I’ve finished reading Shawn Otto’s book The War on Science. It was a bit US-centric, but I still found it interesting, and it covered a lot of ground. What I found of particular interest, was the discussion of the role of postmodernism. Eli discussed this in a recent post, and I’ve discussed it in a few posts.
The basic idea behind post-modernism is that scientific theories are somehow social constructs. As I understand it, this is essentially a suggestion that there isn’t really an objective reality; somehow our understanding of reality is strongly affected by societal/political influences. Shawn Otto’s book suggests that this basic idea has now made its way from academia into the media, society, and also into politics. Essentially, if there is no objective reality, then any representation of reality has validity. Typically this manifests itself as people arguing that if there is some evidence that supports their position that that then makes their position as valid as anyone else’s.
The obvious problem is that this then means that people can simply look for evidence that supports their position, rather than using all the available evidence to inform the position that they hold. Of course, I should stress that I’m not suggesting that the evidence defines what positions one should hold; simply that – ideally – evidence should inform how we view the world. There may, of course, be situations where we still chose to hold certain views despite the evidence, or where other factors, that are hard to quantify, play an important role in defining our views. It’s, of course, also entirely acceptable to hold views that appear to be completely at odds with the evidence; this doesn’t, however, mean that there isn’t some kind of objective reality.
My own view is partly similar to that expressed during the Science Wars; some of those discussing science have limited understanding. On the other hand, some of it also seems to simply be a lack of clarity. For almost every field, there will be details that we still don’t understand. However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a good understanding of the fundamentals associated with that field, and that we couldn’t present a coherent description of our basic understanding. It’s also clear that our understanding does change with time, but that doesn’t mean that we would expect radical changes, or that our future understanding will be completely different to what it is today. Clearly there are also examples of bias influencing research, but there is a difference between a single study (or a small collection of work) and our overall understanding of a topic that may have been developed over many, many years. Clearly societal/political influences also play a role in deciding what’s of interest and what to research, but this doesn’t mean that the results of that research are somehow interpreted through a societal/political lens.
However, the key point as far as I’m concerned, is that we live in a world in which we believe that what we observe is real, that we can make observations of this real world, and that we can develop an understanding of what we observe. Given this, it’s certainly my view, that we should be using our understanding to inform our views of the world and to inform the decisions that we might make. Of course, this does not mean that our understanding defines our view or the decisions that we might make, or that those who develop this understanding have any kind of special place in society. I’m simply suggesting that society benefits from being informed.
If it is indeed the case (as it seems) that this postmodernistic thinking has influenced views within society, is there anything we can do to change this? My impression is that it’s not simply that people don’t always understand science all that well, they also don’t really understand how it is undertaken, or the basics of the scientific method. One issue might be that when scientists engage publicly, they tend to see their role as explaining their own research. This is clearly important, but maybe we also need more people who just discuss science in general, rather than simply focusing on the specifics of their own work.
Of course, that would probably lead to accusations that they were speaking outside their area of expertise and, potentially, that they were engaging in advocacy and – hence – destroying their objectivity. My cynical view is that some of this is intentional attempts to prevent more researchers/scientists from speaking publicly as that might highlight views that are based on the slimsiest of evidence, if any evidence at all. I do think, however, that researchers/scientists have an obligation to communicate with the public and that the public would benefit from a better understanding of how science works and the basics of the scientific method. That’s only my view, though. Others may think differently.