Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Mooney & Nisbet: science should be deliberately politicized

The Science magazine has published a highly controversial text written by Matthew Nisbet and Chris Mooney whose main message is similar to the message of an equally controversial article about post-normal science by Mike Hulme. Neither Nisbet nor Mooney is a scientist but they are widely viewed by the public as spokespeople of science.

If you don't have subscription, a large portion of their text, starting with the word "Issues", can be found e.g. here.

The authors argue that the laymen don't care about any technical details and scientists should accept this fact and "frame" information to make it "relevant to different audiences" i.e. to define controversies so that they "resonate with core values and assumptions". One of their "great" examples how to do so is the recent decision of some creationist Evangelical leaders to include the climate change orthodoxy as a part of religious morality. Rev. Richard Cizik has thus become a role model for all scientists! ;-)

What Nisbet and Mooney suggest is dangerous and despicable. Don't get me wrong: it is very clear that the public discourse has indeed been evolving exactly in the direction that they like. But it's a wrong direction that should be reverted. The only legitimate way to frame science is to make it accurate enough so that it can appear on the Reference Frame. ;-)

There are many examples of this undesirable dynamics: whole fields of science have become heavily politicized: oversimplified political labels became more important than detailed and fair analyses. While climate change and, to some extent, bioengineering are the two most prominent examples, some people have actually tried to politicize even fields that are as unpolitical as you can get, such as quantum gravity and high-energy physics.

Certain people are indeed "framing" their account to fool the least educated audiences and they try to make the fate of otherwise extremely technical and specialized scientific questions depend on cheap emotional and irrational clichés, naive philosophical preconceptions, prevailing political streams of segments of the society, fundamentalist oversimplified interpretations of notions such as empiricism or diversity, fear, and compassion.

Most laymen, indeed, don't care whether the metric tensor is the only degree of freedom at the Planck scale but they care about the impact of various scientific controversies on their life and on their moral system. The critics of science - which includes both creationists as well as e.g. the recent critics of high-energy physics - have thus been "framing" the "public discussion" in such a way that the social feelings and emotions become primary and the technical questions become secondary or irrelevant.

Al Gore is trying hard to transform climate science from a science to a moral issue.

OK, I am from the old school in which political, ideological, and emotional arguments based on values shared by groups of people simply don't belong to science. They are impurities in science and the people whose goal is to spread these impurities are, indirectly, impurities themselves.

Their attitude is all wrong. If the society is going to avoid a serious setback that would lead our civilization back to the Middle Ages, scientists must fight against this tendency that Mooney and Nisbet actively promote. Scientists must actively say that Mooney and Nisbet are polluting science by undesirable political elements. Whenever they're active, scientists must try as much as they can to teach the public to think scientifically and rationally, at least about scientifically loaded issues.

It is very clear that the average laymen have always been thinking less scientifically than the scientists. They are still doing so and they will think less scientifically than the scientists in the future: this fact is true by definition - I mean the definition of a scientist. But I think it is clear in what direction the amount of scientific flavor in their approach should evolve in the optimistic scenario: it should increase.

Mooney and Nisbet propose that scientists should, on the contrary, adopt the mostly ideological and superficial approach to the truth. Scientists themselves should speak in such a way that politics is ahead of science and ahead of its technical questions in particular, they argue. Answers should be pre-determined by core values and assumptions, they claim. This is an extremely pernicious proposal.

It may be an attractive idea for certain political activists to politicize science because most scientists are leftists and Mooney in particular likes the idea that science will become another slave in the sometimes unholy political struggles of the Left: Mooney is the author of the "Republican War on Science."

The very title of the book is a textbook example of politicization of science. Of course, Mooney can always argue, just like Lee Smolin, that the title is just a collection of typos introduced by the publisher. ;-)

You might think that a dishonest presentation of the scientific results may help you or help the world. But I assure everyone that at a slightly longer time frame, the effects of such policies - if they became official and justifiable attitudes by the societal standards - would be very counterproductive for mankind regardless of the political identification.

I urge everyone to denounce their toxic proposals.

Stem cell research: morality vs science

Eric Berger (SciGuy) has written a thoughtful reply to Mooney's and Nisbet's suggestions. In a discussion with your humble correspondent, he reminded me that parts of science such as stem cell research depend on the public perception. I replied:

Dear Eric,

thanks for your reply. I agree that the expansion of the stem cell research and other activities depends on the public opinion. Moreover, I think that it is correct that it depends on the public opinion.

Why? It is because I think that the question whether it is right to clone embryos and do other things with them is indeed a moral question - one that can't be settled by science. Just like the public opinion and "core values and assumptions" shouldn't have the power to control what answers scientists find in their search for the scientific truth, the opinions of scientists shouldn't have the power to determine what is moral and what is immoral - questions that are beyond the ability of science to answer.

Now, I would of course agree that the approach of some people to bioengineering is based on sentiments that a scientist probably views as unscientific myths. But the people have the right to have these sentiments and in democracy, they have the right to use them to influence policies even without any need to prove their knowledge of biology.

One more thing: as cold scientists, we could perhaps calculate and imagine what would happen if we had policies that e.g. kill weak and sick children. From a scientific viewpoint, there's nothing impossible about these scenarios and we could think about them. But we are also humans, not just scientists, and I choose these policies to be unacceptable to consider. Other people's tolerance may be lower and they find stem cell research to be too much already. I am sometimes not sure myself. They have the right for these sentiments, don't they?

The way to improve the situation is to try to educate and spread the truth as it is. If some arguments are difficult, scientists should try to explain that the explanation is difficult and people should learn how to become more immune against cheap propaganda. The quality of the public debate should increase, not decrease. If science can't determine the answers to some questions, scientists should admit that they can't determine the answers. Everyone should learn that scientists don't necessarily have answers to all questions and scientists shouldn't feel any pressure to pretend otherwise.

People should be led to appreciate wisdom and knowledge and the atmosphere in the society should be such that the people who understand certain questions naturally enjoy a high degree of respect whenever these questions are considered.

There will always be people who decide about many scientific questions by following superficial criteria. We won't change that simply because some questions will always be too difficult for a majority and many people will always have other interests than the scientific truth. Allowing incorrect and inaccurate information to become powerful may be helpful in one particular situation but in the next one, we can pay a very high price for it. It is a flawed and unscientific long-term strategy.

I wrote that people who misunderstand some technicalities will always be around. But hopefully, there will also be people who look for answers by the scientific method, following the usual scientific standards and values, including the extreme desire for accuracy and fairness. Let's not allow Mr. Mooney and Mr. Nisbet to change this fact.

Sean Carroll has also reacted to the proposals.

1 comment:

  1. The proponents of "framing" have some interesting points to make, but this is the third time in recent years they've come around making these claims. The first was George Lakoff with "Don't Think of an Elephant" in 2004. Then came Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shallenberger with "Death of Environmentalism." The playbook for these guys was:

    * Make a big stir by accusing some portion of the "the establishment" of screwing up their communications

    * Promise to solve the problem, if only some funders will cough up big bucks for research. Use copious buzzwords to describe the research you intend to conduct.

    * Disappear without making any actual specific recommendations for what the target of their critique could do better.

    Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbet have followed the first two steps of this playbook to the letter. Let's hope they break the pattern and actually put forward some useful suggestions on how the scientific community can do a better job.

    If not, start the clock ticking on their 15 minutes.

    Eric
    http://waterwordsthatwork.com

    ReplyDelete