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Friday, April 14, 2017

Why Don't All Americans Trust Science?

The end of a robin's life -- why?

What Is Science?

The scare quotes around “science” are intentional, because – think about it – it’s such a vague term, isn’t it? What’s behind it, or, to use a different image, under its umbrella? I thought I’d start by doing a search for “what is science” and see what popped up, and this is the first site my search yielded: “Understanding How Science Really Works.”

The first screen begins with a broad statement: “Science is both a body of knowledge and a process.” Okay, good beginning. Facts and a way of gathering them? The site goes on to say that science is “exciting,” “useful,” “ongoing,” and “a global human endeavor,” but we could say that about many human activities, couldn’t we? We have to click to get to other screens and more specific answers to the original question. Pursuing the question, then, we are told that scientists seek explanations of phenomena in the natural world by means of observation, analysis of evidence, and the testing of hypotheses.

I appreciate the way this site lays out the limits of science, acknowledging that science cannot make moral or aesthetic judgments, cannot deal with the “supernatural” (not a big concern of mine), nor can it tell human beings how scientific knowledge should be used. The first and third limitations are ones I take very seriously. As philosophers say, “’Should’ implies ‘can,’ but ‘can’ does not imply ‘should.’” I.e., we are not obligated beyond what is possible for us; at the same time, a possible course of action isn’t necessarily one that’s good for us to follow. And while we may look to science for certain relevant facts, we can’t turn to it for decisions about how we should live.

For a shorter definition of science, look hereWhat do you think of the definition? Did you read what is included under “methodology”? I’ll come back to this shortly, but first there is the question of public fear and mistrust of science.

So What’s the Problem?

Is it only ignorance and superstition that explain so many people these days backing away from science like nervous, trailer-shy horses? Many scientific issues are so complex, it’s true, that only the most advanced practitioners in their very narrow fields even understand the questions posed. I once worked in an office that had a “Science for Citizens” program among its many projects, but there is a limit to how far such a program can go.

Does human irrationality come into the picture? Doubtless, on some issues it does. Give me statistics until the cows come home about how much safer I am in an airplane than in a car, and I’ll continue to approach commercial flight with trepidation that rarely assails me on the road.

The way we’ve always done things, what we’re used to, what we learned back in school, etc.—all these can get in the way of our accepting new scientific knowledge. But I can’t help thinking there’s a lot more than that going on and that “science” and its would-be defenders have made some very serious public relations problems for themselves. Claiming intellectual superiority over the whole world is not a way to win hearts and minds.

For some people, “science” has become a religion. Again I use scare quotes intentionally, because if there’s anything science should never be, it’s religion. When “science” is used to cut short inquiry rather than to respond to it respectfuly, it isn’t science at all. It’s dogma.

Science gives provisional truths, not eternal verities. Received scientific knowledge must always be open to question. But all too often doubts and arguments are dismissed if and when  they contradict “scientific research.” Please, tell me more! Who funded the research? Over what length of time was it conducted? Has it been replicated? What long-term consequences might we expect? People for whom “science” is a religion have a tendency to speak and behave as if anything coming out of a laboratory is above and beyond question. I repeat: this is not a scientific attitude.

And yet, the science-as-religion crowd (and they would never label themselves as such) take themselves to be defending rationality against ignorance and superstition. How’s that for a conversation stopper?

I want to go back now and pick up the Science Council’s definition of science, for which I only gave the link above. For those who didn’t follow the link, here's the definition:
Science is the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence.
Further down the screen, the first item included in scientific methodology is objective observation. Repetition, verification, testing, peer review and assessment are also included. (Follow the link for the entire list.)

It is no secret any longer that conflicts of interest rage in academic and medical circles and infect much that is published in the most respected journals. This is not trivial. Read about it if you haven’t already.

Conflicts of interest, fueled by financial considerations or career advancement or both, easily lead to bad “research.”  How can a researcher be objective if his or her income or career hangs in the balance? For example, what kind of studies would be necessary to demonstrate safety for human beings of a given drug (or herbicide or hormone or industrial process)? One corporate-funded study? Six weeks of unaffected health in a couple hundred mice?

Here’s something else that has become common knowledge: all human beings are prone to a host of irrational biases. Note that uneducated lay people are not the only human beings to be so afflicted. Scientists are human, too. Go down the list of biases and see how many might affect scientific research, not forgetting for a minute that big money is usually involved, too. Once you get started, it’s pretty easy to see where problems can arise. 

A surgeon naturally looks for surgical solutions. A researcher funded by a pharmaceutical company is going to see big benefits in prescription drugs, probably the ones the funding company makes. Engineers seek to solve problems within their realm of expertise; they don't look to other fields. Confirmation bias assures each expert of the superiority of her or his professional approach; ingroup bias strengthens that conviction; etc., etc.

When an established researcher writes a paper on how published research findings are more likely to be false than true, is it any wonder the public doubts the latest pronouncements of scientific truth?

Science in a World Where Everything Is For Sale

Oddly, perhaps, it was a book on economics that put the question of scientific objectivity in my head again this morning--that and (here I digress briefly) the fact that I posted a link on Facebook and got jumped on because not because of the information given (at least not directly) but because of the source of the information. The criticism was legitimate and prompted me to seek out better sources (which are easily found), but once again the question that emerged, for me, was: Who gets to wear the mantle of “science,” and who doesn’t? And the corollary question: How much respect should the mantle confer?

Joseph Schumpeter’s thesis back in 1942 was that capitalism was not headed for failure but that its very successes would be the death of it. I’m only about a third of the way through Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy but find it fascinating. Here, for instance, is a very strong, unqualified statement:
I have no hesitation in saying that all logic is derived from the pattern of the economic decision or, to use a pet phrase of mine, that the economic pattern is the matrix of logic.
Economic logic, he goes, beats magic in being both definite and quantitative, and due to its successes it readily spreads,
...spreads under the pedagogic influence of favorable experiences to other spheres and there also opens eyes to that amazing thing, the Fact.
Human beings were self-interested, even greedy, before capitalism, Schumpeter says, but capitalism exalted the unit of money, leading the way to cost-profit calculations (what we know as cost/benefit analysis), and that attitude, or method—well, let him tell you in his own words—
...this type of logic or attitude or method then starts upon its conqueror’s career, subjugating—rationalizing—man’s tools and philosophies, his medical practice, his picture of the cosmos, his outlook on life, everything in fact including his concepts of beauty and justice and his spiritual ambitions.

[Facts! I am reminded of the Gradgrinds in the novel by Charles Dickens, Hard Times. Wealth and poverty feature in most, if not all, of the Dickens oeuvre, but in Hard Times, Schumpeter’s “matrix of logic” really comes to the foreground.]

Schumpeter thinks capitalism destroys its own support system. As capitalism “chases away” metaphysical beliefs and all kinds of mystic and romantic ideas, and as the capitalist world becomes more and more depersonalized and automated (what would he say in 2017!), and nothing is any longer sacred, everything can be questioned and held up for criticism, including capitalism itself. Rationalism, then, capitalism's motive force, is also its undoing.

If he is right—and his argument stretches over 400-plus closely argued pages, to which I have by no means even begun to do justice—then science too, as a natural outgrowth of capitalistic logic, is a self-cannibalizing proposition. Teach people to reject undemonstrated truths, and they will have no truck with your new shibboleths. Tell them to question authority, and they will question yours. Start down this road, and there is no turning back. But it was--and here's the paradox--the only road along which science could develop!

What about the money that built the road? When the project of “science” seems to have become primarily, in far too many cases, only another avenue for seeking profit at the expense of truth, when it comes to be seen, along with politics, as simply a tool to deliver increased wealth to those at the top by denying self-determination* to those at the bottom, is it any wonder there is growing public mistrust? Science, like politics, has sold out too many times to expect universal unquestioning admiration.

[* "For mankind is not free to choose. ... Things economic and social move by their own momentum and the ensuing situations compel individuals and groups to behave in certain ways whatever they may wish to do—not indeed by destroying their freedom of choice but by shaping the choosing mentalities and by narrowing the list of possibilities from which to choose."]

Here I would close with the old saw, “Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas,” except that I consider it a terrible libel on the nature of dogs. Also, I probably need to say straight out that I am not taking an anti-science stance, nor am I opposing rationality. It's simply that I don’t regard scientists as gods, nor do I trust blindly in “scientific” pronouncements that come from behind locked doors of corporate secrecy. If you do, you are being neither “scientific” nor “rational.”

Returning to earth


GH said...

Plus, nobody wants to wake up with fleas, dog, human, or Uber-human scientist.
I LOVE this thoughtful, critical piece! I've been thinking about how a romanticization, a fetishization of a (crude and skeletal) idea of science holds sway, and is recrafting the university (hand in glove with administrations and faculty who embrace unis as handmaidens of capitalism, to be run like businesses and to help feed profit for business). Thank you for your ideas and thoughtful analysis!

P. J. Grath said...

GH, I see that you understand me perfectly on this. What you've added about the university is another aspect that breaks my heart. Thank YOU for visiting, reading, and commenting!

P. J. Grath said...


Fair enough. For starters, we note that polls show that only 6% of scientists vote Republican (golly there must be a book on that!); leaving us to ponder whether that is the result of bias, or critical thinking. There are two main causes, depending on the sources: scientists are addicted to government funding, the GOP historically cuts scientific funding..or scientists are reacting defensively against the trend in ignoring evolution, climate change, environmental degradation and the truncation of science in education. Or both, take your pick.

It is true that scientists working for corporations are constrained to use their abilities to further the
business (and stay employed or get a raise). Monsanto, Exxon and DuPont are examples. When I
was working in a cosmetics lab, the 'ozone hole' became controversial. Experts from DuPont, which
made the world's Freon, were rushed around to customers to explain 'scientifically' why florinated
chlorocarbons would not degrade atmospheric ozone. It does, freons are gone and the zone is slowly
recovering. There is a vociferous minority which insist still that freon was good, DDT did not harm
the eagle, global warming is a hoax and Rachel Carson was the wicked witch of science. The Heartland Institute and the Intelligent Design Institute are just a fraction of special interest non profits
that have their own scientists that think as they are instructed and are generally looked down on by
most in their fields...but they crank out 'evidence' and doubt to feed the 'vocifereous minority'.
Dare we note that these are the main 'bias in science' culprits?

It is true the medicine as well as science, tend to be doubted when findings change. Vitamin C,
coffee, yogurt, week its wonderful for you, the next it is awful. That is the nature of
science, the constant experimenting, either questioning or reinforcing the state of the art. There
are people who prefer midwives to physicians, who fear vaccinations more than the diseases
that would render them immune, who scoff at black holes and think the study of polar ecology
is a waste of time and money. Some of these people believe science is stupid not because they
don't understand it (well some might) but because they don't like the scientific conclusions. We
suspect this is where the black/white, no middle ground enmity around the topic starts.

There are a surprising number of credulous people in the blog-o-sphere. A few I visit tout
UFOs, sasquatches, ghosts and spirits, religious miracles and the like. That type of thinking
is discouraging to me and I respond with facts/figures/logic trying to avoid being obnoxious.
Which earned the moniker 'Laidback de-bunker' on one thread and not a single conversion to
the dull world of science. There have been studies on the philosophy of Science, Karl Popper comes to mind, but that conjectoring is beyond me. There is something wrong if we equate the hidden power of translucent small pyramids to fill a room with psychic energy to real science. It is tempting to
put it in terms of 'knowledge v ignorance', but that is hardly the stuff of seeking middle ground.

Like any other field, science (and that includes a number of both physical and natural sciences)
has its heros and scoundrels, failures and successes, defenders and naysayers. In my opinion it would be fair to say it's results and effects have been on the positive side for society. Like its negative
effects, weaponry mostly, the end use of the technologies passes from the the hands of the
inventors to the hands of the decision makers, be it business or government. The Age of Faith is also known as the Dark Ages and we ponder how the future will view our times.

P. J. Grath said...


At its core, science is but a tool, a methodology of studying that which is natural and physical:
its theories are constructs based on experimentation, data, mathematical correlation. Of course the opinion of scientists is that such constructs are more rigorous than those based on conjecture, such as religion, where belief systems number in the hundreds and range from new age crystal pyramids,
scientology, astrology on up to the hierarchical dogma of long established Judeo-Christian belief.
What science cannot do is analyze the complexities that philosophy and religion address: some
5000 years ago, the Epic of Gilgamesh summed what was then known about life and death, the meaning of existence and since then men have considered the why, the spirit and the mysticism
that lie beyond the what and how of science. If we accept the limitations of science and its methods, it is a study that appeals to the curious. One of my daughters introduced her PhD Microbiology disseratation with the Isac Azimov quote, “The most exciting phrase in science is not 'Eureka...
but 'that's funny...” We note that the 'non bias' scientific view of the human condition is summed
by former astrophycist Carl Sagon opining on the Pale blue dot and consider that pragmatic view probably has its naysayers.
I disagree with assertions that science is a religion; what diety do they pray to? If it is not a religion, I am not its apologist, just another senior citizen with opinions.

Fere libenter homines id quod volunt credunt – Men willingly believe what they wish to believe-
Julius Caesar. Quid Verum? What is truth? Pilate Given that human proclivity and that impossible question, the arguments about what science is and isn't will likely continue.

P. J. Grath said...

BB, I got your whole comment up by dividing it and posting it as two comments. There was no problem with the link--anyway, not with me posting it! :)

I hope you did not think that I was asserting that science is a religion. I don't believe it is, and I don't think any defenders of science would make the statement, either. What I do believe and did say is that some people who take themselves to be defending science TREAT it as a religion, i.e., beyond question.

One interesting (would you say 'curious'?) truth in this whole nest of opinions is that there is a large group of people who respect both science and religion. There are people who follow a religion and profess faith who also believe in and sometimes even practice science. And not all scientists, even ones who profess atheism, disdain religion. Stephen J. Gould is my hero in that regard.

Thank you for adding so much to this discussion. You and GH have MADE it a discussion and not just one more bootless rant by an aging, small town bookseller.

BB-Idaho said...

Current research presents some significant ethics questions. Earlier I posted the following on a general topic blog:
"A single strand of human genome can store 1.5 Gigabits, accessing the base pairs of the helixical deoxyribonucleic
acid. As you suspect, molecular biologists and computer scientists teamed up utilize this molecular technology for
computer data storage. DNA can replace magnetic chips, more permanently and in far less space. Watch for the 'cloud' to be replaced by the ancient
(but synthetic) 'primeval soup'. "
...tinkering with DNA, the 'stuff of life', is a Jekyll-Hyde proposition. The terrible genetic diseases could be eliminated. On the other hand the GMOs (more Frankenfish anyone?) have their pros and cons. Creating super smart, super athletic, stunningly beaufiful human children to parental specification is foolish and dangerous.
Regarding the primal soup storage, we note that DNA is the food of
viruses. These half chemical half living entities exist by penetrating living cells and 'borrowing' their DNA for reproduction.
Would the Microsoft DNA data storage units become infected by a
REAL virus?

P. J. Grath said...

BB, if I hadn't been concerned already, you would TERRIFY me!

BB-Idaho said...

A few further examples of scientific ethics in the mundane consumer
world of cosmetics come to mind from my seven years as a chemist in
that field. One time, the lab determined that a line of shampoos worked just fine, if some of the expensive ingredients were reduced and water added. We reasoned that would lower the cost of production
and the product; lower price = more sales. The marketing department
was delighted. They changed the label to 'New and Improved!' and raised the price! We were sent from the CEO's office with the reminder, "don't moralize with the marketing staff". The next year,
vitamin E was the hot additive, the youth vitamin that adds lustre,
etc. It was expensive, so only a small amount was to be added.
But the shipment of V-E was delayed; over the 'moralizing lab staff'
protests, the new exciting Vitamin E labels were plastered on thousands of cans of regular hairspray, Marketing again over riding
the chemists. One day a hot shot sales guy showed up from the big east coast market. (He said, "Hi, I'm Barry Moore" which one
tongue-in-cheek chemist responded, "Lionel or Ethyl?") such was the
natural enmity between science and sales. Barry had a new device for
a fast permanent, based on existing permanent wave technology, but
involving a cloth helmet which would heat up, producing a more permanent permanent. I was assigned to safety test a dozen of Barry's helmets, which were to maintain a constant 105 degrees.
I obtained a dozen white styrene heads from a wig shop, drew some
faces on them and strapped on the helmets. The lab table looked like
a dozen Amelia Earharts preparing for take off. They were plugged in
overnight. The next morning most of the heads were in various stages of melting. This was quite alarming and my report recommended
either re-working the electrical or cancelling the project. Over ruled once again...until the claims of hair loss, head burns and
threat of class action suit made a stronger case than the mere lab
person. These are of course minor examples of why people, at least
consumer people, should be wary of scientific claims. I recall similar odd tales from the ammunition business as well as a recent medical exercise in clinical diagnostics gone awry that demonstrate
the peculiar interface between the science and the product.