Categories
Science

“Enough science.”

Edit, 6.04 pm, December 15, 2020: A reader pointed out to me that The Guardian may in fact have been joking, and it has been known to be flippant on occasion. If this is really the case, I pronounce myself half-embarrassed for having been unable to spot a joke. But only half because it seems like a terrible joke, considering how proximate the real and the surreal having increasingly been, and because I still suspect it isn’t a joke. The astrologer in question is real, so to speak, and I doubt The Guardian wishes to ridicule her so.

From ‘How to watch the Jupiter and Saturn ‘great conjunction’ of 2020′, The Guardian, December 15, 2020:

I don’t know why The Guardian would print something like this. Beyond the shock of finding astrology – especially non-self-deprecating astrology – in the science section, it is outright bizarre for a question in an FAQ in this section to begin with the words ‘Enough science’.

To my mind The Guardian seems guilty of indulging the false balance that science and astrology are equally relevant and useful the same way the New York Times deemed that Democrats and Republicans in the US made equal amounts of sense in 2020 – by failing to find the courage to recognise that one side just wants to be stupid and/or reckless.

But while the New York Times did it for some principle it later discovered might have been wrong, what might The Guardian‘s excuse be? Revenue? I mean, not only has the astrologer taken the great opportunity she has to claim that there are bound to be astrological implications for everything, the astrology being quoted has also been accommodated under a question that suggests science and astrology are on equally legitimate footing.

This view harms science in the well-known way by empowering astrologists and in turn disempowering the tenets of reason and falsifiability – and in a less-known way by casting science in opposition to astrology instead of broaching the idea that science in fact complements the arts and the humanities. Put differently, the question also consigns science to being an oppositional, confrontational, negatory entity instead of allowing it a more amicable identity, as a human enterprise capable of coexisting with many other human enterprises.

For example, why couldn’t the question have been: “With the science, what opportunities might I have as a photographer?”, “With the science, what opportunities might I have as a poet seeking inspiration?” or even “Enough science. Break out the history.” In fact, if with its dogmatism astrology discourages deliberative decision-making and with its determinism suppresses any motivation one might have to remake one’s fate, it stands truly apart from the other things humans do that might serve to uplift them, and make them a better people. It is hard to imagine there is a reason here to celebrate astrology – except capital.

If revenue was really the reason The Guardian printed the astrology question, I admit none of these alternatives would make sense because there is no money in the arts and the humanities. I hope the newspaper will explain as to why this happened, and in the meantime, I think we could consider this a teaching moment on the fleeting yet consequential ways in which capital can shape the public understanding of science.

Categories
Op-eds Science

A science for the non-1%

David Michaels, an epidemiologist and a former US assistant secretary of labour for occupational safety and health under Barack Obama, writes in the Boston Review:

[Product defence] operations have on their payrolls—or can bring in on a moment’s notice—toxicologists, epidemiologists, biostatisticians, risk assessors, and any other professionally trained, media-savvy experts deemed necessary (economists too, especially for inflating the costs and deflating the benefits of proposed regulation, as well as for antitrust issues). Much of their work involves production of scientific materials that purport to show that a product a corporation makes or uses or even discharges as air or water pollution is just not very dangerous. These useful “experts” produce impressive-looking reports and publish the results of their studies in peer-reviewed scientific journals (reviewed, of course, by peers of the hired guns writing the articles). Simply put, the product defence machine cooks the books, and if the first recipe doesn’t pan out with the desired results, they commission a new effort and try again.

Members of the corporate class have played an instrumental role in undermining trust in science in the last century, and Michaels’s exposition provides an insightful glimpse of how they work, and why what they do works. However, the narrative Michaels employs, as illustrated above, treats scientists like minions – a group of people that will follow your instructions but will not endeavour to question how their research is going to be used as long as, presumably, their own goals are met – and also excuses them for it. This is silly: the corporate class couldn’t have done what it did without help from a sliver of the scientific class that sold its expertise to the highest bidder.

Even if such actions may have been more the result of incompetence than of malice, for too long have scientists claimed vincible ignorance in their quasi-traditional tendency to prize unattached scientific progress more than scientific progress in step with societal aspirations. They need to step up, step out and participate in political programmes that deploy scientific knowledge to solve messy real-world problems, which frequently fail and just as frequently serve misguided ends (such as – but sure as hell not limited to – laundering the soiled reputation of a pedophile and convicted sex offender).

But even so, even as the scientists’ conduct typifies the problem, the buck stops with the framework of incentives that guides them.

Despite its connections with technologies that powered colonialism and war, science has somehow accrued a reputation of being clean. To want to be a scientist today is to want to make sense of the natural universe – an aspiration both simple and respectable – and to make a break from the piddling problems of here and now to the more spiritually refined omnipresent and eternal. However, this image can’t afford to maintain itself by taking the deeply human world it is embedded in for granted.

Science has become the reason for state simply because the state is busy keeping science and politics separate. No academic programme in the world today considers scientific research to be at par with public engagement and political participationa when exactly this is necessary to establish science as an exercise through which, fundamentally, people construct knowledge about the world and then ensure it is used responsibly (as well as to demote it from the lofty pedestal where it currently lords over the social sciences and humanities). Instead, we have a system that encourages only the production of knowledge, tying it up with metrics of professional success, career advancement and, most importantly, a culture of higher educationb and research that won’t brook dissent and tolerates activist-scientists as lesser creatures.

a. And it is to the government’s credit that political participation has become synonymous with electoral politics and the public expression of allegiance to political ideologies.

b. Indeed, the problem most commonly manifests as a jaundiced impression of the purpose of teaching.

The perpetuators of this structure are responsible for the formation and subsequent profitability of “the strategy of manufacturing doubt”, which Michaels writes “has worked wonders … as a public relations tool in the current debate over the use of scientific evidence in public policy. … [The] main motivation all along has been only to sow confusion and buy time, sometimes lots of time, allowing entire industries to thrive or individual companies to maintain market share while developing a new product.”

To fight the vision of these perpetuators, to at least rescue the fruits of the methods of science from inadvertent ignominy, we need publicly active scientists to be the rule, not the exceptions to the rule. We need structural incentives to change to accommodate the fact that, if they don’t, this group of people will definitely remain limited to members of the upper class and/or upper castes. We need a stronger, closer marriage of science, the social sciences, business administration and policymaking.

To be sure, I’m neither saying the mere presence of scientists in public debates will lead to swifter solutions nor that the absence of science alone in policymaking is responsible for so many of the crises of our times – but that their absence has left cracks so big, it’s quite difficult to consider if they can be sealed any other wayc. And yes, the world will slow down, the richer will become less rich and economic growth will become more halting, but these are all also excuses to maintain a status quo that has only exploited the non-1% for two centuries straight.

c. Michaels concludes his piece with a list of techniques the product-defence faction has used to sow doubt and, in the resulting moments of vulnerability, ‘sell science’ – i.e. techniques that represent the absence of guiding voices.

Of course, there’s only so much one can do if the political class isn’t receptive to one’s ideas – but we must begin somewhere, and what better place to begin than at the knowledgeable place?

Categories
Op-eds Science

When deGrasse Tyson pulled a Pinker

Since this post was published, an upward-edited version has been republished on The Wire.

Twitter is, among other things, that place on the internet where people fight over the tips of icebergs. There is often the presumption that what ends up on Twitter has been thought through and carefully condensed to fit into the arbitrary 280-character limit, but then again, there is also ample evidence to the contrary: many of its users get caught up in the tips that they think that’s all there is. These possibilities cast a dark shadow on Twitter’s claim to represent reality. More often than not, it is its own world, and has nothing to do with the world around it except that it collects the worst opinions from there unto itself. Last night Neil deGrasse Tyson joined in:

deGrasse Tyson has been one of those people calling attention to how what we’re reading about science on the web is often just a pinhole-sized snapshot of a more glorious thing lying hidden from view – just like an iceberg. Reading him, you’d think that when he says stuff about astronomy and cosmology, he’s not losing any context and that he’s simply presenting what he can in 280 characters on the microblogging platform. Then again, the tweet above appears to be evidence to the contrary: a tweet that seems to presume to contain all the arguments and histories of the five issues it mentions in (exactly) 280 characters and which, in one fell swoop, dismisses all the outrage of the political left.

It certainly gets my goat that the left has been painted as anti-fact and that the right is guided by righteous logic when in fact this is the result of the deeper dismissal of the validity of the social sciences and humanities, which have served throughout history to make facts right and workable in their various contexts. The right has appropriated the importance of quantitative measures – and that alone – and brandishes it like a torch even as the world burns below.

For example, As Alex Gladstein, chief strategy officer at the Human Rights Foundation and VP of strategy of the Oslo Freedom Forum, recently wrote in the New Republic, “dictators love development statistics” because “they’re an easily faked way to score international points”. Excerpt:

From the development initiatives of Jeffrey Sachs and Bill Gates, to Tony Blair’s despotic partnerships or Tom Friedman championing Chinese autocracy in The New York Times, the last two decades have seen political concerns repeatedly sidelined by development statistics. The classic defence of dictatorship is that without the messy constraints of free elections, free press, and free protests, autocrats can quickly tear down old cities to build efficient new ones, dam rivers to provide electricity, and lift millions out of poverty. The problem with using statistics to sing the praises of autocracy is that collecting verifiable data inside closed societies is nearly impossible. From Ethiopia to Kazakhstan, the data that “proves” that an authoritarian regime is doing good is often produced by that very same regime.

And by attacking the validity of the social sciences and humanities, the left has effectively had the rug pulled out from under its feet, and the intellectual purpose of its existence delegitimised. We’re still talking about deGrasse Tyson’s tweet because, in his view, it seems facts are all there is, that data alone should settle the debate but that emotions are unnecessarily stretching it out. Thousands of other tweets swirl around it in response, telling him that he’s right even though the left will eat him alive for it.

You see, the right is the data and the left is the “soft science”, which – Quillette would have you believe – might as well be a synonym for ‘non-data’ and nonsense. And the only challenge the right is prepared to brook, or pretends to be prepared to brook, is numbers: those symbols that work one digit at a time, one character at a time, but which putatively contain everything you need to know about something, no further explanation required. This exaltation of mathematical logic, and Boolean algebra and lambda calculus, we’ve already seen before in the revanchist politics of the ‘New Atheist’ movement, and perhaps more recently when a Silicon Valley dude announced he had rediscovered history.

Anyway, right now, I, nor anyone else, don’t have – shouldn’t have – just numbers to rebut deGrasse Tyson’s argument because that’s not all there is. But I personally feel compelled to try to come up with something concise if only to see what I come up with, and it’s this: deGrasse Tyson is pulling a Steven Pinker*. The first three numbers on the list in his tweet have been on a downward trend for quite some time thanks to a) pharmaceutical innovation, b) increasing awareness of and sensitivity about what those issues actually stand for, and c) policies that open new avenues of treatment and legislation that deters casualties. (However, trends in disease mortality are currently being ‘disrupted’ by the rise of antimicrobial resistance, climate change and – lest we forget – the lopsided effects of these stressors on already-stressed economies.) The fourth number, despite being about accidents and not wilful acts of malice actuated by the availability of guns, has also been on the decline (except for a relatively small spike in absolute numbers in 2016):

Credit: Dennis Bratland/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Pinker is relevant here because of his disingenuous conclusion that the world is becoming a better place, and that cognitive biases are to blame for the left’s unwillingness to acknowledge that. His analyses are problematic because, especially in the domain of environmental action, they provide snapshots of the full picture – as if he’s content to work with the tips of icebergs. For example, consider the following excerpt from a rebuttal by George Monbiot to Pinker’s claim that countries become cleaner as they get richer, in the latter’s 2018 book Enlightenment Now:

Pinker suggests that the environmental impact of nations follows the same trajectory, claiming that the “environmental Kuznets Curve” shows they become cleaner as they get richer. To support this point, he compares Nordic countries with Afghanistan and Bangladesh. It is true that they do better on indicators such as air and water quality, as long as you disregard their impacts overseas. But when you look at the whole picture, including carbon emissions, you discover the opposite. The ecological footprints of Afghanistan and Bangladesh (namely the area required to provide the resources they use) are, respectively, 0.9 and 0.7 hectares per person. Norway’s is 5.8, Sweden’s is 6.5 and Finland, that paragon of environmental virtue, comes in at 6.7.

David Bell, a historian of science, took aim at a different portion of the book, in which Pinker appeared to be blind to the efforts of people who had fought, struggled and bent the arc of justice to serve them, instead labouring with the presumption that people should stop complaining because life has just automatically become better:

Did Enlightenment forms of reasoning and scientific inquiry lie behind modern biological racism and eugenics? … Not at all, Pinker assures us. That was just a matter of bad science. … But Pinker largely fails to deal with the inconvenient fact that, at the time, it was not so obviously bad science. The defenders of these repellent theories, used to justify manifold forms of oppression, were published in scientific journals and appealed to the same standards of reason and utility upheld by Pinker. “Science” did not by itself inevitably beget these theories … The later disproving of these theories did not just come about because better science prevailed over worse science. It came about as well because of the moral and political activism that forced scientists to question data and conclusions they had largely taken for granted.

deGrasse Tyson, it would seem, has fallen prey to a similar bout of snapshotism: he has cherry-picked one moment in history where the number of gun-deaths (per 48 hours) is lower than the number of deaths due to medical errors, flu, suicide and car accidents, all shorn of the now-denounced context that humankind and all its broken systems are trying to improve them.

What his tweet, which presumes to be the entire iceberg in some people’s worldview when in fact it is only the tip, fails to say is that America is doing little to nothing to prevent more gun deaths from happening, and in fact whose political establishment has often condoned the deleterious cultures of white nationalism and “involuntary celibacy” that powers it. If deGrasse Tyson had compared the effects of gun deaths on the conscience of a nation with the global failure to make polluters pay, with rising income inequality, with the decreasing resilience to pandemics in the developing world or with nationalism+xenophobia, he’d have been closer to the truth of it: We don’t have to be ashamed of deaths due to medical errors, fly, suicide and car accidents, but we do have to be ashamed of mass murders.

*deGrasseTyson also falls prey to a bit of the “poverty first, Moon/Mars next” fallacy in assuming that if there are multiple problems, they must be solved one after another even if the resources exist for us to tackle some or all of them in parallel.