Add science then stir

25251682A ubiquitous, overly-simplistic idea about science should be put to death. It is that of the public as an empty vessel that awaits filling with scientific facts. Then education will be achieved (level up!) and we can all make smart and informed decisions.

That’s utter tosh (as the British say). Nonsense.

As much as we would like to think learning is as direct as that, the public, which is made up of many people with all kinds of values, is not homogeneous and objective. We don’t just accept facts and then know stuff. Facts have to be applied. A corollary idea is that of linear science-based decision-making. That is, if we know the scientific facts about a problem, we will use that to determine what action should be taken about it. Agreed? Hardly. That’s hilariously naïve. This just does not happen for several reasons: disputed “facts”, different personal and social values, and the complexity of problems (many smaller problems inside an overarching problem) makes a linear approach about as unrealistic as a cartoon diagram of evolution showing arrows from monkeys to man.

Facts will fail

The article that provided the impetus to write this piece was by Sarewicz in 2004 [D. Sarewicz. 2004. How Science Makes Environmental Controversies Worse. Env Sci & Policy, 7: 385-403] In it, he uses an example of the history-changing Bush v Gore Presidential election of 2000. No matter what “facts” were – that is, the “official” number of votes declared – would that be the basis for general acceptance in such a close contest? I doubt it because there were disputes regarding votes for either candidate. (Remember the hanging chad?) Sarewicz can’t imagine that it would have been quickly solved (and we needed it to be) so a political/judicial decision was accepted instead.

One person’s “fact” may not be so to another. A fact may be something that you can prove true or false, but in science more information may come to light and the so-called facts may change. Sarewicz’ examples include the prediction of the Parkfield earthquake, which failed, and the groundwater movement scenario in the area of the Yucca Mountain waste storage project that had to be revised after additional data came to light. More study resulted in disputed “facts”, more uncertainty. Obviously, establishing factuality is directly contingent on how these facts were derived. Was the science that came up with the premise that autism is related to MMR vaccines good? Nope but some people accepted it as fact, in spite of it being later retracted. Some scientific results are clearly engineered to produce the answer desired. The process to get these “facts” is flawed, but unless you know how to judge the facts on each side, the public can be lead to a false sense of legitimacy, hanging their hats on certain facts that they really like and ignoring those they don’t.

Piling on “facts” is not going to provide the ultimate direction in which to move. Often, we end up with a pool of various facts from which we can pick from depending upon our personal values.

The Values Problem

What facts we use to support our opinion is heavily influenced by our values. Values direct us to the relevant facts we can use to bolster our position. Even science is a value system, one of empirical evidence, peer review, and applied skepticism. We all know people who value religion and ideology over science. I don’t know if sending Sarah Palin through a graduate program in a science field is going to change her mind about… stuff… when other things in her worldview are more important than evidence and logic.

The thorniest example I can use to illustrate that value differences can create an unsurmountable obstacle is that of abortion. No matter how many scientific facts you can establish about stages of development, when a ball of cells becomes a “person”, when the fetus is viable, when it feels pain, and what effect an unplanned pregnancy has on the mother, there will never be a point where the anti-abortion person will change their mind. Their view is not based at all on scientific facts. The problem can not be solved by science. Pro-rights advocates also don’t really base their view on science either but will use facts as they can to bolster their position that abortion is not equivalent to murder.

Several textbook example of value-laden but scientific-based problems can be found in environmental issues – climate change being the most obvious. At first, there was the science controversy stoked by mostly non-scientists with other values. Remember, preferring the scientific process is a value. Sen. Inhofe didn’t consider that too valuable. The entire Bush administration didn’t care too much for environmental science either. Their values heavily leaned towards domestic economic conditions and religious doctrine. The climate issue is terribly complex – innumerable specific problems all rolled up into one gigantic sticky wicket, which makes moving to do sone thing about it nearly incomprehensible. The facts tended to reduce uncertainty about the reality of the changing climate but the facts did not help so much in figuring what actions we should take and how to take them. The climate problem is global and has more invested parties than we can count. What should be done? “Should” is the key word that reveals this is a values problem.

Too many cooks

stirIt would be really great if the recipe for certainty could be as streamlined as:

  • Add generous amounts of science,
  • Blend until facts emerge,
  • Bake until a course of action comes out clear,
  • Serve.

Instead, we have various institutions, players, and scientific disciplines involved in the final product. Each has their own sets of value priorities to insert. Of course there are those who don’t value the future as much as the present, or those that value the scientific process opposed to those that don’t. Even different scientific disciplines will provide a unique view via their own lens. Each is slightly different in terms of processes and data used. The focus and goals for each is unique. None is necessarily less legitimate than the other, but the interpretation will be their own. (Consider climate change from the view of agricultural science, fisheries science, forestry, wildlife ecology, entomology, ornithology, epidemiology, meteorology… on and on).

Cause and effect is likely interconnected with other factors making explanations and conclusion particular to the angle you view it from – scientific, economic, social, or some particular niche interest. There is typically far more than two sides to every story; not just one answer but a preferred answer for each party. Because that happens, you employ politics to decide which route is the one taken. (Or no route taken when no resolution is forthcoming until the politics gets sorted out.)

So we end up with a melange of facts filtered through values from various parties each with a particular agenda. More science does not mean that the uncertainty and path forward will become clear. There is no one answer fits all. More science will often create all new suites of issues to argue about.

So, what can be done? Lovbrand and Oberg issued as response to Sarewicz [E. Lovbrand, G. Oberg. 2005. Comment on ‘‘How science makes environmental controversies worse’’ by Daniel Sarewitz, Environmental Science and Policy, 7, 385–403 and ‘‘When Scientists politicise science: making sense of the controversy over The Skeptical Environmentalist’’ by Roger A. Pielke Jr. Environmental Science and Policy, 7, 405–417. Env Sci & Policy, 8: 195–197] pointing out that “…it is necessary to instigate a reflexive and philosophically informed discussion about the situated and provisional nature of scientific advice in environmental policy-making among scientists themselves and those making use of scientific results.” OK, then. So not only do we have to deal with the truth in facts and our disparate values but we have to be deliberately philosophical about the limited use of science information. It sounds like a means to diminish the role of science. I don’t wish to do that but instead point out that assorted value judgements exist and need to be transparent and dealt with, not ignored. Lovbrand and Oberg make several useful points about recognizing shortfalls of science but state that it is “politically entrenched” instead of politicized. That point is up for debate… someplace else.

In a large, pluralistic society like ours, politics are necessary. Contrary to several science cheerleaders, science can’t be the decider. It can inform decisions, it can’t be the sole arbiter. It provides some typically reliable facts (at least the most reliable ones at the time). But in the ideal scenario, the public majority would be able to think critically about the issue, consider the scientific facts, acknowledge the uncertainty, and recognize the differing values, accommodating them to the greatest degree as part of a compromise. Yeah, right. Well, at least politicians should do that… Ok, I’ll stop now. This is depressing. See you in Utopia.

Meanwhile, let’s stop pretending that complex decisions can be boiled down to “just the facts” and simple actions. The world is a complicated place with many parties having a stake in the outcome and with related consequences that would follow. “Facts,” simple or not, are necessary but may not pave the path for the difficult process of dealing with value judgements.


2 thoughts on “Add science then stir

  1. Great post, Sharon.

    What resonates with me is how our education system in the US is modeled around the “fact” system. There are certain facts you are expected to learn while very little effort is spent on teaching or verifying critical thinking skills.

    Facts can be learned at any stage in life, but it you don’t acquire critical thinking skills before leaving school, the chances of gaining them later in life drop precipitously.

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