Popular science presenters like Brian Cox are sometimes criticised by colleagues suffering from a bit of professional jealousy – although it’s a lot better than in the old days. I think most scientists today recognise the need for good science communication with the public – who, after all, are financing our science through the taxation system.
Robin Ince, comedian, actor and writer, and Brian Cox, particle physicist and Professor at the University of Manchester.
Brian Cox and his mate Robin Ince wrote a recent New Statesman editorial promoting a better understanding of the nature of science and its role in public decision-making (see Politicians must not elevate mere opinion over science). It made some good points – but upset some people. The jealousy this time seems to come from a few historians and sociologists – and not scientists themselves.
I think their criticism reveals an unfortunate attitude towards the scientific process, or indeed a misunderstanding of that process. Nevertheless, the debate does reveal some aspects of the scientific process which even some supporters of science are not completely aware of, let alone critics. So it’s worth bringing out these points.
The place of science
Brian Cox and Robin Ince are clear that science cannot dictate to politics. Decisions in this and similar fields inevitably also involve non-scientific considerations. Considering the climate change issue they say:
“The loud criticism of climate science is motivated in the main not by technical objections, but by the difficult political choices with which it confronts us. This is important, because there must be a place where science stops and politics begins, and this border is an extremely complex and uncomfortable one. Science can’t tell us what to do about our changing climate. It can only inform us that it is changing (this is a statement based on data) and tell us the most probable reasons for this given the current state of our understanding. For a given policy response, it can also tell us how likely that response is to be effective, to the best of our understanding. The choice of policy response itself is not a purely scientific question, however, because it necessarily has moral, geopolitical and economic components.”
Decision making on politics and many other areas of society involves far more than just facts. Of course science can provide the facts, it can help inform the discussion, but social decisions also involve tradition, culture, emotions and feelings. And yes, prevailing social prejudices.
Unfortunately some critics do not see the difference between science, on the one hand, and politics or social decision-making, on the other. They slip too easily into the mistake of denying the science and/or slandering the scientists, and not debating the political, social and moral issues which really concern them. The mistake is really obvious among the climate change and evolutionary science sceptics/contrarians/deniers. And it can take really nasty forms (see, for example, discussion at Climate change deniers don’t understand expertise).
Scientific knowledge provisional but best we can do
Scientific knowledge is not absolute – we don’t make extravagant claims of Truth (with a capital T). There is humility in the scientific approach. Cox and Ince say:
“Science is a framework with only one absolute: all opinions, theories and “laws” are open to revision in the face of evidence. It should not be seen or presented, therefore, as a body of inviolate knowledge against which policy should be judged; the effect of this would be to replace one priesthood with another. Rather, science is a process, a series of structures that allow us, in as unbiased a way as possible, to test our assertions against Nature.”
“The wonderful thing about nature is that opinion can be tested against it.”
And just in case critics choose to interpret these descriptions naively – yes, scientists are human. Yes, individual scientists or groups are not as sceptical of their own ideas as an idealist might hope. But the nature of scientific knowledge, the checking against an objective reality and the social character of research helps overcome these very human prejudices.
Most working scientists have experienced more than once the horrible disappointment of their beautiful hypothesis being destroyed by an ugly fact. Maybe even finding the real fact mercilessly drummed into them by colleagues. But then picking themselves up and getting on with investigating a modified hypothesis or even new ideas. Being wrong is actually an important part of the scientific process.
It might take some time but, in the end, science has an inbuilt self-correcting process.
Scientific knowledge not just another opinion or belief
This validation against reality, the self-correcting and social nature of research and the provisional nature of scientific knowledge, makes it far more than just “another opinion.” Cox and Ince:
“Science is the framework within which we reach conclusions about the natural world. These conclusions are always preliminary, always open to revision, but they are the best we can do. It is not logical to challenge the findings of science unless there are specific, evidence-based reasons for doing so. Elected politicians are free to disregard its findings and recommendations. Indeed, there may be good reasons for doing so. But they must understand in detail what they are disregarding, and be prepared to explain with precision why they chose to do so. It is not acceptable to see science as one among many acceptable “views”. Science is the only way we have of exploring nature, and nature exists outside of human structures.”
Those critics who attempt to equate simple belief, faith or opinion with scientific knowledge, who try to bring that knowledge down to the level of opinion of belief, have their own agenda. They wish to promote their own beliefs, not by checking them against reality, but by denigrating the scientific process that does check against reality.
Criticism of the editorial by Cox and Ince came mainly in two guardian articles and a blog post. These, and many of the comments attending the articles, reveal misunderstanding of the points I made above.
Science and politics
Jack Stilgoe, a sociologist at University College of London, chose to interpret Cox and Ince’s description of the different roles of science and politics as a call for separation of the two (see Science and politics needs counselling not separation”). The misinterpretation seems to be a mechanism for repeating criticism of real or imagined influence of politics within science. And a chance to disapprove of scientists who criticise attacks on science, as on the issue of climate change. He charges that:
“Those who claim to fight for science, by shoring up the boundaries around science, retreat from political relevance, belittling science and damaging its public credibility.”
It seems to me that those who are attacking and misrepresenting climate science and scientists are the ones who are intending destruction of its “political relevance, belittling science and damaging its public credibility.” Stilgoe is surely blaming the victim here.
Rebekah Higgitt, a curator and historian at the Royal Observatory Greenwich & National Maritime Museum, is more explicit claiming a common influence of politics in science (see Science, the public and the history of science):
“Scientists are people and they are funded by people. Choices about scientific research and its interpretation are also influenced by geographic, economic, moral and other frameworks. Failing to acknowledge this places an impossible burden on science and its practitioners and inhibits good discussion around different kinds of evidence and opinion.”
Here she is just trying to teach Cox and Ince to suck eggs. Scientists are well aware of all these frameworks and influences (current science funding regimes quickly bring this home to us). That is why they consider that evidence and the validation of ideas and theories against reality is so important. It’s fundamental to science and helps reduce the distorting influence of influences, frameworks and opinions.
I just wish that some sociologists and historians could understand that.
As for “different kinds of evidence.” Reference to scientific evidence in no way inhibits Higgitt’s opportunities of presenting alternative “kinds of evidence” and arguing for them. I am curious to know what they are. Her inability, or unwillingness, to present them seems to me the real reason such discussion is inhibited.
Denying the special role of science
The blogger Haralambos Dayantis finds Cox and Ince, and indeed all “geeks,” “arrogant” (see Why the Geek movement is bad for science). To him their description of science as “the only way we have of exploring nature” is a “fundamentally close-minded attitude” which “will only alienate the audiences who don’t already agree.”
Strange then that this blogger didn’t simply describe alternative ways to explore nature – it would have immensely strengthened his argument! Again I am curious. I wish these people would share their secrets.
As for audience appeal – hasn’t he got it exactly back to front? Cox and Ince argued for a special role for science based on its relationship to reality. In this case the close-minded ones are those who refuse to consider, or even misrepresent, the argument presented. And I don’t think this blogger even understood the argument.
Higgit is also is concerned about Cox and Ince’s description of the cognitive advantage science has because of its reference to reality. The validation of its ideas by checking against reality. She objects to the fact that:
“scientific evidence . . . . and ‘the scientific method’ are given a unique place in this discussion. It is the only thing placed as an “adjudicator above opinion.”
Worse, she implies that evidence relies only on reputation, ignoring the ability to check, reproduce and validate. It might be an emotional outburst, but she goes further. To hell with considering the evidence – she claims: “In the end, we are left simply with “Believe us.”
Stilgoe also misrepresents this cognitive advantage as a grab for dominance, even power:
“Churchill was right to have argued that science should be “on tap, not on top”. For Cox and Ince, this won’t do. For policy, they call science an “adjudicator above opinion”.”
By ignoring, even denying, the cognitive advantage its relationship with reality gives science, Stilgoe and Higggit reveal their own agenda – to present science as just “another way of knowing,” and inevitably contaminated by political influence, prejudice and bias.
I am disturbed these particular historians and sociologists of science are unaware of this special cognitive relationship between reality and science. Surely this is key to understanding modern science, its history and its role in society? That aspect of science is just a fact. It’s not a political grab for power.
Scientists sometimes need to remind society and politicians of that basic nature of science – if simply to fight the misunderstanding promoting by those who try to present scientific knowledge as just another opinion. And those who attempt to discredit scientific knowledge when they should be debating the policy and political implications of that knowledge.
Who is really guilty of arrogance?
Often these conflicts between scientists on the one hand and philosophers, historians and sociologists on the other derive from professional sensitivity. Sometimes participants feel their profession is being defamed, or at least under-rated or under-appreciated. I can understand the emotional need to “come out fighting.” Maybe I am doing a bit of that myself.
But in this particular situation scientists have not been misrepresenting philosophy or sociology – just attempting to win understanding for the special role scientific knowledge can play. These critics have responded because they themselves feel their specific professions are neglected in the discussion. Higgett expresses these feeling of neglect with her last demand:
“When scientists, rightly, get involved with discussing the nature of science (philosophy) and its role in society (history, social sciences) they might accept that there are other realms of scholarship that have thought about these things long and hard, and have important things to add to the conversation.”
Well, one can hardly deny participation of these “realms” in the discussion – and of course no one suggests otherwise. Rather, these specific contributions have been welcomed, if not completely accepted. But it is arrogant to claim these realms must have the final word. That sociologists and historian should just have to say “Believe us” and we should blindly follow. Especially as some of the comments may not even represent consensus views of their professions (even if these particular critics assure us they do). Personally I think they derive from basic misunderstandings of the nature of science.
For example, Higgett lectures Cox and Ince’s reference to scientific method by pointing out:
“There are many scientific methods and many, when studied in detail, are not particularly methodological.”
This response is a trite lesson on sucking eggs again. No working scientist is unaware of the complexity and creativity of research. Of the many ways of interacting with reality. Most of us will, like Richard Feynman, reject naive formulaic or algorithmic descriptions of method and instead describe it as “doing whatever it takes to avoid being fooled by reality.” And we all accept the need for evidence and validation against reality.
Higgett was challenged to give specific examples of these “many scientific methods” and was not able to. She resorted instead to differences in specific methodology used in different disciplines:
“There are many methods in science – a field biologist works very differently to a theoretical physicist, works differently to a structural engineer, works differently to an experimental chemist etc. People work with models, with statistics, with exact numbers, with approximations, with theories, without theories – they make observations, develop experiments, crunch numbers, formulate RTCs.”
I think her answer was a diversion as clearly Cox and Ince were talking about the overall scientific approach, not specific methodologies. Her claim is easily interpreted along the lines of the “other methods of knowing” argument used by Sophisticated TheologiansTM and others when they attempt to discredit science. Those people also usually refuse to give specific examples.
An appeal to some historians and sociologists
Finally, I am responding here to specific arguments proposed by these specific historians and sociologists. I am not attacking the history and sociology of science professions themselves. I recognise that there is plenty of room for different trends and schools of thought within these professions and that the opinions presented in this discussion may only be minority ones (I hope they are). In fact, the whole-hearted endorsement of the criticisms by Steve Fuller, suggests this is the case. (Steve Fuller is a sociologist at the University of Warwick who was used as an expert witness for creationist defendant in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial. He writes and lectures in support of Intelligent Design and I find it hard to believe that his views are at all representative of his profession).
I think these specific people show with their criticisms that they don’t understand the fundamental nature of science which gives it a cognitive or epistemological advantage. Its intimate connection with reality. This helps overcome, or at least reduce, biases and social or political influences. This is why scientific knowledge should not be treated as mere opinion. And that is why simply pointing out this fact is not arrogant or a demand for unwarranted power.
To claim that it is avoids the real issues.