Monday, February 17, 2014

Faith in science? Really?

My colleague Glenn Reynolds, who is a Distinguished Professor of Law at UTK, a prolific scholar, and runs the Instapundit website, has written a column for the New York Post warning of trusting scientists. While stating that "honestly done, science remans the best way of getting to the truth on a wide range of factual matters" he claims that "people are losing confidence in... scientists and the institutions that purport to speak for them". He goes on to state that "there's no particular reason why one should trust scientists and especially..the people running scientific institutions, who often aren't scientists themselves." [Glenn:  minor point: while I'm loath to generalize, every scientific institution I know is indeed run by a scientist, albeit often one no longer active in research.] He suggests that scientists are often not skeptical enough and  that it's the "increasing use of science as ammunition for big-government schemes" that has led to more skepticism of the public. He finishes off with the statement "If scientists want to be trusted, perhaps they should try harder to make sure that those who claim to speak for science are, you know, trustworthy. Just a thought."

So here is a response, from one who 'speaks for science'.

As in other highly-technical fields, such as medicine, to be a scientist requires a lot of learning and training;   typically at least 10 years of undergraduate and graduate study.  Normally, although  aware that medical doctors have differing opinions and levels of competence, people do not  trust  someone without an M.D. to perform their heart surgery or fix their inflamed knee.  So why not trust scientists?

Well, this particular inflammation is of political origin, and the statement about big-government science schemes is at the core.  However, in my opinion, most people are in favor of some big-government science schemes while they may be against others. Consider, for example, a palette of projects: weapons research (such as the Manhattan Project) and other high-tech defense initiatives, blockbuster drug design,  supercomputing, biotechnology, alternative energy and climate.  None of these fields can advance (or could have advanced) rapidly without cooperative public and private investment - I'd be happy to explain why later for those who don't know. Which of these initiatives people classify as worthwhile tends to  depend on their political and world view. But these biases are often out of fear for political decisions based on the science discovered, and this conflation of science and policy is at the origin of  the mistrust.

Take our own Center for Molecular Biophysics as an illustration of the difference between the two. Quite a bit of our research is on biofuels or the environmental cycling of mercury.  Yet we don't advocate any particular political policy related to  these fields - indeed, we don't even discuss political aspects much.  As for me, I don't necessarily approve unilaterally adopting a US carbon tax or regulating US mercury emissions; these policy decisions by themselves might in fact have no real effect on the problems they are trying to address. But, like Reynolds, I am no expert on these particular questions. I don't know what other members of CMB think.

But where we do agree with each other is that we think it's important to understand the science behind biofuel production, and how mercury is transformed and transported in the environment. And so we try to understand what is needed to find technological solutions to bring down the cost of cellulosic ethanol, and we try to to understand what happens to mercury once it enters the food web.

Myself, being a 'believer' in the general worth of science and technology for mankind,  I want to see all the above-mentioned palette of projects pushed forwards. The cost to the taxpayer is small relative to other, non-science big-government schemes, and the economic return on investment enormous. Scientific research arms the population with the facts. What policy to adopt in response to the facts can then be chosen by the people and their representatives.  But if you don't have the facts in the first place, on what do you base a political decision? So why defund climate research, or epidemiological research at NIH, or research on mercury cycling?

There's no reason to 'trust' scientists more than anyone else in their advocacy for any particular policy, but cutting down scientific research itself, which is surely the corollary of not trusting scientists in general, will lead to a lurch back  towards an age of ignorance. Who then, would there be to trust?

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