When you say you are pro-science, what do you mean you are in favor of?

In the last few weeks, with the March for Science coming up, there have been a few discussion of what being pro-science implies. I just want to ask

When you say you are pro-science, what do you mean you are in favor of?

Below, I present a few different answers.

Science as a set of empirically validated statements

Science can mean facts such as:

  • the world is steadily warming and will continue to do as CO2 concentrations go up
  • nuclear power is safe
  • vaccines are safe
  • GMOs are safe

This is the idea behind the there is no alternative to facts rhetoric. The four statements above can be quibbled with (there are some risks to some vaccines, GMO refers to a technique not a product so even calling it safe or unsafe is not the right discussion, nuclear accidents have happened, and there is a lot of uncertainty on both the amount of warming and its downstream effects), but, when understood in general terms, they are facts and those who deny them, deny reality.

When people say that science is not political, they mean that these facts are independent of one’s values. I’d add the Theory of Evolution to the above four, but evolution (like Quantum Mechanics or Relativity) is even more undeniable.

Science and technology as a positive force

The above were “value-less facts”; let’s slowly get into values.

The facts above do not have any consequences for policy or behaviour on their own. They do constrain the set of possible outcomes, but for a decision, you need a set of values on top.

It’s still perfectly consistent with the facts and claim the following: Vaccines are safe, but a person’s bodily autonomy cannot be breached in the name of utilitarianism. In the case of children, the parents’ autonomy should be paramount. This is a perfectly intellectually consistent libertarian position. As long as you are willing to accept that children will die as a consequence, then I cannot really say you are denying the scientific evidence. This may seem a shocking trade-off when said out loud but it also happens to be the de facto policy of the Western world for the 10-20 past years: vaccines are recommended, but most jurisdictions will not enforce them anymore.

Similar statements can be made about all of the above:

  • The world is getting warmer, but fossil fuels bring human beings wealth and so, are worth the price to the natural environment. The rest should be dealt with mitigation and geo-engineering. What is important is finding the lowest cost solution for people.
  • Nuclear power is safe, but storing nuclear waste destroys pristine environments and that is a cost not worth paying.
  • GMOs are safe, but messing with Nature/God’s work is immoral.

Empirical facts can provide us with the set of alternatives that are possible, but do not help us weigh alternatives against each other (note how often cost/benefit shows up in the above, but the costs are not all material costs). Still, often being pro-science is understood as being pro technological progress and, thus, anti-GMO or anti-nuclear activism is anti-science.

Science as a community and set of practices

This meaning of “being pro-Science”, science as the community of scientists, is also what leads to views such as being pro-Science means being pro-inclusive Science. Or, on the other side, bringing up Dr. Mengele.

Although it is true that empirically validated facts are shared across humanity, there are areas of knowledge that impact certain people more than others. If there is no effort to uncover the mechanisms underlying a particular disease that affect people in poorer parts of the world, then the efforts of scientists will have a differential impact in the world.

Progress in war is fueled by science as much as progress in any other area and scientists have certainly played (and continue to play) important roles in figuring out ways of killing more people faster and cheaper.

The scientific enterprise is embedded in the societies around it and has, indeed, in the past resorted to using slaves or prisoners. Even in the modern enlightened world, the scientific community has had its share of unethical behaviours, in ways both big and small.

To drive home the point: does supporting science mean supporting animal experiments? Obviously, yes, if you mean supporting the scientific enterprise as it exists. And, obviously, no, if it means supporting empirically validated statements!

The cluster of values that scientists typically share

Scientists tend to share a particular set of values (at least openly). We are pro-progress (in technological and social sense), socially liberal, cosmopolitan, and egalitarian. This is the view behind science is international and people sharing photos of their foreign colleagues on social media.

There is nothing empirically grounded of why these values would be better than others, except that they seem to be statistically more abundant in the minds of professional scientists. Some of this may really be explained by the fact that open minded people will both like science and share this type of values, but a lot of it is more arbitrary. Some of it is selection: given the fact that the career mandates travel and the English language, there is little appeal to individuals who prefer a more rooted life. Some of it is socialization (spend enough time in a community where these values are shared and you’ll start to share them). Some of it is preference falsification (in response to PC, people are afraid to come out and say what they really believe).

In any case, we must recognition that there is no objective sense in which these values are better than the alternative. Note that I do share them. If anything, their arbitrariness is often salient to me because I am even more cosmopolitan than the average scientist, so I see how the barrier between the “healthy nationalism” that is accepted and the toxic variety is a pretty arbitrary line in the sand.

What is funny too is that science is often funded exactly for the opposite reasons: It’s a prestige project for countries to show themselves superior to others, like funding the arts, or the Olympics team. (This is not the only reason to fund science, but it is certainly one of the reasons). You also hear it in Science is what made America great.

Science as an interest group

Science can be an interest group like any other: we want more subsidies & lower taxes (although there is little room for improvement there: most R&D is already tax-exempt). We want to get rid of pesky regulation, and the right to self-regulate (even though there is little evidence that self-regulation works). Science is an interest group.

Being pro-science

All these views of “What do I mean when I am pro-science?” interact and blend into each other: a lot of the resistance to things like GMOs does come from an empirically wrong view of the world and correcting this view thus assuage concerns about GMOs. Similarly, if you accept that science generally results in good things, you will be more in favor of funding it.

Sometimes, though, they diverge. The libertarian view that mixes a strong empiricism and defense of empirically validated facts with an opposition to public funding of science is a minority overall, but over-represented in certain intellectual circles.

On the other hand, I have met many people who support science as a force for progress and as an interest group, but who end up defending all sorts of pseudo-scientific nonsense and rejecting the consensus on the safety of nuclear power or GMOs. This is why I work at a major science institution whose health insurance covers homeopathy: the non-scientific staff will say they are pro-science, but will cherish their homeopathic “remedies”. I also suspect that many people declare themselves as pro-science because they see it as their side versus the religious views they disagree with, even though you can perfectly well be religious and pro-science in accepting the scientific facts.  I would never claim that Amish people are pro-progress and I hazard no guess on their views on public-science funding, but many are happy to grow GMOs as they accept the empirical fact of their safety. In that sense, they are more pro-science than your typical Brooklyn hipster.

Sometimes, these meanings of being pro-science blend into each other by motivated reasoning. So, instead of saying that vaccines are so overwhelmingly safe and that herd immunity is so important that I support mandating them (my view), I can be tempted to say “there is zero risk from vaccines” (which is not true for every vaccine, but I sure wish it were). I can be tempted to downplay the uncertainty about the harder-to-disentangle areas of economic policy and cite the empirical studies that agree with my ideology, and to call those who disagree “anti-scientific.” I might deny that values even come into play at all. We like to pretend there are no trade-offs. This is why anti-GMO groups often start by discussing intellectual property and land-use issues and end up trying to shut down high-school science biology classes.

In an ideal world, we’d reserve the opprobrium of “being anti-science” for those who deny empirical facts and well-validated theories, while discussing all the other issues as part of the traditional political debates (is it worth investing public money in science or should we invest more in education and new public housing? or lowering taxes?). In the real world, we often borrow credibility from empiricism to support other values. The risk, however, is that, what we borrow, we often have to pay back with interest.

Advertisements

Scott Sumner on what is a science

And don’t embarrass yourself by arguing macroeconomics is not a science.  Of course it’s a science.  It’s failed science, but then so are some of the other sciences, at least based on what I’ve read about the crisis in replication.  The term ‘science’ is not a compliment, it’s not some sort of award given to a field, like a Nobel Prize.  It’s simply a descriptive term for a field that builds models that try to explain how the world works.  Saying that science must be successful to be viewed as science is as silly as saying that a work of art must be good to be considered art.

Scott Sumner

Psychology is a failed science.

Repost: BLAST deserves a Nobel Prize

Given that tomorrow (Monday October 3) the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine will be announced, I am linking to my 2-year old post arguing that BLAST deserves a Nobel Prize:

In terms of impact in the field, it’s undeniable that BLAST has been huge. These people created a verb! What modern biologist does not know what “blasting a sequence” means? The BLAST paper was, at one point, the most highly cited paper in history. The impact on physiology is undeniable.

Lipman and Gene Myers stand out for their contributions to the computational processing of biological sequences. (See how I phrased that in a Nobel Committee way).

[…]

[One] counterargument I’ve heard is that BLAST is mostly a method, but so was GFP […] Does anybody believe that just the 1962 discovery of a jellyfish protein would have sufficed for a Nobel?

[…]

BLAST was definitely one of the most largest advances in the field of physiology in the last few decades. For this reason, David Lipman and Gene Myers should get a Physiology and Medicine Nobel Prize.

I also add that current favorite CRISPR is also mostly a method (the CRISPR Prize, when it comes, will be awarded for the method not the discovery of some DNA processing mechanism in a Streptococcus species.

Update on CBT-vs-Medication

Update a recent post: Should “we” prefer more expensive medications?

Today I ran across this paper, which assessed what happens if you ask people if they prefer CBT (talk therapy) or medication. The number of patients is too small for any strong conclusions, but it seems that getting the treatment of your choice has some beneficial effects, particularly for talk therapy (it has no statistically significant impact on the case on medication, but, again, the number of patients is very small).

HT @CoyneoftheRealm

The immune system as a policeman

To say that the immune system is the body’s policeman a typical metaphor and is a useful metaphor.

But you need to understand what kind of policeman it is. The immune system is like the British police in colonial India: they’ll keep the peace, but no respect for human rights: if one person in a village misbehaves, they’ll beat up the whole village and engage in some administrative massacres if necessary.

So, if you think about the immune system like the policeman, remember it’s more like these guys:

Police militarization

 

than a friendly neighbourhood cop:

[Images taken from a Washington State University news item about police militarization.]

Why I dislike the expression Darwinism

Political feuds have the ability to morph you into the caricature your opponents draw of you.

Natural selection is the means by which the human species came about, but I don’t like calling this Darwinism, for two reasons. The first one is that Darwin’s theory of natural selection had its flaws: he thought it was a continuous matter, that offspring was the average of its parents rather than a mix of indivisible genes (curiously enough, Mendel who did discover that there are discrete traits, was not a Darwinist). Secondly, most importantly, is that it does make the whole enterprise feel a bit like religion where Darwin was the prophet.

If Darwin had been struck by a tree early in his life, we’d still think that natural selection is true (in fact, we’d have found out about it at more or less the same time, as Wallace was about to scoop Darwin and forced him to rush to print his book).

This is also why I have absolutely no interest in his views on religion.

*

I was reminded of this when I recently read the allegations that Darwin plagiarized his ideas. Not from Wallace, but from some obscure Scotsman.

Patrick Matthew was a rich Scotsman who basically published the Theory of Evolution 30 years before Darwin, but nobody paid attention to him as he published in a low impact-factor journal [yeah, not really, but the 1800s equivalent of a low-impact journal: a book on Naval Timber].

Perhaps Patrick Matthew should be better known and Darwin a footnote. But because “we” have accepted the term “Darwinism” to refer to natural selection, there is more resistance to throwing Darwin out of the pedestal than there should be.

“Science’s Biggest Fail”

I completely agree with Scott Adams on this one: (many posts tagged nutrition on this blog have echoed the same sentiment)

What’s is science’s biggest fail of all time?

I nominate everything about diet and fitness.

Maybe science has the diet and fitness stuff mostly right by now. I hope so. But I thought the same thing twenty years ago and I was wrong.

[…]

Today I saw a link to an article in Mother Jones bemoaning the fact that the general public is out of step with the consensus of science on important issues. The implication is that science is right and the general public are idiots. But my take is different.

I think science has earned its lack of credibility with the public. If you kick me in the balls for 20-years, how do you expect me to close my eyes and trust you?

§

And I somewhat disagree with this response. It’s a common cop-out:

Who, exactly, does Adams think has been kicking him in the balls for 20 years?

Scientists themselves? Science teachers? Pop-science journalists? He downplays the roles of all these parties in his article[…]

The article says that the problem is pop-science journalists and the people who share their stories on Facebook & twitter.

Sorry, but no. Those parties are somewhat at fault, but so are real, bona fide tenured scientists and the scientific community.

Here is another weak argument:

How indeed? In the scientific journal papers I read, I rarely (if ever) encounter a scientist who claims anything like “this topic is now closed.”

 Of course, scientists rarely say a topic is closed, but they say things like “now that we’ve determined X, this opens new avenues of research.”

§

The overhyping of nutritional claims by scientist is bad enough that Nature wrote an editorial naming and shaming a Harvard department chair for oversimplifying the research.

Outside of nutrition, look at this egregious paper from 2013, heavily quoted in the public press: Evidence on the impact of sustained exposure to air pollution on life expectancy from China’s Huai River policy Yuyu Chena, Avraham Ebensteinb, Michael Greenstonec, and Hongbin Lie. The abstract says: the results indicate that life expectancies are about 5.5 y (95% CI: 0.8, 10.2) lower in the north owing to an increased incidence of cardiorespiratory mortality. The only hint of how weak the support of the claim is the large width of the confidence interval, but read Andrew Gellman‘s takedown to fully understand how crappy it is.

If you want something medical, this is an older link of scientists misleading journalists.