Sunday, March 6, 2016

Ideological Wrestlemania

(Picture from here.)

I'll get back to science eventually.

In the meantime, I've been wrestling with an interesting problem over the last few months.

As anybody who knows me is immediately, I am passionate about science. One of the interesting things about pursuing science is how quickly your own assumptions and biases are skewered. Science-- and the scientific approach-- depends on the idea that ideas are verified in some way. By experiment. By rigorous analysis. This is the basis of peer reviews-- the idea that by subjecting your research to outside observation, the research can be verified.

Engineering has its own approach to this. Designs are inspected. Products are tested. Underneath both disciplines is the idea that verification of a product is independent of emotional attachment to that product. If your car doesn't run, it's not going to sell regardless of how pretty the paint job is.

(Yeah, I know this doesn't always work. There are a lot of products that get bought because they're pretty and not because they function particularly. For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of-- well, you get the idea.)

Personally, I find this approach oddly comforting regardless of the damage to my own assumptions. It's nice to know that ideas have some sort of verisimilitude associated with them other than they sound cool. It's not for everything-- not everything is verifiable. But it's nice to be witness to those things that are.

This approach to things has become natural to me over the years to the point that I've become somewhat blind to people who follow other paradigms.

So: I have a few very intelligent friends that aren't able to deal with some of the more politicized scientific points. A couple of these are global warming and evolution.

Let's be clear on my position: these are done deals.

Global warming has happened, is happening and will continue to happen. It's largely caused by humans and it's going to give human beings an enormous amount of trouble. I'm not going to live to see the full fruits on that tree but my children and grandchildren will. The only question is how fast and how extensive the damage is going to be. It's complex science and the models are not precise enough to pinpoint the full impact. But what they do tell us should be enough for us to try to manage it.

Evolution is even more of a done deal. It is the only model of the history of life on this earth that has stood up to every test. It works everywhere we look.

Both global warming and evolution have stood up to the verification test very well. Global warming made some predictions regarding temperature rise and heat content of the earth. Some panned out directly-- the continually increasing warming trend, for example. Others were refined by new understanding. (See here for a nice discussion.)

Evolution now has a century's track record of making predictions and having them verified. Transitional fossils? No problem. Complex structures deriving from simple ones? Here you go. (For a really good discussion of this, see here.)

My point is that if you value science (and my troublesome friends do) then these conclusions come pretty much par for the course. The science we use to figure out the dynamic processes on Pluto or Saturn is the same science we use here to detect climate change. The science we use to figure out genetic based diseases and immune responses is the same science we use to determine the mechanisms of evolution. I'd say evolution is like the underlying physics used to understand the internals of stars except living systems are so much more complex.

In fact, the science is so settled on these two propositions that people who prefer not to see these conclusions (my friends among them) have to reject partial science. Or categorize it so narrowly as to constitute rejection. Or declare it a hoax. One friend of mine accepted that there was warming but decided it was not human derived.

For each of them I could go over a point by point  reason why the science is solid and the conclusions valid. But it makes no difference! In science the evidence is the arbiter of correctness. But here the evidence is not accepted as evidence but instead is considered a stew of hoax, hyperbole and lies.

Not to say there is no hoax, hyperbole and lies in science-- scientists are human and human beings make mistakes, try to spin the game and overstate their findings. That's one of the reasons non-peer reviewed papers are suspect. But-- and this is a huge but-- scientists have an investment in ferreting out wrongdoings by their colleagues and do so regularly.

When this happens is it considered good science? No. It's often considered an example of scientists acting badly as a class. As if a man of a particular demographic nature committing a crime is an example of his entire demographic rather than an individual. For "demographic" put any group you want. "Examples of" is one of the clearest biases we have.

The problem, I think, is a combination of bad reporting of science and a misunderstanding of what science actually is.

Science is the dirty, messy, difficult process of trying to figure out the universe on its own terms. It's hard. It lurches forward and back. It's mediated by deeply flawed beings called human who bring every sort of sorry misconception to the table. It's like democracy: a horribly deformed system of governance that happens to be better than any other system. For "governance" substitute "understanding."

Given that definition, it's not surprising it stumbles around.

That said, science reporting is much, much worse.

I have this bad habit of reading a science report in some popular outlet, finding out the authors of the study, and going on the net and finding the original study-- or at least its abstract. Then, I often read reviews of the same study to get see its flaws. As often as not, the science report is completely wrong in its reporting. (Check out BadScience for some good examples.)

Still, in the age of the internet, the ability to determine the scientific source (or non-source) for scientific claims is easily accessed. If one desires to do so and has the ability to figure out what claims are fiction and what claims are not.

My friends have the latter and not the former.

And herein lies the rub: if people of good faith and honest work cannot win over intelligent minds with evidence, what do we do? These people are not dimwitted or evil hearted. They are bright, sophisticated intellectuals who have replace the authority of evidence with something else.

I can present all the evidence in the world and it does no good.

It's discouraging.

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