On Confusing Science with Policy


I recently read the following statement, written by a scientist who believes the US government is paying insufficient attention to the scientific community.

No one who understands how climate works thinks we can continue to pollute our atmosphere without catastrophic cost. And given that we have already waited for too long to completely stop the process, we need help figuring out how to keep things from getting too bad and how to adapt to the changes we cannot stop.

This is taken from an LA Times op-ed entitled “Scientists are marching en masse on Earth Day because we believe reality matters”. In a way, the title is ridiculous. Nobody is indifferent to reality. Put a real boot up someone’s real ass and you will soon discover that even the most ardent solipsist will acknowledge what you really did to them. They are also likely to temporarily forget their philosophical beliefs, and to ask why you kicked them, or possibly kick back.
It is also hard to determine why reality would matter less if people failed to march in support of it. Might reality go on vacation unless we show it how much we care? Is reality like a quixotic Greek god, prone to inconsistent and unpredictable behaviour? Perhaps reality does suffer that temperamental defect, but scientists would struggle to do their work if it did.
However, the author has a serious point, if not well made. The successfulness of a policy will be determined by how realistic it is. Clearly the author is worried that some unrealistic policies are being adopted by the US government. These marches always seem to be about the policies adopted by the US government, even if they lead to a score of sympathy marches from people who live in other democracies elsewhere, hence begging the question of how realistic those voters are. All the polls indicate that Donald Trump is deeply unpopular in Westphalia, but this did not stop him winning a recent election in the USA.
Are (some) scientists arguing that (some) other people are insufficiently realistic? I suppose they are, but that only begs the question of how realistic anyone can promise to be when it is perfectly respectable for a philosopher like Karl Popper to argue that science proceeds by a process of falsification, meaning no hypothesis can ever be said to be true, just as no person lives forever. The best that can be said for a hypothesis is that it is currently awaiting its inevitable demise. That satisfied Popper, but I doubt it would satisfy the marching scientists. To be fair, it would not satisfy Trump either.
But let us grant, for the time being, that science delivers ‘truth’. Let us go a step further, and also grant that scientists are especially truthful people, even though we keep reading about scientists engaging in fraud and being unable to reproduce each other’s results. Would that mean they suffered no prejudice, no delusion, no faults? Probably not. The few sentences copied above show us why.
For a start, the process of science is supposedly objective. So why hector your audience with phrases that begin “no one who understands…” Maybe it is an objective fact that “no one who understands climate” would disagree with this particular author, but that fact is harder to prove than simply stating the proven facts about the climate. To prove the statement about everyone who understands the climate would involve objectively determining who “understands climate”, whilst avoiding the circularity that “understanding climate” cannot simply mean agreeing with this particular scientist. It is better to just explain how the climate works, if it is that straightforward, but the problem is that the scientific community has, in general, done a lousy job of explaining climate science. And that is a fact because the failure of the pupil must always reflect the failure of their teacher.
Science may be an enquiry into reality but it cannot determine our goals and priorities. What, in this context, is a “catastrophic cost”? If the author knows the cost then the approach should be to state it literally, with numbers. That would be unemotional and objective. That would encourage us to deal with useful facts. Instead, this author uses judgmental colour to show she thinks it is too high. But her ‘catastrophe’ might be what I would call a ‘mild inconvenience’. We do not know and cannot tell unless she states what the literal cost is – in dollars, lives etc – instead of telling us how we should feel about the cost.
Carbon dioxide, by the way, is not a pollutant in any truly objective sense of the word, because plants love the stuff. The use of the word “pollute” is more judgmental colour.
Contrary to what this author states, we have not waited too long to “stop the process”. Of course we could stop the process. One straightforward means would involve killing almost the entire human race. Though unpalatable to me, mass genocide at least has the advantage of being a technique that has been tried multiple times through history, often garnering significant levels of support from the individuals who expect to survive. Better still, we already possess the technology to kill billions of people, and could use it at very short notice and at a fraction of the cost involved in developing ‘cheap and safe’ nuclear fusion or any number of renewable energy sources that stubbornly remain more expensive than fossil fuels.
However, most of us would prefer some global warming to genocide, which is why we do not get hyperbolic about sea levels rising a few inches. The issue is hence how bad is, as the author puts it, “too bad”. Again, her “too bad” need not be the same as my “too bad”. We will not collectively “figure out” how to stop things being too bad if we fundamentally disagree on what state of affairs is considered too bad to tolerate. So why does the scientist not state the likely outcomes and costs? Because, I suspect, this author is so in love with her vision of reality that she fails to admit she does not have all the necessary information to reach a definitive conclusion.
“…and how to adapt to changes…” This is really the crux of the matter. It is not a question of only adapting to changes we “cannot” stop but of how much effort should go into adapting to climate change, versus how much effort should go into stopping climate change. That might be easy to do if the science delivered reliable forecasts, but it does not. Instead we get emotive language about the need to stop climate change, with no hard-headed analysis of whether it would be cheaper, easier, better to adapt to climate change. And that is because such enormous macro-economic decisions must take us, unsurprisingly, into the sphere of macroeconomics, a domain where even the most obstinate economist would refrain from suggesting the science is settled. Right now there is not a single scientist who can state, as a certain matter of fact, whether it would be better to allow climate change to progress unimpeded whilst we grow the economy, and then to spend the accumulated wealth on adaptation, or to immediately spend a large portion of the economy on limiting the extent of climate change, and to hence suffer less spending on other aspects of human society, and risk less wealth in future.
In some ways it is easy to understand why scientists might engage in such a daft argument. It is very unsophisticated for climate change deniers to dispute if global warming occurs, or how much it is caused by human beings. Disputing measurements of temperature or the volume of ice is a folly, unless you are sufficiently expert on taking those measurements. Perhaps climate models are bunk, but if almost every climate scientist supports the same models then their position is strong. If deniers want to obstruct action then the simplest course is to shift the debate to the realm of economic models, and predicting future technological advances. Here the scientists have no special advantage, and the human race is found to be generally deficient at any sort of useful prognostication.
Ignoring climate change deniers for a moment, and supposing most of us genuinely want to live in reality, then it becomes apparent that there is an obvious flaw with marching for science. The act of walking is not the act of doing actual science. So if science is a genuinely useful practice, walking is an unhelpful distraction. I could just as easily walk against science as I can walk for it, with approximately the same impact on global warming either way. Genuine scientists might better protest cutbacks in science by doing more science voluntarily, but I suppose they might feel they have played into the hands of their enemies.
Writing about walking for science is even less helpful than walking for science. For all the data presented in all the articles written by all the emotive scientists about why they need to go on marches, not a single person is more informed about what would be the likely cost of adaptation versus the likely cost of prevention as objectively calculated for several realistic climate change scenarios.
Note the importance of realism when seeking to determine policy. Realism involves such things as: admitting you do not have all the information you might like; being conscious that different people have different priorities; recognizing the extent of uncertainty when predicting the future; talking about specific tasks and showing how, in combination, they contribute to an attainable goal. It is this kind of realism that is sadly lacking in much of the current public discourse. If scientists want to help the public they should promote science, not promote dogmas which were supposedly derived from science.
I suspect the real problem with science is that it is hard, and that is why everybody cuts corners most of the time, including scientists. Should I adopt an evidence-based policy when assessing how to best influence government, or should I go on a march because that will also make me feel good and introduce me to like-minded people? If you believe in the evidence for evolution then you should also believe that human beings did not evolve like the caricature of a logical scientist that is Spock from Star Trek. Emotions play a valid and inevitable role in determining human choices. In that respect, I am being deliberately unfair – and as pointed as Spock’s ears – by observing that marches for science reflect the emotional desire for the marchers to express themselves and bond with like-minded people. In contrast, the evidence for marches changing government policy is patchy and contradictory.
Living by scientific principles is so hard that the campaigners behind the March for Science fail to apply their own principles to their own campaign. Their second ‘core’ principle is for evidence-based policy. However, their lengthy list of principles does not cite any evidence which might support their claims. They did not think to mention a single scientific paper that backed their opinions. Why not? The framers of the US constitution might have held some truths to be self-evident, but science has to do better, or else it is not science. Did this failure come about because the marchers’ belief in their third ‘core’ principle – supporting education that teaches children and adults to think critically, ask questions, and evaluate truth based on the weight of evidence – does not apply when critics like me ask questions like this?
Consider the following statement:

De-funding and hiring freezes in the sciences are against any country’s best interests

This may very well be true, as a statement about the current state of affairs of every country on the planet. But is there literally no advantage in showing the evidence to support this claim? Approaching this statement another way, a critical mind would observe that there must be some point when spending on science is too much to serve the country’s best interests. Instead of telling us that less spending is always bad, why not simply tell us how much is optimal? Or is the problem that these seemingly factual assertions are not as solidly grounded in fact as the scientists would have us believe?
I could go on, but the real point is that marches for science are like reading New Scientist for science, or LA Times op-eds about science, or text books about science. They may be a useful precursor for science, they may encourage people to do science, they may even teach people a few useful things, but they are an output, not the science itself. Like any output translated into any language, they can be wrong and misleading, even if drawn from science that was good.
When a woman in a white lab coat tells me how to brush my teeth she may be trying to help me by reiterating the findings of solid research, but when she sticks in a cigarette in her mouth and tells me the tobacco is stimulating I should realize the lab coat guarantees nothing. Public communication introduces an element of popularization that may undermine the science itself, and can lead scientists to say silly things that are neither scientific nor true. Scientists can be liars, charlatans and fools. They can also be selfish or vain, and so say things in order to get attention, or money, or because it is what their audience wants to hear. As Neil deGrasse Tyson once argued, the scientific probabilities indicate the entire universe is most likely to be an artificial simulation. Because scientists believe reality matters, obviously…

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