What is science and why should we care? — Part I

Since I’ve written about the relationship between the physical sciences and the social sciences (Science and Technology Studies in particular) in the past, and have engaged in a number of discussions on the topic (annoying some people in the process I think), I thought I would reblog this recent post by Alan Sokal called “What is science and why should we care? – Part I”. There are 2 others parts to this, which you can find on the original site. It essentially addresses the issue that some in the social sciences seem to think that physical science doesn’t actually allow us to determine objective truths. I find this a remarkably odd view, but it does seem consistent with some of what I’ve encountered and – in my opinion at least – those who hold these views, do us no great service. I may write something more about this in due course, but it does seem that this kind of view allows some to regard all supposedly scientific views as having the same validity in the public sphere, even if some of these views violate the fundamental laws of physics. I fail to see how this makes any sense, but maybe others who know more than me can convince me that it does.

Scientia Salon

sokal.alanby Alan Sokal

I propose to share with you a few reflections about the nature of scientific inquiry and its importance for public life. At a superficial level one could say that I will be addressing some aspects of the relation between science and society; but as I hope will become clear, my aim is to discuss the importance, not so much of science, but of what one might call the scientific worldview — a concept that goes far beyond the specific disciplines that we usually think of as “science” — in humanity’s collective decision-making. I want to argue that clear thinking, combined with a respect for evidence — especially inconvenient and unwanted evidence, evidence that challenges our preconceptions — are of the utmost importance to the survival of the human race in the twenty-first century, and especially so in any polity that professes to be a democracy.

Of course…

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28 Responses to What is science and why should we care? — Part I

  1. chris says:

    Yes this is a fascinating topic. As you know, there are occasional discussions on the Making Science Public blog in which there is at least one purveyor of the idea that scientific knowledge is strongly influenced by our social structures and that the possibility of objective knowledge is limited.

    What strikes me about the argument presented there is how appallingly limited it is, as if the notion of a fatal (for objective knowledge) influence of social structures can only be advanced by assertion and semantic obfuscation, and that the way to address contrary examples (i.e examples that suggest that knowledge can be objective by any real world meaning of the term) is by choosing not to engage with these.

    I think it’s an interesting question the extent to which our social structures influence the nature of scientific knowledge, but I haven’t seen a good argument from those that assert that the influence is very strong. Perhaps the individual(s) that comment occasionaly at Making Science Public in support of that notion are simply unable to present a case, but then one wonders on what basis they hold that view!

  2. Chris,
    It is a fascinating topic,

    Perhaps the individual(s) that comment occasionaly at Making Science Public in support of that notion are simply unable to present a case, but then one wonders on what basis they hold that view!

    I don’t know whether or not the individual(s) who comment on MSP are unable – or not – to present a case, but I’ve never actually seen them try (assuming that we’re referring to the same individual(s)). In fact, my last engagement there was remarkably irritating.

  3. It’s easy to disagree strongly with the extreme views that have been mostly given up years ago even by those who once presented those views. It’s easy, and it’s not interesting.

    The issue discussed earlier in connection with the STS is not that easy one, and it’s much more relevant. That question is not about the reliability of well established scientific knowledge, but about issues like:
    – How can an outsider to some field of science know which results are genuinely well established?
    – How to assess results of science that are are accepted as not really well established, but which are backed by considerable evidence anyway?
    – How to know, whom to trust, when several people who claim that they are expert scientists disagree?
    – How to find figure out what information to use, when the previous question cannot be answered positively?
    – Can the study of the social process of doing science help in answering above questions?

  4. Pekka,
    I think the questions/issues you ask are exactly the right questions to be asking. I’m less convinced that they are necessarily the questions that are being asked.

  5. ATTP;
    What makes you think so? I think that these questions are really been asked, and I have seen good examples of that.

    It’s to be expected that such questions are also misused, but you need good evidence to reveal that conclusively in most individual cases.

  6. AnOilMan says:

    The Alan Sokal Affair has been a staple in my arguments for a good 5 years now. Yes, we need peer review just the way it is now.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_affair

    I think that where sociologists are getting confused is that when we study a new subject its not always clear why we arrive at the conclusions we arrive at. I saying that initially it really is subjective and not objective. We use the the best information and tools at hand to derive an initial understanding. It can be flawed.

    However, this subjective bit sorts itself out as the preponderance of supporting materials and methods one way or another brings this to an objective conclusion.

    Science as its presented in school is a series of formulas (tools) which we are are empowered to bring to bear on solving problems. We often neglect the hundreds of years it took before someone figured out those formulas.

    Naomi Oreskes discusses this here;

  7. Michael 2 says:

    My 2 Kronur opinion:

    I understand Alan Sokal’s point very well (I think), my mother being a good example of someone completely detached from physical reality and yet highly intelligent. Their brains simply do not receive input from the natural world, or trust their own senses — competing as it is with other senses.

    Science, or the art of learning and knowing, must start from a “seed” that is trusted. That’s largely (I hope) the purpose of public education, to plant those seeds. For me a seed was having Life Science Library in my home from a very young age. Curiously, the woman that became irrational later in life was in my earliest years very much a naturalist and we explored the deserts of the American Southwest — what plants could be eaten, never turn over a rock with your hand because there may be a scorpion underneath.

    One day as a teenager I sat on a rock filled with cone shell fossils. I had two explanations for it — it was created 6,000 years ago OR it formed naturally millions of years ago and only now has been uncovered by erosion. So which is it?

    Because of my youthful science foundation, the rock “told a story” just as surely as reading the pages of a book. It said, “I am really old! I am so old that once upon a time I was mud under a sea and cone shells lived and died in my mud. I became a rock squeezed under the rest of the mountain that you see nearby and it, too, has already been eroded down from its former magnificence after it was thrust upward from the sea floor. Now I have been revealed by that erosion. Guess how old I am?”

    Millions of years.

    But someone without that science foundation would just see it as a place to sit and wouldn’t make note of the fossils at all. It would have no meaning, it would tell no story. If I was standing there to tell the story, then it is just words — my words — which the person might believe and might not.

    By the way, out of curiosity I have just now searched Googles images for fossil cone shells and found what seems to be what I saw in my youth:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elimia_tenera

    So what to do about it. If you don’t care what others think about things, stop right here. Done! People are different.

    But if you are on a mission to convert people, take a page from religions’ playbooks. Some religions preach fear and there’s plenty of that in climate politics — but it doesn’t have much staying power. People get tired of fear and a beer makes fear go away.

    Others preach heavens. While slightly weaker it also has a lot more staying power. So where’s the incentive?

    Science for me was, and remains, fascinating and fun, a worthy pursuit for its own reward. But that’s a geek’s outlook, seriously a minority in society. Scientists have in the past been held in high esteem, rather like a priesthood, but similar to that they are held to a higher standard of conduct. For a scientist to lie, or even seem to be lying or withholding evidence, is a much more serious matter because of that esteem in which scientists are held. When 7 billion people are expected to just believe on your words, you’d better be spotless as otherwise you’re just selling used cars (figuratively speaking, and speaking of the many things a citizen hears every single day that usually get ignored).

  8. Pekka,

    What makes you think so?

    I should have said “that some are asking”. I don’t completely agree with you that the extreme views have been mostly given up (I know some have, but not all – as far as I can tell), but I don’t really want to reopen that discussion.

  9. ATTP,

    If you don’t want reopen the discussion then, why did you write this post and present the link?

    Are concerned views allowed, but those that argue that this particular concern has been overstated not?

  10. Pekka,

    If you don’t want reopen the discussion then, why did you write this post and present the link?

    Fair point.

    Are concerned views allowed, but those that argue that this particular concern has been overstated not?

    No, carry on but maybe you could avoid claiming that you’re both an expert in physics and the social sciences and that everyone else is simply wrong. An issue I had with our last discussion on this topic is that you appeared to assert that those who were concerned were wrong, but I don’t actually recall you constructing an argument to illustrate why (other than simply claiming that those who were concerned just didn’t understand the social sciences).

  11. chris says:

    Pekka, I think the idea that there may be social influences on the nature of our knowledge is an interesting one (I’m of the opinion that social influences are small once knowledge becomes “embedded” within a network of supporting evidence, that social influences obviously affect the “doing” of science, and that scientific knowledge can be objective by any real world meaning of the term).

    However there are some individuals who work in this area (social sciences; philosophy of science; STS; science communication) who clearly consider that the possibility for objective scientific truths are limited. Their point of view isn’t necessarily “extreme”, although there obviously are extremist points of view in this area as Alan Sokal describes.

    It seems to me that it’s worth addressing/trying to understand this point of view since it can have some unfortunate consequences; e.g. it engenders the notions that our knowledge is provisional (it is, but this idea needs to be considered with “real world” spectacles) and subjective and therefore anyone’s interpretation of “evidence” may be equally valid and therefore science is political and so the considerations of scientific experts on scientific matters has no special significance…
    To my mind it also fosters a stance of ignorance since if one holds to the point of view that there is little objectivity in our scientific knowledge then one had better not engage with the scientific evidence that suggests that there are in fact large dollops of objectivity in our knowledge.

    All of this is worthy of discussion. The problem ATTP and I have had on the Making Science Public site is that the individual(s) that express this view strongly don’t seem willing or able to explain or justify it and we are left with assertions somewhat in the form of mantras, e.g. “To repeat: all knowledge is part of a social process.” This is a problem it seems to me since these individuals consider themselves to have some influence on public understanding of science and so on…

  12. Pekka, sorry to be coming late to this. The questions you pose above are good questions (but I wasn’t totally sure what you meant by your second question). However, I can’t remember them being asked or answered in the comments on the MSP and related blogs. They might be a good starting point for a discussion though. Do you want me to just pose them on the MSP blog (in your name) and see what discussion ensues or, if you wanted to, you could pose them in a guest post. What do you think?

  13. Brigitte,
    I would be quite interested to see how those question were answered on MSP. A guest post from Pekka would certainly be interesting.

  14. I set demanding standards for myself in writing a full post. For that reason I have written so little on my own site. It’s much easier to participate in discussion. Over the next couple of days I have less opportunities in following the net. Thus I’m not likely to contribute much for a while.

  15. > e.g. it engenders the notions that our knowledge is provisional (it is, but this idea needs to be considered with “real world” spectacles)

    Can we buy these spectacles on Ali Express? I’d buy a box for all Climate Ball ™ players. That is, I’d buy one box, and then distribute the spectacles. I would not, repeat would not, buy a box for everyone.

    Damn quantifiers scope.

    ***

    Objectivism has a long tradition. (No, not the Randian crap.) See for instance:

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/probability-interpret/

    As far as I can see, the main problem in this discussion is the use of suboptimal expressions like “objective truth”. I mean, come on: are there subjective truths? Sokal is simply referring to facts here.

    The notion of fact is problematic:

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/facts/

    But I’d rather discuss facts that matter than objective truths in general.

  16. Willard,
    Maybe I misunderstand the terminology (quite possible I guess) but the term “fact” seems very definite. The term “objective truth” I had taken to mean something like “given our knowledge of the universe and the known laws of physics (for example) we can agree that something is true”. We may discover something tomorrow that turns physics on its head, but until we do so we should accept those things that satisfy the laws of physics and for which we have sufficiently strong evidence, as being true. Some of what I’ve said may, of course, be suboptimal.

  17. chris says:

    Willard, as usual specific examples help when there is some confusion/complication over generalities such as “truth”, “objective truth” and so on. It depends whether one wants to get to grips with things in the real world or whether the aims lie elsewhere. One can give examples of what one means by generalities like “objective in any real world meaning of the term”…. and of course examples help debaters to crystallise their particular positions and to identify areas of agreement/disagreement, should they wish to do so, of course.

    Unfortunately I’m out of email range for 24 hours and so any pursuit of examples from me will have to wait…

  18. > [T]he term “fact” seems very definite.

    Indeed it does. But it does not refer to eternal truths, like objectivity does. The most important appeal to facts is simplicity. With it, you can construct a concept like brute facts:

    In The Construction of Social Reality, John Searle argues for a two-level ontology along the following lines. Facts on the lower level – which he calls brute facts – can exist independently of human beings and their institutions. Facts on the upper level, which he calls institutional facts, depend on human institutions and above all on an associated ‘collective intentionality’. The existence of the Planet Earth is a brute fact, the existence of Utah is an institutional fact.

    http://ontology.buffalo.edu/smith/articles/dksearle.htm

    Brute facts are what objectivity (and objectivism) is all about. There are complications with this story: read the exchange with Barry Smith, my go-to ontologist. But unless Sokal wishes to argue along these lines, he’s reinventing a wheel that will not work.

    A fact is simply something that is true, i.e. that holds in a state of affairs. John Searle (my go-to guy for stuff about facts) states that We can assume facts. We can posit facts.

    The point of using fact instead of truth is that it dispenses us with having to discuss truth in science. We can then convene that science is the best way to pursuit truth. We can then discuss specific facts like laws of thermodynamics, evolution of species, or AGW.

    We can always wonder if our facts are true. But that does not preclude us to assume these are the facts of the matter. At least for now, considering contemporary knowledge.

  19. Deleatur

    > John Searle (my go-to guy for stuff about facts) states that […]

    I don’t recall what I wanted to say with this sentence, and I have the Tekkit mods to install for my son’s Minecraft.

  20. The point of using fact instead of truth is that it dispenses us with having to discuss truth in science. We can then convene that science is the best way to pursuit truth. We can then discuss specific facts like laws of thermodynamics, evolution of species, or AGW.

    Okay, it’s possible that my understanding of the terms “fact” and “objective truth” differ to what others might think.

    I would certainly agree with this

    We can always wonder if our facts are true. But that does not preclude us to assume these are the facts of the matter. At least for now, considering contemporary knowledge.

  21. guthrie says:

    I have avoided the use of words such as “Truth” for years, because of the obvious ideas and emotions, not to forget arguments, they bring into a discussion.

  22. Michael 2 says:

    willard (@nevaudit) says: “The notion of fact is problematic”

    Slightly O.T. but an entertaining and observant discussion of “fact” is this skit from “Kid History” where two children are arguing whether the word is “oceanography” or “oceanology” where one keeps insisting it’s a “fact”.

  23. Michael 2 says:

    Pekka Pirilä lays out some interesting questions in quotes below intended for non-scientists.

    That would be me. Scientifically literate but a non-scientist.

    “How can an outsider to some field of science know which results are genuinely well established?”

    Initially this is impossible. If interest exists then one must obtain knowledge about a specific claim, and that knowledge must not be contaminated by the very assertion to be tested. If you “spot check” several claims and agree with them, your faith in that advocate or source is increased; otherwise decreased.

    “How to assess results of science that are are accepted as not really well established, but which are backed by considerable evidence anyway?”

    It depends on what is being asked of you and risk analysis. If the demand is just a billion dollars for neutrino or gravity wave detectors with spinoff benefits then go for it. As for extinction claims, that’s been tried so many times and so many ways that people just aren’t moved by it. Remember “MAD”? (Mutual Assured Destruction). For a while people were building bomb shelters — then stopped doing so even though “MAD” still existed as a threat. You cannot sustain fear. For 20 years the Russians were my enemy (collectively, not personally). I retired from the Navy and who was my next door neighbor? A Russian from St. Petersburg on a student visa. Many branches of Christianity expect a doom on the entire world called Armageddon. Are they ready for it? No.

    “How to know, whom to trust, when several people who claim that they are expert scientists disagree?”

    This is very much like a court of law. I look for signs of good character or bad character. That may seem entirely subjective but I don’t think so. Good character has evolved (for this argument) I shall put it that way) because of its social utility and is therefore at least partly objective.

    A selfish person is eventually revealed by his own behavior and words. This is why a scientist who is also an advocate fails. His ambition destroys the perception of his character and the faith that honorable persons put in his claims.

    Conversely a person of recognized honor tends to be held in higher esteem even on the occasion he is wrong. Such a person lets science guide him, rather than him guiding science.

    “How to find figure out what information to use, when the previous question cannot be answered positively?”

    Hooray for Google but there’s sure a lot of trash out there. A mentor helps.

    Self education *eventually* coalesces into a “fabric” of consistent interdependent facts. Others here have compared it to putting a jigsaw puzzle together. As it starts to take shape the rate of progress increases. Studying mathematics is a good example of this.

    “Can the study of the social process of doing science help in answering above questions?”

    Probably. It speaks to where you can expect science to be strong and thorough and where you can expect it to be sparse. Essentially all science exists at someone’s request and funding. While I believe you cannot sustain fear you CAN apparently sustain hatred. That’s a social process.

    An earlier comment led me to study somewhat on Bayes and probabilities as applied to United Kingdom jurisprudence. There the assertion is that (1) you find facts that lead to guilt of a person and (2) you FAIL to find facts that explain the crime without the defendent’s involvement. In other words, you have to eliminate the possibility of coincidence or correlation without causation.

    In the context of this blog, it is my opinion that insufficient attention has been paid to (2), finding possible alternatives for the observations. This is distinct from denying the observations, which is also true for some people. Non-subscription to your way of thinking can happen at any link of the chain.

    * CO2 is not “opaque” it is “translucent”.

  24. The resistance of many social scientists to climate science and likelihood projections from the physical science, especially carbon budgets, is fascinating. In part, as in described in the above article, it does seem largely due to the constantly disputed and fuzzy nature of social science ‘truths’, leading to mistaken misunderstandings of the often far more highly evidenced scientific understandings of physical reality. That said, motivated reasoning from ideology seems to explain much of the political arguments masquerading as social science.

    Like many here I have had, and have observed, many twitter engagements an with economists (Nordhaus, Tol etc) and policy advisors (Pielke Jr etc) that are imbued with the same doublespeak inversions and unskeptical claims of objectivity displayed by climate deniers. As so often though the denial and lack of skeptical thinking is not evident even to themselves.

    One classic tweet I got back recently was the writer for a German government supported think tank who constantly lobbies against climate action in favour of ‘business as usual. When I prodded him about his advocacy as being as subjective as my own he said “I don’t advocate anything. I’m an anthropologist describing what’s actually happening”. It’s nice to finally meet a totally objective person 😉

    “The Hartwell Paper”, written by Gwyn Prins, Mike Hulme, Roger A. Pielke Jr, Nico Stehr, Steve Rayner and other policy types is (for me anyhow) the archetype of social scientists getting it wrong. From their anti-science take on climategate to their ‘dignity for all’ (as long as we rich types can get on with BAU,) via an anti-regulation take down of Kyoto, it is a masterwork of political diversion from scientific climate realities.

    Somehow though these folk have to get up to speed, policy types and economists need to up their understanding of the physical problem and get past their own biases to drive some serious social response. Theirs is a key failure in climate inaction, especially if they don’t understand the basic fact that cumulative and accumulating carbon emissions are a physical limitation that definitely do constrain their policy world, even if they and all of us would prefer otherwise.

  25. Paul,
    I agree, I see the same kind of things as you do. What’s worse, there are people who think that Roger Pielke Jr’s “honest broker” schtick is somehow an exposition of how scientists should be aiming to behave. To be clear, we should all be aiming to be honest in how we engage, I just don’t think we should be taking lessons from someone who appears not to really understand how science works, and who seems to think honesty means “never saying something that isn’t true”, rather than “tell people as much as you possibly can so they can get as complete a picture as possible”.

    While we’re discussing Pielke Jr, who draws best-fit lines on histograms? I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before.

  26. Yes, giving lip service to climate science but avoiding the really inconvenient stuff seems to be standard practice for much of social science and economics. Self-declared ‘experts’ with a policy background are key in enabling this avoidance.

    A key tactic of Pielkie Jr and other is the disinformation double speak of bizarrely protesting that scientists are “scientising policy”, which seems to mean a very few scientists daring to suggest that climate policy might be more realistic if it was based on the scientific evidence. By using this doublespeak accusation they are of course attempting to do the reverse, to ‘politicise science’ a tactic Nigel Lawson and fellow climate deniers do continually. That so many social scientists are swayed by this kind of nonsense is extremely disappointing. Even otherwise sensible policy people like Alice Bell, and recently Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway, have shown themselves to be at least partially taken in by this kind of rubbish, which winds me up no end.

    A good climate policy, compare and contrast summer read would be Pielke Jr’s “The Climate Fix” (from the library to minimise his income) followed by “The Burning Question” by Berners-Lee and Clarke which gives much of the climate reality, carbon budget and rebound reality, that Pielke is careful to leave out of his incomplete picture. The [dis]Honest Broker’s pseudo-objectivity (brokering on whose behalf?) and the rusty ‘Iron Law’, are grand of course until the numbers start adding up in a really bad way for early and future sufferers. ‘Too bad for them’ being the subtext.

    Indeed most of P Jr’s and fellow travellers’ research seems to be directed at saying that any amount of human suffering and death is fine as long as GDP eventually recovers to cover any financial losses incurred – so much for the Hartwell claim of ‘dignity for all’.

    Cannot remember seeing his histograms with best fit lines though I may well have done, my own biases probably censored them to save me from additional dismay! Maybe you have a link handy? – just for when I feel able for the vexation.

  27. Paul,
    Indeed. Another of Pielke Jr’s tactics seems to be to suggest that something is politically impossible, even if it might be a good thing to do (high carbon tax for example). Lomborg has a similar tactic : “climate policy has been a failure for the last 20 years, we need better policy”. Neither ever seem to acknowledge that their own rhetoric has helped to make things politically difficult (essentially, “it won’t work, because I keep saying that it won’t work”).

    As for the histograms, just go to Roger’s blog. You’ll very quickly find a histogram (normally of cost or damages from some type of weather event) with a line through it. No errors, mind you.

  28. Another good point on the tactics. Very true.

    Ah yes his blog, it’s been a while since I went there, there’s only so much time in Airstrip Two one can endure.

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