Science & Virtue

There’s a new article out from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, which suggests that scientists don’t communicate very well with the public. Among the observations:

“Perhaps scientists are misunderstanding the public…due to their own quirks, assumptions, and patterns of behavior,” suggests [Chris Moody, a science journalist.]  Laypeople, meanwhile, tend to “strain their responses to scientific controversies through their ethical or value systems, as well as through their political or ideological outlooks.”

That’s the crux of the problem right there. What’s changed is not our tendency to filter everything through our own personal strain of moral and ethical judgment. What’s changed is what that moral and ethical fibre is composed of these days: fear, cynical distrust and an assumption of dishonesty.

It’s not communication skills that we’re short on, it’s moral and intellectual honesty.

The reason scientists are not believed now is because there is a deliberate campaign in place to discredit them by any means. Because they know most people can’t or won’t read the actual journals, the same cynical geniuses who bald-faced lied about the effects of smoking are teaching a new generation that scientists as a class are motivated by the same venality, mendacity and say-anything-to-get-approval motivations as are the rest of the world.

It’s pretty easy for people to believe this, because we recognise that there’s some of this in all of us. Indeed, it’s trivially easy to find individual examples of greed, jealousy, laziness and other human weaknesses in any field. But it’s a lie, of course, because it’s not true of scientists as a class, and therefore not true of Science.

Science, by definition, is the verifiable removal of these weaknesses from the pursuit of knowledge.

The problem is that the Know-Nothing philosophy is being appropriated for use across a larger swathe of human society than before. It’s a tremendously powerful force, and it makes it possible to crystallise human activity suddenly and with tremendous impact. Best of all, it can be done for virtually every reason.

People wondered at length what neo-conservative Straussians, the christianist Right and increasingly globalised corporate financial interests could possibly have in common. They searched in vain to understand why the core of the US Republican party faithful consisted of those who stood to lose most by its policies. Well, there you have it. The are united not by ideology, but by the simple tactic of institutionalised doubt.

Doubt is a stronger weed than trust. When we are no longer honest as a society, we cannot conceive of honesty in others, let alone in systems.

This problem can’t be fixed by explaining or communicating better, because anyone with the patience to listen is almost certainly not part of the problem group. The problem is that those with an unreasoning, idée fixe view of the world are no longer fed a narrative focused on the redeeming elements of human nature such as charity, kindness and respect. They’ve been transformed into crusaders [sic] against everything that’s wrong in the world. As a result, the dominant elements of modern culture today are intolerance, distrust, and cynicism deeper than we’ve seen in generations.

The biggest problem facing scientists today, therefore, is bad timing. They’re trying to save a world that no longer trusts them to help.

Update: An anonymous respondent writes (in part): “They discredit themselves. I just don’t mean the games they play with journals and data manipulation. If they cared about the carbon footprint, they would never support Kyoto or cap’n’trade.

The person concludes by saying, “Watch more B5 [presumably Babylon 5. ed.], asshole.

I could explain how the propensity to unthinkingly elide both science and politics together, and then to make the same mistake with empirical fact and fictional narrative, might actually be symptomatic of the very phenomenon which I am attempting to describe….

… or I could just say QED and be done with it.

‘Nother update:

Someone else writes:

So when are you going to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem? Mischaracterizing your opponents isn’t scientific either. Sure there’s probably a group inimical to science who is doing as you say. And there’s cynicism here as everywhere else. But distrust doesn’t spring from just ideology. It also comes from failing to deliver.

I’d venture to suggest that yes, distrust of Science does necessarily come from ideology. By definition, if you’re able to understand the principles of the scientific method and still fail see how they correct for personal bias, then you are either a victim of ignorance or willful self-deception.

By ‘failing to deliver’. I’m going to assume you mean, ‘failing to deliver good science.’ Anything else would be accusing you of confirmation bias, and I don’t think that’s the case.

If that’s true, then the solution is more science, not less. Distrust individual sources if experience teaches you that they’re unreliable, but do not discredit Science just because of a few incompetents.

In my view, the science of climate has been taken over by a bunch of characters more interested in the politics than the science (or pragmatic matters of what do with that knowledge). The scandal of climate change is simply that the science is remarkably sloppy given the stakes.

So you’re willing to argue that, because a subset of scientists are drawing conclusions that you feel the data doesn’t support or even misusing their findings to pursue political agendas that this somehow subverts scientists as a class? Climate science is a small (but admittedly prominent) sector of Science as a whole.

I’m quite sure that you and I could have a reasonable discussion about the failings of Climate policy, and I’m pretty sure that’s not what you mean. If you do feel that way, then you had better take a step back and consider the implications.

[T]here’s argument by consensus rather than by science (who in the scientific community should be convinced by the argument that tens of thousands of scientists (the vast majority who don’t have any more a clue than I do) have a certain opinion?)

Come on, don’t start tilting at straw men. You’re smarter than that. You know perfectly well that the argument from consensus is that the vast majority of climate scientists are finding data that meshes well with what others are finding. The fact that a bunch of people less qualified to know also agree neither adds nor subtracts from that contention.

I’m not denying that anyone in favour of action on climate hasn’t said something as silly as that. I’m saying that they’re part of the problem, because they’re no less willfully ignorant than the rest. See where I’m going with this? The Know-Nothing, fear-driven, us-against-them, world-is-ending bullshit affects all of us, regardless of our political stance. Anti-intellectualism and resentment of Smart People generally is an equal opportunity subversive.

If what you really meant was that the data is based on too few sources, so the consensus itself is flawed, then that’s easily verified, isn’t it? And equally easily refuted. So let’s have that argument instead. It won’t be nearly as frustrating.

And P.S. You’re wrong on that count. While the predictive capability of current climate science is necessarily limited (see cloud formation for an example of how complex the systems are that we’re attempting to characterise), there’s no lack of evidence for the macro-level findings that the climate is undergoing a significantly accelerated change and, while we don’t necessarily know what will happen in Tucson or Mindanao, we do have a pretty good idea that it’s not going to go easily for humanity as a whole.

Turning that decidedly nebulous fact into policy implies a lot of stumbling around in the dark. And it drives me nuts that we can’t get beyond the emotional arguments to start actually having that discussion.