Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Science, well Sort of….blah, blah, blah, part 2

In my last post (here) I sought to lay out how I go about assessing scientifically based claims.  Running out of room I punted with a promise to come back with a  part 2…This will be quick, because I really want to move on to the next phase of this exploration….but before that,  when deciding what to believe, let’s be sure to:

Embrace Systemic Causation.

After Hurricane Sandy last summer the interweb lit up with hand wringing over whether the claim could justifiably be made that climate change was the ‘cause’ of the hurricane. Sciency sounding cases were made for both sides of the argument…and I was personally unconvinced/confused until I read this and was persuaded we were engaged in the wrong debate altogether.  In the article, Berkeley’s George Lakoff makes the case for “systemic causation”.  Simply put, some systems are too large or complex to be able to attribute direct causation.  Climate change causing extreme weather, smoking causing cancer, sex leading to HIV/AIDS, sugar’s role in obesity,  are some of many examples of systemic causation.  In each case we know from observation and research that while these are determinative factors, it is impossible to show direct causation in any single instance.  This is the case in almost all complex or emergent systems.  Note that Lakoff is not a physical scientist, and I’m sure this concept makes many of them squirm, but again that misses the point.  When we have to make a judgment informed by confusing and often conflicting data, we need to step back and look at the bigger picture rather than get tied up in superfluous debates about direct causation.

And there is another important aspect of systemic causation…which is to be on the lookout for when you don’t see evidence of it.  Classic examples here are supposed dangers caused by cell phone “radiation” and harmful GMO’s….In each case, there are massive amounts of exposure, or causes, but no observable effects.  If they were in fact harmful, we would expect to see evidence of systemic causation by now after decades of use…you may not like the point, but I’m sure you get it.

Next, be sure to:

Beware of Epistemic Closure.

Don’t be intimidated by the title…it simply means don’t allow yourself to be persuaded only by folks you violently agree with already.  The Conservative economist and policy wonk Bruce Bartlett wrote an excellent piece on this here. In talking about post-fact, post-science politics he notes, “This was my first exposure to what has been called “epistemic closure” among conservatives—living in their own bubble where nonsensical ideas circulate with no contradiction”.  There are of course many examples of this on the nominal political right, from creationism to climate denial …but before my progressive friends get too smug, note that many on the political left are circulating their own nonsensical ideas about the dangers of vaccination,  and EMF emitting devices or the healing powers of homeopathy. Anyone can fall prey to this.  In fact, to varying degrees, we all do. So my best suggestion is to “friend” and “follow” folks you disagree with, read blogs and magazines that offer different perspectives, and generally seek out smart folks who you don’t normally listen to…Simply, push yourself out of your comfort zone and self-created filter bubble.

And finally:

Accept the Limits of Science.

This one is at once simple, and agonizingly complex.  The simple part is grounded in understanding what science cannot do.  It can never provide absolute certainty.  It is not set up to “prove” things with finality, but rather to generate ever more questions and lines of inquiry. Further, it cannot prove something will not happen.  The best example is it cannot prove something cannot harm you.  It can show that it likely will or likely won’t, to various degrees, but is never absolutely definitive. (...go for it, cite me an example where I’m wrong on this).   And perhaps most importantly, science is never “settled”.  Each discovery, revelation and explanation simply leads to new avenues of research ….it is never ending.

And this is where the agony comes in…we really, really don’t like it this way.  We look to science for answers, assurance and proof.  We are frustrated and confused by the noise coming in from both sides of every debate, drowned by seemingly conflicting data, and we are often simply unable to understand the jargon employed…How do we figure out what to believe when even the scientific experts seem to disagree, or we simply can’t understand them?…Well, once again we've come full circle.   Which leads me to my brilliant new idea.

I’m going to conduct...

A Science Experiment.

I’ll be the test subject, and you will be the scientist observing the experiment, and to make it easier for you, I’ll even take the notes. So the experiment will be that I will select a topic currently being debated in the public sphere that has a basis in science.  It’s a topic that I frankly have not taken the time to understand, and therefore I really don’t know what to believe about it.  You’ll observe me on this journey as I decide what to believe, with the idea that we both might learn something, both on the specific topic and on the nature of beliefs. So, the topic I have selected is…, I think I’ll make you wait until next time…(insert your favorite wry smile emoticon here).

So, what do you believe?


  1. Embrace systemic causation - One swallow does not a summer make, nor do we run to a doctor after one cough. Only after more swallows (or coughs) can we make a meaningful decision.

    Beware of epistemic closure ... or the reverse thereof: rejecting facts that counter our current belief - Holocaust deniers have tried to convince me that it didn't happen, even AFTER learning that only 2 of us survived it from a family of 12.