Scientist, Patriot

A couple of outlets that I monitor fairly regularly brought up an essay by Dennis Overbye in the New York Times the other day about the place of science in Western society.  The thesis of the essay is not the all-too-common science versus religion proposition, but one that says democratic government benefits from a populace that thinks like scientists.

That endeavor, which has transformed the world in the last few centuries, does indeed teach values. Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view. These are the unabashedly pragmatic working principles that guide the buzzing, testing, poking, probing, argumentative, gossiping, gadgety, joking, dreaming and tendentious cloud of activity — the writer and biologist Lewis Thomas once likened it to an anthill — that is slowly and thoroughly penetrating every nook and cranny of the world.

Overbye is correct that the practice of science, when done best is open to new ideas (though appropriately critical of them) and that the preponderance of data will force previous adversaries to come to agreement.  No one argues anymore that the Earth or the Sun is the center of the universe, or whether DNA carries our genetic code from generation to generation.  He is also correct that scientists love to probe, argue, gossip and joke (withering sarcasm can be heard across most lab benches).  Overbye continues:

It is no coincidence that these are the same qualities that make for democracy and that they arose as a collective behavior about the same time that parliamentary democracies were appearing. If there is anything democracy requires and thrives on, it is the willingness to embrace debate and respect one another and the freedom to shun received wisdom. Science and democracy have always been twins.

Of course, science and democracy both break down when people stop listening and evaluating openly and respectfully.  We’ve seen in Washington for the last decade or more, and can view it around the clock by watching cable news networks' pundits trying to out-shout one another.  I have found the politicization of science over my lifetime to be incredibly disheartening and the acceptance (even endorsement) of scientific illiteracy on issues like AIDS, climate and evolution appalling.

It’s probably a surprise to no one that my two favorite Founding Fathers are Jefferson (left-handed, red-haired) and Franklin (Philly guy who liked the ladies and a good drink) – both accomplished scientist/engineers in their own right.
So, the next time you want to bash the other side (no matter who the other side might be), step back, take a breath,  be open and respectfully critical, argue with data (not bluster) — be a good citizen–scientist.

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19 thoughts on “Scientist, Patriot

  1. Given that I am also a scientist, it should be no surprise that I agree both with you and with Mr. (Dr.?) Overbye. Sadly, in venues such as Vox the opposite approach tends to dominate. On my bleaker days, I think of it as Gresham's Law applied to social intercourse.John

  2. Great post. I'm often found saying that marketers need to think more like scientists, too. My profession is full of people who "go with their gut" — which often turns out to be fantastically wrong, even if it sounded like common sense. One good example, covered by Fast Company magazine, was the old marketing theory of "Influencers." It was popularly believed that if you could just get your marketing message to the right people — those who set trends and influence the rest of us schlubs — that your marketing would take off. But then a computer scientist actually did a model, and behold — it turned out that there really are no "influencers." It turns out that sometimes the climate is just ripe for a certain type of message (today, that would be anything about the economy or being green).
    With the tools marketers have today, there's no reason we shouldn't be testing our models. I find many are reluctant because — 1, they don't know how to use the tools and are either afraid or are too busy to learn them; 2, they think setting up a test group would be a waste because they're waaaaay too confident with their assumption; or 3, they just don't want to be bothered. Scientific thought requires a certain amount of discipline that some people just don't have…. or maybe aren't taught to have.

  3. This is a great post, very thought-provoking. (Great test tube pic too.) Democracy was more or less set up as a social experiment – no one had really done it this way before the USA. I think that when it was coined, the term "political science" probably meant exactly what you are talking about.
    It frustrates me how I don't feel like I can take much of a position on very many issues these days because most of my information comes from the news – and there is no unbiased media outlet. I'd do my own research, but that's probably not going to happen right now. Heck though, some of the journal articles out there are even biased – not necessarily politically, but to their own prejudice. That's uncommon, but still. It makes me sad that I have to read everything with a suspicious eye.

  4. It frustrates me how I don't feel like I can take much of a position on
    very many issues these days because most of my information comes from
    the news – and there is no unbiased media outlet.Thanks, Mello, for a great thought that mirrors my own. Steve, I so appreciate posts like these, because though I'm a lowly assessor, my mind thinks scientifically, without a lot of emotion attached, and if someone has a different idea, I want them to prove to me it's better than my own. Thanks, once again, for making me think and smile at the same time. You rock.

  5. You may know this already, but I find the Methods section of any research paper to be the most telling for the presence of bias. Researchers (are supposed to) tell exactly how they executed the study and it's hard to hide biased design from that section.

  6. Steve, wow this is really valueable. Some scientists just don't see maturity as an important trait, but how can someone communicate if they don't have control of their emotions?
    Also, face to face communication (more common in Jefferson's time, of course) gives us the benefit of body language, a clear sense of taking turns, more time for short sentences for clarification etc. Watching Fox News (limited time for clarification as well) or debating online takes much more effort in order to avoid confusion over sarcasm or whatever.
    Science would be better off if we cooled down "between rounds", I think.

  7. John — I don't think I've had the same experience here as you describe — I've found most of posts and discussions to be pretty civil and most folks seem willing to listen as well as be heard — but then again, I mostly abstained from the election… ;)

  8. Hapa — I wonder how much of an attitude like that is generational? I think in the last decade or so we've seen an explosion of data — and the ability to easily gather it. There could be many people in these industries ill-prepared (both in training and mentality) for that sort of change. Scientists have it lucky that we're trained on data, but for others it may have to be a learned skill. It's one that's definitely needed today and in the future.

  9. Well — it's probably a good idea to keep that skeptic's eye. I think its part of our duty as citizens to question assertions by politicians and news-people… when someone says they'll create xx-new jobs… how do they arrive at that number? Factcheck.org does a pretty good job and winnowing data from spin.

  10. BBL — I've never heard of anyone assessing lowlys. I thought the article did a good job of comparing the job (scientist) to the mindset (scientist). Hapa's comment was about the need to have a scientific mindset in a business and marketing setting was a great example — the need for rational data-driven decision making is part of life, not just part of a few peoples' jobs.

  11. Thanks Ellie — it's an interesting thing to see scientists get so personally wrapped up in what they do — fighting tooth and nail to hold onto an idea in the face of contradictory data. But if you work on something long enough, you begin to self identify with it and so the contradictory data becomes a personal attack! It's really hard not to fall into that trap — so human to do!

  12. I don't think I've had the same experience here as you describe — I've found most of posts and discussions to be pretty civil and most folks seem willing to listen as well as be heard — but then again, I mostly abstained from the election… ;) Believe it or not, the strongest arguments [1] I've had on Vox have been over simple scientific principles such as whether or not the laws of thermodynamics apply to recycling [2] and how we can know the composition of something that we have only seen [3]. My suspicion is that, because the two folks had so much emotionally vested in their position, they were unwilling to change their minds [4].John[1] As opposed to discussions (i.e., where people put forth clear descriptions of conclusions and supporting statements) and flame wars (i.e., where some net troll just decides to be abusive because it is funny).[2] My position was that they did; surprisingly, the opposition (who claims to be a biology graduate student) seemed to believe that they were of no importance in biology, either [a].[3] My position was that we could, through the use of spectroscopy. The opposition (who claimed geology training) didn't think that physics was applicable.[4] And, indeed, became quite abusive, both in their blog comments and by emailing people in my neighborhood claiming that I was stalking them.[a] And, no, I do not refer to the long-discredited creationist claim that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics.

  13. That's a really good point. I should probably be a little more understanding in people's unwillingness to learn how to test. Now you've got me thinking about what the best methods are to encourage people to embrace testing…. hm…..

  14. Wonderful post.I just finished a book about Descartes and I must admit it is as if some of the scales have fallen from my eyes. I generally consider myself a pretty open minded guy who is always willing to challenge my own views to consider those of others but there is always more we (I) can do to improve upon our general discourse and the civility there of. Also, there's an interesting bit in the new issue of Wired Magazine that I think is somewhat relevant.
    How More Information Leads to Less Knowledge

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