A mild defense of Chris Mooney’s war on science

David Bruggeman recently attacked Chris Mooney yet again for promoting the war on science meme:  the concept is meaningless, incoherent, oversimplified, etc.  Dan Sarewitz echoed many these arguments in his review of Mooney’s book.

I also found Chris Mooney’s thesis irritating and sloppy.  His constant, unadulterated worship of science gets old very quickly.  But it’s important to acknowledge that Mooney has a point.  George W. Bush’s administration did politicize science a lot more than his predecessors.   Since my placement at the EPA started in September, I can’t count how many times I’ve heard complaints about Bush’s interference.   Despite some over-generalizations, Mooney collected a troubling body of evidence.

Complaining only about the former problem implies that abstract concerns–how dare Mooney not discuss social construction!–matter more than real world impact.  Can we honestly say that distorting EPA reports is no worse than believing in value-free science?  Ironically enough, this attitude makes us STS-sympathizers just like those academic scientists we routinely berate.

So yes, everyone does misuse science for their own ends.  And yes, Mooney annoyingly promotes a false purity of science.  In the end Bush’s actions were different only in degree, not kind, from previous administrations.  Agreeing with all this, however, is perfectly compatible with condemning his egregious politicization.  It’s possible to be upset at the exaggerations and distortions of both Chris Mooney and George Bush.  Bruggeman’s and Sarewitz’s worthy attempts to bring nuance to policy debates unfortunately spends too much time on the former and not enough on the latter.

Caveats on cost-benefit analysis

My recent post on science and race should have had some caveats on the utility of cost-benefit analysis (CBA).  I’ll be the first to admit that it can be abused and has its limits, especially with respect to environmental policy.   Although I haven’t actually read the book, Frank Ackerman and Lisa Heinzerling make that point in Priceless.

Nevertheless, I think that on some level we have to use CBA.  In the end it is a useful tool, and I mostly agree with Sunstein’s critique of Ackerman and Heinzerling.  Yes I know it’s unfair to read the criticism and not the original work.  Sue me.

So whatever caveats we attach to CBA, my larger thesis is unchanged: CBA plus values*, not science, should be used to analyze social policy like government funded pre-school.  And it goes without saying that when I say “my” thesis, I really mean Nobel-prize winning James Heckman’s thesis.  But I’ve already admitted that most of my work isn’t original.

*I think the “plus values” part is important because you can make all sorts of principled, theoretical arguments for or against these types of policies.  Go read some Nozik or Mansfield for the anti-view, and Rawls or Galston for the pro-view.

fyi, I list all these philosophers to impress my non-existent readers with my erudition.  I also like to believe my (imaginary) readers don’t even know what that word means and are looking it up right now.  For what it’s worth, I’ve actually read two of Galston’s books.  My fictitious readers are now even more impressed, and even more so by the creative ways I complain about my lack of readership. 13 page views over 10 days isn’t bad…right?

The vocabulary of public discourse

My last post discusses the possible harm of automatically placing science at the forefront of decision-making.  In some cases it’s simply not true that a scientific lens is the best way to analyze a problem.  It seems that we’re begging for a public vocabulary that lets us meaningfully discuss science.  We need  a way to accept the importance of facts without allowing them to stifle debate.  See for all my problems with the current discourse, I’m also sympathetic to scientists who promote it.  People shouldn’t be able to ignore facts they don’t like. It’s not okay to cherry pick data you happen to agree with.  It does matter that all the relevant experts agree with evolution and anthropogenic global warming.

The solution to this dilemma, however, is not to insist that science is the foundation of policy.  As I also discussed in my last post, doing so is scientifically inaccurate.  Engaging in this rhetoric makes us, for lack of a better phrase, somewhat hypocritical.  How can we speak about the importance of  evidence while ignoring the scientific fact that science is only sometimes the foundation of policy?

We need an intellectual framework which articulates there are instances when science is crucially important, instances when it is somewhat important, and instances when it is relatively unimportant.  Some decisions heavily rely on science while others do not.  Certain disputes are better resolved with politics rather than science and vice versa.

I’d guess that this message will not fly with many scientists.  There’s too much nuance there.  It doesn’t quite fit our science is God and you’re either with-us-or-against-us rhetoric.  My admittedly naive view is that with respect to public communication, science should be neither deified nor demonized.  We should instead strive to highlight that it has its uses and can sometimes be very helpful.

To that end, I’ll suggest yet again that science in decision-making should be thought of as team sports.  How about the image of science as a key but not superstar running back?  The opponent and game plan dictates how much we play.  Sometimes winning the game means handing us the ball 20 times a game.  Sometimes we have to sit on the bench.  How do you know when to stress the running game? By watching game film!

This image, I believe, is the most accurate one we can paint.  Before jumping to any conclusions about the role of science, we must first carefully study the situation.  Then and only then can we say whether science is the foundation or a cosmetic fixture.  Whether we’re the MVP or 6th man of the year.  But these analogies are now getting tedious and I think you get the point.

Do scientists unintentionally screw over black people?

Part of the controversy over The Bell Curve and James Watson was the idea it must mean something if there were a genetic basis for the black-white IQ gap.  We couldn’t just ignore this fact like we do much of science.  Surely a putative link between race, genes and IQ has more significance than, say, the existence of the radiation belts.  (Sorry, I had to toss in some space physics!)  Herrnstein, Murray and Watson themselves used these alleged facts as the basis for social policy recommendations.

The main problem with this analysis is that it’s, well, wrong.  As James Heckman persuasively showed in a dense article in Reason, social policy is ultimately decided on cost-benefit analysis:

It is striking that the authors do not discuss the costs and benefits of various interventions. It is in these terms that public policy discussions regarding skill-enhancement programs are usually conducted. The authors seek to short-circuit all of the hard work required to make credible cost-benefit calculations by claiming that there is a genetic basis for skill differences. 

But estimates of a genetic component of skills are irrelevant to the requisite cost-benefit analysis unless it can be established that all differences are genetic. No one, including the authors, claims that this is so.  [Emphasis added–PK]

So even if we scientifically proved that some portion of the IQ gap can be attributed to genetics, those facts would not help us decide whether the government should fund pre-school.  What does help are data showing a 7:1 return on investment and principled reasons on, e.g., the role of government.  But however you make the case, genetics really has no role.  At least in this case, science narrowly defined is most definitely not the basis of policy.

None of this negates the idea that we should try to dispel the sloppy science.  It is important to explain what is and isn’t known about race and IQ.  It is important to explain that science may never be able to determine the link (read towards the end of Metcalf).  But it is also important to explain that in this case we can better understand the controversy by ignoring the science.

As I’ve argued before, scientists often place science at the center of decision-making.  The pattern holds up here.  Herrnstein et al. argued that the science of race and IQ implies early childhood education is a waste of time, while others disputed those narrow claims.  But it’s crucial to note that scientists did not stress that the issue is not about science and framing it as such is is wrong.  Not wrong in an ethical or moral sense.  And not wrong in the sense that people shouldn’t exaggerate their importance.  It’s wrong for purely empirical reasons:  some policies are not decided on the basis of science.

Which finally brings me to the title of this blog post.  Since science is in fact irrelevant to some decisions, are there negative consequences for pretending otherwise? Did scientists inadvertently foster negative racial attitudes by opposing The Bell Curve without also pointing out its irrelevance for social policy?  I admit that I’m making a very convoluted argument.  But bear with me while I try flesh it out.

There are four key points.  First, this dispute centered on the science of genetics.  Second, this approach is empirically false.  The argument should have been about cost-benefit and government’s role in society.   Third (and for the umpteenth time!), scientists’ sole response to Herrnstein, Murray and Watson was to attack the scientific basis of their arguments.   We made it sound like Herrnstein et al. would have a point if only their science were correct.  Fourth, given how technical the issue is, it’s inevitable that some people were not convinced by our rebuttals.

These facts lead me to believe that the inappropriate public framing decreased support for redistributive social policy.  That is, some people who initially things like supported universal child care changed their opinion precisely because of the prominence given to Bell Curve type arguments. I’m not sure how to test this idea.  But if I’m even partially correct, it appears that how we frame science might have reduced enthusiasm for policies that most help poor black and Hispanic Americans.  In short, how we speak about science may unintentionally screw over poor black people.

Finally, there’s a very good chance this very long post that will be read by no one.  Nevertheless, I’d be interested in what my (non-existent) readers think.  There’s a non-trivial chance I’m spectacularly wrong and it’d be great to hear why and how.

Science and race

I’m sick of writing about creationism and intelligent-design.  So I’m going to switch to another favorite topic of mine: black people.   To be more precise, I’ve always been fascinated by race relations in America.  For better and for worse, in America this issue is mostly framed in terms of white and black people.  And since I’m also fascinated by science, what I meant to say is henceforth the bulk of my literary endeavors will focus on the myriad intersections of science and race in the American social order.  Whew!  It’s funny how precision can make your writing wordier and less entertaining.  I’ll make sure to avoid it in the future.

A question of evidence

This is my last post on intelligent design (ID) for a while.  But I want to examine the evidentiary claims surrounding the debate.  I’m not talking about the evidence for or against evolution.  It’s clear that the science overwhelmingly supports the theory.

Consider typical arguments against ID:  Teaching ID risks future generations of scientists; students who learn the theory will be unprepared to wrestle with science-related public policy; economic growth will be harmed if citizens have poor scientific literacy.  There are at least four statements here amenable to empirical testing:

  1. If students learn ID, then their scientific literacy (SL) will be harmed.
  2. If SL is harmed at any point in students’ education, then they will be less capable of becoming scientists.
  3. If SL is harmed, then citizens will be unable to reflect on public policy.
  4. If SL is harmed, then economic growth in an increasingly technological society will be affected.

You can phrase this differently or even make additional claims.  But I think I’ve accurately summarized how scientists usually argue against ID.

For the sake of argument, I’ll grant that number 3 is self-evidently true [1].  Poor scientific literacy negatively affects deliberation on science issues, thereby undermining democratic governance on some level.  But the remaining claims are not so obvious.  It’s not at all clear that learning ID will affect overall levels of scientific literacy.  It’s especially unclear how public SL relates to economic growth.  And as I discussed previously, many scientists believe in ID.

In proper scientific fashion let me offer some testable predictions and a way to test said predictions.  I predict that learning ID only affects SL with respect to the theory of evolution [2].  In all other areas of science, learning ID has no impact.  I also predict that in college ID-learning students study natural science and engineering at the statistically same rate as non-ID students.  As a test, I propose studying children who were home-schooled for religious reasons.  Of course, we’d have to try control for household income and wealth, parents’ level of education, etc.  It wouldn’t be easy, but social scientists do these types of studies all the time.  Finally, I predict that mainstream scientists (including me!) would still oppose ID regardless of any data.

Despite my constant harping on this matter, it’s our tone and attitude I dislike, not the existence of our opposition.  I do think it’s important for scientists to draw boundaries [3].  We almost have an obligation to exclude ID from the realm of science.  But disagreement, however fierce, should not corrode public discourse with threats and sloppy arguments.  It’s important to note that we effectively bully people who support ID:  your children’s future will be ruined if they learn intelligent design!  In addition to being distasteful, this threat isn’t even very believable.  We not only act like jerks, we act like jerks that make bad arguments.  The fact that scientists make these unsubstantiated claims is even worse.

[1] This claim isn’t as straightforward as it appears.  Social scientists have shown that even those who appear to be scientifically illiterate can be surprisingly reflective and engaged in some settings.  See, for example, Wolff-Michael Roth and Stuart Lee, Scientific literacy as collective praxis, Public Understanding of Science, 11, 2002, pp. 33-56.
[2] Of course I’d have to define what I mean by scientific literacy.  Considering that no one has ever been able to do that, I’m going to cheat by ignoring that problem.  See George Deboer, Scientific literacy: another look at its historical and contemporary meanings and its relationship to science education reform, Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 36 (2), 2000, pp. 582-601.
[3] Check out Thomas Gieryn, Boundary-work and the demarcation of science from non-science, American Sociological Review, 48, December 1983, pp. 781– 795.

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.