Monday, November 28, 2011

Let's blame someone for the scientific illiteracy

I just read the article "Why do people reject science? Here's why ..." by Stephan Lewandowsky, and despite I agree with many of his points, the narrative worries me a little bit. Some comments of mine follow below the quotes:
The historical evidence is overwhelming that some of that opposition has been organised by vested interests, often successfully delaying political and regulatory action that posed a perceived threat to corporate profits. The peer-reviewed literature has clearly identified the subterfuge, distortion and manufacture of doubt with which vested interests delayed the control of tobacco, CFCs and sulphur emissions.
"Vested interests" are not restricted to big corps, they also apply to small corps -- even at the individual level. To fingerpoint at money is not enough (to be fair, the author aknowledges it later), and everybody have expectations of profit, not only "corporations". To have some commercial relation does not transform you in "evil", and to be free from it does not mean you are uninterested. Publicly funded researchers may struggle to keep being publicly funded in similar ways as privately funded ones (Lysenkoism was not a "corporate scam", for instance).
The notion of threat is key to understanding the rejection of evidence; whether it’s by vested interests, by mediocre scientists fearful of becoming outdated, or by the public at large when confronted by inconvenient science. (...) Perhaps most relevant to present public debate are threats to people’s “worldviews” – the very fundamental beliefs people hold about how the world should be organised.
But even outstanding, "altruistic" and handsomely rich sicentists (even as a collective body) can be resistant to evidence and "inconvenient science" -- it is part of the regular, skeptical peer review process. When new science comes up most scientists won't laugh in epiphany, and not because they are particularly evil or stupid. Maybe they need to reproduce the results themselves, or they lack the theoretical background for this specific result (scientist do not have priviledged access to The Truth, they also need to RTFM from time to time), or they genuinely demand that the new research programme must improve over existing methods in explaining all existing evidence. An analogous process of healthy suspicion might take place with the public at large, not because they are averse to progress but because we are averse to risk. Since the public may have simplified/incomplete views of the scientific process the outreach becomes more relevant, and be not only politically agnostic but perceived as so -- if you care to educate the public, that is.
Worldviews come in many shades and forms, but one prominent distinction — popularised by Professor Dan Kahan at Yale University — is between people whose worldview is “hierarchical-individualistic” and those whose worldview is “egalitarian-communitarian”.
Hierarchical-individualistic people (HI from here on) believe rights, duties, goods, and offices should be distributed differentially and on the basis of people’s own decisions without collective interference or assistance. Egalitarian-communitarian (EC) people, by contrast, believe rights and goods should be distributed more equally and society should bear partial responsibility for securing the conditions of individual flourishing.
Like all binary classifications, the distinction between HI and EC worldviews lacks nuance and oversimplifies the complexity of human worldviews.
It simplifies to the point of becoming useless -- it is a straw man version of individualism and a very charitable version of collectivism. Let me guess in what camp the distinguished professor wants to sit in...
This is the problem not only with this analysis, but with several other recent commentaries: if we could classify people between good and bad, it would be very easy to blame bad people for whatever problem we have at hand. First, I don't believe anybody would belong to the HI camp thus described (I don't know prof. Kahan's research so I am based solely on this article's description), since even the usual suspects believe in collective interference, and extreme individualism excludes hierarchy. And by usual suspects I mean those nasty ideological opponents that progressives retort to as "the other".
Second, and more importantly, this fixation in highlighting the differences between "us and them" is for me the definition of evil. Of course, recognizing the differences is natural and desirable (e.g. being capable of telling progressive from conservative ideas). But when this is used in a narrative to blame "them",make "them" responsible for something, or simply believing that detecting "them" is enough to solve the problem, we are paving the way for the destruction of empathy. And as everything else in politics, it usually goes well in the short term, but leads to catastrophic consequences...
We may be binary, but we don't fit into one byte.
In light of these data it’s not surprising there can be yawning gaps between scientific knowledge and public acceptance of that knowledge.
We must remember that the scientific community is also part of the public, and thus ignorant on many subjects. The problem then is when they neglect their own ignorance and treat it as part of their knowledge body. For example the scientist with a pretense of economical knowledge when in fact he is ignorant about it, and propose economically inane solutions as if they were part of the scientific knowledge. That is, they cannot see the distinction between descriptive and normative assertions. (To be clear, they are entitled to join the normative discussion, even as "experts", but not to confuse it with facts).
Scientists are great in determining the boundaries of their ignorance within their fields -- that is, they know quite well what they don't know and what can't be known -- but less so about other fields. The recipe to minimize this is to rely on the respective authorities in the field ("Don't know evolution? Then listen to evolutionary biologists. Not sure about climate change? Then read what experts have been discovering"), but for some reason Economics does not get the same love ("Economists? They are all stoopid"). And it becomes a problem when they step on each other's foot, proudly ignorant and certain of having found the problem on "them".

When you start believing "us and them" helps explaining things...

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