Wednesday, June 15, 2016

What Science Is and How We Get People on Board

Atul Gawande on the growing mistrust of science and what we can do about it:  THE MISTRUST OF SCIENCE.

Atul Gawande


James R said...

Atul Gawande follows his own recommendations perfectly in his article on how to instill more trust of the scientific method in people. Proof is in the pudding as it works wonderfully. It worked for me. Sometimes I can lose faith that science gives us the best description of our world. I get too upset with the proponents of scientific, as well as religious, infallibility, and lose sight that that is just a cadre of not very good scientists. There is a lot of good knowledge and proper guidance here. I couldn't say it better in a comment, just read the article.

Big Myk said...

It seems that there's a general distrust of all learned people these days. Complex, hard analysis, I suppose, is too much work. For example, Trump supporters prefer his easy solutions over thinking peoples' complaints that these proposals are either unworkable or unconstitutional. I've heard it said that almost every economist predicted that Brexit would work an economic hardship on Britain. Apparently, the British were not listening. It's like everyone with an advanced degree is part of some vast conspiracy to mislead the public.

James R said...

I understand the sentiment, and I am all for paying close attention to experts, but there is science and there is science. It is one thing to say that matter does not occupy a precise spot at a precise speed at any particular time, or that matter does not coalesce from probable positions to one position when it is measured, and have thousands of experiments and working quantum computers to show that this is the case. And then quite another thing to say that people will behave a certain way in government or economics and that it will be a qualitative good or bad thing.

James R said...

After rereading my comment I noticed I denied exactly what I was trying to say. Matter DOES coalesce (the scientific word is decoherence) when observed. (I mistakenly wrote 'does not'.) Scientists disagree on what this means, but superposition is a many times proven 'fact' of nature, and we have working quantum computers to verify it. Sorry for the misstatement. But my point is that the very fact that reality does not coalesce until we view it (the ineluctable modality of the visible), lends weight to the idea that economic and political science and their experts should probably not be taken as seriously as physicists.

Big Myk said...

Actually, I wasn't making a point about the comparative value of narural science verses political science or economics. Rather, I was suggesting that the apparent widespread trust of intuitive (magical) beliefs over scientific knowledge was less about any particular distrust of science itself over other fields of study but was a rejection of thinking of any sort where it challenges these intuitive beliefs. So, not only does the public mistrust research showing that vaccines do not cause autism, but it also mistrusts any analysis showing that banning Muslims will not make our country safer or that building a wall will not improve the economy.

Although I didn't make the point before, now that you've brought it up, I have half a mind to disagree with you. First off, I'm not quite sure what you are saying. Are you saying that the natural science should be taken more seriously than social science because it alone has access to "facts?" If so, you didn't read Gawande's article carefully enough: "But you [the scientist] also hope to accept that nothing is ever completely settled, that all knowledge is just probable knowledge. A contradictory piece of evidence can always emerge." Gawande then quotes Hubble: “The scientist explains the world by successive approximations.” Niels Bohr himself wondered whether science could ever identify a "fact.": “Physics is not about how the world is, it is about what we can say about the world.”

On the other hand, social scientists understand the scientific approach and, for example, would agree that the most rigorous form of intellectual inquiry is randomized field experiments. The problem is: it's difficult to do. In theory, we could randomly assign one part of Britain to the EU and have another part leave, and see what the outcomes are 10 years down the line. Of course, you'd also have to control every other factor that might after the economic wellbeing of either of the test subjects.

As you can see, the subject matter of politics is so causally complex that honest researchers can only make highly probabilistic statements on most important political topics, of the following form: “Our best judgment is that X is less likely to be true than Y.” Of course, that's all that the natural scientists do, only, to use Hubble's term, the approximations of natural science get to be a bit approximate than those of social science. I agree that we should rely on the predictions of natural science more than those of social science, but it's a matter of degree and not of kind.

James R said...

We are saying the same thing with different words. A major point of Gawande, backed by Bohr, backed by you, backed by me, is that science can never be infallible. It is our best description, but certainly not how the world is. Our current best description of superposition gives even more weight to the epistemic rather than the ontic world. (But real still remains an enigma.) All of us agree in this.

My point, with which we also agree, is that causally complex social/political/economic/cultural predictions carry less weight than so called hard science of chemistry, biology, and physics. As you point out, the experiments are impossible to run using the scientific method in some fields. But that doesn't keep the experts from trying. Call it degree or kind, I'm happy with either.

I also think that in social/political/economic/cultural affairs, there is often a qualitative consideration to the analysis. That may also lessen the expert's conclusions for people who hold a different view of the good.

James R said...

Here's an article which goes into long explanations about some current challenges in science. Perhaps it also sheds some light on why some people are losing faith in science.