Saturday, January 31, 2009


The High Cost of Science (and everything else)

Some say the evidence for global warming is clear; others say the issue is a hoax. Either way public policy lies in the balance. As with other differences, experts and politicians disagree. While most of us hanker for certainty and clear direction, ready answers elude us. The real issue is do we want to pay the price of making up our own minds?

We can choose to learn nothing, do nothing. What is the worst that can happen? Let some one else decide. Is not that why they are the leaders so they have the burden of decisions and we followers can go about our business?

But if they are the leaders, they are so by our forbearance or election. In a democracy at the root, we decide. We decide based upon either interests or information. If decision is to be on the basis of interest alone, representative government implies that we know our own interests in an informed way and have made some effort to determine how acknowledged interests are best represented. Either way, we need some kind of answers, at least to the questions we ask ourselves.

Do I know where to look for answers? It is very popular to blame school age students for their lack of knowledge on science, geography, history and other subjects. However, recent surveys by the National Science Foundation and other agencies indicate that the adult-out-of-school population suffers the same deficiencies. Fewer than half of American adults understand that the Earth orbits the sun yearly; only 9% know what a molecule is; 25 million Americans cannot locate the United States on an unlabeled world map.

These questions are not difficult and are easily answered by most commonly available almanacs, encyclopedia yearbooks, dictionaries, or online sources. Because ignorance is not so terrible to admit, you can go to a library and ask any question in the strictest confidence. All it takes is a little curiosity, energized by frequently asking, “Do I know what this means?” and then not suppressing the question without followup.

When looking at the evidence do I know how to judge it? Commonly we weigh accuracy by whether the information given squares with what we already know. When we do not know enough either we have to learn more which is always a good thing, or we have to gauge the trustworthiness of the source that informed us. But when we think over where we go for the information we trust, it is typically to those convenient to us – family, friends, co-workers, and likely the Internet. Major studies of information seeking behavior for 75 years have consistently shown the same thing: in matters of information (that which we otherwise do not know), convenience trumps all other criteria for evaluating the worth of the information. Most of us are not ready to test the information in front of us by seeking more than one source, particularly sources with differing perspectives and different kinds of authority. To do so likely leads us from just two to three sources or more.

When I must judge conflicting information what is the method? Accuracy is more than counting noses. The skills required depend upon our abilities to spot accuracy due to multiple factors – currency, the credibility of the source, internal consistency with the known facts, objectivity in reporting, and the bringing together of mutual supporting sources. Also consider why contrary information fails to explain a problem or hold up to testing. Majority information is likely informative, but the razor that information has to pass over is the ability to make sense by itself without reference to any extraneous outside idea.

Why does method require the absence of ideology? If something is true, it is necessary apart from anyone wishing it true. Recent articles in The New Scientist and other professional journals suggest that science suffers a bad rap because it so often uncovers bad news. Viruses are developing ahead of our ability to control them; the melting arctic endangers polar bears; the magnetic pole could shift in such a way that the solar wind would strip off our atmosphere. The most difficult matter in science as in any human endeavor is to probe the falsifiability of an idea or theory; we are so eager for our proofs that we do not look for the one example where the subject in question fails the test.

Are we to seek simplicity or distrust it? The answer is yes. In science or any knowledge, we are to use our best tools, whether intellect or instruments, and seek the most elegant and necessary of answers. Frank Herbert in his novel Dune (1965) has one of his minor characters say, “The highest function of ecology is understanding consequences.” Likely true, but we are none of us in possession of the truth. The International Journal of Science Education reported in 2006 that when three sets of adults were exposed to differing presentations on science, each group wound up with more positive views towards science, irrespective of their own choice, but a less scientific one, that science is infallible. After all our efforts, science is only the best knowledge we have at this point. The adversaries to policy corrections on global warming know this and note that we have been wrong about science before – that the sun revolves around the earth, for instance – so we can be wrong now.

What do we do when uncertainty remains? We keep on searching. Real learning is constant. We watch the most relevant, balanced and pertinent programs, follow the hard news first, visit the library and consult the sources that do not come into our own home. We visit museums and take in lectures. We examine what we know and do not know. We have discussions that exchange real information.

Debates over science and the appropriate policy actions will continue as long as the U.S. is a democracy that wants to stay in the forefront of creativity, knowledge, and liberty. As citizens we can do our part, as best we can. For democracy, no one has found a substitute for vigilance.
Roger Sween specializes in the art of questions and their answers and therefore in the science of information-seeking behavior.

© 2009 by Roger Sween.

I welcome substantive comments on the contents of this blog. Personal comments to me may be sent to the email address given above.