Welcome to our first blog book discussion. As announced last week, we are reading through Shawn Otto’s The War on Science together and discussing a couple of chapters at a time as we go. I’ll start by sharing a few of my thoughts, organized by topic, and then it’s your turn. You can respond to my comments or introduce new threads of discussion, whatever is on your mind. So let’s get started!
Science & Politics
OK, so that got political quickly. I thought Otto might build to the case for science debate questions as the book went along and finish with some action points, but he went there right out of the gate. He has a point that science impacts policy decisions, although I’m not certain scientific knowledge always translates to power as the second chapter argued. Sure, if you build a better mousetrap, etc. but does expertise in string theory or intracellular protein transport really afford much power? Or to put it another way, is science only valuable if it allows us to control the world? That feels like a very political perspective on science, rather than a scientific perspective of politics.
The candidate questions were interesting. “What should we do about the world’s aging nuclear weapons?” feels very appropriate, since elected officials will be making those kinds of decisions and that decision process should engage with the science of nuclear decay. “Do vaccines cause autism?” feels more like a shibboleth; I appreciate why such a question may seem necessary, but I’d rather hear about a comprehensive vision for public health than a true/false quiz.
Those questions set up what I felt was a central tension of these first chapters. Is Otto trying to encourage broad scientific literacy and a deeper level of scientific discourse in US national politics, or is he rallying support for specific policies and positions? I sense he thinks both are the same, that if we just knew the science we’d come to the same conclusions. But psychological and sociological research is revealing this deficit model of disagreement isn’t always accurate and doesn’t result in persuasion as often as expected. The deficit model supposes that people disagree with me because they don’t know the science, and so if I just explain it to them they’ll come around to my point of view. But there are plenty of situations where people know all the same science and still come to different conclusions. And so I wonder if Otto has tipped his ideological hand too soon, making it difficult for readers with different political or even world views to appreciate his concern for science literacy in general.
Otto discusses several matters of definition and seems to place these on equal footing with observations and inferences. For example, he describes a hypothetical disagreement about whether 2 + 2 is 4 or 6. He claims the matter can be settled by observing the world to learn which answer is objectively true and which is objectively false. But arithmetic is not purely a matter of observation; it relies heavily on definitions, at least some of which are arbitrary. In base 3, 2 + 2 is 11. On the ring Z4, 2 + 2 is 0. (And for extra fun, 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + … and so on infinitely comes to – 1 / 12.) Sure, I’m being deliberately obtuse, but if we are interested in scientific literacy and making strong claims about what we know through science, we can’t gloss over epistemology.
More to the point, it’s not just math where definitions are important. Otto comes back repeatedly to policies about “morning after” pills, strongly implying that there is one correct policy based on science and the “scientific definition of when a woman can be said to be pregnant.” But this is the topic where I think the problems with Otto’s approach to persuasion are most evident. Biology is not the only issue. People are concerned about that particular prescription because of their idea of when life begins, not just when pregnancy begins. Insisting that fertilized eggs fail to implant all the time doesn’t make one particular definition more scientific than another; after all, lives end from natural causes at all stages of life with regularity.
Consider that some humanists make a scientific case for life beginning at fertilization and thus advocate for pro-life policies. I observed some women marching for such an organization at the March for Science earlier this year. These folks are not ignorant of the science. They choose different definitions based on the same observations. It’s unclear where humanists for pro-life fit into Otto’s schema, although the testimonies on that linked page indicate that many atheists and humanists and liberals are suspicious of any pro-life advocates and believe they must really be religiously motivated in some fashion.
Science as Magic
I am perhaps critiquing Otto a fair bit, but I sympathize with his advocacy for better science education and deeper engagement with science in public discourse. The book’s statistics about science journalism do reflect the reality of reporting at the moment. Perhaps more fundamentally, science has left many people behind. Otto touches on this when he compares smartphones to broomsticks and describes science and magic as effectively indistinguishable for some. Invoke the right magic words and inanimate objects spring to life; is that The Sorcerer’s Apprentice or programming in a robotics lab?
Science is fundamentally observational, but so many contemporary inferences follow from observations that few of us can make. And while I appreciate Otto’s attempt to make some of them seem attainable, his proposal of purchasing a $2,000 mass spectrometer seems out of touch with a country where half of the adults couldn’t find $400 for an emergency expense. And that’s not counting the cost of learning how to use such equipment; I have a hard science PhD and zero experience with acquiring and preparing the samples involved or interpreting the output, which almost certainly doesn’t read out Batcomputer-style as a direct answer to the age of the Earth question. Encouraging DIY experiments is good, but science has been diverging from unaided observations since we invented the telescope 400 years ago. I suspect we need more comprehensive solutions; hopefully Otto has some in store for us.
Wow, I’ve already said a lot and not even touched some big topics — Galileo, the nature of legal rhetoric and scientific reasoning, the role of interpretation in making inferences from observational data, the authoritarian roots of republican democracy, and so on. Perhaps some of you would like to take up those issues. The floor is yours.