Sciencing in public

As someone really worried with how badly Americans argue about public policies, I’ve especially worried about highly politicized attacks on science, and how hard it is for scientists to get pretty basic concepts understood. As a historian of public argumentation, I’m unhappily aware that the tendency to attack scientific discoveries on purely political grounds isn’t new. And a lot of people have written things about how science is attacked, and bemoaned our inability to get scientific findings to have real impact on public policy, but I think those things haven’t had much impact because of their rhetoric.

Lots of people have said that scientists’ rhetoric is flawed because it’s too technical and academic, but, honestly, I don’t think that’s the problem. I think the two major problems that vex public uses of science in public policy are: culturally, we have a vague definition of what is a “science,” and second, we have a thoroughly muddled notion of what “objectivity” is.

And scientists themselves don’t help. In public, too many scientists conflate “science” and “what I think is good science” and appeal to an inconsistent epistemology.

What people engaged in research about climate change, vaccines, evolution, and gender need to understand is that the people who attack what some of us think of as science do so by citing what they think of as science.

Behind the arguments that we think of as “science” arguments are, it seems to me, two deep misunderstandings: first, what a “science” is; second, what epistemology (model of knowledge) is right. The first one is relatively straightforward, but the second, more complicated one, is the really crucial one.

Part of the problem is that the cultural understanding of what it means to be a “science” is muddled, and, for a large number of people, simply outdated. Until well into the 20th century, various disciplines were called “sciences” that had nothing to do with what we now think of as the scientific method, insofar as they relied on non-falsifiable claims (eugenics, for instance). But they called themselves sciences and they were accepted as such because they had numbers, they had experts, and they had peer-reviewed journals. For many people, that older notion of a “science” prevails: a science is something that is done by people with degrees in fields that seem kind of science-y and have a lot of math. (Look at the oft-shared list of “scientists” who say global warming is a hoax.)

There are various organizations out there (and long have been) with very clear political agenda that call themselves “sciences” or “scientific” and manage to mimic the rhetorical moves of sciences. This, too, is nothing new. When various organizations abandoned race as a useful concept, racists formed their own organizations and journals that only published “studies” that fit their political agenda (John P. Jackson’s Segregationists for Science describes this process elegantly). Meanwhile, they railed at the mainstream journals for being politicized. They managed to look like “science” to many people because they had authors who had degrees in science, some of whom worked as “scientists.” That notion of science is an identity argument: science is the work done by people we think of as scientists.

The same thing happened when psychologists decided that homosexuality was not a mental illness—organizations formed with the political agenda of only supporting research that pathologized homosexuality (and, once again, that condemned other research as “politicized”). And they call themselves scientific organizations, with “research” prominent in their titles. There are similar organizations and webpages (and some journals) for organizations that promote Young Earth Creationism, anti-vaccine rhetoric, attacks on climate change, and all sorts of other ideologically charged issues. And, as with the pro-segregationist rhetoric, they are explicitly politicized while projecting that condemnation onto their critics. Because they are explicit that they are looking for “science” that supports beliefs they already have, one of the very straightforward ways that they are not sciences is that their claims are non-falsifiable.

They are scientific, they say, because they can generate studies and data that support their beliefs. In the case of creationism and homophobia, the groups often insist that they are proving that Scripture and “science” say the same thing. They can support their readings with data or quotes from people with degrees in science, and with scientific-sounding explanations. That’s cherry-picking, of course, but it means that they can invoke the authority of “science” to support their claims.

(And here I should probably come clean: I self-identify as Christian, and I think they cherry-pick Scripture just as much as they cherry-pick “science.”)

When I first wandered into these places, where people at odds with the scientific consensus insisted that they were doing science, I just assumed that there were being deliberately disingenuous, but I no longer think so. For me, as for many people, there is “normal science,” which is the data being produced by people publishing falsifiable studies in peer-reviewed journals. Science, furthermore, has the quality that scholars in rhetoric call “good faith argumentation,” meaning that the people putting forward a claim can imagine being presented with data that would cause them to abandon it (there are some other characteristics, but that one is the important one here). But that isn’t how everyone thinks about science–it isn’t about method, but about the identity of the person doing the work.

Young Earth Creationists, for instance, fail at every point mentioned above (except posture). They can cite data to support their claims (some of which, but not much, is true), but they can’t articulate the conditions under which they would abandon their narrative about the creation of the earth.

So, why do they continue to think of themselves as doing science?

It’s the identity argument. As I said earlier, for many people, “science” is the activity done by people who have degrees in a science field, regardless of the institution, and regardless of the discipline. So, how do they distinguish between good and bad science? Good science is true.

For them, science is a relationship to reality—if you’re a “scientist,” then you have a direct connection to the logos that God breathed into the fabric of the universe. Thus, that 700 scientists would say that global warming is false shows that people with that kind of unmediated knowledge make a claim. That faith in unmediated knowledge is often called the “naïve realist” epistemology.

That “unmediated knowledge” is crucial to all this, and it’s where scientists trip themselves up. It’s important to understand that the people arguing for young earth creation believe that they can simply look and see the truth–so any argument that says “You’re wrong, because you can simply look and see a different answer” isn’t going to work rhetorically. They are looking, and they can find evidence to support their position.

And that raises the second, fairly complicated, problem about epistemology. And scientists have issues with this, I think, because when in public they’re naive realists, and they insist you’re either a naive realist or a postmodern relativist (really? do they think creationists are postmodernists? they’re pre-modernists), but when at home they’re skeptics. Science itself rejects naive realism, so scientists need to stop talking as though there is naive realism or post-modernism. (In fact, that’s how creationists talk, which is a different post.)

A non-trivial complication in how the public argues about “science” is that what I earlier called “normal science” is often advocated by people who do and don’t claim that they have unmediated knowledge of the world. That’s a rhetorical problem. Scientists and young earth creationists (and all the other advocates of bad science out there) appeal to and reject naïve realism.

Briefly, many defenders of science in public debates make two claims simultaneously: science is indisputably true; science is better than religion because scientists change their mind when presented with new evidence—science is falsifiable. In other words, science looks true to people AND the results of scientific studies are contingent claims that could be proven false. So, as I said, in public discourse, too many scientists appeal to naive realism, but the scientific method itself rejects naive realism.

To many people, that looks as though scientists are saying that, although we’ve changed our mind a lot in the past (meaning “science” can be wrong) we are absolutely right now. Or, more bluntly: science is true but it’s been false.

And, let’s be blunt: it’s been false. Eugenics was mainstream science. It had bad methods, but it was mainstream science, and it was taught in science classes. It didn’t look bad at the time. Medicine claims to be a science, as does nutrition, and it has made a lot of claims that scientists in those fields now believe to be false.

Scientists need to reject the false binary of “you either believe that science tells us things that are obviously true” or “you are postmodernist literary critic who believes that all claims are equally true.” That is not only a falsifiable claim, but a false one. Young earth creationists are cheerfully unaffected by postmodernism anything, and they say that they believe things that are obviously true. Also, there are very few “postmodernists” who say that “all claims are equally true”–Feyerabend comes to mind, and very few others, and no, that isn’t actually what Foucault or Derrida said. (And I don’t even really like Foucault or Derrida, and I think that’s just an outrageously ignorant way to characterize what they’re saying.)

Keep in mind, Popper said that objectivity isn’t about what an individual does. A claim is objective, he said, because it’s an object in the world, and he said an objective claim isn’t necessarily true. So, since Popper said that an individual scientist isn’t necessarily objective, is he a postmodern relativist?

Good science isn’t about the cognitive processes of individuals engaged in science; it’s about the arguments people in science have. When people claim that you either believe what “science” says right now or you’re a postmodernist relativist hippy, they’re rejecting the scientific method.

The whole premise of the scientific method, especially concepts like a control group, falsifiability, and double-blind studies, is that people are prone to confirmation bias (a good study doesn’t set out to confirm a hypothesis: it sets out to falsify one). The scientific method presumes that humans’ perception is clouded. That acknowledging that individuals can’t see the truth doesn’t make the underlying epistemology either solipsistic or relativist (both of which are, oddly enough, often misnamed as postmodernism—they long predate modernism, let alone postmodernism). It means that science generally exists in the realm of skepticism, sometimes radical, sometimes the mild version that Karl Popper called fallibilism. For Popper, there is a truth out there, and it can be perceived by individuals, but individuals are fallible judges of when we have and have not reached the truth.

Science isn’t about binaries. It’s about continua. There are some claims that could, in principle, have been falsified, but have so withstood such tests that it isn’t even interesting to consider the possibility—such as evolution. There are aspects of evolution about which there is disagreement, and about which new consenses continue to form (such as the direct ancestor of homo sapiens), but all of those disagreements are subject to proof and disproof through further research. And that is the difference between evolution and creationism: religious faith, by its very nature, cannot be subject to disproof. Science is, fundamentally, a rejection of naive realism and of binaries about certainty: it says we should be skeptical about all claims, and we should think about claims in terms of how certain we are of them.

It’s no coincidence that science and skepticism arose at the same time, and, in fact, that’s the argument that scientists make about how science is different from religion: a true scientist will abandon her beliefs if the data disconfirm them, but religion is about rejecting the data if it disconfirms the beliefs.

Let me rephrase my original statement of the problem: scientists make a rhetorical claim (their claims should be granted more credence because of how they are supported), and an epistemological one (their arguments are true). I sincerely believe that science is in such a bad way right now because too many advocates of science reject what they know: that science isn’t about being certain or not, but about how certain you are, and what are the conditions under which you should change your mind.

The epistemology underlying science is a skeptical one, and scientists know that. When they’re arguing in public, they need to stop acting as though there is either naive realism or postmodern relativism. Scientists are skeptics who argue passionately for their point of view.

Right now, our political world is demagogic, and that means that our political world is dominated by the notion that there are good people who perceive the obviously correct way to do things and those assholes. We disagree about who are the assholes, but we all agree that it’s a binary.

What science could and should do for us is show a different way of thinking about thinking–that the right course of action depends on a correct understanding of the world as it is, and there is no correct understanding immediately available to us, but there are understandings that look pretty damn good, given all the research that’s been done.


I’m not saying that scientists need to argue better in public; while I think the whole project of sciencing in public is wonderful, I also think, ultimately, scientists aren’t obligated to be rhetoricians. (Some of them are wonderful rhetoricians, such as Steven Weinberg, but that shouldn’t be a requirement.) Instead, I think we need, as a culture, a better understanding of how knowledge isn’t a binary between certain and uncertain, but a continuum. I think, oddly enough, that the solution to our current problem of fake science isn’t really in science, but in the study of knowledge.

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