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The Scientific Meridian

Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder ‘why, why, why?’
Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.
Kurt Vonnegut

I have to be honest, Rachit, I wrote the original post in April. I showed it to someone, and they said: ‘sounds like an extended Twitter rant’. So I tucked it away in the back of my mind, hoping that whatever it was that I was feeling would eventually fade as it was exposed to the light of reason and the indirect scrutiny of more nuanced takes. But the intuition didn’t fade. It only grew stronger. So, I posted my extended Twitter rant, for better or for worse.

I will attempt to answer your W’s in a second. But first, let me paint with an extremely broad brush and say the following: my intuition is that the lionization of Scientists and Science develops in the fertile ground left behind by the secularization of society. Humankind needs something to believe in, something to answer the question ‘why?’, and maybe most importantly something to paint the world into the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides. Why? As the ‘judge’ says in Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece Blood Meridian:

It makes no difference what men think of war… War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.

And so we fight, because it is our nature. We wage ‘battles’, we have ‘front-line heroes’, and we have the innocent casualties. And just like in wars, we look to the generals for directions. The scientific experts are, for some, the generals on the ‘good’ side. The idolatry I am pointing to is the cultural force that disproportionately heeds the advice of the generals, without due deliberation by the broader public. It is the force that makes people say things like ‘I am with science,’ ‘defend science’ or ‘listen to the experts.’ If this was a truism, then it would not be worth saying. I think it points to a much deeper feeling of unquestioned idolization of ‘science’ that is not warranted. How do I know it is unwarranted? Well I am, in theory, a ‘practicing scientist’ of sorts; I have seen how the sausage is made and I feel a duty to call these things out.

Now to your questions:

Who is idolizing the ‘experts’?
Some specific examples:

  • California Governor Gavin Newsom: “The West Coast is—and will continue to be—guided by SCIENCE.” (Of course you are, what does this even mean if not some sort of idolization or pandering?)
  • Former Vice President Joe Biden: “Follow the science, listen to the experts, do what they tell you.” (Self explanatory)
  • Neil DeGrasse Tyson on the crisis “a giant experiment in whether the world will listen to scientists, now and going forward.” (Paints the scientists as the ones with the answers)
  • Greta Thunberg: ‘We take it for granted, that we listen to the current, best available, UNITED science’ (To say science is united is to miss the point of science)

Are people who aren’t experts allowed to weigh in? You say.. ‘of course’.
According to a Pew research poll, 44% of the U.S. public disagrees with you.

A majority of U.S. adults (54%, including equal shares of Democrats and Republicans) believe the public should play an important role in guiding policy decisions on scientific issues; 44% say public opinion should not play an important role because the issues are too complex for the average person to understand.

Where has it gone wrong? What are the consequences?
The broad consequences is that democracy devolves into oligarchy — the ruling of the few over the many. The 20th century is rife with examples where the idolization of ‘science’ has gone wrong. Eugenics, atom bombs, Chernobyl. The list is long.
If unchecked, this idolization bleeds into academia itself where “recognizable scientists receive disproportionate credit, and therefore trust, in a repeating cycle” in something called the ‘Matthew Effect’. You say that peer review can help rid science. That may be true in an ideal world, but it is not true when certain facts or persons are beyond question and can cause a reviewer their career. There are large parts of science that do not follow a double-blind process and a reviewer’s identity is almost always visible to the editors.

I admit that much of my qualms may be made worse by certain types of media coverage. For example, take this article on the wildfires in California that has the headline ‘Trump Again Rejects Science’. What Trump said was that he thinks  ‘science doesn’t know’ what caused the latest fires. This is of course obviously true: there are a number of factors , including climate change. But instead of going for a nuanced rebuttal, the NYT goes for war. Trump vs. Science: round one million and two.

Finally, I raised the notion of aesthetic beauty to make a point about ‘evidence’. Science is not always about observation — there are many things in science that are chosen arbitrarily: out of fashion, politics, and aesthetics. Something that passes peer review has been reviewed by peers that may have the same fashions, the same politics, and the same sense of aesthetics.

In this lovely article called ‘Why trust science?’, Naomi Oreskes (a professor in the history of science at Harvard, but who’s checking — lets not idolize experts here) says that the fundamental reason to trust science is not the ‘scientific method’ (which is rarely how actual ‘science’ is done), but that there is a culture of sustained scrutiny in a form of ‘transformative interrogation’.

Interrogation can be transformative, this blog being a case-in-point. But interrogation is a process that transcends and ultimately supersedes ‘science’. The  interrogation of established dogma in the protestant reformation perhaps gave rise to modern science. Thus, we should be happy to see people questioning established facts (no matter how ‘obvious’ they may seem), and refusing to take the ‘experts’ opinion as gospel.  When done in good faith, this scrutiny is not ‘anti science’, it is the very essence of science.

Who? When? Why? Where? What?

I have a lot of questions. Lets begin.

Who is idolizing the ‘experts’? I’m not sure who you’re speaking against. In the ‘trade-offs’ of policy making and a lack of a perfect explanation, someone has to decide things, and it makes sense that someone who is trained and researched should make those imperfect decisions. Are they always right? No. Are people expecting perfection? No. If they are, that’s silly, and we can agree on that. Explorable explanations is what science and scientists deal with and if there is a disconnect with the general populace as a whole about that, or any individual scientists then for sure, I think people should be re-educated in the purposes of science.

Are people who aren’t experts allowed to weigh in? Of course. That’s what political governance allows for. Questions, and demands. Are scientists biased? Of course. That’s why peer review exists. Is it a fast process? No. It takes time and it happens with the collective minds and scrutiny of an entire field, young minds, and Laymans’ outside the field asking questions. I don’t know of any “idolatry” culture, I’m not sure what you’re pointing to.

In order to properly delve into this, and for me to understand what you’re speaking to, specific examples would help. Are you talking about global responses to coronavirus? Popular science? Psychology studies? Robotics research? Which group of people? Educated people in the west? Canadians? The group of scientists themselves? And in these cases, when they’ve done the idolizing, where has it gone wrong? What are the consequences? What are we missing out on?

Separately, I think there’s a whole other conversation that you raised about “beautiful systems” and their validity to explore and explain the underpinnings of Truth, whatever that may be. That’s more in “hypothesis” formation I would say than a conversation about idolatry of scientists. It is also more speaking about the value of philosophy in science education, which is an interesting conversation, and something that I think is intensely valuable, but again, who when where why what are you talking about?

The Cult of Experts

Rachit,

We are all in some bubble of information these days. In my bubble, one understandable but troubling trend has manifested itself: an incessant insistence by the popular press that only ‘experts’ (i.e., academically-trained researchers) have any right to speak on issues that concern things of import (health, prosperity, etc.).

It is a truism to say that people who have dedicated significant time to studying a particular phenomena should be given ample time and influence when the public-at-large must decide how to respond to that phenomena. If I have an issue with my plumbing, I call a plumber. But this doesn’t mean that an arbitrary plumber that picks up the phone may know all that there is to know about plumbing, that a plumber is immune to other influences which may affect his or her advice, or that I should I fix my plumbing without considering other effects that the plumber may be agnostic to (e.g., should I drain my child’s education savings account to fix a plumbing issue?).

Much of the same issues that affect plumbing affect science, but sometimes more acutely. First, who decides who has the credentials to work as a scientist? Largely, other scientists. A plumber is judged by their technical prowess, by their creativity, and by the longevity of their work. The ultimate arbiter are the facts-of-the-matter: was the leak stopped? how expensive was the work? A scientist is no different except in one important aspect: the ultimate arbiters of science are, in the short term, other scientists.

To avoid becoming a self-justifying cult of truth, the modern academic system rests on the ability of ‘experts’ to avoid, as much as possible, allegiances to a particular truth. Instead, the system is built on the meta-truth of an honest pursuit of Truth. Through this ethic, science remains open to new ideas, and rids itself of theories that calcify into unquestionable gospel without an overwhelming amount of evidence. Even then, we can speak of theories that have predictive power, but little aesthetic appeal. We should be suspicious of scientists who (1) present any particular model as beyond questioning, and (2) apply science as an all-encompassing explanatory system. The question of whether or not all phenomena can be studied through scientific means is itself not scientific.

Broadly speaking, a Ph.D. means that one has demonstrated the skills to present and investigate some theory and communicate one’s conclusions in a cogent manner. However, the overwhelming majority of ‘theories’ are not made ex-nihilo, but are the product of a scientific milieu which has fashions, dogma, and political undercurrents (wherever there are gatekeepers, there is politics).

Second, science, in so far as it relies on this hypothetico-deductive model, is not designed to provide positive answers. It is designed to reject false theories. Out of the theories which are clearly not ‘false’, which one best reflects reality? That question is generally not in the purview of science. For example, there are alternative theories to general relativity that explain relativistic gravity. However, general relativity is considered to be the most appealing because it is the simplest. This appeal to Occam’s razor is an aesthetic judgement; but why should it be true? It itself cannot be rejected by science. Further still, there are almost certainly theories or parts of theories which may be true but are simply unfashionable to even reject. They are below consideration, but may not be below ‘truth’.

In light of this, it is particularly troubling to see the scientist idolized as a kind of philosopher-king. I love science, I love academia, but I do not love idolatry. To the extent possible, academics are trained to be free from political inclinations, to not be affected by trends and fashions, and to seek ‘truth’ for the benefit of all humankind. But they are trained in a very specific sense, almost always specializing in a narrow slice of ‘truth’, and with conflicting and pernicious mantra (publish or perish!).

The history of science, philosophy, and medicine is rife with examples where ‘outsiders’ and ‘non-experts’ fought, often in vain, for heterodox opinions that were rejected by the ‘scientific consensus’ at the time but which we now take for granted. Not everyone with a heterodox opinion is Copernicus, but neither must they be an ignorant crackpot who wishes to poison the populace.

The reality, for scientists and for all people, is that we are all trying our best to interpret the phenomena we see before us. Given sufficient patience and diligence, science can help us contextualize phenomena and reject theories that do not explain new evidence. But science is not, and will never be, free of politics, dogma and fashionable ways to conceive of the world. Even if this was the case, we must not fool ourselves into believing that a concrete understanding of the world will make our decisions as simple as consulting the experts on the matter.

As David Hume wrote, we cannot get an ought from an is. Ultimately, what society ought to do is the choice of the society itself, of which the ‘experts’ on any particular issue are but one part.

Yours in pulp,
Valentin

Heroes and Villains: The Wes Mantooth Philosophy

In the wake of an embarrassing game 3 playoff loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Kyle Lowry was asked about what it is that makes the Cavaliers a great team. He replied, “they’ve got LeBron James and no one can close the gap on him.”

Now, LeBron is indisputably one of the greatest basketball players of all time. But Kyle is trying to beat LeBron, and many people who heard these words (including yours truly) interpreted them as a sign that Kyle, and many of the Raptors, were mentally checked out. Defeated before the series is even over. After all, if “no one can close the gap on [LeBron]”, what’s the point of even playing?

This got me thinking. What is a good way of approaching your role models, those people that you admire, the ones you dare call your ‘heroes’? How do you maintain a healthy respect for their skills, without deifying them into an unreachable realm that makes you prone to excusing your own deficiencies?

I often hear the phrase ‘never meet your heroes,’ used in common parlance. Presumably this is meant to prevent the disappointing realization that one’s heroes are just people, with real emotions, real flaws and potentially very little to say to a star-struck fan. But why is this bad? Shouldn’t this realization be a beacon of hope that we too, someday, can accomplish the same things we admire in our role models, while still grappling with our own messy humanity? Shouldn’t Kyle look at LeBron on the court and say, he’s just another guy shooting hoops, drinking water, missing free throws. He’s not a God, he’s just a genetically gifted athlete with a Versa-climber.

Maybe not. Maybe really what we’re scared of is this very realization. The fact that our heroes are not Gods, and yet they still do what they do. How can you be that athletic, at that height, for so long?

Plato’s realm of ideal forms comes to mind. There are no perfect spheres in this world, but all spheres are an imperfect realization of the ideal Sphere. Is it better to keep imagining the ideal basketball player, or meet an imperfect (but damn close) manifestation of that ideal? What motivates you to improve? Despite Plato’s ideal realm, much of Greek mythology has distinctly anthropomorphic Gods, with human flaws. Presumably, the Greeks felt this made the Gods more relatable, and made their myths more effective. Yet, many modern Gods are undoubtedly much more abstract, and unhuman. (A clear exception to this is many sects of Christianity which accept the holy trinity, a resolution that combines aspects of both the ideal, and the human aspects of God).

Setting aside heroes, what about our enemies, our ‘villains’? Should we humanize them (exposing our common humanity, and holding hands to sing Kumbaya), but keep our heroes sterile, unsullied by the humbling reality of being a real, shitting, sneezing, tax-paying human being?

I think this unification is in many ways futile. It makes it harder for us to fight for any cause and traps us in a pit of nuance and indecision. It is much easier to hate the Bogeyman than it is to fight a man on the toilet (shout out to Tyrion for still getting it done).

Perhaps a reasonable approach is a good, healthy amount of respectful hatred for both our heroes and our villains. Perhaps what I really wanted Kyle to do was quote Wes Mantooth from Anchorman: “from deep down in my stomach, with every inch of me, I pure, straight hate you. But goddammit, [LeBron] do I respect you!”

What say you, Rachit?

Hello, World!

Welcome to Never From Concentrate.  This blog is a written conversation between two friends. Sample topics that we will talk about include: econolinguistics, foods that Rusty eats, accidental plagiarism, craft beer, chess tactics, utilitarianism and the benign indifference of the world.