Friends Don’t Let Friends Abuse Science — A guest post by Kate Paulk
The weekend before last was Lunacon, where one of my panels was about science, ignorance and power. It turned into a fascinating discussion of the issues raised by the often breathtaking ignorance of science in this country (the USA if anyone is asking) as well as suggestions on improving the situation. The latter were few and far between because, well… it’s systemic.
Some of the problems include teachers who know next to nothing about how science works, a near-complete lack of a requirement for teacher trainees to learn science, journalists who are equally misinformed so any reporting reads more like the Hollywood version (and the ignorance there is equally impressive), politicians who are damn near universally lawyers and have no problems lying to their constituents to keep getting elected and of course bureaucrats who are much more concerned with keeping their position than with anything related to science. Not that this is a complete list. There isn’t space for that in a single post.
As for solutions, well, buggered if I know. And I am a scientist, if rather out of practice (geologist, if you’re wondering, although technically my software engineering degree also counts. I’ve had an… interesting worklife).
See, possibly the biggest problem isn’t the obvious one. It’s that scientist use words everyone else uses, but they have their own special meanings for them. Or – and this is more common – the scientific meanings got broadened into other things when they leaked out into general use. This isn’t a bad thing per se. It’s going to happen in a living language. But it means that people have to be taught how to translate between science-speak and regular-speak.
Well, no. See, there’s a hell of a lot of people claiming to be scientists who don’t act like it, because underneath everything else, science isn’t a body of knowledge or a set of defined facts and rules (although of course science has plenty of those and they’re important). It’s a way of thinking and one which both heads of the power-hungry hydra that is the modern American two party system abuse shamelessly.
The first important thing is that science is never “settled”. Science is about observing facts, searching for patterns, making predictions from those patterns and then trying to disprove the predictions. If – to take an example – the pro-Global Warming faction was actually engaging in science, they would be searching for data that disproved their theories.
Oh, and a “theory” in science does not mean the same thing as a theory in general discourse. To be a scientific theory, it has to be mathematically rigorous and disprovable. Otherwise it’s a hypothesis (aka educated guess). Scientific laws describe behavior that is sufficiently well understood nobody expects to ever see it disproved – although since Einstein published the Theory of Relativity, it’s become clear that laws need to also specify the environment in which they apply, since Newton’s laws break down under conditions that you won’t find in normal life.
Of course, this is an idealized view, but it’s the ideal that all scientists should be aiming for. Government money – particularly large amounts of Government money – tends to shut down the desire to reach the ideals. So does corporate money, but corporate entities usually don’t have the amount of power a government wields. At the same time, this stuff is expensive, but without it you don’t have things like antibiotics, flushing toilets, internets and so on. It’s not particularly glamorous either, and usually doesn’t look at all like you see on TV. It’s more like Dirty Jobs visiting Mythbusters (the Mythbusters team does good, sound science, but they don’t show the hours of tedium that goes behind what they do screen).
So… some of the science abuse I’ve seen from politicians of all stripes:
- cherrypicking while claiming to be “reality-based”. This happens a lot and all of them do it. There are leftist politics who mock conservatives who deny that evolution is possible while ignoring the very real biological differences between male and female and between various ethnic groups. There are rightist politics who have no problems with antibiotics and flu shots while claiming that evolution is impossible. And a whole range of equally ignorant nonsense.
- ignoring evidence that doesn’t fit the favored theory/ideology. Again, all the bastards do it. Repeatedly. Of course, they do it with everything else, not just science – probably because they’re mostly lawyers, and that’s part of what lawyers are supposed to do. Unfortunately, it means that instead of any kind of sensible behavior our political wannabe masters lurch erratically from idiot position to idiot position making total asses of themselves. Not that they care as long as they get reelected.
- faking the evidence. Of course this is another traditional lawyerly activity, since the goal is to win without getting caught (yes, I’m a little bit cynical. Deal.)
- mathematical illiteracy. Dear god the mathematical illiteracy. We have a Congress, a Senate, an Executive, and a Judiciary stuffed to the gills with people who do not /do/ math. Is it any wonder they can’t tell the difference between debt and deficit? And of course, with all the branches of science, math underlies it somewhere. The relationship is pretty clear with physics, but there’s plenty to be found in geology, chemistry, biology, and such. You just need to know where to look. (Here’s a clue. If it gets called a science and the most important parts don’t have any math? It’s not a science no matter what it calls itself. Ditto if there’s no observation or extrapolation and testing against predictions from observations.).
- selective blindness. This isn’t quite the same as cherrypicking – it’s more ignoring certain areas because they’ll be too controversial. This is, for instance, why there is buggerall real research into ethnic group IQ score differentials. Those concerned (and again, all sides of politics have failures here) are terrified that they might find something biological in the difference and that would be raaaaaaacist (no it wouldn’t. Facts are not biased. They are what they are. If there is an ethnicity based component to intelligence, then that’s how it works). This particular example is a long and controversial post all by itself, so I’ll leave the matter there, but remember, that’s just one area of selective blindness. There are many, many others.
So. What to do? The politicians and their media friends need to be called out on their ignorance and abuse of science every time. No matter what. Mock them. Show them facts. Hell, shove the facts up their noses and down their throats. If they choke, so much the better (metaphorically speaking. I don’t advocate actually choking the bastards. You might get a worse one as a replacement).