How Naïve are Scientists?

A FiveThirtyEight podcast recently included a segment with their senior science writer, Maggie Koerth-Baker, where she opined on what scientists were marching for, and in so doing she made the following comment (about 49 minutes in):

Something that I have been trying to get scientists to understand when I do, like, public speaking with them is that, you know, it’s important that evidence is a part of how we make decisions in politics, but evidence about, like scientific evidence, is never going to be the only thing people make these decisions on. You know, you have ideology, you have philosophy, you have, you know, what your personal conception of ethics and morality is, you have money, you have, like, all these different things that sort of come together to make political decision making, and just telling people facts isn’t going to shift people on all of those other things, because the facts, they might be perfectly willing to believe the facts, but if all those other things outweigh the facts in one direction, like, that’s, that’s not going to fix it. So I think it’s kind of an example of sort of how complicated this can be that, you know, we want there to be this really easy way to, like, well, if science says yes, well let’s do that, but that’s not like how reality works.

Kind of patronizing.

As she kind of indicated earlier in the podcast, the real motivation and goals of the March for Science have been, um, somewhat unclear (as we’ve discussed), so easy to agree that scientists are kind of naïve in hoping for a kumbaya moment that would return science to some position of unquestioned respect. Now agreed, any scientist who thinks they should be able to walk into Congress and say “do this, because that is what the science says” is hopelessly clueless.  GG has yet to meet this scientist. Certainly scientists are naïve in many ways, such as hoping to change opinions by presenting more facts (as we’ve discussed here and here and here), but no practicing scientist GG has met is so clueless as to think that decisions should simply be based on what a scientist says.

No, GG will argue that it is Ms. Koerth-Baker who is not paying close attention.  What has pissed off scientists is NOT that their preferred course of action on several topics is not being followed, it is that politicians and celebrities willfully misrepresent the science.

Let’s put this in a way that should make it really clear. You go to the dentist, who tells you you have a cavity. In walks your CPA, who announces that in fact your teeth just need more candy. And you listen to the CPA because, well, he has the checkbook (and you like candy). How do you think the dentist feels? He or she would be fine not filling the cavity if you so choose, but she or he won’t be happy that you made this decision because an unqualified quack has not only made an incorrect analysis, but misdirected you towards a more harmful solution.

Look, if the arguments in Congress over climate change were accepting that we know the globe is warming and that the cause is CO2 increasing because of fossil fuel burning, there would not be the kind of unhappiness from the scientific community, because at least the premise for making decisions would have been clear.  If because of money or because of philosophy Congress chose to do nothing, well, we’d probably argue that that was a stupid choice, but at least it could be an honest one that might represent some rational balancing of competing aspects to a solution.  Instead people in Congress are misrepresenting the science in order to duck the issue–they aren’t considering scientific evidence, they are pretending that the evidence is something else entirely. (There are other issues producing similar tendencies to discount science, like homeopathic remedies, nuclear power, genetically engineered foods, intelligent design, and vaccinations). In other words, when Ms. Koerth-Baker says “it’s important that evidence is a part of how we make decisions in politics,” scientists agree, and their problem is that scientific evidence is not being recognized as such in some places.

[Realized later that this point is well made in a pre-March for Science video with Neil deGrasse Tyson



5 responses to “How Naïve are Scientists?”

  1. Paul Braterman says :

    No mystery, alas, over the politics of climate change denial and, before that, ozone hole damage denial, which still lingers on, or about why this is a party political issue. Here the science shows up a fundamental limitation of free-market economics, namely that it excludes external costs, so that things that damage the environment are incorrectly underpriced. To a conservative Republican, free market forces are sacred, and government corrective action (either through a carbon tax to correct pricing, or through regulation) is repugnant.

    But, rather than admit to denying science, the tactic is to pretend that the science is seriously uncertain. Similar tactics are adopted by evolution deniers, who are often the same people. Gestures such as the March for Science will, I hope, make such distortions less plausible, and the fact that the Discovery Institute opposed the March for Science encourages me in this opinion

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ron Miksha says :

    Reblogged this on The Mountain Mystery and commented:
    An excellent examination of the cause of scientists’ frustrations….


  3. Ron Miksha says :

    Thanks, GG. This was excellent. I had not heard the dentist/CPA analogy before, but I will certainly repeat it, perhaps telling thick-headed detractors that it’s a parable from the Bible.

    Your analysis of the FiveThirtyEight speaker’s condescending and poorly considered indictment of scientists was accurate and appreciated. But for what it’s worth, I was further disappointed by the quote from Koerth-Baker for an entirely different reason – although she is a ‘senior science writer’, her communication skills (at least verbally in this one excerpt) are absolutely cringe-worthy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • cjonescu says :

      Thanks for the comments, Paul and Ron. I suspect Koerth-Baker was kind of making things up as she was pivoting off of commenting on the March for Science, which might have made for less-than-skillful patter. You could tell she thought that the march was kind of silly and innocent but was struggling to avoid sounding too judgmental, and I think that self-control was fading when she made this pivot.

      And of course in some regards, she is right. We can be a charmingly unsophisticated group when it comes to government. But you know what? We are scientists, and we do take note of successful vs. unsuccessful outcomes, so if we are starting to pay attention, that lovable naiveté might not last long.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. ...and Then There's Physics says :

    Good post, and I agree. I’ve also become more and more frustrated by the continual claims that scientists are naive and think that all that they need to do is provide the evidence and that everyone will suddenly be convinced and make the obvious decisions. I think scientists are well aware that communicating publicly is much more complex than simply this and that decisions will be based on much more than simply the scientific evidence. The frustration (as you highlight nicely) is that many of those who represent us are misrepresenting the evidence in order (as far as I can tell) to suit their ideological preferences.


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