Science Says So. Sorta

This was my September column for Popular Science UK (subscribe to read current edition) and so written before the fuss over the IPCC report. I think it’s still relevant though.

“Gravity exists. The Earth is round. Climate change is happening. Science says so.” Or rather Obama’s twitter account says so. Those last three words were collected together as #ScienceSaysSo to be precise; a tag which not only passed around virtually, but soon ended up on placards.

Science itself was somewhat co-opted into a bit of political campaigning on climate change here. Because unlike the PR staff supporting the President of the United States, science rarely speaks in one voice. It’s naïve, if not disingenuous, to suggest it might.

We get nodes of agreement which will sometimes coalesce into ideas we’ve decided it is either silly or dangerous to bother to argue against. But few scientists are arrogant enough to really think they unquestionably know. There’s always disagreement and uncertainty; that’s the lifeblood of good science. This can make scientists frustrating to work with for politicians, journalists or anyone else who wants a ‘straight’ answer. But science doesn’t tend to deal in truths, but rather hypothesis which aim ever closer to a description of reality.

Indeed one of the things science (or at least a key scientific institution) says is “nullius in verba.” Latin for “Take nobody’s word for it”, this is the motto of the Royal Society, right there in a very pretty stained glass window in their HQ. They named a minor planet after it too. If we’re playing slogans, rather than #ScienceSaysSo, our most august scientific institutions would rather suggest we avoid listening to dogma.

None of this is to suggest anything goes and you shouldn’t listen to what scientists say. On the climate issue, for example, the clearest introduction I’ve seen talks very openly about different areas of where there are different amounts of uncertainty; points where they are quite confident and others where they are less so. There is, for example, very little uncertainty that climate change due to increased greenhouse gases is happening and that, in future, it is very likely to have significant impacts for human life. But there are many uncertainties when it comes to the size and details of such impacts. Combining climate modelling with knowledge of effects already observed can powerfully improve our predictions, but they are still predictions even if they are the best we have. Its fair to characterise science – in as much as we can ever talk about it as a whole – as thinking climate change is happening.

I can understand people like Obama’s PR team want to simply shout “but we just KNOW this can we all move on already?”

It’s also worth noting that in many ways the whole “nullius” thing is a bit out-dated. Because modern science is a large, team enterprise. One expert needs to rely on the knowledge of several others in order to have time to concentrate of their own little bit of the world. As Isaac Newton is often quoted as saying, his insight was only gained by “standing on the shoulders of giants.” Modern science, for all that draws on an origin myth of having a look for yourself, runs on trust.

Just as disagreement and uncertainty are the lifeblood of good science, so is believing other people and drawing on their expertise as a useful resource, because if we had to had to learn everything for ourselves we’d never get anything done. Most people who self-identify as sceptics openly admit to targeting their scepticism in some way.

The Royal Society knows this. Their website explains the motto as “an expression of the determination of Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment”. It just means claims should be testable backed up with empirical evidence.

There was an approach to science education popular briefly in the 1970s called “discovery learning”. Loosely, this was based on the idea that children should be allowed to discover nature for themselves, it’s wrong to indoctrinate them with the beliefs of the previous generation and it’s a more powerful learning experience if they can uncover it for themselves. Except, as many educational researchers pointed out, this only works in as much as one believes that scientific research is as simple as an hour spent playing around in a classroom.

Ethnographers who studied what went on in such classrooms soon saw teachers heavily orchestrating what were called “experiments” but were really nearer demonstrations; setting up particular outcomes and accommodating results which did not fit scientific censuses. Because the teachers knew years of detailed scientific study applying more rigorous techniques and equipment were more reliable than what their students were doing, they explained away anomalies.

That’s not to say young people can’t be involved in real science-in-the-making (e.g. recent papers on bees and elephants) but let’s not be naïve about how much they have to take for granted, or simply bracket off, in order to do so.

Precisely because empiricism is so powerful, we shouldn’t use it naively. To return to the climate example, earlier this year Boris Johnson implied he knew global warming wasn’t happening because, as “an empiricist”, he could see the snow with his own eyes. In response, several senior scientists calmly pointed out that they shared this interest in precisely what was going on with our weather and climate and that is why they try to apply slightly more effort, knowledge and techniques than simply looking out the window.

This is as true for us as citizens living in a modern society as it is for a working scientist, school student or London Mayor. You can’t simply re-create all the scientific and technological expertise we rely for yourselves. Or you could, but your life would be a lot less comfortable. To take the various benefits of science and technology, we have to be open to trust other people.

So, in a way, Obama’s PR team are fair to suggest we listen that #ScienceSaysSo. Science says things to itself, and the wider world, and it’s good that we can benefit from its expertise by listening.

Except trust breaks down and has to be earned. Simply reasserting respect my authoritah – Eric Cartman dressed in a labcoat – is unlikely to get you anywhere fast. It’s also, all too often, totally valid. Politicians refer quite loosely to scientific evidence all the time, and even scientific institutions are not above briefing a particular slant on an issue which concerned citizens might find useful to unpick (e.g. on fracking). The scepticism over BSE may have spilled over into framings of MMR in ways which were dangerous and arguably quite misapplied, but that doesn’t mean scepticism over what the politicians were saying on the science of BSE was a bad idea, just that we should have taken a more nuanced view on MMR. Just because scepticism can be misplaced and even deliberately exploited doesn’t mean it’s not a good thing.

It is, annoyingly, up to us to decide what scientific advice and which sceptics we find the most compelling; respecting evidence but also that it’s not, on it’s own, enough to make a decision. This is hard. But then modern life is hard.

Oh, and Mr President, the Earth isn’t round either. Science has been known to say that too. Sorry.

3 thoughts on “Science Says So. Sorta

  1. Pingback: Naming The Effort Required to Understand and Respect Scientific Authority | The Politics of Science

  2. Erik Vance

    Nicely done. This is the continuing friction between those who do science and those who tell the public about it. There needs to be a light somewhere that goes off when scientists finally reach enough consensus that the average person looking at a thing would call it “true.”

    Reply

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