Sunday, June 11, 2017

The crisis of scientific authority

When I was a kid, and even into my teenage years, the larger ethos was one of unquestioning acceptance of scientific expertise and authority.  Even back then, jokes were in plenty about accountants fudging numbers or lawyers enabling cheaters. But, scientists and science were nothing to be joked about.

What a difference over the years!

Now, whether it is in India or in the US, the public--even the college educated--seems to pick and choose whatever appeals to them as scientific, while denying whatever they disagree with as unsettled science:
One common story is that this conflict is a societal one, between factions with sharply divergent affinities for science—left versus right, secular versus religious, technocratic versus traditionalist. But there is little stability as to which side proclaims itself pro-science and which the bold challenger to an ideologically exhausted establishment. The capitalist conservative who is skeptical about climate change may have no trouble tarring his environmentalist foes as anti-science for opposing nuclear power. The coastal bobo who sees creationism in Texas classrooms as a harbinger of a new Dark Age may be contributing to keeping childhood vaccination rates in his city below those of Third World countries, owing to beliefs the Texas parent regards as voodoo.
I have blogged in plenty on this (like here or here.)  Many of those continue on without any resolution of sorts.

Consider, for instance, James Hansen.  The American Association of Geographers recently honored Hansen, "known for his climate research and his Congressional testimony on climate change that raised awareness of global warming" as "the 2017 AAG Honorary Geographer."  At the annual meeting, Hansen "Hansen addressed a packed house and talked about climate change."

Caption at the source:
James Hansen received the Honorary Geographer Award.
There is a good chance that a good number of the members of the association, perhaps even a majority, would sharply criticize Hansen--even the extent of practically discrediting him--because of his take on nuclear energy.  Hansen writes in a recent Scientific American commentary:
study after study finds that keeping existing nuclear plants—our largest and most reliable source of clean energy—operating is one of the most important and cost-effective ways to prevent carbon emissions from increasing.
So, here is James Hansen the celebrated NASA climate scientist arguing in favor of nuclear power plants.  Will we accept Hansen's expertise and authority on his bottom-line on nuclear energy?

Hansen even frames nuclear energy against the renewables:
But another reason for nuclear’s woes is that it is excluded from most state and federal subsidies for clean energy, which is why solar and wind have boomed during a time of low natural gas prices.
A recent study by the nonpartisan federal Congressional Budget Office found that renewables received 114 times more than nuclear per unit electricity in 2016, and similarly high amounts since 2005.
And over 30 states, including those whose governors criticized Trump, have clean energy mandates that exclude nuclear.

A few days ago, when a student asked me--in a different context--what my concerns are, I told her that what worries me most is that we do not have honest conversations on various public policy issues.  We engage in all kinds of shenanigans.  I told her that politicians lying and cheating and distorting the truth is not new.  But, when even within university campuses when we refuse to engage in honest conversations, well, it is game over.

Whether it is about nuclear energy or vaccines or GMO, "These are not only political but also philosophical, even metaphysical, disputes far larger than the particular question":
 It seems that what are required are pluralisms not only of norms, interests, psychological orientations, and scientific views of nature, but, much more crucially, an understanding that each of these is intertwined with the other. I am suggesting, in other words, that some revival of the classical understanding of science as natural philosophy is urgently required if we are to extricate ourselves from our current morass. There is little hope that our scientific debates will become coherent so long as we labor under the illusion that our stances can be cleanly partitioned up, made other than the wholes they are.
Of course, I agree with that bottom-line of "science as natural philosophy."  But then, ahem, nobody listens to me! ;)


Ramesh said...

Yes, you have brought out the contradictions even more those who claim to be scientifically led, very well.

I think its a question of personal assessment of risk vs rewards. In the case of nuclear, or GMO, there is of course a risk to the technology. Science can only declare probabilities of the risk occurring, not certainties. Human assessment of the risk tends to be wildly exaggerated, which is why there is so much opposition.

Something like this occurs in the resistance to building cell phone towers in residential localities in India. Everybody wants cellphone coverage but nobody wants a tower next to his house, because of exaggerated fears about radiation.

The amazing fact is that the risk of reckless driving on the road is well established. Yet nobody thinks it will happen to him, or that they need to be less crazy on the roads.

Sriram Khé said...

The personal risk assessment is different from the assault on scientific authority. It is one thing to be a reckless driver, but another to charge that scientists are producing "fake news" ... the crazy thing here is that the same people who passionately defend the scientific expertise in one aspect of life challenge the scientific expertise in something else.

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