Monday, March 16, 2015

More on the credibility of science, and why it is hard to believe.

Science is hard to believe. But can any of that be blamed on scientists?
A few weeks ago now Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert) went on a bit of a rant, nominating nutrition science as the biggest Science Fail. I went a bit further, and argued that any time scientists act as stealth issue advocates we risk a Science Fail, ultimately reducing the credibility of science in the public view. However, Steven Novella over at Neurologica thinks that Adams is way off base blaming scientists for the erosion of our credibility.

Novella says Adams makes three mistakes. First, confusing Science with Science Journalism and the Media:
Adams here is clearly listening to popular diet gurus, rather than following the more nuanced discussion happening in scientific circles. This is the core problem. If you look behind the curtain, scientists on such topics will have a range of opinions, the evidence is often complex and can be interpreted in multiple ways, and the current conclusions based on the evidence can be a moving target.

I accept that evidence is complex and there are multiple interpretations. However, Novella is forgetting that scientists are also human, and their beliefs and values affect what they chose to study, publish, and allow to be published when acting as reviewers and editors. If you don't believe that scientists affected both the guidelines and the science that followed, read Gary Taubes' "Good Calories, Bad Calories" or Nina Teicholz' "Big Fat Surpise". Both are fantastic pieces of investigative science journalism that rip the curtain away and demolish the walls of the green room. The picture ain't pretty.

Second mistake, misunderstanding how science progresses over time:
Science is not wrong until it is completely right. Rather, science makes ever more detailed approximations of reality. Science gets deeper, more nuanced, and more complex. It does not simply change one dogma for another separate dogma (as Adams’ “X” and “Y” examples imply).
Again, I agree, but Adams cartoonish (he is a cartoonist) depiction of science is how Science is perceived by the general public. I think issues arise whenever some scientists choose to act as stealth issue advocates, papering over the "approximate" and contingent nature of our understanding to push a particular idea of what should happen. When this happens, we run the risk of undermining the credibility of science in general.

Adam's third error, according to Novella, is blaming scientists for this loss of credibility:
He says we need to ask why the public distrusts science, and then offering as the answer that science has betrayed the public trust. Actually, scientists have asked that question, and the answer is not what Adams claims. People distrust science when it conflicts with their valued beliefs, or when science suggests a solution or intervention that conflicts with their beliefs. People are happy to trust science when it does not conflict with their ideology or narrative.
I take the Adams' statement that science has betrayed the public trust to mean that some scientists lost sight of telling the public the consequences of their choices and shifted focus to telling us what those choices ought to be. Novella's statements about when people reject science are correct, but again, he is forgetting that scientists have beliefs and values too.

This view that scientists and Science are somehow "above the fray" is as widespread as it is wrong. Consider this op-ed by Joel Auchenbach at the Washington Post*. After making some excellent points about why science doesn't influence people's actions Auchenbach says
It’s [scientists] very detachment, what you might call the cold-bloodedness of science, that makes science the killer app. It’s the way science tells us the truth rather than what we’d like the truth to be. Scientists can be as dogmatic as anyone else — but their dogma is always wilting in the hot glare of new research. In science it’s not a sin to change your mind when the evidence demands it. For some people, the tribe is more important than the truth; for the best scientists, the truth is more important than the tribe.
At least he recognizes this trait is limited to the best scientists. But even then, more often than not, exposing the dogma to the hot glare of your new research gets your paper rejected.

Let's be clear. I'm not suggesting that Science is wrong; it is still the best way that humans have found to obtain reliable knowledge about reality. Sometimes there are even very public corrections. But let's not put us on some kind of pedestal either. Publicly announcing that you were wrong (like this) rarely happens. We are humans, and subject to human desires to be liked, to be a part of a group. That affects how we do science, and to ignore this basic fact is to take the first steps towards a Science Fail.

And so yes, I believe that some of the blame for the loss of public trust in scientists lays with scientists.

*Auchenbach makes some similar points with different examples here.

No comments:

Post a Comment