Go with a smile!

Monday, September 30, 2013

Whyevolutionistrue vs Henry Gee

I was alerted to this article, where the author takes on one of the editors of Nature, which is one of the biggest scientific journals in the biological sciences. I was going to publish this long rant in his comments but I'll write a blog post instead.

To be fair, the article being criticised is pretty badly written. But that doesn’t really excuse the way whyevolutionistrue totally missed all the points that Henry Gee was trying to make.

Henry Gee wasn’t critiquing science so much as he was critiquing the way that science is being communicated to the masses. But first, let’s look at your main points.

Science has been wrong and can’t much be trusted.

In order to see why this is the case, we have to go back to the P value. For the record, I believe that although Henry Gee has done a terrible job at explaining the p value, he understands what it means. And he probably understands what it means at a deeper level than you do: at p= 0.05, given that the null hypothesis is true, there is a 5% chance that it will be (incorrectly) rejected. Which means that you can have 20 scientists working on the same problem, the “lucky” scientist will “discover” some “sensational” results, and get them published. A distressingly high proportion of scientific papers, especially in our “publish or perish” environment will contain either meaningless crap, or unreproducible results.

Please see this for more info.

That is not the same as saying that science cannot be trusted. Because in order for scientific facts to make it to the level that it can be published in a text book, there are a lot of additional verifications to be done, papers to be published, etc etc. We used to be told that we should watch our calories, now we’re told that the type of calories are more important. We used to be told that cholesterol is always bad, and then we get told that there’s good and bad cholesterol. We used to be told that we should base our diet on mainly carbohydrates, and now we’re told that it’s causing obesity and diabetes. You can anecdotally speak of scientific facts which are true to a very very high level of certainty, and similarly I can bring up anecdotes which illustrate why the public is right to be wary of scientifically verified claims.

Science has betrayed our faith by giving us bad stuff…

Now there’s a great amount of confusion about this. Let’s just say that there are two main sorts of questions.

Q1: Is this scientific fact literally true?
Q2: What’s good for me?

Science is very good at answering the first type of questions, and pretty bad at answering the second, more pragmatic type of question. And most people mistake the certainty with which science can answer the first type of question, with the certainty with which it can answer the second type of question. Religion and philosophy are practically the opposite: not so good at the first type, better at the second type.

Also – I’m sorry to break this to you: people have always cared more about the second type of question than the first. In fact if it wasn’t for the fact that the type 1 questions are useful to help answer the type 2 questions, we might not give a damn about the type 1 questions at all.

What Henry Gee was trying to get at, is that many people misunderstand that being a scientist has anything at all to do with deciding what’s good for society.

However there are a lot of answers to questions, which seem to have come from science. These are not statements of scientific fact. In fact they have more in common with religion instead. Statements like “if I have factories which manufacture more of X then my nation will be happier” is practically a religious statement, not a scientific one. Other examples are statements like “We will be safer if the US has 1000 nuclear bombs but the USSR only has 900”. And we need to understand that this kind of religious nuttiness has permeated the top echelon of decision makers in the US govt.

So Henry Gee’s syntax is pretty confusing. But I think what he’s trying to say is that it’s not a happy situation when we mix up the two types of questions.

Scientists and science journalists don’t express the nature of science, for they squelch dissent.

There are some subtleties behind this, and if you’re not careful, you will get into a big muddle.

Yes, all good scientists understand the importance of skepticism. We all promote and encourage skepticism. But to a layman, skepticism means that you don’t really know your stuff. Not understanding this portion of human psychology is pretty detrimental to the standard of communication between scientists and laymen.

So the scientists have to beef themselves up and stand firm about their beliefs. The consequences of not doing so are severe: climate change deniers often exploit this “lack of certainty” to plant doubt about the validity that climate change is man made. And your statement “Scientific disagreement gave rise to creationism and homeopathy and antivaxers and the whole pseudoscientific enterprise?” is nothing more than a weaselly strawman. Scientific disagreement did not produce all this, but it certainly presented a weak spot for these guys to hit out at.

You have to understand why people who participate in scientific discourse are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea: express your skepticism like a good scientist, and your fellow scientists will pat you on the back, but the layman will stop listening. Speak like a priest from the standpoint of scientific dogma, and maybe a few more of those laymen will listen to you, but you’d be accused of dogma.

Unfortunately it’s pretty hard to get scientists to talk the language of the layman because they all think it’s beneath them.


Post a Comment