequivocally support everything we did to be considered a friend. Agreeing with us even 99% of the time no longer sufficed. In my experience we liberal scientists mostly, and rightly, attacked this attitude as counterproductive.

The tragedy is that our disdain for Bush’s politics doesn’t prevent us from imitating it.* Why else would those who disagree with evolution be branded as anti-science rather than anti-evolution? Just as countries supported Afghanistan and the broad goals of the war on terror while disagreeing with Iraq, people support Newtonian physics and the broad goals of science while disagreeing with evolution. The sheer fact that many, many scientists don’t believe in evolution obliterates the false notion that anti-evolution equals anti-science. Anti-science is a meaningless term if it includes members of the National Academy.

Whether we like it or not, the overwhelming scientific data indicate that rejecting evolution is perfectly compatible with supporting much of science. And this outcome shouldn’t really be that surprising. For all the bluster about the scientific method and thinking scientifically, much of science requires discrete skills like writing computer code, solving differential equations and working in a machine shop. And again, it is demonstrably true that people can master these skills while holding otherwise unscientific beliefs. Don’t believe me? Ask Henry Shaefer. Scientists ignore these inconvenient data in our fight. Ironically, ignoring inconvenient data is exactly what we accuse those creationists of.

I’d much prefer we address this issue with an attitude of (gasp!) accommodation. In the end we almost certainly will not convince creationists to change their beliefs. So what’s wrong with letting them know that particle physics, geochemistry and materials science are still open? Surely branding creationists as anti-science for disagreeing with a single theory makes it harder to engage them in fields outside biology. Why force people to agree with us 100% of the time or not at all?

*Technically scientists used this approach way before W. So it’s truer that that he imitated us rather than the other way around! Interestingly Bush’s foreign policy was as unsuccessful as scientists’ creationism policy. Coincidence? I think not…

Do you need evolution in every biology class?

Human Ape had a very angry response to my recent post on creationism in Ohio.  Apparently I’m a “god-soaked uneducated moron who denies the established truth of evolution because it threatens the magic fairy who hides in the clouds.”  Hahahaha! That was precious.  I have no clue who this guy is, but he cracks me up.   It’s a shame that his talent for personal attacks doesn’t help him with simple research.  He could have read my short bio before commenting.  I won’t assess my own intelligence (I have been called a moron before!), but I’m pretty sure that having a Ph.D from Stanford disqualifies me from the uneducated.

In the midst of his semi-coherent screed, Human Ape somehow managed to raise an interesting point:
“Where did you get the idea that evolution takes up only 3 weeks of a biology class? Any competent biology teacher would make evolution a major part of every single lesson every single day of the class. It’s impossible to properly teach biology any other way.”

Now there’s no doubt that evolution is the central theory in modern biology, and one of the most central in all of science.  But including it in every lesson would be more confusing than illuminating.  Anatomy, biochemistry and microbiology can and should be taught without referencing evolution.  There’s really no reason to explain the circulatory system from natural selection.  Given that its basic mechanisms were discovered centuries before Darwin was even born, it is demonstrably false that we need evolution.  I bet that most high-school biology can be discussed without it.  In my case, Darwinism was no more than about 3 weeks out of the entire year.

None of this undermines the idea that we should teach evolution at some point.  That’s a fair argument, and one I may agree with.  But it’s spectacularly wrong to insist that including it in every class is the only way to teach biology.  Good pedagogy often requires obscuring underlying theories and principles.  No one I know teaches Maxwell’s Equations from particle physics.  I’ve personally had to teach Maxwell’s Equations several times, and can confidently say that doing so would be a VERY bad idea.

We really shouldn’t even discuss all this without first clarifying the purpose of science education.  You can say, for example, that science education must primarily impart practical knowledge.*  In this case we may eliminate evolution and biochemistry entirely, and instead focus on topics like health and nutrition.  But the various justifications for science education is a topic for a different post!

*See Benjamin Shen, Science literacy and the public understanding of science, Communication of Sciencetific Information, Karger, Basel 1975, pp. 44 – 52.

The impact of science outreach

I used to volunteer at a low-income school in East Palo Alto, and a friend recently asked me what “impact” my outreach had.  I’ve discussed that issue a lot over the years, and I’ve always been uncomfortable with the question.

First off, I  feel that there’s an implicit (explicit?) assumption that outreach efforts must ultimately be justified in some concrete long-term outcome.  We’re either contributing to scientific literacy, or increasing the presence of underrepresented minorities, or improving U.S. competitiveness.  I’m largely sympathetic to these goals, and especially the second.  And of course if The Science Bus were receiving some government grant, we’d have to ensure that public funds are being used appropriately.  But should a group of grad students volunteering a few hours a week be held to the same standard?

I think there’s an understandable tendency to try and find greater meaning in actions like these.   To make ourselves seem more important than we actually are.  It’s a tendency that should be avoided.  We end up conceptualizing childhood as merely a vessel that brings children to adulthood rather than a period of life important in its own right.*  It’s especially easy to fall into this trap with the poor black and Hispanic kids that I worked with.  Oh, those poor black children! We must do something to give them a better chance!

Again, I’m largely sympathetic to such sentiments.  But we shouldn’t forget that us yuppy white and Asian kids–which unfortunately describes most American scientists–often did things just because they were, well, fun.   We had no problem enjoying life in the moment without caring about the future.  We shouldn’t assume poor people are any different just because they are poor.

So what was the impact of my volunteering? Well considering that I only spent  a couple hours every week at the school, and the same kids didn’t always show up, and that they had several other after-school activities, and they usually had a dedicated science teacher…I’d guess that that my efforts probably had almost no long-term impact.  In the grand scheme of things, my work was probably drowned out by all the other factors in their lives.  I also suspect that lots of outreach is like this.

I do know, however, that for the short time we hung out every week, the kids had a lot of fun.  And that’s impact enough for me.

* I shamelessly plagiarized this phrasing from the first chapter of Project 2061.

Overreacting to creationism in Ohio

So yet again creationism is flaring up, this time in a small Ohio town.  Right now it looks like a lot of he said-she said.   Did the teacher actually burn a cross on the student’s arm, or was it just an experiment gone wrong?  Did he refuse to remove a Bible from his desk? Is there anything wrong about having a Bible on your desk?  And most importantly, was he actually teaching creationism?

I tend to have mixed feelings about this perpetual conflict.   I don’t think creationism should be in science classrooms…but I also think that people often overreact to the controversy.  This teacher appears to have an exemplary record over 20-odd years–including a couple teaching awards.  His transgressions are much milder than passing out from drinking too much in the middle of class, or some other horror stories we hear about.   Surely we can solve this situation without suing someone.  I suspect that it’s pretty hard to get top-quality science teachers in central Ohio.  Is it really necessary to react so harshly for someone for disagrees with what is no more than 3 weeks of a typical high school biology class?  Maybe it would be easier to find a substitute for those weeks.

Granted there are probably logistical, legal and regulatory impediments to this type of solution.  But even if they could be overcome, I bet most most people would oppose this solution.  There’s something about this issue that gets everyone’s blood to boil.   We’re not even interested in working out what are, in my view, pretty minor disagreements.  Everyone has some primal desire to crucify the other side.

Indefinite articles need not apply

Continuing yet again with the science and teamwork idea, it’s interesting to observe that scientists rarely use the indefinite article a when talking about science.  Science is the foundation, the basis, and the reason for any action.  It is never simply a reason.  Why not seek out other justifications for climate change policy?  Why does it have to be mainly about science?

Passing out of the triple-team

Let’s continue with the science-as-part-of-a-team meme and see how scientists neglect it to our detriment.  Consider anthropogenic global warming (AGW).  The skeptics who oppose any action to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions typically make this argument:

  1. These scientific facts show the Earth is not warming and/or humans are not the cause.
  2. Ergo, we should not waste any time trying to reduce GHGs.

This argument assumes that once we’ve proven a certain set of facts, nothing else matters.  Now in this particular case, the specific facts employed happen to be utterly and completely wrong.  Pointing out these factual errors is usually the standard response.  But in doing so climate scientists are playing on the skeptics’ turf.  They’re still assuming that we need science and nothing but science to make an argument for reducing GHGs. *

But why should action to reduce GHGs depend only on science and nothing but science?  Surely there are spiritual, ethical, economic and social reasons to drive less, use more efficient light bulbs, etc.  But that’s not how the debate will ever play out if we view science as the basis for decisions.

I hope we’re starting to see why neglecting the team mentality undermines effective policy-making.  Us scientists can be the basis or the foundation for decisions-making.  But then we shouldn’t be shocked when others distort or politicize it.  They’re doing exactly what we want them to…using science as the basis for decisions!

If instead science is simply part of a team and there are many reasons to reduce GHGs, then the skeptics’ argument loses its power.   But let’s be clear what this means.  It means that science is not necessarily privileged.  Science becomes simply a rather than the basis for decisions.   We may end up justifying climate policy on ethics and economics more than on atmospheric chemistry.   In some cases the science may be completely ignored.

This outcome shouldn’t worry us.   After all in this situation those opposing climate legislation will then have to contend with a helluva lot more than the latest IPCC report.  They’ll have to contend with religious leaders, economists, and philosophers along with scientists.  If this approach eventually helps us win the game, does it really matter if we don’t score as many points as we usually do?  Right now skeptics are triple-teaming the scientific community and we’re refusing to pass the ball! How dumb is that?

I’d really love to hear a scientist say: “You know what, who cares about the science? There are 100,000 reasons to reduce GHGs.  Science may not even be that important!”

In the end we can have our glory by being the basis for decisions or we can be effective in policy-making.  But we can’t always be both at the same time.

*Roger Pielke Jr, Dan Sarewitz and others have explored in great detail why this framing leads to ineffective policy-making.   I don’t want to repeat what they’ve said.  I’m instead trying to focus on how scientists’ worsen the situation by placing science on a pedestal and not thinking of themselves as part of a team.

(Some of) my goals for this blog…

By now I have written a handful of posts, including a brilliant, intoxicating treatise on death by terrorism.   (The fact that my argument contains not even the tiniest trace of originality does not, in my view, impugn its brilliance.)  I figure it’s a good time to sketch out some vague goals I have.  So here it goes.

I just started exploring the connection between science and team sports.  I’m going to really expand on this idea in greater detail.  In fits and starts, I will try to paint this picture:

  1. When scientists speak about science, we portray conflicting images.  On one hand, science is part of a team, does not dictate decision-making, and cannot by itself improve the human condition.  On the other, science is the foundation of any decision and is without a doubt the most important factor in any problem.
  2. Scientists really believe the latter image is correct, and most of our words reflect this belief.
  3. Scientists also want the public to agree with us.  i.e., we want everyone to also think that science is the most important thing.  So for the most part our public messaging paints this picture.
  4. Our belief in the primacy of science affects how we act in , e.g., political controversies and lobbying.
  5. When we act in political controversies, we face goals that conflict.  Specifically, our goal of placing science on a pedestal conflicts with our goal of, e.g., effective climate change policy.
  6. We almost always choose to emphasize the former, thereby somewhat undermining any other goal we may have.
  7. To accomplish our secondary goals, scientists should truly internalize the idea that we’re part of a team.  At times, this may entail demoting science. To run with the team sports analogy, everyone rides the bench at some point!

I should stress that excluding point 7, I am not necessarily advocating for a specific position.  It may or may not be a good thing for science to be placed on a pedestal.  But I believe that doing so inevitably and definitely conflicts with effective policy making.  Of course this begs the question of what I mean by “effective.”  I’ll have to define that at some point.  In short, a big goal of this blog will be to explore the idea that how scientists think about science affects how we act. And that these actions have consequences for much more than science.

Finally, I’ll say that I suspect suspect many (most?) scientists disagree with me.  They might say that we’re not really placing ourselves on a pedestal.  Or that doing so is the best way to address climate policy.  Or maybe that we really deserve to be on a pedestal!  But complete agreement would be quite boring, no?

Even more finally, the overwhelming likelihood is that nothing I write is original.  I have probably already plagiarized from 10 different scholars.  I apologize for any existing and future transgressions.

There is no science in team

In the dozens of science policy talks I’ve attended over the years (yes I know my life is interesting), I’ve noticed two very mixed messages that continually appear.  Somewhere in the introductory slides, the speaker inevitably mentions  Vannevar Bush’s seminal report “Science: The Endless Frontier.”  This sentence often comes up:
“Science can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team, whether the conditions be peace or war.”
If not this direct quote, I hear something like “science is only one input to decision-making.”  Or perhaps “science by itself does not dictate a specific policy.”

I’ll also hear quite often that “science is the foundation of decision-making.”  Sometimes linchpin or basis replaces foundation.  Both “good policy requires good science”  and “science underlies policy” are also standard.  The funny thing is that these two positions might appear in the same talk given by the same speaker.  They might even appear on two consecutive slides.

I’ve never heard anyone point out that these two positions are not entirely compatible.  What, exactly, does it mean for science to be “the foundation” of policy?  Does it mean science has to come first? Or that it’s the most important?  It’s not clear to me.  The upshot of all this is more than mere semantics, as important as that may be.   Viewing science as teamwork can lead to different actions than viewing it as foundational.

I can’t shake the feeling that us scientists simply pay lip-service to the former idea, but we really internalize the latter.  Thinking this way has, I believe, very real consequences for how we interact and communicate.  I’ll try expand more in the coming weeks.

Towards a semantics of science

My friend Tommer and I have been engaged in a year-long, cross country, international debate on the philosophy of science.   It all started in Christmas Eve 2008 during an epic frisbee golf game in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.  It continued when I moved to the East Coast, during my vacation to Jamaica, and back again in San Francisco.  On that fateful day, in between the  trash-talk and excessive beer consumption, we started discussing the falsifiability of scientific theories and the scientific method.

I realize you’re very jealous you couldn’t take part in all this fun.  To help you get over the loss, let me engage you.  Here’s how I think the whole thing played out:
Me:  The scientific method (TSM) is useless donkey shit and doesn’t tell you anything useful for public policy.  Tommer, you’re an idiot for believing otherwise.
Tommer:  Praj, you’re a complete douche.  TSM has clearly helped us understand the world better.  Without it astrology would still govern our understanding of the universe and science would be no different than punditry.

Now of course there was a little more subtlety and detail over the 30-odd emails we exchanged.  But if you look past the personal insults (about 1 every 7.34 sentences), I think our VERY SHARP disagreements came down to nothing more than semantics.  I should probably admit that I was more guilty of the personal insults than Tommer was.  In my defense, insulting him made me very happy.  But I digress.

If I finally understand everything–there’s a good chance I don’t–we simply meant different things by the word “method.”  What should have been a fairly minor issue really colored our entire interaction.  I think the standard definition of TSM is too vague to constitute as a “method.”  The expression “hypothesize, test, verify, etc.” cannot tell us whether to use a thermometer or telescope in a given problem (Tommer’s example).  I believe that a “method” should be restrictive enough to identify the proper approach.  Tommer disagrees.

Now there’s probably some middle ground…I suspect that my definition of method is too strong while Tommer’s is too weak.  Nevertheless it’s interesting how much that single word affects how we both view the utility of TSM.

The upshot of all this is I think there should be more time spent on the semantics of science.  Let’s ignore for now the definition of science.  What do we mean by “method?”  What do we mean by “the” in TSM? Is there one specific method, or many? If there are many, whey do we use “the” instead of “a?”

Some quick googling reveals this book.  Looks like a bunch of philosophical gobbledygook, but I’ll have to investigate more.

I will post more about this soon.  But now I have to go see the Pat-Ravens game.  The Ravens just went up 21-0 and the first quarter isn’t even over.  I really hope the Pats lose!