I’ve been meaning to follow up on some more thoughts about Unscientific America. I suppose what bothers me about the book is that there is no distinction between positive statements–the way things are or will be–and normative statements–the way things ought to be. As an example, consider yesterday’s post about type I diabetes. When someone (often a child) is diagnosed with type I diabetes, we have several options:
- Provide the resources to treat the disease and enable the diabetic to live as best as one can with the disease.
- Let him sink or swim on his own–if he (or his parents) have the financial resources to treat the disease, great. If not, well, then it sucks to be him.
- Stake him to the ground outside, and let him be devoured by wild animals.
To help bring those of you in the slow ethics group up to speed, options #2 and #3 are fucking evil. But back to positive and normative statements. Positive statements could include, but aren’t limited to, the following:
- Said person is a type I diabetic.
- Said diabetic should follow a certain regimen to maintain blood glucose levels at a healthy level.
- It will cost some, quantifiable amount of money to treat this person’s diabetes.
Note that positive statements don’t have to be agreed upon statements of obvious fact: we could disagree on how much it could cost to treat diabetes. But the important point is that none of these statements are about how things should be or what we should do.
(An aside: Economists are particularly bad at confusing positive and normative statements. Often, stated results, such as policy X will maximize productivity are implicitly assumed to be desirable, when maximizing productivity above all else might not be the ‘best’ outcome. For instance, one might be more concerned with controlling the release of a toxic compound into the environment, even if that doesn’t allow the maximization of productivity.)
Normative statements (e.g., we should stake diabetics to the ground to be devoured by wild animals) are different. As a scientist, I can tell you if someone has diabetes. As a scientist, I can tell you what the possible outcomes of the disease are. As a scientist, I can tell you what the best regimen for controlling blood sugar levels is. These data can and should inform what we ought to do. But ultimately, as a scientist, I have no special prerogative to generate normative statements–what we should do. In other words, when it comes to how we respond to my scientific observations (which I am more qualified to make as a trained scientist), I, like everyone else, am just another asshole with a blog.
Which brings me to Unscientific America (no, I am not implying that Chris and Sheril are assholes. Although they do have a blog). To the extent scientists can contribute to the debate by clearly, convincingly, and compellingly making positive statments (e.g., global warming is real, and has a significant human component), I agree with the arguments in Unscientific America. And, sadly, since most of the Republican party has decided to headbutt the crazy train, it is absolutely necessary.
It has also led to unprecedented unity among scientists since we don’t have to discuss what we ought to do; we are busy defending reality from the theopolitical Uruk-hai right, the corporate useful idiots, and narcissistic contrarians. But figuring what we ought to do about global warming involves more than positive statements. Yet, my reading of the book (which is also, no doubt, colored by my regular reading of their blog) suggests that they want more than just positive statements–that scientists should use some kind of scientific authority to defend normative statements.
I have no problem making normative statements: Sweet Baby Intelligent Designer, just scroll through the blog. But I make those statements based on my being a citizen and a human being (
on my good days), not based on being a scientist.