Circling the square

The seems to have been an interesting, inter-disciplinary meeting in Nottingham called Circling the Square : Research, media, politics, and impact. The goal seems to have been to explore the role of knowledge in policy making and brought together international scholars in the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities, practitioners at the science-policy interface, the public and the media.

I followed some of it on Twitter, and it seems to have been quite successful, but wasn’t without an element of controversy (which may well have contributed to the success 🙂 ). The controversy seems to relate to a perception that some of the social scientists were suggesting that everything – the physical sciences included – is politicised, or influenced by societal pressures, and that people should just accept this.

Some of the physicists who were present, seemed to object to this framing. Philip Moriarty has written an interesting post about this. It’s possible, as suggested by Warren Pearce, that there’s just a bit of a misunderstanding. What we choose to research and what is likely to get funded is clearly influenced by politics and by society. People, however, are not actually suggesting that the results of scientific research is influenced by politics. However, it’s also possible that some social scientists may not appreciate why physical scientists may take offense at the suggestion that the physical sciences is influenced – at some fundamental level – by politics/society.

In the physical sciences there are laws – conservation of energy, mass, momentum. Whether what you’re researching is societally relevant or not, if your results violate any of these laws, then they’re wrong. It doesn’t matter how badly you may want your results to be one thing or another, if your analysis doesn’t satisfy these fundamentals it is wrong. Of course, it’s maybe not quite that simple since most research involves assumptions and simplifications, but you can’t select these so as to get the result you want. You select these on the basis of the information available and on the physics – for example – that you need to include. So, I can see why some might be somewhat taken aback by a suggestion that the results of their research is influenced by politics/society. I think most would accept that what might be of interest, and what might get funded, is influenced by society, but implying that the results are influenced by politics is another matter.

Having said that, I’m certainly not suggesting that all physical scientists are as pure as the driven snow. I’m sure there are some that are not as careful as they should be, but that’s where the scientific method comes in. Because there are fundamental laws, others can carry out the same kind of research. If someone’s results are questionable, that would soon become clear – especially if it is something that is societally relevant. In fact, that’s – to a certain extent – the validation method. Numerous researchers carry out similar research and produce consistent results. I don’t start to trust a certain scientific result simply because someone clever produced it; I start to trust it if is reproduced by others.

So, as much as I accept that politics and society influence what research would be regarded as interesting and, consequently, what might be funded, I’m much less willing to accept that it influences the results of research in any significant way. Of course, it’s possible that this whole issue is just a mis-understanding and that noone was really suggesting that research results are strongly influenced by society. If not, however, that then begs the question of how those who suggest this perceive their own research.

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21 Responses to Circling the square

  1. Mike Pollard says:

    I think the space race and putting men on the moon is probably one of the best examples of “politics” driving science, and the resulting science was of considerable benefit to society. But to suggest that the results of that research were influenced by society is nonsense. As I read somewhere recently “Mother nature always bats last”.

  2. Mike,
    Agreed. The other aspect of something like the space race is that it seems to be something that would not have happened if we’d just left it to see if it would happen anyway. It took a great deal of public investment and political will to get it to work. Now we’re seeing private investment in space activities, but I doubt that would have happened without the initial injection of public funds.

  3. afeman says:

    It’s interesting watching the commenters at that blog post react to Pielke Jr. with apparently virgin puzzlement.

  4. Yes, I did notice Pielke Jr’s involvement in this. I was going to comment on that in the post, but just didn’t get around to it.

  5. afeman says:

    It reminds me of when I heard a vaguely familiar name address a scientific audience about science communication (Title: Uncertainty is Political!). After some strange examples he expressed his thesis that it was on scientists to bridge the divide with Republicans by meeting them half-way. After the talk much of the audience spontaneously broke up into groups trying to charitably understand what he meant. Only afterwards did I look up the name Daniel Sarewitz and remember why it all smelled like BS.

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  8. BBD says:

    afeman

    After some strange examples he expressed his thesis that it was on scientists to bridge the divide with Republicans by meeting them half-way.

    Presumably exactly what a commenter on the previous thread meant when he said that we (non-contrarians) “must become more sceptical”. As in “sceptical”.

  9. JohnH says:

    This is all very similar to what the right wing did with the media back in the 80s and 90s – jockeying the refs. By repeatedly calling the media “liberal” (which it really wasn’t – it was just better journalism back in the day), they managed to move the meter slowly to the right over the past two decades (this is why we have false balance today). I think they expect to have a similar influence over the scientific community, badgering them to the right – which is ironic, considering their repeated charges of “bias” in science, when all they really want to do is inject their own political bias into the proceedings. It’s a pretty typical strategy. I’ve tooled around some of the “skeptic” sites, and it’s a pretty demoralizing experience. Everything they accuse the mainstream scientists of (distortion, dishonesty), they are guilty of themselves, in spades – and it is to blatantly politically motivated as to be almost comical. Darkly comical, at least. I’m just an outside spectator to this whole thing, not a scientist, but that’s why I’m especially thankful for sites like this and SKS. There’s so much pseudo-skeptical silliness out there, and then… well, the title of this blog says it all.

  10. BBD says:

    Did somebody mention shifting the Overton Window?

    🙂

  11. > the space race and putting men on the moon is probably one of the best examples of “politics” driving science

    Driving engineering, mostly. But that would seem to be a good example of ATTP’s “politics and society influence… what might be funded, I’m much less willing to accept that it influences the results of research in any significant way”.

  12. JohnH: “Everything they accuse the mainstream scientists of (distortion, dishonesty), they are guilty of themselves, in spades – and it is to blatantly politically motivated as to be almost comical.”

    I guess that is how they would do “science” and that is why they assume that that is how scientists do it.

  13. JohnH and Victor,
    Yes, I did wonder about what this might imply about such people’s attitude to their own research. If they are suggesting what it seems (and it could be a mis-understanding) have they simply accepted that their results are influenced by politics/society. Not great, if that is the case.

  14. Michael 2 says:

    Hard science good. (scientific method)

    Soft science bad. (expensive opinions).

  15. Michael 2,
    Hmmmm, you don’t think that that is maybe a bit condescending towards social scientists?

  16. Another example of the same phenomenon on the previous post.

    “The central problem is that the true believers in CAGW (many scientists, educators, politicians and the press) often exaggerate the evidence because they believe it is the only way to get action on this issue. They are not evil. They are just using the wrong tactics.”

    That is what “sceptics” do and thus expect scientists to do. (I am becoming a fan of the term CAGW, it makes it easy to see who is a “sceptic”. That helps in interpreting whether a comment is ironic or real.)

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  18. BBD says:

    Victor

    If there’s one thing that defines and unifies pseudosceptic discourse, it is that it is all projection.

    (h/t Lotharsson, elsewhere)

  19. Mark Ryan says:

    In so many walks of life, people define themselves by what they are against, rather than what they are for -and I find in the social studies of science, this is also largely true.

    For many people in the social sciences, the ‘classical view’ of scientific practice tends to characterise scientific knowledge as objective truth, or at least as being about the discovery of the objective facts of the world. Obviously, the efficacy of scientific knowledge is well known, but the study of how scientific authority is used in politics and culture has found many examples of clearly social ends being served by taking on the cloak of being ‘scientific’ -these range from supposed evidence for racial and gender inequalities, to weapons development, to sales pitches for toothpaste. The idea of ‘science as truth’ is therefore treated with great suspicion in the social disciplines.

    It is obvious that science unavoidably takes place in the context of politics, ideology and culture -in that sense, the tweet by Roger Pielke Jnr quoted in Philip Moriarty’s blog is correct. But I have a problem with the way many people think about the relationship between politics and science. Whether it’s sociologists, or Jo Nova, they often make the same assumption: that the only cultures of importance are outside of scientific communities -party politics, left/right ideologies, motivations that press in on science to shape it etc. But there are professional cultures that only exist in scientific communities, and these cultures have been carefully refined over centuries to make scientific research as open as possible to the selection pressures of the real systems and objects that it studies.

    I use the Darwinian metaphor of ‘selection pressures’ quite deliberately -nobody gets a crystal ball view into nature, but nor does nature simply hide away all of its secrets. Knowledge evolves via multiple determinations -it is never perfect, but the tendency is to get progressively better. Science does not progress by a simplistic ‘realism’ by which the natural world just reveals objective truths over time, but of all the imperfectly achieved and compromised activities human beings come together to do, it is the most objective and most likely to discover truth.

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