by Judith Curry
Science is the most powerful tool we have for understanding the natural world. Its power stems from the very nuance that forceful slogans typically gloss over. But with this power comes great liability: the potential to be wrong. – Tania Lombrozo
Tania Lombrozo has a very interesting article at cosmos & culture entitled Should scientists promote results over process? Some excerpts:
Consider: two scientists are asked whether there’s any doubt that humans are responsible for climate change. The first says, “It’s a fact humans are causing climate change – there’s no room for doubt.” The second replies, “The evidence for anthropogenic climate change is overwhelming, but in science there’s always room for doubt.”
The first scientist is probably a more effective spokesperson for the scientific consensus. But the second scientist is providing a more accurate representation of how science works.
This example defines the tension at the boundary between the realms of science and public opinion.
Science is the most powerful tool we have for understanding the natural world. Its power stems from the very nuance that forceful slogans typically gloss over. But with this power comes great liability: the potential to be wrong.
If this potential – and the uncertainty it entails – is a symptom of the very feature that makes science so reliable, then acknowledging uncertainty shouldn’t undermine belief in scientific claims. If anything, it should have the opposite effect: modeling science should effectively defend science.
In a 2008 paper, Anna Thanukos, Michael Weisberg and I found evidence that this may be so: undergraduate students who understood that scientific theories are subject to ongoing testing and revision were more likely, not less likely, to accept evolution.
If you don’t need to be a scientist for firm scientific beliefs to merrily coexist with scientific uncertainty, why the pressure to present science in overly-confident sound bites?
First, contemporary political discourse seems to equate an acknowledgment of the potential to be wrong with a lack of conviction.
Second, some baseline understanding of science may be necessary for scientific uncertainty to corroborate rather than corrode belief in scientific claims.
In a 2012 paper, Anna Rabinovich and Thomas Morton found that people who saw science as an ongoing debate were more motivated to adopt environmentally-conscious behavior when messages about climate change acknowledged the existence of scientific uncertainty. For participants who saw uncertainty as “a sign of imperfect knowledge,” messages that conveyed greater uncertainty were (nonsignificantly) less likely to motivate environmentally-conscious behavior.
Overstating confidence in scientific claims may similarly miss a long-term benefit for a short-term advantage: rhetorical oomph comes at the cost of an opportunity to educate people about how science works and why the products of science are our most reliable guides to the natural world.
Jean Goodwin is back blogging at Between Scientists & Citizens. She has a related article entitled Three little words so hard to say (I don’t know). Excerpts:
A scientist is making a presentation to a public (non-specialist) audience. She’s asked a question relevant in a general way to her topic, but outside of her immediate research area. She remembers reading something about it, but isn’t quite sure of the answer. What should she say?
When she addresses such a public audience, the scientist in some sense represents Science. Her audience may not have other scientists on call, so if she fails to answer, they’re going to be left with whatever knowledge they had before. There’s also a question of how admitting ignorance is going to affect the scientist’s own credibility. What would it sound like to duck a question–especially if she has to duck virtually every question she’s asked?
On the other hand, it’s only candid for the scientist to admit the limits of her knowledge. Saying something that turns out to be wrong will do far more damage to her credibility than will admitting ignorance. And she’s not likely to be effective anyways, since one of the basic precepts of critical thinking is not to trust experts speaking outside the expertise.
So here’s the question: what should she say next?
And here is what Richard Feynman has to say, clearly coming down on the side of process over results:
When someone says, “Science teaches such and such,” he is using the word incorrectly. Science doesn’t teach anything; experience teaches it. If they say to you, “Science has shown such and such,” you might ask, “How does science show it? How did the scientists find out? How? What? Where?”
It should not be “science has shown” but “this experiment, this effect, has shown.” And you have as much right as anyone else, upon hearing about the experiments–but be patient and listen to all the evidence–to judge whether a sensible conclusion has been arrived at.
In a field which is so complicated [as education] that true science is not yet able to get anywhere, we have to rely on a kind of old-fashioned wisdom, a kind of definite straightforwardness. I am trying to inspire the teacher at the bottom to have some hope and some self-confidence in common sense and natural intelligence. The experts who are leading you may be wrong.
I have probably ruined the system, and the students that are coming into Caltech no longer will be any good. I think we live in an unscientific age in which almost all the buffeting of communications and television–words, books, and so on–are unscientific. As a result, there is a considerable amount of intellectual tyranny in the name of science.
Finally, with regard to this time-binding, a man cannot live beyond the grave. Each generation that discovers something from its experience must pass that on, but it must pass that on with a delicate balance of respect and disrespect, so that the [human] race–now that it is aware of the disease to which it is liable–does not inflict its errors too rigidly on its youth, but it does pass on the accumulated wisdom, plus the wisdom that it may not be wisdom.
It is necessary to teach both to accept and to reject the past with a kind of balance that takes considerable skill. Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers of the preceding generation.
JC comments: The results or process debate aligns with the debate on the consensual view of science versus the dissension view (e.g. No consensus on consensus). Emphasizing the ‘facts’ versus the uncertainties is at the heart of the debates that Gavin Schmidt and I had in the blogosphere (mostly before I started Climate Etc.). An interesting sociological study would be to survey climate scientists on their affinity for the consensus or dissension approach to science, and their preference for the results or process approach to communicating science. And at the same time, survey their political leanings and personality type. JC’s survey results:
- Dissension view of science
- Process approach to communication
- Politically independent