Game Changers Conversation #1 - Evidence, opinion, interest: the attack on scientific methodpresented by the Hon Dr Barry Jones. 

VU at MetroWest
138 Nicholson Street
Footscray, Victoria, Australia

Monday 2 March 2015, 6pm

Barry Jones
AC, FAA, FAHA, FTSE, FASSA, FRSA, DistFRSN, FRSV, FACE.

Abstract

Science and research generally are given disturbingly low priority in contemporary public life in Australia, although medical research and astronomy may be exceptions. Scientists, especially those involved with climate change, or the environment, have come under unprecedented attack, especially in the media, and the whole concept of scientific method is discounted, even ridiculed. In a complex world, people seem to be looking for simple solutions that can be expressed as slogans, and the quality of public debate on scientific issues has been trivialised, even infantilised. The controversy on anthropogenic global warming (AGW) has been conducted at an appalling level on both sides of politics. (Debates on refugees and taxation have been conducted at a similar level.) Vaccination, fluoridation and even evolution are hotly, but crudely, disputed in some areas. Despite Australia’s large number of graduates (about 4,500, 000), our 38 universities and intellectual class generally have very limited political leverage and appear reluctant to offend government or business by telling them what they do not want to hear. Universities have become trading corporations, not just communities of scholars. Their collective lobbying power is weak, well behind the gambling, coal or junk food lobbies and they become easy targets in times of exaggerated Budget stringency. Paradoxically, the Knowledge Revolution has been accompanied by a persistent ‘dumbing down’, with ICT reinforcing the personal and immediate, rather than the complex, long-term and remote. In a democratic society such as Australia, evidence is challenged by opinion and by vested- or self- interest. Australia has no dedicated Minister for Science with direct ownership/ involvement in promoting scientific disciplines. If every vote in Australian elections is of equal value, does this mean that every opinion is entitled to equal respect? It is easy to categorise experts as elitists, and out of touch. There are serious problems in recruiting science teachers, and numbers of undergraduates in the enabling sciences and mathematics are falling relative to our neighbours. In an era of super-specialisation, many scientists are reluctant to engage in debate, even where their discipline has significant intersectoral connections.

The infantilisation of debate

Barry Jones:

Australia, like the US, UK, Canada and much of Europe, has undergone a serious decline in the quality of debate on public policy.

The British journalist Robert Fisk has called this ‘the infantilisation of debate’.

There are 1,015,000 students, both undergraduate and postgraduate  (about 900,000 of them locals) currently at Australian universities. Australia has about 4,500,000 graduates, far more than the total numbers of traditional blue collar workers. Inevitably, these numbers will shift our political culture, but the process is occurring slowly.  Members of trade unions amount to about one million people – 18 per cent of the total work force and about 12 per cent of the private sector.

Despite Australia’s large number of graduates, our 38 universities and the intellectual class generally have very limited political leverage and appear reluctant to offend government or business by telling them what they do not want to hear. Universities have become trading corporations, not just communities of scholars. Their collective lobbying power is weak, well behind the gambling, coal or junk food lobbies and they become easy targets in times of exaggerated Budget stringency.

Currently Australians are, by far, the best educated cohort in our history – on paper, anyway – but it is not reflected in the quality of our political discourse. We appear to be lacking in courage, judgment, capacity to analyse or even simple curiosity, except about immediate personal needs.

In the era of ‘spin’, when a complex issue is involved, leaders do not explain, they find a mantra (‘Stop the boats!’) and repeat it endlessly, ‘staying on message’, without explanation or qualification. The word ‘because’ seems to have fallen out of the political lexicon.

An unexpected result of the ICT Revolution has been the development of  social media, personal/ self-referential, immediate, material, trivial – the smart phone as the ‘new best friend’, a love object in itself. ICT provides access to the universe with its astounding diversity, but observation of its users suggests that the personal has displaced the universal.

Evidence-based policies and actions should be a central principle in the working of our system and reliance on populism and sloganeering should be rejected, but in reality they are not.

Tackling complex problems will demand complex solutions (e.g. refugees, climate change) which cannot be reduced to parroting a few simple slogans (‘turn back the boats’, ‘stop this toxic tax’.) ‘Retail politics’, sometimes called ‘transactional politics’, where policies are adopted not because they are right but because they can be sold, is a dangerous development and should be rejected. We must maintain confidence that major problems can be addressed – and act accordingly. Revive the process of dialogue: explain, explain, explain, rejecting mere sloganeering and populism. We need evidence-based policies but often evidence lacks the psychological carrying power generated by appeals to prejudice or fear of disadvantage (‘They are robbing you...’) A voracious media looks for diversity and emotional engagement, weakening capacity for reflection and serious analysis, compounded by the rise of social media where users, typically, seek reinforcement of their views rather than being challenged by diversity.

My repertoire has been broad (even shallow) rather than deep and specialised. But I’m not bad at making connections – ‘joining the dots’, to use the current cliché.

The role of Science in policy development is a sensitive issue, because I spent years, decades really, bashing my head against a brick wall trying to persuade colleagues to recognise the importance, even centrality, of Science policy.

Science and research generally are given disturbingly low priority in contemporary public life in Australia, although medical research, biology (and agriculture), mining, metallurgy and astronomy have been exceptions.

Scientists, especially those involved with climate change, or the environment, have come under unprecedented attack, especially in the media, and the whole concept of scientific method is discounted, even ridiculed. In a complex world, people seem to be looking for simple solutions that can be expressed as slogans, and the quality of public debate on scientific issues has been trivialised, even infantilised.

Gus Nossal sometimes quotes me as saying that Australia must be the only country in the world where the word academic is treated as pejorative.

Many, probably most, of  my political colleagues had no interest in science as an intellectual discipline, although they depended on science for their health, nutrition, transport, entertainment and communication.

Evidence versus opinion

Barry Jones:

There is a disturbing conflict between evidence v. opinion (‘You have evidence, but I have strong opinions.’) and political processes are more likely  to be driven by opinion rather than evidence in a short political cycle.

Political discourse rests on the assumption of shared knowledge – it is a dangerous assumption. I can talk about significant events in Australian history – the Gallipoli tragedy for example – and find, understandably, with an audience composed mostly of people born 60 years after the event, that its grasp of the issues or the action ranges from  shaky to non-existent.

Brian Schmidt, our Nobel Laureate in astrophysics, wrote in The Age on 16 February:

"As a Nobel Prize winner, I travel the world meeting all kinds of people.

Most of the policy, business and political leaders I meet immediately apologise for their lack of knowledge of science.

Except when it comes to climate science. Whenever this subject comes up, it never ceases to amaze me how each person I meet suddenly becomes an expert.

Facts are then bandied to fit an argument for or against climate change, and on all sides, misconceptions abound.

The confusion is not surprising – climate science is a very broad and complicated subject with experts working on different aspects of it worldwide.

No single person knows everything about climate change. And for the average punter, it's hard to keep up with all the latest research and what it means.

More surprising is the supreme confidence that non-experts (scientists and non-scientists alike) have in their own understanding of the subject."

I encourage you to read Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), a best seller by the Israeli-American psychologist Daniel Kahneman who, although not an economist, won the  Nobel Prize for Economic Science in 2002 for his development of ‘prospect theory.’

‘Prospect theory’ analyses rational and irrational factors in decision making. He demonstrates, regrettably, the extent to which people like you and me use familiar short cuts, ‘heuristics’, to make intuitive judgments, and discount evidence or rationality in making decisions, whether in purchasing, deciding where and how to like, and taking a political stance on issues. Kahneman became the outstanding authority on behavioural economics and social psychology.

Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012) is also an important book. I think he could go much further with his thesus: politics and religion tend to be centred on ‘values’, so people can pick and choose. But it is also clear that many people will say, ‘I reject this particular data because I don’t trust where it comes from’.

Psychologists confirm that we habitually engage in the cherry-picking of evidence – we choose the bits that we are emotionally, intuitively, attracted to and comfortable with. 

The Cambridge political scientist David Runciman argues that ‘opinion, interest and knowledge are too divided, and no event, whether an election…or a crisis is clear enough in its meaning to bring closure’.

Creationism v. evolution, the age of the earth (Genesis v. geology), smoking as a cause of lung cancer, whether HIV-AIDS is transmitted by virus, ‘alternative medicine’, controversies about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, the Kennedy assassinations, the survival of Elvis, even the historical truth of the Holocaust, are all examples of recent controversies which promote a confusionist mind-set and earn some people more attention than they deserve.

There is fierce opposition in some quarters to the vaccination of children and the fluoridation of water supplies to prevent dental caries, even  though the empirical evidence in support of both is overwhelming. But appeals to fear can be far more powerful than arguing on the basis of hard evidence.

Scientists are not immune from vanity, and some dissenters on climate  change have been encouraged by by certain vested interest groups who tell them: ‘The most important scientific factor in the climate change debate happens to be your area of expertise. Everyone else has it wrong. Only you are right’.

There has been a sustained attack from some quarters, the News Corporation papers, the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) and the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), to name only three, on scientific research and scientific method, even on rationality and the Enlightenment tradition. The illusion was created that scientists are corrupt, while lobbyists are pure. One of the false assertions is that scientists who take the mainstream position are rewarded, while dissenters are punished (similar to Galileo and the Inquisition). In Australia now and the United States until recently the contrary could be argued. Galileo’s work was based on observation of data – his opponents were operating from doctrine.

Scientists arguing for the mainstream view have been subject to strong attack by denialists who assert that they are quasi-religious zealots who are missionaries for a green religion. In reality, it was the denialist/ confusionist position to rely on faith, the conviction that there were a diversity of complex reasons for climate change but only one could be confidently rejected: the role of human activity. 

Scientific/analytical method

Barry Jones:

Scientific method, rational analysis and evaluation of evidence has been a central factor in defining Western society and culture since the Renaissance, and these skills can be/ should  be applied to a variety of disciplines – politics, law, economics, social sciences, health. Scientists have come under unprecedented and damaging attack, especially in  the climate change controversy. 

We must distinguish between scientific scepticism (a central element in testing evidence, for example Karl Popper’s falsifiability test) and cynicism (dismissing evidence, however compelling, to promote confusion and inaction on behalf of vested interest.) Scientific vocations are falling in Australia, and this has important implications for our future economic and scientific capacity. Governments have an obligation to take up and understand the challenges raised by science, reach a national consensus in promoting the importance of science in our national life, encourage investment in science-based processes and products for which there is international demand.

Political processes work on an assumption of common, or shared, knowledge – and this may be more fragile than we are prepared to recognise.

Robyn Williams of ABC Radio National’s Science Show tells the horror story of addressing an audience of teachers – I should emphasise, not science teachers – some years ago when he asked, ‘How many of you have  never eaten food with DNA in it?’ More than half the audience put up its hands.

The debate on climate change, especially anthropogenic global warming (AGW), has been a particularly disturbing illustration of how ill-equipped we seem to be in conducting serious debate and understanding experimental method.

There are three areas of attack against expertise  and taking a long term, analytical view of the world – from the Right, the Left and the  anxious Centre.

From the Right there have been systematic and well-financed attacks by lobbyists from the fossil fuels industry, and electricity generators. This has been highly personal, often abusive, sometimes threatening.

The anxious Centre includes people working in particular industries and regions (Hunter Valley, La Trobe Valley, Tasmanian forests), understandably fearful of potential job losses, without much prospect of creating new jobs. The trade union movement is deeply divided on this – as is the business community.

But from the Left, or some segments of the intellectual left, a deconstructionist mind-set has partly undermined an evidence-based approach to policy making or problem solving. 

The pluralist or deconstructionist or post-modern theory of knowledge is contemptuous of expertise, rejects the idea of hierarchies of knowledge and asserts the democratic mantra that – as with votes in elections – every opinion is of equal value, so that if you insist that the earth is flat, refuse vaccination for children or deny that HIV-AIDS is transmitted by virus, your view should be treated with respect. Similarly, there has been a repudiation of expertise and or taste – dismissing the idea of people like Harold Bloom, or me, that there is a ‘Western canon’ which sets benchmarks.  No, say the deconstructionists, the paintings of Banksy, the mysterious British graffiti artist, are just as good as Raphael, that hip-hop performances are just as valid as Beethoven’s Opus 131.

The Welsh geneticist Steve Jones asks an important question:  If there is a division of scientific opinion, with 999 on one side, and one on the other, how should the debate be handled? Should the one dissenter be given 500 opportunities to speak?

Graham Lloyd, The Australian’s environment editor, perhaps more accurately described as the anti-environment editor, trawls the web, finds obscure  and unsubstantiated critiques of mainstream science, then publishes them as front page attacks on professional integrity.

There are serious problems in recruiting science teachers, and numbers of undergraduates in the enabling sciences and mathematics are falling relative to our neighbours. In an era of super-specialisation, many scientists are reluctant to engage in debate, even where their discipline has significant intersectoral connections.

The central problem of super-specialisation in research is the lack of a narrative, and often failure to engage, even with overlapping disciplines. Pressure to publish, sometimes prematurely, has a risky downside, and can be damaging when, for example, outcomes cannot  be replicated. And yet publication is seen as essential in securing grants and/or promotion, in fierce competition for dwindling resources. The long time involved in research, sometimes decades, is hard to report, in striking contrast, say, to sport with its rapid outcomes and emphasis on personality.

Science, complexity and the common-sense view of the world

There are major problems about explaining some of issues in science, and have been ever since science began.

Some fundamental scientific discoveries seem to be counterintuitive, challenging direct observation or our common-sense view of the world.

Common sense, and direct observation, tells us that the Earth is flat, that the Sun (like the Moon) rotates around the earth and that forces don’t operate at a distance.

Aristotle with his encyclopaedic – but often erroneous – grasp of natural phenomena, was a compelling authority in support of a geocentric universe, and that the seat of reason was in the heart, not the brain, and that females were deformed males. His views were dominant for 1500 years. The Greek astronomer Ptolemy, following Aristotle, provided ingenious proofs in support of geocentrism.

Then along came Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler who said, ‘Your common sense observation is wrong. The orbits of Sun and Moon are completely different, although they appear to be similar.’ (Our use of the terms ‘sunrise’ and ‘sunset’ preserves the Ptolemaic paradigm.)

By the 20th Century, electronics enabled us to apply force from a distance, to do thousands of things remotely, manipulating spacecraft and satellites, or receiving signals (radio, telephony, television), setting alarms, opening garage doors and, one of the great labour saving devices, the remote switch for television.

The most obvious disjunction between science and common sense is the question: ‘Right now, are we at rest or in motion?’

Common sense and direct observation suggests that we are at rest. 

But science says, ‘Wrong again. We are moving very rapidly. The earth is spinning on its axis at a rate of 1669 kph at the equator, and in Melbourne (37.8°S) at 1317  kph. We are also orbiting round the Sun even faster, at nearly 30 kps, or 107, 200 kph. There is a third motion, harder to measure, as the galaxy expands – and it’s speeding up, as Brian Schmidt postulates.

But, sitting here in Footscray, it is hard to grasp that we are in motion, kept in place by gravity.

Psychology resists it. Essentially we have to accept the repudiation of common sense on trust, because somebody in a white coat says, ‘Trust me, I’m a scientist.’

I would challenge anyone to reconcile common sense and quantum theory or to satisfactorily explain the Higgs boson or – hardest of all – to define gravity.

The factors that limit the psychological carrying power of much science – not all – include these: 

  • its complexity, often requiring use of a language known only to initiates
  • outcomes are seen as too expensive
  • outcomes are seen as too slow
  • the history of science has been badly taught, often portrayed  as an effortless success story, proceeding from triumph to triumph, instead of the passionate and dramatic reality.

Scientists and learned societies have been punching below their weight in matters of public policy, and they are careful to avoid being involved in controversies outside their disciplines, possible threats to grants being among them. Some distinguished scientists are outstanding advocates, including Gus Nossal, Peter Doherty, Ian Chubb, Fiona Stanley, Robert May, Brian Schmidt, Ian Frazer, Mike Archer, Tim Flannery, Dick Denton. Science must be at the core of our national endeavour and you are well placed to examine the evidence, evaluate it, then advocate and persuade. Our nation’s future depends on the quality of its thinking, and its leaders.

There is a wide-spread assumption by industry and government that Australia’s economic, social and technological future will be a mirror image of the past. We can be confident that this just won’t happen. We have not even begun to talk seriously about the threats and opportunities of a post-carbon economy.

I encourage you, whatever your political persuasion, or lack of it, to argue for higher recognition of the role that science must play in our future, and drive your MP mad unless or until he/ she does something about it. 

Remember Archimedes and his lever.

But first you have to find a fulcrum, then you push the lever.