Leading Horses to Water

Ancient Greeks began the way of thinking originally known as natural philosophy but which we now call science.  Science emerged as we know it during the Renaissance, in an age dominated by fear, superstition, injustice, and brutality.  In other words, pretty much like the present.  These musings are aimed at explaining how science works, and how science can serve even nonscientists in their efforts to make sense of the world.  I can try to explain things but it’s up to you to decide whether or not you wish to drink from these waters.

#32 - A Misplaced Equality

American Heathen:  aired: 21 April 2013

The USA was founded on the principle of equal opportunity for all people, as well as freedom and liberty for all people.  In the USA, everyone is equal – in the sense that they’re free to have (and express and act on the basis of) their ideas and opinions, provided the process does no harm to others.  I should point out that “doing harm” includes overt adverse actions against someone:  doing bodily harm, causing someone to lose their job for having a contrary opinion, etc.  This does not include causing someone to be offended, though!  There’s nothing in US law that forbids anyone from being offensive.  The basic idea behind these principles is that we benefit collectively from the clash among ideas, and no one should be punished just for having unpopular ideas and beliefs.  The US Constitution was designed to prevent (or at least limit) the tyranny of the majority.

This is an important cornerstone for our science, as well as our society.  However, in science, there are limitations on the freedom of scientific expression – the limits are established by the mechanism of peer review.  This limit on completely free expression has been introduced because it turns out that not all opinions in science are equal.  Please allow me to elaborate:

As noted in my discussion of peer review, this could be seen by some people as a sort of elitist principle – that the ideas of some people are, in fact, superior to the ideas of others.  The reason that it’s not an elitist position is due to the concept behind the rule of peer review:  to be worthwhile contributions to the discourse among scientists, the opinions must be supported by the twin pillars of logic and evidence.  As one might expect, when arriving at a conclusion about the validity of a particular idea, it isn’t always a black-and-white conclusion – there can be disagreement among peers about such a conclusion.  This might seem disturbing to non-scientists, because it could be said that if scientific ideas are just a matter of opinion, how is science any different from a barroom argument?  To answer this, consider the following:

There are many really important scientific questions before our society today:  the role of fossil fuel consumption in contributing to global warming, the possibility of adverse side effects from childhood vaccinations, the clash between fundamentalist religion and science in guiding the content of education in our schools, the possibility of side effects from genetically-modified animals and plants, the use of embryonic stem cells in medical research, the use of pesticides and herbicides in agriculture, the need for alternative energy sources, the role of race in establishing human capabilities, … .  This list could go on, but the point is that our society must make choices in moving toward the future.  Making no decision  (and, hence, taking no action) on these and other topics is still a decision:  a choice for the status quo.

I see arguments involving science topics on Facebook now all the time.  Someone posts a meme pertaining to some topic associated with a scientific issue, and there’s an avalanche of comments, typically from non-scientists.  These folks weigh in according to their personal beliefs and opinions, arguing for their point of view, all too often in truculent tones.  And in the USA, they’re certainly entitled to their ideas and opinions.  But when the issue involves science, the opinions of non-scientists count for little or nothing.  To equate the opinions of non-scientists with those of scientists regarding scientific topics is a misplaced equality!

There’s an objective reality in the natural world (that can never be known perfectly), so no matter what some people might believe about, say, the use of childhood vaccines, the scientific community has a position – sometimes referred to as the consensus – that has a vastly more credible basis than that of some non-scientist citizen.  Occasionally, the scientific consensus changes, usually as a result of new evidence, so the scientific consensus should never be seen as “absolute truth”.  But at any given moment, it has survived peer review and so has more than just personal opinions behind it.  The fact that the consensus can change isn’t some sort of black mark against science that justifies equating just anyone’s opinion regarding a scientific topic.  The consensus is there because there’s been an accumulation of evidence for it, not because there’s some sort of conspiracy among scientists to perpetrate fraud on our society.  Non-scientists are vulnerable to drawing conclusions based on small samples, for instance.  Non-scientists may be unable to recognize ideas that are wildly illogical, or impossible according to well-established laws of the natural world.  Non-scientists are likely to be unable to penetrate the fog of obfuscation (sometimes, to the point of using bogus mathematics) that pseudo-scientists and crackpots use to disguise their nonsense.  Non-scientists can be fooled when irrational ideas are cloaked in pseudo-science arguments that seek to use the credibility of science to support profoundly unscientific ideas.

In the usual scientific discourse (in the form of articles in refereed journals and scientific conferences), there’s some minimum standard of evidence that must be met before an idea is deemed validated to the extent that is becomes worthy of inclusion in that discourse.  That standard is determined by the peer reviewers, who are recognized scientific contributors within the subject matter of the research.  Incorrect ideas abound in science, of course, and peer review isn’t perfect in excluding them all while rejecting only incorrect ideas.  Only time will judge whether an idea will survive to become part of the consensus.  The scientifici discussion need not waste time and energy on those ideas that can’t pass muster via peer review.  Let the proponents of those ideas do the hard work to validate their ideas to the satisfaction of their peers.  The rejection by a journal article because it fails to survive peer review is not the denial of free speech, however.  There are other avenues for those ideas to exist (Especially on the Internet these days!), but science depends on the exclusion of ideas that are unable to meet scientific standards.  Without being able to exclude unworthy content, science becomes just another “Tower of Babble” (No, that’s not a spelling error!) like Facebook. 

We in the USA are aggressively protective of our freedoms (Provided we don’t succumb to fear-mongering demagogues who would seek to take away our freedom in the name of security!), and we certainly should all be equal under the law.  But to assert a universal validity of opinions regarding science has no factual basis, any more than equality under the law means that all humans are equal.  Look around you – people have widely diverse capabilities in sports, mathematics, artistic expression, etc.  To claim they’re equal is demonstrably false.  It’s a similar recognition of reality that the opinions of scientists are more credible than the opinions of non-scientists, when it comes to topics involving their scientific expertise.  To believe otherwise is to take the notion of equality too far.

Science is not a religion but rather a tool for those who wish to think for themselves about the natural world.  Its primary characteristic is its willingness to entertain questions from those who wish to obtain believable answers.