“One of my favorite philosophical tenets is that people will agree with you only if they already agree with you. You do not change people’s minds.” -Frank Zappa

One of the most difficult things to talk about, for any self-respecting scientist, is politics. Like all of you, I have my preferences, my opinions, and my vision for what a better world would look like. I’m also well aware that if I talked about all of them, there probably wouldn’t be a single one of you out there who agreed with everything I had to say.

Image credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP.

Image credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP.

And it would be completely unreasonable to expect you to. After all, our politics are informed by our experiences, our ideals, and the limited amount of information we have at our disposal. But there are people out there with more information than you on pretty much every topic, political or otherwise. When it comes to those topics, if your political opinions aren’t informed by not just an expert, but by the consensus of experts in that field, then your politics cannot be said to be based in science.

And that’s what I want you to consider today.

Image credit: Salvat EPHE, via Chantal Conand, ECOMAR and Loïc Charpy, IRD.

Image credit: Salvat EPHE, via Chantal Conand, ECOMAR and Loïc Charpy, IRD.

I like to fancy myself an above-average adult as far as being informed in general goes, and in particular about a plethora of aspects concerning science, health, and the environment. But the reality is that — with the sole exception of physics, astronomy, and cosmology in particular — I am simply nothing more than a somewhat informed non-professional. Because you know what I am (and am not) an expert in, you might lend more credence to my opinions on spaceflight, on superconductivity, or on variable stars than you would to 99% of people, and that’s reasonable, I suppose. But that’s not my true area of expertise; there are likely thousands if not tens of thousands of people worldwide who have more (and better) information than I do about those topics.

Image credit: NASA, ESA, Hubble Space Telescope / ACS and Hubble Heritage Team.

Image credit: NASA, ESA, Hubble Space Telescope / ACS and Hubble Heritage Team.

But you might still trust what I have to say.

Why?

It shouldn’t be because you think that I know better than the thousands or tens of thousands of people whose expertise lies in those particular sub-fields. I don’t. You should trust me because you think that:

  1. I know enough to understand the details of what’s going on, how it’s happening, and I’ll be able to break it down in an understandable way for you, but also because
  2. You trust that I’m going to inform myself as to what the scientific consensus is on an issue, and that’s what I’ll present to you as a scientific truth.

So why is it, then, that we shouldn’t demand that same level of rigor — when it’s available — when it comes to all of our information?

Image credit: Rob Laddish.

Image credit: Rob Laddish.

If we’re talking about an environmental issue such as the acidification of the oceans, why wouldn’t you immediately wonder what the scientific consensus among marine biologists or NOAA was?

If we’re talking about the theory of evolution, why would you trust anyone’s opinion over the consensus of evolutionary biologists?

And if we’re talking about the origin of the stars, planets, and galaxies in the Universe, why would you dream of trusting anyone other than theoretical cosmologists, the people who study this in gory detail for a living?

Image credit: ESA and the Planck collaboration.

Image credit: ESA and the Planck collaboration.

Yes, there are some people who don’t do this, but the vast majority of you know that if you want to inform yourself about scientific truths, you need to go to the body of scientists who study that particular question or field as their area of expertise. And you don’t want to just pick out a handful of fringe scientists who disagree with the consensus; if there is a consensus, that’s what you go with. If the consensus model turns out to be wrong, incomplete, or otherwise inaccurate, science will figure it out.

Image credit: The COMET program, via G. H. Rieke.

Image credit: The COMET program, via G. H. Rieke.

So we want to go with the best that we know when it comes to making informed policy decisions, right?

If we want a better society, we can’t pick-and-choose when we do this. We should be listening to the science even when it offends our sensibilities or preconceptions. And — as I’ve learned the hard way — science does this all the time.

But so does health and medicine.

Image credit: me.

Image credit: me.

I was disappointed, but not surprised, when I did my own research into the fluoridation of drinking water and its effect on both dental and medical health, to find that fluoridation is safe and effective, and also to find that not only did my city fail to fluoridate our drinking water, we failed by more than a 3-2 margin in voting.

Here’s the thing that I don’t get. I talked to a doctor I knew and trusted once, someone who was a practicing M.D. for more than 30 years. Over that time, this doctor had seen thousands upon thousands of patients, and kept up impeccably with the latest research and developments in the field. “How can I apply the latest findings to my practice” was a question this professional often asked. And while keeping up with the literature, sometimes there were articles or studies that suggested that the recommendations of the CDC — the Center for Disease Control — might not be the optimal recommendations.

Sometimes those recommendations did actually change over time, most of the time they didn’t. I asked this doctor if he ever recommended anything contrary to the CDC’s recommendation for patients in general, and he got very serious. Under no circumstances, he said, was he or any other M.D. he knew qualified to even be a member of the CDC, much less challenge their recommendations. He explained to me what it took to become one of the professionals involved with the CDC, and how that would be a lifetime’s worth of work in and of itself, and that wasn’t how he chose to spend his life. But there were people who did, and making the CDC recommendations was their job; they were the experts, not him. Furthermore, he said, any doctor who didn’t follow the CDC’s recommendations was a doctor who simply wan’t doing a good job, and if I cared at all about my own health, public health, and following medicine’s best practices, I would never frequent or recommend a doctor who held otherwise.

Image credit: AP Photo / Sven Kaestner. GMO corn on the right, non-GMO on the left.

Image credit: AP Photo / Sven Kaestner. GMO corn on the right, non-GMO on the left.

Now, that doesn’t mean that science and scientific truths should be the only consideration when it comes to crafting policy. The Earth is getting warmer, the climate is changing, and humans are the cause: these are scientific truths. But that doesn’t mean that Al Gore’s cap-and-trade is the best policy, or even a legitimate solution. GMOs are a safe technique for modifying crops that we eat for food, but that doesn’t mean that our agricultural system and business/farming practices are just fine, and that they don’t need to be overhauled. And vaccinations are not 100% safe, but as far as we understand public health, everyone who doesn’t have/need a medical exemption should receive the full CDC schedule of vaccines on time; they save literally tens of thousands of lives per year, and religious/personal-choice exemptions kill people, period.

More science, please, all the time, even when it disagrees with my own politics. Because as science learns and as better and more fundamental scientific truths are revealed, I want that understanding incorporated into my society’s policies. So should you.

Comments

  1. #1 Eric
    June 14, 2013

    This article was OK UNTIL the statement ‘GMOs are a safe technique for modifying crops – that is a lie, first of all, and is is disingenuous to stuff a GMO plug in a completely unrelated article.

    There is SIGNIFICANT concern regarding GMO crops around the world, with most of the world (except the US) banning them outright. With such a headed and ongoing debate about the dangers of GMO crops it is FAR from proven that they are safe. This author seems to have written this article just to make the reader assume that GMO crops are safe by association – that is deceptive and irresponsible journalism.

  2. #2 Denier
    June 14, 2013

    Where it falls apart for me is:

    “The Earth is getting warmer, the climate is changing, and humans are the cause: these are scientific truths.”

    While this is obviously the subject that grates on me the most, I may have let the line go if it had said “…and humans are *a* cause: these are scientific truths”.

    I don’t think even the most AGW / GHG-centric climate scientists claim there is only one factor affecting variation in Earth’s climate. The scientific truth is that Earth’s climate is a complex system and some components of that system are not well understood. That would be the reason everyone’s climate models all come out slightly different.

    For Ethan to claim the he knows better than everyone else, and it is humans that are THE cause, is arrogant. To follow that by stating it is “scientific fact” is pure crap, and everyone knows it.

  3. #3 Brian
    Carlsbad, CA
    June 14, 2013

    Eric, you’re drinking the bullshit koolaid. Hardly ANY countries are banning GMO’s and let me ask you something? How do GMO’s harm you? Over 90 percent of crops eaten around the world are GMO’s and have been for some time. Name ONE person who has died as a result.

    Simply because something is genetically modified does not mean in any way shape or form that its worse for you. Every farmer on Earth picks the best producing plants for replanting. THAT is genetic modification. Did that farmer just poison you because he realized that one stock of tomato plants produces more tomatoes than another?

    Do yourself a favor and next time youre about to rant about something on the internet, make sure that science (aka facts) is on your side.

  4. #4 Wow
    June 15, 2013

    I may have let the line go if it had said “…and humans are *a* cause: these are scientific truths”

    We are the cause of 100% of the change:

    The sun is lower in output now than before, we are long past the peak of warming that you get out of the retreat from a glacial and we are on an umpty-thousand-year trek to another ice age. And that means a cooling trend.

    HOWEVER we see a warming trend.

    That is because we are doing far more warming than the cooling we would naturally expect.

    Just because you don’t LIKE a science conclusion does not make that conclusion wrong.

    People didn’t like a science conclusion that meant the bible was wrong.

    The earth is STILL a sphere.

    The scientific truth is that Earth’s climate is a complex system and some components of that system are not well understood.

    The QM mechanism of metallic formation is still not well understood (indeed far FAR less understood than the weather), but we still make alloys.

    And if there are all these factors, what are they and are they significant?

    All you’re arguing from is personal ignorance. YOU HAVE NO CLUE whether they are significant or even countervailing. These “unknowns” you talk of COULD MAKE THINGS WORSE. But you wave them around like they mean we have nothing to worry about? You appear to know a vast amount about them if you can claim that they are going to stop a problem forming…

    So come clean, where did you learn so much about them?

    For Ethan to claim the he knows better than everyone else

    Well, for a start he isn’t saying that. For a second, you’re saying YOU know better than anyone else who has studied this. MASSIVELY arrogant, aren’t you?

  5. #5 Wow
    June 15, 2013

    Ethan, GMOs are *theoretically* safe.

    Just like nuclear.

    Look at Chernobyl or Fukishima.

    Or the 25 admitted nuclear accidents in the UK alone in 2011.

    There is also absolutely no need for GMOs. Claims for them are like insisting that drug companies must be good and then ignoring that the biggest sellers are erectile dysfunction pills for first world men with money.

    Eli disagrees with the anti-Flouridation people but he realises that in cases the water quality is so good that there’s some risk that fiddling with it may cause an issue, and the benefit isn’t *necessarily* worth the risk.

    GMOs aren’t needed and the ones doing it are DEFINITELY not the ones we want to be pushing it.

    But the base argument is: WE DON’T NEED THEM.

  6. #6 Wow
    June 15, 2013

    ” Hardly ANY countries are banning GMO’s”

    Japan and the EU. And China.

    Out of near 200 sovereign nations, “hardly any” may be true. But EU and Japan are big importers of US produce like wheat. And that’s more important than the Vatican not banning it, isn’t it.

    Over 90 percent of crops eaten around the world are GMO’s and have been for some time.

    BULLSHIT.
    Name ONE person who has died as a result.

    Straight from the Tobacco Industry and Climate Denial handbook.

    Simply because something is genetically modified does not mean in any way shape or form that its worse for you

    Yes it does.

    PEANUTS are bad for you, if you have an allergy. Given the genes will change their expression based on other genes, other forces internal and external (See Heat Shock Proteins for example), and the triggers of other genes nearby, we don’t know what putting a weevil gene in a corn cob will do.

    And just because it’s GMO’d doesn’t mean it’s good.

    Every farmer on Earth picks the best producing plants for replanting. THAT is genetic modification.

    Thereby indicating you have NO CLUE WHATSOEVER about the subject, but are parroting the Party Line because that’s what you’ve heard, you brainless moron.

    THINK FOR YOURSELF.

    If that were GMOing, then it would not be patentable.

    If that were GMOing, then we would not need the GMOs being complained about: PICK A VARIETY THAT DOES BETTER INSTEAD.

    No, GMO’s are all natural and normal when it suits the fluffers, and all new-hotness and completely powerful when that’s required.

    Just like AGW deniers point to uncertainty to “prove” no problem but ignore uncertainties in THEIR claims, depending on what’s needed in that argument at that time.

    And just as unavailing of thought.

    Stop repeating the programmed mantras.

  7. #7 Tony Rahilly
    Whitby, Ontario, Canada
    June 15, 2013

    Though some of the commenters have objected to specific comments you made, I think the whole post is spot on and reminds me of Bertrand Russell’s Rules of Skepticism.

    Bertrand Russell’s rules for skeptics

    1. When the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain.

    2. When they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert.

    3. When they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment.

    Thank you for your post.

  8. #8 Steve Morris
    UK
    June 15, 2013

    I used to think that people who disagreed with me on questions of economics held different but perhaps equally valid opinions.

    What I have come to realise recently (by reading a number of books on economics) is that most people’s understanding of economics is based on simple economic fallacies. These fallacies perpetuate themselves because they appear obvious, and to refute them requires a reasoned, logical approach. Even most politicians believe the fallacies, which is why they enact bad laws.

    You can understand a subject like economics quite easily by reading around the subject. You don’t need to trust a consensus of experts. You can understand these things for yourself if you put in a little effort.

    Similarly anyone on this forum can understand the issues related to nuclear power, GMOs and climate change for themselves. They don’t need to trust experts or some consensus. The consensus is often wrong.

    Trusting a consensus of experts is the way to destroy a democracy. Democracy exists so that we don’t have to put our trust in experts. After all, experts imprisoned Galileo. Experts said that Alan Turing was a traitor. Experts said that the Sun circled the Earth.

  9. […] Visit link: You NEED more science in your politics! (Yes, YOU!) – Starts With A … […]

  10. #10 nathan heston
    Berkeley, CA
    June 15, 2013

    Very nice article Ethan, and yes, it is difficult, but very necessary, to accept the data as it is. Science works when we approach a problem openly, design a careful experiment, and listen to the results. I enjoy how much passion I have seen from the responses on GMO and global warning and I wonder what the expertise of the people responding have. I am willing to bet that not one of them has been involved with experimental data on the topics they are writing about. Nevertheless, I enjoy seeing people paying attention to the topics.

  11. #11 Tony Rahilly
    Canada
    June 15, 2013

    @ #8 Steve Morris

    While I agree in general with your comments on economics, I am not so sure we can all read so much and read it so well as to replace the experts, in economics or in any field of science. I think you are using the word expert in a prejudicial sense, rather than in the sense of someone who has knowledge and expertise in a given field.

    Also, you use the word consensus in a different way than what may be meant by a consensus in a field of science. A consensus does not necessarily mean that a group of experts sit together and arrive at an agreement or consensus after discussion. A scientific consensus means that those with expertise in the field are agreed on what the evidence means or is telling them. It is a consensus only because of the acceptance of the evidence. So, in a field such as particle physics, if the experts are in general agreement (i.e. in consensus) that the standard model is the best explanation explaining the forces affecting particles, then I would accept that consensus because it is due to the evidence. I do recognize that new evidence may alter that consensus.

    The examples in your last paragraph are not about experts getting it wrong. The experts who imprisoned Galileo were not experts in his field, though I am sure they were intelligent and well-read and knew the issues. No, they did not like the implications of Galileo’s work and took action. Similarly for Alan Turing, the experts had no expertise in the area in which Turing was an expert. Nor was he vilified for his thoughts in this area of expertise but for his thoughts and actions in a social area. Nothing to do with experts or scientific consensus, in my opinion.

    Lastly, I am not sure to which experts you are referring when you say experts said that the sun circled the earth. It was a commonly held opinion perhaps, but knowledge that the earth is round dates back to at least ancient Greek times, as noted by Ethan in a post on September 21, 2011. Eratosthenes , an ancient Greek astronomer and experimentalist not only determined that the earth is round, but measured its circumference – and was amazingly close to today’s figure.

  12. #12 Ciaran
    June 15, 2013

    You’re exactly right on everything except the one area where I irrationally hold an opinion different to the scientific consensus.

  13. #13 Tony Rahilly
    Canada
    June 15, 2013

    @ #11 Ciaran

    That’s OK. We are all entitled to our opinion, irrational or not. It’s just that, as Ethan points out,

    if your political opinions aren’t informed by not just an expert, but by the consensus of experts in that field, then your politics cannot be said to be based in science.

    This is also why I like Russell’s Rules of Scepticism.

  14. #14 Tony Rotz
    June 15, 2013

    By the same token, why should we talk to a scientist when we talk about religion and God, probably the least knowledgeable about either.

  15. #15 Tor Bertin
    June 15, 2013

    Because religion often makes specific claims about reality. If those claims aren’t supported by scientific evidence, there is no reason to believe them.

  16. #16 John Duffield
    June 16, 2013

    Ethan, when it comes to experts and scientific truth, you should read this blog entry:

    http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/2013/05/31/most-scientific-theories-are-wrong

    The guy who wrote it is a fairly smart guy. That guy was you. Examine the evidence yourself, think for yourself, make decisions yourself. Don’t just accept what you’re told without testing it yourself, because the history of mankind is littered with conviction and hubris and “consensus” that was wrong.

  17. #17 Wow
    June 16, 2013

    Plus the scientists is JUST AS WELL INFORMED (probably better: Atheists tend to know the religious texts of many religions better than adherents know their own) on God as a priest or whatever.

    Remember: the insistence is SOLELY personal experience is sufficient to “know god”. And that’s available to EVERYONE equally.

  18. #18 Steve Morris
    UK
    June 16, 2013

    @Tony Rahilly The experts who imprisoned Galileo *were* experts in his field, since the “field” in question was “what God told us the world is like.”

    As @John Duffield pointed out in #16, the consensus is very often wrong.

    We all need to think for ourselves more if democracy has any chance of working.

  19. #19 Wow
    June 16, 2013

    Very often?

    Go on, show the data that indicates this.

    Or do you mean out of 10,000,000 statements, 1,000 have been wrong?

    Odd that you pick up unthinkingly the meme “the consensus is often wrong” without actually thinking about it first…

  20. #20 Steve Morris
    UK
    June 16, 2013

    “most scientific theories are wrong”, according to Ethan. LOL.

    Nit-picking is missing the point, I think.

  21. #21 Steve Morris
    UK
    June 16, 2013

    Ethan, what you do in your blog is educate the public by explaining the scientific consensus in your field, giving evidence in support of it, examining alternative hypotheses, explaining why these are wrong, and highlighting areas of uncertainty.

    Yet what you are proposing in this article is that people accept the consensus without any understanding of limitations, supporting evidence and alternative theories.

  22. #22 Tony Rotz
    June 16, 2013

    Science addresses the concrete, it has no knowledge of what constitutes God, yet He is a vital component that is in every particle of space, without which the Universe would cease to exist. You have thoughts and feelings yet they lack substance.

  23. #23 Wow
    June 16, 2013

    Since God is entirely made up, EVERYONE has equal knowledge of what constitutes god.

    He is a nonexistent and unnecessary component of the universe. Never seen, never noticed, never affecting a damn thing.

    Because all those constituents are studied by science and if there WERE a god sitting on each one of them, his effect would have been seen.

    No such effect has been seen.

  24. #24 Wow
    June 16, 2013

    BULLSHIT, Morris.

    Read:

    http://www.aip.org/history/climate/index.htm

    What you seem to want to have nobody understand is that if your alternatives FAIL TO EXPLAIN then you can’t just keep whining about how they’re not being considered.

    FFS you deniers are tiresome idiots.

  25. #25 MandoZink
    Louisville, KY
    June 16, 2013

    “You’re exactly right on everything except the one area where I irrationally hold an opinion different to the scientific consensus.”
    @ Ciaran
    I chuckled when I read your comment. I was thinking exactly the same thing after I had read through the previous comments.

    Although my own formal education is not in any specific science, my comprehension is generally quite good due to the fact that I obsessively research any interest-of-the-moment that seizes my curiosity. I have a zealous need to know the facts because I hate to be wrong and/or under-informed in any conversation I may have. I learned long ago it is better not to acquire a position on anything controversial until I actually know what supporting facts both sides have (or don’t). Sometimes you have to be prepared to change a premature opinion. But change is truly good if it comes from a well-considered assessment of evidence.

    Luckily, I have had the advantage of being a good friend and music partner with a very conscientious dentist who accurately explained the real benefit of CORRECT fluoridation as had previously been presented here. Also a longtime girlfriend who was a microbial geneticist explained to me the details and ramifications of genetic modification and GMO foods. Both of them were careful to explain the controversy well enough that I could evaluate evidence I may subsequently encounter.

    That said, I actually agree with the Ethan’s opinions of the topics of controversy he included (AGW, proper fluoridation, beneficially applied GMO) . If you can properly consider the shrewd genius of Frank Zappa’s wisdom and how applies to your own prematurely conceived notions, you might want to reflect on whether or not you could change your mind based on more properly considered evidence.

    It is good to be right, but it is also a truly good thing to realize you may be wrong and get it right. Or at least reasonably more right

  26. #26 MandoZink
    Louisville, KY
    June 16, 2013

    “Science addresses the concrete, it has no knowledge of what constitutes God, yet He is a vital component that is in every particle of space, without which the Universe would cease to exist. You have thoughts and feelings yet they lack substance.”

    @ Tony Rotz
    To rephrase your last sentence:
    You have thoughts and feelings yet they lack critical thinking.

    This article is about science, so at a minimum you should ask yourself:
    1. How is it that I have hold this belief about God? Was passed down from my family?
    2. If I had been born elsewhere or in a different time would I have inherited very different beliefs?
    3. Am I capable of realizing that an inherited worldview is completely dependent on the chances of being born in any particular location or time?

    That is a good start. It will take a while to sink in. Eventually, if you are fortunate, you can begin to consider the nature of this article and ponder what actual supporting evidence may have ever existed for any worldview.

    More directly you just might just ask yourself from what verifiable base of research was a god discovered to be vital component in every particle of space. You must recall some concrete evidence.

  27. #27 CB
    June 16, 2013

    Those of you trying to use Ethan’s words — “Most scientific theories are wrong” — against him are missing the point by making a very basic error: Assuming “wrong” is a binary state. That being “wrong” in any way opens the possibility of them being arbitrarily wrong in every way.

    Frankly I don’t think any of you read the post beyond the point where you got a line you could quote out of context (which Ethan explicitly asked you not to). But let’s let Mr. Asimov straighten you out on that one:

    http://chem.tufts.edu/answersinscience/relativityofwrong.htm

    Long story short: “Most theories are wrong” does not mean “Most theories are incapable of providing correct predictions up to a certain degree of precision”.

  28. #28 Tony Rotz
    June 16, 2013

    @ Mando, why do so many scientists have closed minds, I can understand Agnostics, at least they have somewhat open minds, but Atheists minds are tightly closed and very intolerant of any opinion but their own. They refuse to see anything other than the concrete. Love, Truth, Wisdom are all very real things, as are dreams, desires, pride, but since they cannot be shown by Physics to be real, does it make them any less so? How far can science really define what it is to be human?

  29. #29 Bud
    June 16, 2013

    The point here is to think that you can better analyze the evidence on a subject than the consensus of scientific experts is ignorant, arrogant and misguided. I myself am a PhD candidate in the field of molecular biology, I am willing to bet I have a better understanding of climate science than any politician and 99% of the general public, however I differ to my colleagues who specialize in that field to form a consensus.

    It is true that scientific consensuses and theories are incorrect sometimes, however that is the beauty of science as new evidence emerges the consensus changes.

    Being that I am well versed in the field of molecular biology and biotechnology I always find it amusing to listen to people debate GMO’s when it is so clear they have not a clue what they are talking about. As far as I am concerned if you are not capable of genetically modifying an organism or at very least able to read a scientific paper about GMO’s and actually comprehend it, then you aren’t capable of coming up with a conclusion on your own about GMO’s whether you are in favor of the practice or not.

    As a grad student I teach classes and my students have more knowledge about science than the vast majority of the public, but their understanding is still infantile. So to suggest that some guy or girl on the street that has never had any scientific training beyond high school is capable of determining whether or not man made climate change is real or whether or not GMO’s are safe without differing to the consensus of scientific experts is completely laughable.

  30. #30 MandoZink
    Louisville, KY
    June 16, 2013

    @ Tony

    I am not sure why you would be on a physics-based science site discussing opinions of feelings that lead you to believe in an all-powerful creator-being. Scientists, by nature, usually have very open minds in the discussion of facts and evidence concerning physical objects and phenomena. But more to your comments, there are scientific disciplines dealing with the study of mental functions and behaviors that cover the nature of subjective and personal experiences which lead to people to an incredible variety of belief systems. There are many interesting aspects to our human nature that allow us to forego rational thinking and imagine what we will. Scientists in those behavioral fields might be very open to discussing, possibly for hours on end, just how and why you have come to your conclusions about the undetectable involvement of some particular magical being in well-studied realms of physical science.

    But to the point – you confuse the objective with the subjective; physical reality with personal flights of imagination; hard evidence with inherited whimsy. There is only science going on here.

  31. #31 John Duffield
    June 16, 2013

    @Bud #29 re “The point here is to think that you can better analyze the evidence on a subject than the consensus of scientific experts is ignorant, arrogant and misguided”.

    Not always, Bud. Science advances because some guy does exactly that. Granted he might be one of the scientific experts, but he might not be. The important point is that science is not based on consensus, it’s based on evidence. And I’m afraid that Planck was right when he said “Science advances one funeral at a time”. When new evidence emerges shifting consensus can be like shifting a tooth.

  32. #32 Steve Morris
    UK
    June 17, 2013

    wow, you said:

    “BULLSHIT, Morris.” (are there rules about that?)

    Then you directed me to an introductory article about global warming (a subject that I never mentioned.)

    Then you said something incomprehensible. And then you called me a “denier.” I don’t know what I’m supposed to be denying.

    Here’s my point: we all need to educate ourselves and think for ourselves. What’s your point?

  33. #33 Wow
    June 17, 2013

    Bud, genetically modifying corn is as unsafe and dangerous as chemically modifying humans to do better at sports.

    We ban drugs in sports NOT because drugs are dangerous, but that until we manage to breed a better human, there is no potential for abuse, there is only an actually realised abuse of it.

    Maybe your problem as a PhD is that you’re thinking of what you’re TRYING to do. Those who still work in the factories making cigarettes aren’t twirling their moustaches over all the cancer they’re giving people.

    But the industry behind smoking worked deliberately to make their product more addictive and hid the dangers deliberately.

    Even though they had scientists discovering the link, management quashed it.

  34. #34 Wow
    June 17, 2013

    @Tony: “@ Mando, why do so many scientists have closed minds”

    Why does a mind so open the brain falls out become the One True Standard of “an open mind”, Tony?

    Your mind seems 100% closed to the idea that there isn’t a god. It’s also 100% closed to the idea that those who reject it have done so because their mind is open to that idea.

  35. #35 Wow
    June 17, 2013

    Then you directed me to an introductory article about global warming (a subject that I never mentioned.)

    You DID accuse science of not considering alternatives.

    Did you read the fucking thing or did you refuse and not consider yourself to be possibly wrong at all?

    Read the fucking thing, moron.

  36. #36 Wow
    June 17, 2013

    Duffer: “When new evidence emerges shifting consensus can be like shifting a tooth.”

    Such as…?

    Oh, no, you don’t have a “shifting consensus”, do you? You only have the blind faith that science is wrong, because it must be, right?

    Moron.

  37. #37 G
    California USA
    June 17, 2013

    This is truly amazing!

    Ethan writes an article calling for more rational policy, and it sets off a virtual explosion of irrational arguements overflowing with ad-hominems! “You’re stupid!” “No, you’re even stupider!” “Poopy pants!” “F— you!” Bleh.

    Come on people, at least TRY! How the hell do we expect better of anyone, if we ourselves can do no better than that?

    —–

    As for public policy, what I’d like to see is for all candidates for public office to be expected to take public science quizzes and engage in debates over science topics. And further, they should be expected to know where to find the experts on any given topic, and they should be expected to pledge to adhere to the best evidence and advice.

    As far as nuclear power is concerned, coal burning power plants in the USA are responsible for about 20,000 deaths per year from respiratory illness. So even aside from the climate issue, we should be replacing coal with nuclear (and renewables, about which there is no controversy) just as fast as possible. The cost of the Iraq war would have paid for a full conversion many times over. There is no excuse for failure to proceed.

    GMOs? Simple answer: appropriate testing and independent oversight. But where the goal is to produce a plant that is more resistant to herbicides, or an animal that is more resistant to disease, these other public health questions (herbicide safety, sanitation in animal husbandry, etc.) need to be considered as well. Opposition to GMOs as such is ill-informed, but skepticism about the goals and activities of companies such as Monsanto is as legitimate as skepticism about the goals and activities of other powerful companies that have undue influence in our political process.

    Vaccination: Do away with the religious objection, period. Otherwise, may I have a religious objection to gravity? Alternately, let the objectors live in self-isolated communities, subject to hard quarantine in the event of disease outbreaks. After all, if they really believe they’re acting in accord with God’s will, they shouldn’t object to a degree of inconvenience, nor should they expect to have it both ways.

    So about deities. Any entity having the defining characteristics of a deity, could confound any experiment performed to ascertain its existence. Therefore no such experiment can be valid, a-priori. Therefore the question of the existence of deities is outside the scope of empirical science. Full stop. In light of that, science must necessarily be agnostic or at most mildly atheistic (as in “case not proven therefore assume the negative”). But the hard-core forms of atheism are every bit as “religious” as religion itself: the assertion of the negative as a kind of absolute truth, is every bit as much a leap of faith as its opposite.

    Further, individual neurophysiological differences, plus enculturation, can fully account for the diversity of beliefs regarding deities. Since some of those neuro differences are truly hardwired in the brain, we must recognize freedom of individual conscience in this area. Putting down someone for believing or disbelieving in a deity, is like putting them down for their sexual orientation.

    Although the question of the existence of a deity itself is not empirically answerable, we can certainly study the “human sciences” aspects: neuro, soc, anthro, psych, etc. Here, what we find is, the subjective experiences of the presence or absence of a deity are entirely real to the minds of individuals, and are a factor in motivating individual behavior (and the policies of societies, as a result).

    So whether or not one believes in the existence of a deity, the existence of behaviors motivated by those beliefs (both for and against) is as real as any other element of human behavior. And before one leaps to the conclusion that the effects of religion on society are wholly negative, consider the Reverend Martin Luther King and Bishop Desmond Tutu. Also consider Monseigneur Georges Lemaitre, who proposed the expanding universe before Edwin Hubble, but was initially dismissed in part because it was assumed that, as a priest, he was trying to find a place in the universe for God.

  38. #38 Wow
    June 17, 2013

    “GMOs? Simple answer: appropriate testing and independent oversight.”

    There’s lots of money to be made.

    And those who take the responsibilities and eschew the benefits of power abuse are less successful in gaining power, therefore the chance of getting people in who aren’t corruptible is pretty slim: the good eggs need to be common enough that abuse is found and reported rapidly, else it all disappears in a “disastrous flood of our records department”.

    The response to the French study on GMOs indicates the paucity of thought: “They used rats prone to cancer!!!”. Well DUH! That’s so that you can see small effects easier. “They used too small a sample!!!”. Well, it’s the same sampling as the original paper that “proved” it safe. If that sample is too small, we haven’t shown it’s safe.

    GMOs are good in the same way as Star Trek replicators are good. As long as someone isn’t going to use it to replicate sarin or a nuclear bomb, it’s fine…

    I.e. it’s a fiction that it would be safe.

  39. #39 Wow
    June 17, 2013

    “As far as nuclear power is concerned, coal burning power plants in the USA are responsible for about 20,000 deaths per year from respiratory illness.”

    As far as nuclear power is concerned, there’s no need for it.

    We can EASILY halve our power needs. The USA can manage to drop to 25%.

    Again, it’s a fake concern like with “GMOs are needed to feed the world!!”. Except that GMOs and nuclear don’t solve the problem that IS causing the issue.

  40. #40 Wow
    June 17, 2013

    “So about deities. Any entity having the defining characteristics of a deity, could confound any experiment performed to ascertain its existence”

    Not actually true.

    Every claim of God’s appearance makes a testable science prediction. And we already know that God of Christ can’t travel back in time. So every case where that God has made an appearance would have made some scientifically discoverable effect.

    E.g. the Zombie Apocalypse in the New Testament.

    E.g. stopping the sun for a day in the Old Testament.

    E.g. every claim that God Did It since 300BC subsequently found out to be due to some physical process.

    If there were a god, then it exists whether we believe in it or not. That’s the definition of truth. Therefore there’s no need to believe in it, no more than we believe in a table, without whom our dinners are precarious.

    But every single claim in a religious text has given a god that has been proven not to exist. In many cases self-referentially so.

    So each of those gods claimed to exist are no more real than Galactus.

  41. #41 Tony Rotz
    June 17, 2013

    Ethan is absolutely correct, science is vital for the betterment of mankind, for the elimination of disease, future power needs, etc. and for many, many other things, but it can’t solve all of humanities problems. If a person living in a prior century could see what we have today, wouldn’t he wonder why we have, for example, war?

  42. #42 Wow
    June 17, 2013

    Or so many in poverty still.

    Why?

    Because there’s no money in it, but there is plenty of money in war.

  43. #43 Sean T
    June 17, 2013

    Tony Rotz,

    I affirm that the universe was created last Thursday by the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Are you open-minded enough to consider this possibility? It has the same positive evidence going for it as your belief in God, namely none. It has the same amount of evidence that could conclusively disprove it, again namely none. So from an epistemological point of view, both ideas have equal merit. Are you willing to seriously consider the possibility that the FSM exists and created the universe last Thursday?

  44. #44 Wow
    June 17, 2013

    Myths are defined as “Somebody else’s religion”, Sean.

  45. #45 MandoZink
    Louisville, KY
    June 17, 2013

    My political perspective:
    The world’s total current military budget is about 2 trillion dollars. One year’s worth of that could easily bring us multiple lunar bases, a Mars habitat, 10 Webb telescopes and an incredible number of knowledge and human race advancing endeavors. Twenty years of that money and we would be on other planets/moons and preparing to head out of the solar system. What a miserable empty waste of our resources and capabilities. In any decent future we will look back at these times as incredibly foolish.

    @ Tony Rotz
    “If a person living in a prior century could see what we have today, wouldn’t he wonder why we have, for example, war?”

    Excellent question. To help you contemplate why we, as a race of humans, might want to think rationally and solve this thorn in our planet wide civility ourselves, look up “Epicurean paradox”.

  46. #46 Sean T
    June 17, 2013

    G,

    Speaking only for myself, I would NEVER put someone down over a belief in a deity. I do object, however, when those who believe in said deity insist on bothering me about it and try to tell me why I should believe in that deity.

    Further, what type of reception do you think I’d get if I walked into a fundie church right in the middle of the sermon and started yelling that the preacher is full of it and there is no god? I’m sure I would not be met with friendly discourse and debate. When people come on a science site and start spouting off about religion, that’s similar behavior.

  47. #47 Sean T
    June 17, 2013

    Tony Rotz,

    Yes, science hasn’t solved the problem of war, but religion has SUCH a good history of preventing wars, doesn’t it? We all know that NOBODY has ever fought wars over religion, have they?

  48. #48 Wow
    June 17, 2013

    Here’s an interesting example of the problem with humanity:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2013/jun/17/wait-conclusive-science-concerned-issue

    Now, we can say that the sample was neither representative nor large enough to draw a conclusion on whether this is a danger.

    HOWEVER, it DOES show that the original report proving safety was broken: 350 sample there showed zero trace (to a measurement error). The chances of this sample having none and conclusively showing so is rather blown out of the water by this sample showing some.

    It does indicate that the original study could be flawed, and badly so.

    But everyone is calling it out on the conclusions NOT MADE by the report as unsupported by the report’s data.

  49. #49 Gunnar
    June 17, 2013

    @John Duffield

    I don’t think you read both the articles properly. They don’t contradict each other at all. Take another look at them.

  50. #50 Juice
    June 17, 2013

    What are the units on the y axis of your fluoridated water supply graph? Or is it just the ambiguous amount of bad stuff that you imagine would happen if water isn’t artificially fluoridated? I think you might need more science in your politics.

  51. #51 Tony Rotz
    June 17, 2013

    Man sometimes uses religion as an excuse to do great harm to others, Catholicism is no different though it seems to have learned that differences are part of the human condition and force does great harm. I don’t expect to change anyone’s opinion, but I would like to see that we can differ without hatred being an underlying cause. We should all be able to get along with each other, we don’t need a war on this post. I’ll try to Love you all as you are and hope you will do the same for me. Thanks

  52. #52 Spectral
    San Diego
    June 17, 2013

    Science is not (and should never be) considered an instrument of public policy nor its inverse. Science should be understood by its practitioners and admirers alike, that it is important and worthwhile in its own right. It neither needs nor should it seek to affirm a rationale for its existence or application. It is merely a useful vehicle in the pursuit of knowledge not good. Period. Only In this light can it remain pure and uncontaminated by the abstract social constructions of those who claim it for a higher purpose.

  53. #53 Wow
    June 18, 2013

    Well Tony, among atheists and the scientific you will find a lower level of hatred of difference than among any other group apart from very small ones (like, for example, the Amish).

    And a level MAGNITUDES lower than you’ll find in many of the christians in the USA’s bible belt.

    But you appear to be implying that this isn’t possible and that you are the only one able to accept a difference without hatred (this, however, is countermanded by your earlier diatribes against atheists and scientists, however, so the veracity of this statement is uncertain: you may be hoping to do much better yourself and merely forgot to use “we” there).

    If you DO mean to blame everyone else, this is an extremely divisive and differentiating statement and must be sourced from your own expectation of others, indicating a distaste for those different from you.

  54. #54 G
    California USA
    June 18, 2013

    Re. Sean T at #46: “When people come on a science site and start spouting off about religion, that’s similar [objectionable] behavior.”

    That critique cuts both ways. People who come on a science site and condemn religion and religious people, are also “spouting off about religion” in an obnoxious manner.

    What’s obnoxious about it, is simply that it’s _a digression_, of the same objective form as if someone came on a science site and started arguing the relative merits of different genres of music or film. Any emotional reactions that people bring to the subject matter, are purely their own subjective reactions, reflecting their own subjective beliefs.

    Many of the rest of the recent comments roughly translate to variations on “the problem of evil” (if evil exists in the world, there cannot be a deity) generalized to include other examples. But the fact is, we do not have any way to make any kind of empirical comparison. Show me a universe with a deity and one without a deity, and then we can start attempting to determine whether our universe is of the former or latter type.

    Attempting to get from the fact that scriptural predictions have failed to occur, to the inference that there cannot be a deity, is meaningless and frankly bad reasoning. Scripture is anecdotal, and anecdotes are not experimental findings. Any statement one makes about the existence or nonexistence of deities is an inference, not an empirical finding.

    What we can get at empirically, are the neurophysiological, genetic, and sociological causes, effects, and correlates, of various kinds of religious experiences and beliefs. That subject matter is open to all manner of experiment, so it’s legitimate for discussion on science sites.

  55. #55 Wow
    June 18, 2013

    Re. G at #54:

    Sean T at #46: “When people come on a science site and start spouting off about religion, that’s similar [objectionable] behavior.”

    That critique cuts both ways.

    THAT’S PRECISELY WHAT SEAN SAID!!!!

    Indeed, wasn’t that critique FIRST from retards and their apologist idiots like yourself whining on about how we have slated their idiocy AFTER coming on here and going “YOU ALL EVIL! GOD IS THE ANSWER!!!!”?

    Not one post here saying “I’ve gone over to the local Baptist church and called them all evil bigoted fundies who believe in a sky fairy”.

    Moronic “RTS” complaints like yours are entirely 150% moronic and have absolutely no useful content WHATSOEVER. Its only intent is to beat the fundies chest at them unpleasant athiests who don’t just STFU and listen in enrapt pleasure when we tell them of God.

    Fuck that shit right up the ass.

  56. #56 Wow
    June 18, 2013

    Attempting to get from the fact that scriptural predictions have failed to occur, to the inference that there cannot be a deity, is meaningless and frankly bad reasoning.

    BULLSHIT.

    When the god is supposed to have made those claims in scripture and even dictated the fucking thing, THEN YES, THAT GOD IS FALSIFIED.

    FFS, moron, if I make a claim that I can levitate things with my mind because I’m a frigging Jedi, and this proves that the Jedi Order exists, because I am one, and that’s why I can levitate things with my mind, then when you find out I can’t demonstrate this even once, then my entire claims are disproven.

    Or are you going to insist that the Jedi Order could exist, but I just got my membership of it wrong???

  57. #57 Wow
    June 18, 2013

    “This book is the inerrant Word of God!”
    “Your book has an error. Therefore your god doesn’t exist”

    Pretty simple, isn’t it.

  58. #58 Tony Rotz
    June 18, 2013

    Nuff said.

  59. #59 Wow
    June 18, 2013

    Indeed. If #57 isn’t clear enough, nothing is.

  60. #60 Tony Rotz
    June 18, 2013

    I think I’ll go read the comics while you people ponder infinite nothingness.

  61. #61 Marty Nix
    Atlanta, GA
    June 18, 2013

    For a case study on how scientific consensus is neither always correct nor immune to politicization, read up on the history of Benjamin Harrison and the Longitude Prize. I’m sure there are many other cases in the history of science but I am not a historian.

  62. #62 Marty Nix
    Atlanta, GA
    June 18, 2013

    Correction: It was John Harrison, not Benjamin, that pursued the Longitude Prize.

  63. #63 dean
    June 18, 2013

    “I think I’ll go read the comics …”

    Don’t pick any without pictures – you’ll just get confused.

  64. #64 Jordan S
    June 18, 2013

    I think you all need to think about the advancement of man. Ethan is right, we do need more science. Policy based on moralistic opinion rather than “evidience” only inhibits our advancement.
    “Most scientific theories are wrong” – The purpose of this article was to inform and encourage further advancement of a field by EXPERTS. In other words, gathering futher data, or evidence, to generate a more plausible theory.

    I think what Ethan was trying to convey in his writings, is that science should hold more ground in politics than the uneducated opinion, and if you disagree with it, then take action through science and not politics.

    “Science is a system of knowledge accumulated over time using experimentation, falsification, and corroboration in which verifiable data are retained and non-verifiable data abandoned.”
    -Verbatim from my high school biology teacher many years ago

  65. #65 Wow
    June 18, 2013

    I think you’re best suited to comics, Tony.

    Thinking is beyond you.

  66. #66 Wow
    June 18, 2013

    And your point is what, Marty?

    To disclaim a statement NEVER MADE?

    Tell us about the defecatory practices of ursines in a sylvan setting.

  67. #67 citicrab
    June 18, 2013

    Bravo, Ethan, I am sure you could easily predict the dreary reaction that followed. Politics will always trump science, even for a scientist. The quality of the discussion, the scale of name-calling etc. – you would not expect it from people who are regular readers of a physics blog, would you? Of course you would.

  68. #68 Marty Nix
    Atlanta, GA
    June 18, 2013

    I’m simply making the point that contrary to Ethan’s point, scientific training does not necessarily enhance political decision-making. Quite to the contrary, most historical evidence leads to the conclusion that political viewpoints critically hamper scientific objectivity.

    Scientists are human. They are not immune to rationalization. More information does not lead to less rationalization, it leads to more sophisticated rationalization.

    I chose the Longitude Prize as an example because it’s historic and no longer a political football, but it clearly demonstrates the politicization of science. For a more scholarly treatise on how science is not always evidence-based, try “Theory on the Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Thomas S. Kuhn.

  69. #69 Wow
    June 19, 2013

    I’m simply making the point that contrary to Ethan’s point,

    No, you’re not. You’re making up a point that NOBODY HAS MADE and then “rebutting” it. Then MAKING UP A NEW POINT as if that were the one you were making.

    Since you’re so frantically stupid you don’t even read your OWN posts, this is the claim you ORIGINALLY “rebutted”:

    scientific consensus is always correct [and] immune to politicization,

    Then “proved” it was neither.

    NOBODY said that.

    All you’re doing is making shit up.

    Why? Do you think everyone here reading is as dumb as you hope they are?

  70. #70 Sean T
    June 19, 2013

    Marty,

    Did you ever wonder why it’s big news when the scientific consensus is shown to be wrong? Probably because such an event is out of the ordinary. Ordinary events are not newsworthy.

    The point Ethan is making is not that the scientific consensus is always 100% right, nor that it is non-political. The real points are:
    1. The current consensus of experts in a given field is usually right, or darn near close.
    2. Even if the current consensus were to be proven wrong down the road, it’s still the best we have to go on right now.

    I’m not sure why this is even controversial. What’s the alternative? Basing policy decisions on information generated by people who really know next to nothing about the relevant field?

    Think of it this way: suppose you have an illness that’s causing you suffering. Do you go out and consult your plumber, your electrician, a lawyer and a bus driver about what you should do about it? Of course not, if you are rational, you go to a doctor. If that doctor cannot treat your illness, do you then go to a waiter, a congressman, a judge or a grocery store clerk? Again, if you’re rational, you go to a different doctor. IOW, you look to find the consensus opinion of the relevant experts, namely doctors, as far as how to treat your illness. That consensus may be wrong, but it usually isn’t. Even if it is, who’s going to do better? Again, I’m not sure why this is even controversial.

  71. #71 Sean T
    June 19, 2013

    I do think that where things get confused is the difference between making decisions about factual matters vs. making value judgements. For instance, deciding whether or not global warming is occurring is a factual decision. The current consensus is that it is occurring. There should be no argument about that (of course there is, but that’s because not everyone is rational about these issues). Deciding how to best deal with the problems caused by global warming, however, is a value judgement. Certainly input from climate scientists is needed to determine the most effective ways to combat global warming, but most of these have costs that must be weighed by society as a whole. How to best deal with global warming is a value judgement which should not be decided upon SOLELY by climate scientists.

  72. #72 Wow
    June 19, 2013

    “Certainly input from climate scientists is needed to determine the most effective ways to combat global warming”

    Or the possible consequences.

    “If we move 80% of cars to electric, what will that do to expectations of climate change? What about if we convert 80% of the power stations first?”

  73. #73 jane
    June 19, 2013

    Sean T is absolutely spot on. Experts are superior sources of factual information and hypotheses that purport to explain or expand upon those facts. They have no claim to superior virtue or superior ability to make value judgements. Check out would-be dictator of scientific values Sam Harris for a cautionary example. Doctors may provide superior information on how to treat diseases, but they cannot decide as well as you yourself can when the costs of doing so outweigh the benefits to you. To suggest that political issues are primarily issues of fact ignores the essential role of values in almost all difficult decisions – an error that is perhaps unavoidable for a science-centered politics, as science has no ability to deal meaningfully with values.

    Of course, the idea that your politics *should* be “based in science” is itself a value judgement (as is the issue of who qualifies as an expert and why). It is also a deeply disempowering idea. The original post says: “[T]here are people out there with more information than you on pretty much every topic…. When it comes to those topics, if your political opinions aren’t informed by … the consensus of experts in that field, then your politics cannot be said to be based in science.” This implies that an average person’s opinion on “pretty much every topic” should be in large part spoon-fed to him by recognized Experts, and that he shouldn’t have the nerve to do much if any of his own thinking lest he end up holding an opinion of which Science does not approve. Children in school are required to regurgitate on exams the facts and opinions that they are spoon-fed by authority figures; telling adults that this is what they should do on their ballots reduces them to a permanently infantile status. People reasonably resent that.

  74. #74 Wow
    June 19, 2013

    Since science and the scientific method is a method for discovering physical truths, what are you saying when you say:

    ” It is also a deeply disempowering idea.”

    ?

    I mean, are you saying that it’s disempowering for people who think religion should be primary? Because unlike knowledge of God, at least as far as the religion is concerned, is limited to a select few. Yet science is available to be learnt by anyone. No visitation from Great Atheismo needed. No touching by Noodly appendages. Open to anyone who tries to learn.

    Or are you saying that physical reality should not be used to decide what goes on, as opposed to, say, personal preference? After all, dictators around the world use the latter form, and they’re super successful.

    “This implies that an average person’s opinion on “pretty much every topic” should be in large part spoon-fed to him by recognized Experts”

    WRONG!

    YOU TOO can become an Expert. You can look at the papers printed, the research made, and work it out yourself. No NEED to just take an expert’s response.

    The alternative would be what? Asking someone who has no clue? Or you decide for yourself and make everyone else do that? Or should every single person do only that which affects them solely? Which means nothing.

    “telling adults that this is what they should do on their ballots reduces them to a permanently infantile status.”

    Uh, it IS possible for people NOT to be adult and infantile. You can see that with the temper tantrums of the super-rich starlets whose every whim MUST be instantly satiated.

    If they refuse to learn, and stick their fingers in their ears and go “LAlalalala! I’m not listening!” then they aren’t adults, are they.

    Indeed YOU seem to be the one infantalising them, by seeming to say they CANNOT learn to do science, as if it were some mystical power handed down by The Great Atheismo (again).

    Whereas I and other scientists think they CAN learn.

    We consider them far more adult than you.

    Yet YOU pretend to be standing up for THEM. Oddly, not willing to place yourself there, you have to put OTHERS there and pretend you’re protecting THEM.

    This is known as “White Knighting”.

    If you can’t understand or won’t understand science, then say YOU won’t and feel infantalised.

    DO NOT place that assertion on a vasty majority you’ve never even seen, just so you can pretend that this is some others and you are legion.
    You are yourself.

    Nobody else.

  75. #75 Tony Rotz
    June 19, 2013

    Perhaps it’s not that all scientific theories are wrong but that they are incomplete. I do like science.

  76. #76 Wow
    June 20, 2013

    And the point of incomplete is what?

    A flat earth is incomplete on the scale of human reach and sometimes drastically so. We use “flat plains” when there are rilles and channes that are separated by 10m of height.

    Because it’s appropriately accurate for the purpose to which that name is put: it is flat enough to be a good building site. For example.

    Moreover, the entire thread topic has been science saying “We’re wrong (because we aren’t 100% accurate), but useful and getting more right all the time”. So when you come along saying “they’re incomplete” which is one method by which “wrong” is appliccable, what was the point of it?

    The tone was that somehow you were revealing some startling fact.

    It was astronomically mundane.

    So why post it?

    Is it you have to complain about science (because it doesn’t include god) but can only manage weaksauce complaint?

  77. #77 Sean T
    June 20, 2013

    jane,

    I think you missed my point. My point was that we must turn to the consensus of the experts to get the factual information we need to make informed value judgements. We can use this information to identify problems, identify possible solutions, and identify possible consequences and costs of those potential solutions. Nobody else is really qualified to provide us with that information.

    I am not suggesting, though, that we all must vote in lockstep and just listen like children to our authority figures. The consensus of the experts should tell us what the problem is and what we CAN do about it. It cannot tell us what we SHOULD do about it. That’s where the decision making of a society as a whole comes in. The experts will tell us we have a problem, and we can take actions A, B, or C to mitigate it. Each of these actions has consequences and costs associated with it. The role of the adults in society at large is to first inform themselves about the information provided by the experts and then weigh in with their value judgements about which course of action to take. Certainly, such a role is far from disempowering or infantilizing members of society.

  78. #78 MandoZink
    Louisville, KY
    June 20, 2013

    “A flat earth is incomplete on the scale of human reach and sometimes drastically so.”

    FACTOID:
    The Flat Earth Society’s greatest setback occurred shortly after they announced their membership went global.

  79. #79 freedumbs
    Virginia
    June 20, 2013

    http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/2013/05/31/most-scientific-theories-are-wrong
    John Duffield. How far did you read into that article because you missed this part.
    “And in that sense, given that even the best scientific theory only has a limited range of validity, all scientific theories are wrong. (And before you quote me out-of-context on that, keep reading.)”

  80. #80 jane
    June 20, 2013

    Sean – No, I think that I understood your point and agreed with it completely; sorry if that was not clear. Experts are superior sources of information, but not superior sources of value judgements; would you agree with that formulation?

    I’m familiar with Wow’s shrieky ad hominem approach to “rationality” from neighboring blogs, but wow, Wow, that one was especially incoherent. The original post implied correctly that all of us, including scientists, are by necessity non-experts in almost every field. You seem to see expertise as a unitary credential – either “YOU TOO can become an Expert” or else you “can’t understand or won’t understand science.” Ridiculous. The OP’s statement is correct even for the most talented and educated among us. I am an expert in two small subsubfields of science-as-process. That does not make me an expert in any other field of science, nor in other meaningful fields of expertise such as auto mechanics or sculpting. In fact, it makes it impossible for me to be an expert in any of those myriad fields, because my time is finite and the development of expertise requires thousands of hours. The basics of any given field may be “available to be learnt by everyone” who “can look at the papers printed”, but none of us has enough reading time to attain expertise in hundreds of fields.

    However, that doesn’t mean none of us has the right to any say regarding how fields other than our own are used to affect us or our environment in political contexts. Consider the homely example of auto mechanics. Any good mechanic knows enormously more than I do about how cars work. Does that mean that the consensus of mechanics should dictate what is done to my car and when? Certainly not, even if you ignore the fact that some mechanics are dishonest. Some cars are not worth some repairs, and the officially recommended maintenance for most is both greater than really necessary, and unaffordable for many people. So we, who know our own financial circumstances and risk tolerance, listen to the expert’s advice then pick and choose: yes, it is a good deal to get the oil changed, but spending two weeks’ pay to replace a perfectly good timing chain in case it might break someday is not.

    I might add that most of the people who are bashed for their insufficient trust of science (or conventional medicine) don’t similarly mistrust the expert knowledge of auto mechanics. Why not? I speculate that (1) by and large, the mechanic is much less likely to mix up factual questions with values questions and try to push a particular set of values down their throats along with the facts; (2) the mechanic acts like a regular guy with a specialized skill set and doesn’t try to put himself up on a pedestal or pretend that he is fundamentally and inherently superior to those who “can’t understand mechanics”; and (3) the mechanic, when we so choose, provides services of obvious value, while the net benefits of many applications of science are hard for the public to see, or sometimes nonexistent. Consider how much resentment old-school veterinarians provoke versus how much resentment certain types of doctor provoke; I think you will see the same factors at work.

  81. #81 Tony Rotz
    June 20, 2013

    How does science say I should raise my children, treat my wife? Science has little to say. What does science say about Love, compassion, gentleness.

  82. #82 Wow
    June 20, 2013

    #78: :-D

  83. #83 Wow
    June 20, 2013

    It doesn’t. And it doesn’t tell you how to tie your shoelaces either, so rail against the attempts of science to tell you how to do up your shoelaces, Tone! Quick!!!

    Rationality, try it! If only for the novelty value for you!

  84. #84 Wow
    June 20, 2013

    Experts are superior sources of information, but not superior sources of value judgements; would you agree with that formulation?

    Neither is science saying it is. So what on earth are you complaining about?

    Indeed the only venue that claims they ARE a superior source of value judgements is one of the forums that has the least evidence to support their claims: religion.

    “Science answers the how, not the why”. Often pratted about by accomodationists. But the fact is, religion doesn’t explain the why either. It just assumes the answer. That’s no more answering the question than elephant.

    You seem to have a deep-seated compulsion to upbraid science and ignore engineers. Mechanics, probably as much as plumbers, are epitomes of pedestal-standing.

    Mechanic, looks under the hood. Sucks the air back through his teeth.

    “Tssss. That’s a big job, take a lot of work. No call for the parts, see. And you’ve not looked after it, have you.”

    Or the plumber’s Thursday. Exists on no calendar known to humanity. But they’ll turn up on Thursday.

  85. #85 anon.
    June 22, 2013

    We have not been awash in arguments for adaptation precisely because the consensus pertained to now-troubled estimates of climate sensitivity. The moralising stridency of so many arguments for cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, and global emissions treaties was founded on the idea that there is a consensus about how much warming there would be if carbon emissions continue on trend. The rather heated debates we have had about the likely economic and social damage of carbon emissions have been based on that idea that there is something like a scientific consensus about the range of warming we can expect. If that consensus is now falling apart, as it seems it may be, that is, for good or ill, a very big deal.

  86. #86 Wow
    June 22, 2013

    The only trouble is the innumeracy of the deniers, anon.

  87. #87 Stacy Milinako
    Grand Blanc, Michigan
    June 24, 2013

    You should still consider what the scientific consensus says it is based on. How can we be sure GMOs don’t cause problems that just don’t manifest until people are older and must fester since a very young age in order to manifest?

    I believe that genetic modification itself is not a problem but assuming that every single genetic modification is perfectly safe is bollucks.

    I’ll trust the scientific consensus when scientists have enough data. When it comes to genetics we don’t have enough data. We don’t know the exact interplay between genes on each other, genes with the rest of the body, and with the environment and the effects that result. The sheer complexity of it means all they can say is based on the evidence they’ve gathered they haven’t found any evidence of danger. That doesn’t prove there is no danger. The sheer multitude of potential genetic modifications means it’s far more likely that over the years scientists are going to learn that some are very safe and others are extremely dangerous.

    The fact that more indirect genetic modification has been done for a long, long time is not evidence that it’s safe either. Sometimes crops or livestock go bad or have problems. Sometimes this may very well be a result of breeding processes which normally turn out just fine but in their cases did not. The slowness of the process itself weeds out the problems for the most part. Speed up a process and it becomes more unpredictable.

    Science is great, but it can not know everything. The key limitation is time. There are some things which we really can not know without gathering longitudinal data and if we’re honest sometimes that means a half a century or more. But because people including scientists tend to be impatient they will often confidently assert findings based on time windows which are much too short. This sort of overconfident reporting can come from biased samples too. Psychology often asserts findings as consensus based on studies that were only done on people in the Western world and recently some new studies on people elsewhere finds things thought universal might actually be culturally conditioned. Woops.

    No matter what the consensus a wise person factors in perspective and what can and can not be known about people’s perspectives. Not enough time has passed for an exhaustive and adequate longitudinal study to prove that genetic modification is completely safe, so any claims that it’s completely safe is a premature and overconfident statement driven by a misguided desire to have a conclusion. Not even scientists are immune to fallacies and rationalizations.

  88. #88 G
    California USA
    June 30, 2013

    Re. Jane at #80:

    The reason people trust auto mechanics is that they are specifically seeking advice and solution to a practical issue that affects them directly: “My car has a problem, I need to get it fixed right away.” Upon getting a referral to a good mechanic, a person is likely to trust their judgement.

    For most people, most of the time, the work of actual science is more remote, compared to the applications of it in their daily lives.

    For example, you see insects near your house and think they may be termites: do you call your local university entomologist or do you call a pest control company? The pest control technicians’ latest treatments may very well be the direct result of the science being done by the entomologists. But the person you have direct contact with isn’t the entomologist, it’s the pest control tech.

    This is true even for “high technology” products. Almost every one of us has a device, a few inches away from where our hands are right now, that is based on the quantum theory. That would be your CD/DVD drive in your computer. Of all the people who use that device daily, how many pause to think (for that matter how many even know) that the laser diode in it is a quantum device? “Look at that! Quantum theory is weird, but it works!” (And that should be an incentive to learn more about quantum theory.)

    The necessary step here is for working scientists to form some kind of media/publicity association and run regular ads on TV and radio, linking basic research to its everyday applications. This needs to be a saturation coverage campaign, and it needs to be funded purely by universities and personal contributions, so there is no question of it being corporate PR.

    A few obvious examples: The QM behind your CD/DVD drive. The theories behind the doppler radar that gives you accurate storm forecasts. The chemistry of the batteries in mobile devices and electric cars. How biotech translates to life-saving medicine. Possible title for the ad campaign: “Science is working for you.”

    Re. incomplete theories: Any layperson with a decent grasp of scientific methods should understand what’s going on there. Knowledge progresses by small degrees with an occasional breakthrough, theories are our best approximations, etc. etc. The rhetoric from the anti-science brigade, that attempts to take advantage of these points, is dishonest as hell and should be called out as such.

    But it’s also true that our day-to-day “working hypotheses” about things where the science is long ago settled, are also incomplete. The auto mechanic (or plumber, electrician, telephone tech, computer tech, etc., and doctors as well, including specialists) runs tests and looks for the most likely cause of a problem, and fixes that. But there may be other complicating factors that don’t show up until the most direct cause of a problem is cleared.

    Ultimately the issue here is the disconnect between the brain’s ability to create narratives (“X is the cause, Y is the cure, Z should be fixed now”), and the fact that external reality is not a subset of our minds. When reality behaves in a manner unlike what we prefer or expect, we are likely to criticize the explanation, rather than recognizing that reality is objective and independent of our wishes. So here’s another item that calls for mass media education of the public.

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