Pure Pedantry

In President Obama’s inaugural speech, he announced his intention to “restore science to its rightful place.” In response to Seed Magazine has initiated to The Rightful Place Project whose goal is to recruit scientists and engineers to answer the question: What is science’s rightful place? Available on their website is a form where you can enter your responses to this important question.

Here is mine:

Science is a process by which fact is distinguished from non-fact. I emphasize the word process for just as we live in a nation of laws, not men, science is more than scientists: it is an endeavor of ideas. Scientists have failings; we are flawed and human. Science is a process by which we can overcome our failings and discover the truth. This process may be prolonged, and no individual could lay claim to truth in absolute. But science claims credibility only insofar as it allows scientists to divest themselves of bias through constant introspection and testing by experiment.

As an arbiter of facts, science has an important place in our society, particularly for those who govern us. A policy-maker might ask: what is the nature of this system? How have humans influenced it? How might we change it? Wherever questions like these are asked, science often has useful answers. Further, as science continues to reveal what is possible, it helps us produce new things. If we would like to be a nation of wealth, science can help. We can help by developing new technologies and improving old ones. We can help by reducing waste and determining where human action is directed to futile ends.

The rightful place of science in our society is two-fold. First, it functions as a referee in battles of policy by determining the accuracy of positive statements. Second, it functions as a guide in the progress towards human betterment.

No one argues whether science has an important place in our society. However, the use of the phrase “rightful place” is troublesome and inexact. The word rightful can have two meanings in this context. If it means correct or appropriate, then there is no conflict. All things should seek their appropriate place.

On the other hand, if it means by right or entitlement, the special place of science in our society is not a right like a conferred title or membership in a Medieval guild. Rather, science’s place in our society is a privilege earned through past good behavior. Like all privileges, if scientists prove undeserving, our special place in society should be rescinded.

Participation in science carries many commensurate responsibilities, not least of which is the duty to distinguish science from non-science. Science can only comment on statements of fact. It cannot comment on statements of ethics. Science can tell us what is and in some cases what might be, but it cannot tell us what ought to be. Science can make us intelligent, but it cannot make us wise.

Thus, the privileged place of science carries the burden of constant vigilance. Scientists may fail due to bias or over-interpretation of existing evidence. We may fail due to hubris or the belief that we understand a system that cannot be understood. We may fail by misrepresenting personal principle for positive fact. Just as we constantly re-evaluate the accuracy of existing knowledge, we must be constantly vigilant in identifying and correcting these failings in one another. We must police ourselves for the alternative is becoming just one more partisan group — one more untrustworthy voice in the ideological fray.

President Obama argued in his Inaugural Address that though the problems of our time are severe, but we will rise to meet them. Scientists, like any other citizens, must rise to fulfill our responsibilities to the public, even as we are restored to our cherished place. If we are to prove worthy of our privileges, we must be diligent in meeting our responsibilities.


  1. #1 superflunky
    February 10, 2009

    Science isn’t about separating facts from non-facts. A fact is something that is *known* to be true. Unfortunately, as Laplace said, “One may even say, strictly speaking, that almost all our knowledge is only probable; and in the small number of things that we *claim* to know with certainty, the principles means of arriving at the truth, i.e. induction and analogy, are based on probabilities.”

    Experimentation produces facts which take the form of raw data, D, or observations. Science then is the art of generating and the means of comparing various hypothesis, H, which might have given rise to observations. The conclusions of science can, in principle, take two forms: (1) the probability distribution on the hypothesis space given your data, p(H|D), or, more usefully, (2) a posterior predictive model,

    p(D’|D,{H}) = sum_H p(D’|H)p(H|D),

    which gives the relative likelihood of future observations, D’.

    Now, one might be tempted to say that, if a particular hypothesis is much more probable than all others under consideration, then it is true. However, this ignores one of the most important features of the scientific process: the possibility of newer and better theories (and also novel domains of measurement). As such, I fell that it is best say that a hypothesis is never true, only better than another competing hypothesis.

    But even this statement isn’t terribly useful. The utility of science is in the prediction of future outcomes, the p(D’|D,{H}). Latching onto the single, “best” hypothesis can lead one to ignore outliers, “Black Swans” if you prefer, as well as overconfidence in one’s predictions. This should be avoided if decisions are to be made. Since this is one of the two functions of policy makers in our society, it is important not that scientists provide “facts” but rather predictions complete with relative likelihood assessments that take into account ALL the data and a broad range of theories.

    Which brings me to my view on the exact nature of the relationship between science and politics. As you may have guessed, i see this in a decision theoretic framework. A decision takes into account two things predicted outcome and utility.

    a_opt = argmax_a = argmax_a sum_R sum_s R(o,a)*p(o|a,s,D)p(s|D)


    a_opt is the optimal action or decision

    is the expected reward given an action and all the observational data.

    R(o,a) is the Reward or negative cost of a given outcome, o, and action, a, taken with the intent of achieving that outcome.

    p(o|a,s,D) is the likelihood of a particular outcome given action a, and state of the world s.

    p(s|D) is the likelihood that the world is in a current state s, given all the observational data, D, obtained to date.

    Science regulates only the probability functions which are conditioned upon the data.

    Politics has two functions: The first is to compute the reward function R(o,a). In a democracy this might be accomplished by averaging over the reward functions of the people, but is most often accomplished by averaging over the reward functions that politicians have, slightly weighted by the reward functions that politicians think that the people “should” have, whatever that means. The second function of politics is then actually make the decision which is simply taking the arg max over the expected Reward.

    Now in principle, politicians should not be telling people what they should value, each individuals personal ethic should be doing that. Since there is no normative solution to the problem of objective function selection (sry Rand) and reward starts with, R, I will call this religion, with a small ‘r’ to separate it from the kind where a clergy man tells you what to value. Thus properly understood and executed, politics should only be implementing the decision based upon an average over objective or reward functions. Thus,

    politics = argmax_Decisions religion(a,o) * science(o|a,D)

    it couldn’t be simpler :P

    Anyway, i will fill this out with an addenda regarding the funding loop later.

  2. #2 chat
    February 12, 2009

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