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!

All deaths are not equal

Right before New Year’s Eve, Andrew Sullivan’s blog saw some chatter about the tradeoffs between dying in a terrorist attack versus a car accident.  Apparently 113 Boeing 777’s must be exploded before terrorism can kill as many people as car accidents.  Yet people don’t scream for protection from their Buicks!  Bill Maher makes a similar argument in this entertaining video.

And why not?  A death is a death is a death….right? If our goal is overall safety, then surely the public should clamor for safer roads as much as they do for airports…right? Well, not quite.  As much as I agree that we spend too much on terrorism, both Sullivan and Bill Maher gloss over the important fact that deaths cannot always be treated equally.

Social science research has shown quite conclusively that these calculations inevitably involve a subjective value judgment on how to treat human life.  To quote Paul Slovic’s excellent paper:  “Simply counting fatalities treats the deaths of the old and young as equivalent; it also treats as equivalent deaths that come from immediately after mishaps  and deaths that follow painful and debilitating disease…”

Slovic continues to explain that distributional impacts (affecting black rather than white, poor rather than rich) and degree of control also affect risk perceptions.  People may be more forgiving if they knowingly engage in a risky activity as opposed to one where they are guaranteed safety.  We would, I hope, be very upset if a chemical plant discharge solely affects a community of poor, uneducated blacks even if only a couple dozen people died every year.   Calibrating our response to nothing more than total deaths elides these subtleties.

Along these lines, it doesn’t seem that unreasonable for people to demand strong government action on terrorism rather than automobile safety.  Perhaps they accept a certain risk of driving a car but don’t do so when flying a plane.  Perhaps they think getting blown up is somehow worse than a car crash.  Or perhaps they think we have done all we can to improve car safety but haven’t done nearly enough in other areas.  Again…accounting just for total deaths misses all this.

Maher et al. are of course free to say that we should treat car crashes and exploding planes equally.  They’re entitled to that belief.  But it represents their own subjective preference rather than a uniquely rational calculation.   Scientists’ acting otherwise is a main reason the public often sharply disagree with risk assessments.  Pretending our risk models are wholly rational also contributes to poor communication and mutual distrust.

None of this undermines the idea that we overemphasize the threat from terrorism.  I largely agree the sentiment.  But those arguments shouldn’t rest on a faulty analysis that simply sums total deaths in various activities.  While all lives should be treated equally, all deaths should not.

UPDATE: I meant to add this reference the first time.  Email me if you want a PDF copy.
Paul Slovic, The risk game, Journal of Hazardous Materials, 86 (2001), 17 – 24

I’m (sort of) back…

Hello world.  One of my New Years Resolutions (which I generally take very seriously) was to start blogging and writing more.  Creating this site was the first step, and replaces my dying personal blog at  Here I’ll mostly post on science, policy and politics.  In the off chance that anyone reads my posts, comments will be appreciated.