by Judith Curry
This book offers an uncomfortable but vital diagnosis of the trouble with science. – Jack Stilgoe
My post The Republic of Science has spawned some interesting reflections. I have an interview on this topic with the Corbett Report [link]. Most interestingly, two WaPo articles feature an interview with Charles Koch, who has been heavily influenced by Polanyi’s Republic of Science:
- Inside Charles Koch’s $200 million quest for a “Republic of Science”
- What Charles Koch really things about climate science
Regular readers of this blog are no strangers to the problems with institutional science in the 21st century. Apart from sloppy methods and bad incentives, we are seeing a crisis in reproducibility, collapsing peer review, dysfunctional interface between science and policy, the hubris of techno-science, etc. Some recent examples discussed previously at CE:
- Flint water crisis: profiles in courage
- The adversarial method versus Feynman integrity
- Scientific integrity versus ideologically fueled research
- Ethics of climate expertise
- Partisanship and silencing science
There are three recent articles in the Guardian that are very relevant and worth reading:
- Scientists aren’t gods. They deserve the same scrutiny as everyone else.
- Jerome Ravetz How should we treat science’s growing pains?
- To confront 21st century challenges, science must rethink its reward system
See also this essay published in Nature:
When James Corbett asked what can we do to address these problems, I mentioned a new book Science on the Verge, which provides the motivation for this post.
Science on the Verge
The Rightful Place of Science: Science on the Verge is a collected volume with essays by the following individuals: Alice Benessia, Silvio Funtowicz, Mario Giampietro, Angela Guimaraes Pereira, Jerome Ravetz, Andrea Salelli, Roger Strand, and Jeroen van der Sluijs, Dan Sarewitz.
The book can be purchased at amazon.com (price for kindle is $4.99).
Andrea Saltelli has provided a good website for the book:
About the authors. Most of the authors are associated with the ideas of ‘post normal science’, and I have met or interacted electronically with most of the authors. Every time I mention the words ‘postnormal science’ on this blog, a reliable number of people wig out, and say ‘but Popper’. Get over it. Post normal science refers to science at the policy interface, it has nothing to say about sciences such as pure physics. Previous CE posts on postnormal science include:
Praise from the jacket blurb, excerpts:
This book is about complex issues in science and governance relationships that need clarification. It is a fundamental contribution that should interest scientists, policy makers, practitioners and theoreticians involved in evidence-based decision making. In particular, it deals with the interface between research and policymaking, investigating some important areas where more research and discussions are needed. The book poses key questions and provides some answers. As such, the book is relevant to researchers and policy makers alike. – Professor Ron S. Kennet University of Turin (Italy) Founder & CEO, the KPA Group (Israel)
It is too easy when we talk about science to get nostalgic, to imagine a republic of independent, moral agents working for what Francis Bacon called ‘the relief of man’s estate’. We need books like this to remind us that 21st century technoscience is big business. The litany of controversies, corporate distortions, ethical missteps, retractions, impact factors, league tables and other vices is lengthening. As economies become ‘knowledge economies’ and governments discover new forms of technocracy, we mustn’t pretend that ‘pure’ science is not politicised and marketised. This book offers an uncomfortable but vital diagnosis of the trouble with science. – Professor Jack Stilgoe, Senior Lecturer University College London
From the Foreword by Dan Sarewitz:
And what of the world portrayed in Science on the Verge? In this book you will read about a scientific enterprise that is growing in productivity and influence even though the majority of publications in many scientific fields may be wrong. You’ll see how scientists reduce complex, unpredictable problems to much simpler, manageable models by leaving out important factors, which allows the scientists to come up with neat solutions—often to the wrong problems. You’ll learn how doing this sort of science often makes our knowledge of the world more uncertain and unpredictable, not less, and how instead of leading to ‘evidence-based policy’ we end up with ‘policy-based evidence.’ You’ll find out why precise quantitative estimates of some of the im- pacts of climate change are so uncertain as to be meaningless. (How, for example, can we quantify to a tenth of a percent the proportion of species that will go extinct from climate change if we don’t even know the number of species that exist now?) And you’ll find out how economic analyses based on flawed computer coding served the interests of both economists and policy makers—and as a result caused long-term damage to national economies. You’ll discover how, in a human world that is growing ever more complex, our approaches to governing science and technology are turning decisions and action over to computer algorithms and technological systems. We transfer our agency to machines in the name of efficiency and predictability, but the entirely paradoxical consequence is that the human capacity to adapt to uncertainty and unpredictability may actually be diminishing.
If we have come less far than we might wish from Swift’s view of science and politics, the authors of Science on the Verge lay out the regimen necessary for avoiding nervous breakdown. Above all is the importance of recognizing that (as you’ll read in Chapter 1) “the problems in science will not be fixed by better training in statistics, better alignment of incentives with objectives, better regulation of copyright” and so on. The scientific community continues to understand itself as a self- correcting, autonomous enterprise, but the knowledge it creates is no longer containable within laboratories, technical publications and patents. It has now become central to many political debates, and can be wielded by everyday citizens during activities as mundane as visiting a doctor, buying food or arguing with one’s neighbour. Scientists can no longer maintain authority by insisting that they should be left alone to fix their problems. Recall what happened when the Catholic Church tried this approach after Gutenberg had loosened its hold on truth.
Many modern institutions and practices have been designed in the expectation that science was a truth-telling machine that could help overcome fundamental conditions of uncertainty and disagreement. The painful lesson of recent decades, however, is that real science will never construct a single, coherent, shared picture of the complex challenges of our world—and that the quest to do so instead promotes corruption of the scientific enterprise, and uncertainty and suspicion among decision makers and engaged citizens (exemplified in debates over GMOs or nuclear energy). At its best, however, science can provide a multiplicity of insights that may help democratic societies explore options for navigating the challenges that they face. Put somewhat differently, Science on the Verge explains to us why science’s gifts must be under- stood as actually emerging from science’s limits—much as grace is born from human fallibility.
Foreword – Daniel Sarewitz
Chapter 1: Who Will Solve the Crisis in Science? – Andrea Saltelli, Jerome Ravetz and Silvio Funtowicz. Who will solve the crisis in science? Is there a crisis? What is being done ‘from within’? Is this sufficient? What are the diagnoses for the crisis’ root causes, and what are the solutions ‘from without’?
Chapter 2: The Fallacy of Evidence-Based Policy – Andrea Saltelli and Mario Giampietro. Quantification as hypocognition; socially constructed ignorance & uncomfortable knowledge; ancien régime syndrome; quantitative story telling.
Chapter 3: Never Late, Never Lost, Never Unprepared – Alice Benessia and Silvio Funtowicz. Trajectories of innovation and modes of demarcation of science from society: ‘separation’, ‘hybridization’ and ‘substitution’; what contradictions these trajectories generate.
Chapter 4: Institutions on the Verge: Working at the Science-Policy Interface – Ângela Guimarães Pereira and Andrea Saltelli. The special case of the European Commission’s in house science service; the Joint Research Centre as a boundary institutions; diagnosis, challenges and perspectives.
Chapter 5: Numbers Running Wild – Jeroen P. van der Sluijs. Uses and abuses of quantification and the loss of ‘craft skills’ with numbers; e.g. 7.9% of all species shall become extinct from human-caused climate change.
Chapter 6: Doubt has been Eliminated – Roger Strand. Gro Harlem Brundtland’s famous 2007 speech, after the Fourth IPCC report and the Stern review; when science becomes a ‘life philosophy’; science as the metaphysics of modernity; the Norwegian Research Ethics Committee for Science and Technology inquiry.
Andrea Saltelli also has a .ppt presentation Science on the Verge, with a wealth of material.
In the book, there is substantial material on climate change, with climate change providing the basis for the topics of Chapters 5 and 6.
This book is a very rich resource for grappling with the the problems with science in the 21st century – the articles themselves, as well as the extensive references. I expect to be using this book as a resource for a number future blog posts. This book deserves a wide audience, and I hope this blog post will help increase its reach.
Some comments that Andrea Saltelli sent to me via email regarding the topics raised by the book:
Ethics in relation to the crisis of science is mostly dealt with in relation with fraud, which concerns us marginally here. Most of the existing analyses stay clear of diagnoses beyond the trite ‘sloppy methods’ and ‘bad incentives’ (not that these are missing of course!) – nor all capture all different threads of the crisis (lost reproducibility, collapsing peer review, perverse metrics, evidence based policy’s dysfunctions, techno-science and his hubris, science as metaphysics …).
The book instead tackle all of this head on and goes on to deeper level of analysis by asking the ‘how this came about’ question. The question posed by the book are very serious and difficult to answer.
Science is now clearly in a lock in situation which it has created itself. Most of the honest attempts to a solution will bump against a wall and the wall was built by the scientists themselves (see also the ‘Elephant’ piece of Colin Macilwain).
The implication is that change won’t come via technical fixes alone. Changing the system of incentives has implications which are both ethical and budgetary. It won’t come cheap, so maybe the market won’t be the best instrument to allocate resources.
As the problems have been created from within the house of science maybe help should also come from without, in the former of closer scrutiny and involvement of institutions and civil society. Perhaps concerned institutions should devote some thought about how to set in motion a process of reformation.