Science Authority

Is Science an Authority? How to View Announcements from Scientists

In a previous article, I discussed why scientists (among others) are almost never interested in considering a new theory proposed by a non-scientist: because it’s so unlikely that a person who is not familiar with our best current knowledge in a given area of science would be able to come up with a useful new theory in that area of science. In this article, I’m going to turn around and look at things from the non-scientists viewpoint, and ask: how should non-scientists view public pronouncements from scientists about a particular area of science?

In that previous article, I wrote:

[P]rofessional scientists, when talking to nonscientists, often fail to distinguish the varying levels of confidence we have in different parts of science, and often present science in a way that encourages people to say “Oh, wow!” and accept whatever they are told on the authority of the scientist, rather than to think critically and try to build an understanding of their own.

This seems to suggest that the correct answer to the title question of this article must be “no”: we’re not supposed to accept what scientists say on their authority. (Indeed, we’re not supposed to accept what anyone says in their authority.) We’re supposed to think critically and try to build our own understanding.

But there are at least two objections to this. The first is that nobody has the time or the wherewithal to personally check out everything. This was true even in the early days of science, and it’s even more true today when so many experiments utilize complex and expensive technology that takes years or decades to build. You and I can’t possibly independently check the raw experimental data that comes out of the LHC or LIGO, for example. We have to trust that the people whose job it is to collect that data and make sure it’s recorded properly are doing that job. Of course, there are many checks involved in that process, but the average person isn’t the one doing them.

The second objection is that most people don’t have the expertise to second guess what a scientist says when talking about an area of science. When looking at public exchanges between scientists on, for example, whether the LIGO results are valid detections of gravitational waves, or whether string theory should have as many physicists working on it as it does, most people would be at a loss to judge the arguments being made on either side. It might even be that both sides have valid points, and there is no reasonable way for the average person to weigh the arguments.

However, it also doesn’t seem feasible for the average person to simply refrain from having opinions or making judgments on scientific questions. We rely on the products of science and technology in every area of our lives, so we have an interest in how accurate the science is that lies behind those products. Also, questions of public policy often require citizens to make judgments about scientific questions. And scientists themselves, as I said in the quote from the previous article above, often make claims when talking to non-scientists that can’t (and shouldn’t) be taken at face value.

You might be wondering, though: if we’re supposed to be so cautious about taking scientific claims at face value, how is it that answers to questions here on Physics Forums so often seem to take the opposite view? A question will come up in the relativity forum, say, and the responses will make clear that relativity, at least, seems to be considered as so well established that its claims, at least within its domain of validity, can be taken as authoritative. Or consider this hypothetical: astronomers announce publicly that they have discovered a new asteroid, not previously observed, and have computed its orbit, and it will hit the Earth sometime in, say, 2050. Would we be justified in taking drastic action as a result of this prediction, even if we as ordinary citizens can’t check it for ourselves?

There are at least two useful questions that any ordinary citizen can ask in situations like these. The first is simple: what kind of predictive track record does this area of science have? What kinds of predictions has it made that have been confirmed, and how precise were the predictions? In the case of the astronomers in the above hypothetical, there is an extensive track record of precise predictions that have been confirmed: astronomers routinely predict, for example, the distance of closest approach to Earth of asteroids, years in advance, and to a precision of tens of kilometers (i.e., much smaller than the diameter of Earth), and have those predictions confirmed. So a definite prediction that an asteroid will hit the Earth a few decades from now is highly likely to be valid.

The second question is, how are the scientists presenting their claims? I chose the above hypothetical because, of course, actual predictions by astronomers of possible future Earth impacts by asteroids have been made public in recent years. In every case, more accurate observations were made within a few months of the initial announcement that ruled out the Earth impacts. But the initial announcements themselves are instructive: the astronomers were very careful not to say they had a definite prediction of an Earth impact. They made it clear that (a) the error bars in their current data were wide, and included the possibility of a future Earth impact, but that they expected to quickly collect much more data which would allow them to make their calculations much more precise, and (b) they would not make any definite announcement one way or the other until they were sure.

In other words, the astronomers did exactly what scientists should do when they have new results that might be important to the public: they communicated what information they currently had, what the uncertainties were, and what they were doing to resolve those uncertainties. But this example might seem too easy because it was clear that it would not take too long for more accurate observations to resolve the question: the potential impact was far enough in the future that it clearly was no problem waiting a few months for a definite answer. Also, the scientists had no doubts about what they were going to do to get a definite answer.

A more interesting example is the announcement of the OPERA experimental results which, at least at face value, seemed to imply the existence of faster-than-light neutrinos. Here, the scientists basically announced that they were befuddled and were asking for help: they clearly understood that the FTL neutrino hypothesis was an extraordinary claim, but they had been unable to find any other explanation for the data on their own, so they were appealing to the world scientific community for assistance in analyzing their experiment. As it turned out, of course, there were no FTL neutrinos: the anomalous data were due to a fairly subtle issue with the experimental equipment that took quite some time to figure out.

While it was being figured out, of course, there were all kinds of speculations and discussions about possible new physics (including a long thread here on Physics Forums). But the OPERA scientists themselves were careful not to make any claims about new physics in their official statements. They took the position, as noted above, that they were simply asking for help in figuring out what was going on, and making no judgments until that process was finished. So again, I think they were doing what scientists should do in such situations.

In summary, while neither scientists nor anyone else should have their claims believed simply on their authority, there are cases where definite predictions by scientists are reliable enough to be taken as authoritative. If the scientists have a good predictive track record, and if they are presenting their information with due attention to whatever uncertainties are present, then one’s own common sense should be a good guide in evaluating their claims, and if it ends up that the uncertainties are resolved and a definite, precise claim is made in such a case, it is worth taking very seriously. If those elements are not present, however, that should be a red flag that one should not be putting too much weight on the claims being made.

 

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  1. PeterDonis says:
    whether a claim is worth taking seriously or not.

    Yes, whether a claim is worth taking seriously. Not whether the person making the claim has the authority to command you.

    Can you seriously not see the difference between the two? I never mentioned anyone commanding anyone else in the entire article.

  2. BillTre says:
    To me, it is pretty clear that @PeterDonis was using "authority" in the sense of an "authoritative source" rather than an administrative or governmental authority to boss people around.
    Words can have several meanings.
    At least you guys seem to understand what each is saying now.
  3. PeterDonis says:
    the question "Is science an authority?", asked in 2020, really only matters on the "what we should do about it" part

    I understand this might be your opinion, but I don’t think you can expect everyone to agree with it as a blanket statement. For one thing, many people come here to PF to ask about science not because they want to do anything about anything, but simply to satisfy their curiosity.

    If an astronomer tells me that the best protection I can have against an asteroid coming in 2050 is to have an underground shelter

    No astronomer will tell you any such thing, nor did I say they would. I explicitly said astronomers would not tell you what to do about it. Please respond to what I actually said, not to things I didn’t say.

    if the same astronomer tells me that I’m obligated to build a 50 000 $ underground shelter because science is an authority

    Apply my comment just above, squared, to this.

  4. PeterDonis says:
    Most definitions of ‘authority’ I’ve seen assign the right of command.

    I’ve seen the term used both ways: as having the right to command, and as having the right to have one’s statements of fact taken as authoritative.

    esp. because you’ve not defined the term in your Insights piece

    I didn’t explicitly, but I think it’s pretty clear from the article taken as a whole that I meant the second of the two meanings above.

    Are you really arguing about the correctness of science and our ability to gauge and ascertain that?

    I think you need to read the article again.

  5. jack action says:
    That is not the same as a statement, from someone else other than the astronomers, about what we should do about it.

    Important distinction, but meaningless in the context. Anyone can say anything based on anything and it won’t bother me. What if the pope predicts the same thing based on his bible reading? I really don’t mind that he says such a statement. Between those two cases, do I think the astronomer has more chances of being right than the pope? Absolutely, without a doubt. In that case, one can say science has "authority" over religion and I’m fine with that statement since "authority" means "A person accepted as a source of reliable information on a subject." [1]

    But the question "Is science an authority?", asked in 2020, really only matters on the "what we should do about it" part. If an astronomer tells me that the best protection I can have against an asteroid coming in 2050 is to have an underground shelter that will cost me 50 000 $ to build then, yes, I will take this statement seriously into consideration on my future actions as he is "a person accepted as a source of reliable information on a subject."

    That being said if the same astronomer tells me that I’m obligated to build a 50 000 $ underground shelter because science is an authority, in the sense that it is "The power to enforce rules or give orders" or "Persons in command" [1], then I have a problem and will even begin to question the validity of the fact there will be an asteroid at all.

    I have no problem considering basic science (physics, chemistry, etc.) as a reliable source. Especially at a human level. When it comes to other area like biology, meteorology or even geology or astronomy to some level – basically the study of extremely big, extremely small or extremely complex – I keep my skepticism a little bit more apparent. It is good that we study those fields, but the reliability of the findings at the moment is often weak because of the impossibility of controlling all variables or repeating the experiments multiple times (sometimes not even once). But we do have to start somewhere.

    [1] https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/authority

  6. PeterDonis says:
    surely science is merely an input to authority, and not an authority itself?

    As I said, science can only tell you facts or solid predictions (assuming they are properly verified and checked facts, or predictions backed up by enough of a track record to be solid). It can’t tell you what to do about them. So no, science is not an "authority" in the sense of giving commands, even when it makes statements that are solid enough to be "authoritative" in the sense of "ignore this at your peril".

    The question of who, if anybody, has a right to give other people commands, is not a scientific question, and (fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view) science does not have much to say about the overall subject. (The discipline sometimes called "political science" is not a "science" in the sense we are using the term here–it’s only a "science" in the sense of "something some people study".)

  7. PeterDonis says:
    PF is a microcosm of the issue with ‘science as authority’.

    Yes. I explicitly discuss this in the article.

    Many PF members admonish laypeople for posting uninformed views because they are not technically correct.

    We don’t admonish people just for posting incorrect views. We correct them.

    We do admonish people for stubbornly adhering to incorrect views after they have already been corrected, yes.

    The purpose of PF is to help people learn and discuss mainstream science, and the things I’ve just described are part of doing that.

    PF is not "authoritative" in the sense that we don’t expect you to believe what we say, just because we say it. That’s why PF has rules about references (more on that below). We don’t generally require references for statements that should be common knowledge in whatever scientific field is being discussed, at the level of the thread (obviously what would be taken as common knowledge in an "A" level thread is not the same as what would be taken as common knowledge in a "B" level thread). But that’s more a matter of being respectful of the reader’s time; a big part of the reason for the thread levels is to avoid bogging down advanced discussions with explanations of basic points.

    PF requests peer reviewed papers to substantiate arguments being made.

    Yes, but even then, we don’t expect you to take what those papers say as authoritative. Requests for references generally fall into three categories:

    (1) Someone wants to discuss an interesting theoretical claim or an interesting experiment, but they haven’t given any specific source. Without a specific source, so that everyone has a common basis for discussion, the thread is not likely to go well. So we request a reference. The reference still doesn’t get a free pass; it will be judged on its merits (as will the claims the poster is making that purport to be justified by it). But having it makes it a lot easier to have a productive discussion.

    (2) Someone wants to know more about a topic than can reasonably be explained in a discussion thread. These references are usually textbooks or the online equivalent (for example, I often give references to Sean Carroll’s online lecture notes on GR). This is not meant as a claim that every single statement in the reference is true or that the reference should be taken as an authority without trying to understand or evaluate what it says. It is just a pointer to a useful place to start further investigation.

    (3) Someone is making a claim that, to readers who are familiar with the field, seems obviously false. We need to figure out whether this person has simply misunderstood something they’ve read, or is misstating in some way some fairly advanced claim, or has some other agenda. (Technically there is a fourth possibility, that the person genuinely has got hold of something new, but I have yet to see an example.) We ask for a reference to help figure out which of those possibilities it is. Often the actual details of what the reference says ends up being immaterial; it’s more a way to properly get the discussion into the correct category.

    can an authority inaccessible by most of the population be legitimate?

    A question about whether authority is "legitimate" really only makes sense if the authority is giving commands. As I pointed out to @jack action, scientific statements, even when they are backed up by a solid enough predictive track record to be taken as authoritative, don’t give commands. They just tell you facts or solid predictions. They don’t tell you what to do about them.

    So a better question might be whether it’s fair (if that’s the right word) for so much authoritative information to be in a form that is either inaccessible or uncheckable by most of the population (as with the calculations of astronomers about possible future asteroid impacts, which most people are unable to replicate).

    My initial response to this is pretty blunt: there is no free pass to knowledge. If most of the population can’t be bothered to take the time to learn our best current knowledge, then most of the population has no right to have an opinion about it. We can’t help the fact that a lot of that knowledge requires advanced math or laborious computer calculations. We don’t decide what it takes to understand Nature; Nature does. We have to take it as it comes.

    It is true that much of our best current knowledge was acquired in a way that most people cannot replicate, and is not necessarily expressed in a form that most people can easily access. A big part of the mission of PF is to help with that, by explaining to people as best we can, in terms they can understand, what our best current knowledge actually says. But at the end of the day, it’s up to each person, if they’re going to have an opinion about anything they care about, to make the effort to make it an informed opinion.

    Robert Heinlein has a character in one of his novels remark that the claim of a person to have a "right" to access to whatever knowledge they want, is like the claim of a person to have a "right" to be a concert pianist–but who does not want to practice.

  8. PeterDonis says:
    So if I don’t have time and/or don’t understand, it can be a good reason to subject myself to another authority than my own.

    Suppose astronomers said that they had calculated the orbit of an asteroid, first discovered a few months ago and subjected to detailed telescopic observation since then, and they have found, after detailed analysis and checking and double checking and triple checking to make sure they haven’t made a mistake, that it is going to hit the Earth in, say, 2050. Would you refuse to take that statement as authoritative because you aren’t personally an expert in orbit calculations and so can’t directly review their work?

    Keep in mind that the only statement I am saying you might want to take as authoritative is the statement that an asteroid will hit the Earth in 2050. That is not the same as a statement, from someone else other than the astronomers, about what we should do about it.

    This also illustrates the important distinction, which you have not mentioned, between "taking a particular statement as authoritative" and "subjecting oneself to another authority". They’re not the same. Not all statements are commands.

    I don’t recall hearing the scientists, per say.

    Finding the actual research paper written by the scientists is usually very simple–just look on arxiv. There is no need to rely on second or third hand accounts from journalists or anybody else. When I see a link to a news article, the only thing I even bother looking for in the article is a reference to the actual paper; I never read what second or third hand sources say about what the scientists are saying.

    There is one genuine problem in this regard, which is that so much new research is described in papers that are behind paywalls. That is unacceptable, particularly given that most if not all such research was paid for by us, the taxpayers. There ought to be a hard requirement that any public funded research must make all of its results and data available freely to the public.

    My point is that if you don’t define those special cases in a less general way, you are not really answering the question. And I personally wouldn’t say that I want to submit myself blindly to a vague definition of who has that authority and a vague definition of the extend of that authority.

    I have made no such claim. I specifically talked about how the scientists present their claims, not about how second or third hand sources present them.

    Also, I think you are getting hung up on the word "authority". As I noted above, taking a statement of some fact or prediction as authoritative is not the same as having someone else tell you what to do about it.

  9. jack action says:
    Going back on this quote:

    there are cases where definite predictions by scientists are reliable enough to be taken as authoritative.

    Reading the article closely seems to define those cases as:

    we’re not supposed to accept what scientists say on their authority. […] We’re supposed to think critically and try to build our own understanding. But there are at least two objections to this.

    The first is that nobody has the time or the wherewithal to personally check out everything.

    […]

    The second objection is that most people don’t have the expertise to second guess what a scientist says when talking about an area of science.

    So if I don’t have time and/or don’t understand, it can be a good reason to subject myself to another authority than my own. And to make sure we are in the presence of a ‘good authority’, we need to ask 2 questions:

    The first is simple: what kind of predictive track record does this area of science have? What kinds of predictions has it made that have been confirmed, and how precise were the predictions?

    […]

    The second question is, how are the scientists presenting their claims?

    But analyzing the answers to those questions (and even asking them) requires: 1) having time to do it and 2) having the knowledge to understand what defines a ‘good’ scientist (i.e understanding what is the scientific method). This brings us back to your two previous objections.

    Furthermore, I don’t recall hearing the scientists, per say. There are always, journalists, politicians and other people to simplify (or even alter) radically the message between their mouths and my ears because, apparently, "the common man don’t understand". People who often don’t even have the scientific know-how more than the common man. People who have agendas of their own. I’m baffled by the fact that I have to hear the message about the environment from a 16-year-old girl that can only say "Listen to the science." Everybody knows her name. But who are those scientists? What are they really saying? I never saw a panel of these scientists on the news. I cannot even think of one name of a scientist who actually work in the field (not just a popular scientific journalist who reads lot of papers).

    My point is that if you don’t define those special cases in a less general way, you are not really answering the question. And I personally wouldn’t say that I want to submit myself blindly to a vague definition of who has that authority and a vague definition of the extend of that authority.

  10. PeterDonis says:
    can we close this discussion?

    Discussion of the Nichols article, or discussion of the Insights article?

    Regarding the Nichols article, I think probably enough has been said, yes.

    There might still be further comments or questions about the Insights article, so I don’t think the thread needs to be closed yet.

  11. Bystander says:
    What I’m reading in this article is basically: «I believe you can have an opinion, as long as you agree with me.» This is the kind of arrogance that leads to people distrusting someone. And, in my opinion, anyone should be.

    +10

    To the extent that is not true (and I would submit it very often isn’t in our current political structure), that is a problem.

    +10.

    Now, can we close this discussion?

  12. PeterDonis says:
    In such a case, no decisions should be made about that particular subject.

    Sometimes that’s not an option. Although I would agree that the times when it’s really not an option are much, much rarer than our current political structure admits.

    Why would anyone wants to join a group that forces you to do what you do not want to do?

    It’s impossible for everyone to be able to choose every group they belong to and assent to everything that every group they belong to does. Everyone is born into at least one group of people they didn’t choose: their family. Everyone has to live somewhere, everyone has to eat, and unless you’re willing to be a hermit in the woods making use of nothing you didn’t acquire or make yourself (but nobody who fits that description is reading or posting here anyway), you have to have cooperative relationships with other people. That means sometimes group decisions have to be made that affect everybody in the group, even if not everybody in the group agrees with them.

    The real question, to me, is whether, when group decisions do have to be made that affect everybody in the group, the people who have a voice in those decisions are the ones who will be affected by them and will have to live with the consequences, and people who have no skin in the game also have no voice in the decision process. To the extent that is not true (and I would submit it very often isn’t in our current political structure), that is a problem.

  13. jack action says:
    However, in cases where there is a significant public policy question at issue, for which only one decision can be made, if not everyone agrees on which decision should be made,

    In such a case, no decisions should be made about that particular subject. For anyone who is part of a group, no matter what unite the people in the group, everyone should agree on what they do together. Otherwise, it is still everyone is entitled to his/her way of doing things (on that particular subject).

    Why would anyone wants to join a group that forces you to do what you do not want to do? Why would anyone wants to fund an organization that does the opposite of what he/she wants to do? Apparently, you have to do everything in your power to be on the winning side and use everyone money for your goals, no matter what others think. Afterwards, if you’re right, you are a hero that saved the opposite side against their will and they should thank you; If you’re wrong … well, don’t blame me, everyone makes mistakes. At least I did something, right?

    I understand that it is very difficult to have 100% of the people on board. I also understand that when it happens, it is great. But if it doesn’t, I don’t see any harm in that. If 90% of the people do the same thing as you do, isn’t this already pretty great? Let the other 10% live their own way and see where it goes. And if you’re wrong, you will be glad they already made progress on their side. If you were right, call it insurance and welcome them back to your group. If it’s 50/50 – or even 25/25/25/25 – the argument is even more valid.

    there are cases where definite predictions by scientists are reliable enough to be taken as authoritative.

    It is putting all our money in a central pot that lead us to argue endlessly on what we should do with it. Set the projects, then sell them to get the necessary funds. Urgency is no excuse either. Democracy is not just a concept for when decisions fit one desires. This way of thinking is what lead to the question «Who has the authority to make the decision for someone?» The answer for any democrat (the philosophy, not the party) should be «the person itself». Any other answer is anti-democratic by definition.

  14. PeterDonis says:
    why the need to convince everyone else that you are right?

    In many cases, there isn’t one (which does make one skeptical about motivations when people try so hard to convince others anyway in such cases).

    However, in cases where there is a significant public policy question at issue, for which only one decision can be made, if not everyone agrees on which decision should be made, there has to be some convincing done one way or the other.

  15. jack action says:
    Tom Nichols raised the broader contextual issue of authority in a well-described article, The Death of Expertise, highlighting the challenge of rational engagement when participants feel that their uninformed opinions should carry equal weight to opinions informed by expertise.

    What I’m reading in this article is basically: «I believe you can have an opinion, as long as you agree with me.» This is the kind of arrogance that leads to people distrusting someone. And, in my opinion, anyone should be.

    Scientific American has an interesting viewpoint on how such ‘common sense’ might be practically applied,

    Here’s is the ONLY criteria that matters for scientific credibility found in that article:

    Credible scientists can lay out:

    • Here’s my hypothesis.
    • Here’s what you’d expect to observe if the hypothesis is true. Here, on the other hand, is what you’d expect to observe if the hypothesis is false.
    • Here’s what we actually observed (and here are the steps we took to control the other variables).
    • Here’s what we can say (and with what degree of certainty) about the hypothesis in the light of these results.
    • Here’s the next study we’d like to do to be even more sure.

    The part I highlighted is critical. NO one can claim expertise without that. Repeatability of the observation is also a big one (i.e. degree of certainty). Modelling doesn’t count (unless based on past experiences with known outcomes). It might reassure that you are on the right path for further investments on your hypothesis, but it is not a scientific observation.

    The biggest problem I don’t understand in this debate about expertise, is why the need to convince everyone else that you are right? «I [don’t] believe in God.» OK. «I [don’t] trust vaccine.» OK. «Because of that, you must do as I do.» Wait, what? Why? Do it. If what you do works better than what others do, there are no reasons why people won’t follow. Of course, this is a long process.

    Anytime I see someone trying to convince me of something, I wonder what are his/her motivations. Every time I see that behavior, it’s only about money – directly or indirectly. And I speculate that people having trust issues with experts – especially the arrogant ones – react the way they do, for the same reasons. Unfortunately, they often go in the opposite direction with the same intent: I must believe in their conspiracy theories.

    But, in the end, if someone don’t believe you, it’s because YOU failed to convince him/her, not that he/she is an idiot or some other derogatory comment of the sort.

  16. PeterDonis says:
    possibly because the underlying theories do not have the embedded repeatability of physics?

    To the extent they even have underlying theories, yes.

    I do wonder whether "one’s own common sense should be a good guide in evaluating their [scientists] claims" isn’t a disconnected concept for many people, and esp. non-experts.

    Bear in mind that I suggested that specifically for the case where an ordinary lay person, not well versed in the specifics and jargon of the field, is trying to evaluate claims made by experts in the field. Obviously the ordinary lay person can’t critique the details of those claims and the theories that lie behind them, since to do that one would have to be well versed in the specifics and the jargon of the field. (Note that this latter is not exactly the same as having academic credentials in the field, though there is of course much overlap.) But it’s still possible for the ordinary person to look at the actual predictive track record and apply common sense to it, as well as how the claims are presented (and I gave specific examples to illustrate how particular claims have been presented to the public).

    having read many PF posts with references to peer-reviewed papers, I am often still in the dark about the predictive track record and the uncertainties presented, let alone whether the papers even make sense

    Peer-reviewed papers, ironically enough given PF’s rules about sources, are often not the best places for a lay person to get that information, since they are typically written for other experts, not for the lay person. In many cases that’s fine, because what is being discussed in the papers does not have any direct relevance to public policy questions that a lay person, as a citizen, might want to have an opinion on. For cases where the science does have such direct relevance, part of the duty of the scientist, as I’ve said, is to accurately communicate the current state of knowledge, including all uncertainties; I should have added that this needs to be done in terms the lay public can understand, i.e., by distilling the details and jargon of the field into a predictive track record that a lay person can reasonably evaluate. (The example of astronomers predicting the future trajectories of asteroids is a good one here.)

    I agree with your gate-keeping idea

    I’m not sure I proposed a gate-keeping idea. Can you be more specific?

    I remain unsure whether being an expert in one field necessarily makes it easier to critique the validity of claims made by experts in another field?

    I think it depends on the fields; I’m not sure there is any useful general rule.

    if experts struggle, how do laypeople know which ‘science’ to listen to?

    Unless there is some reason why laypeople need to know, such as a public policy question that needs to be decided, the laypeople should not have an opinion at all. That’s difficult for many lay people to accept, but it’s the only rule that makes sense.

    If there is a public policy question that needs to be decided, then there are, as far as I can see, three possibilities:

    (1) Scientists are able to present a solid predictive track record that stands up to scrutiny. This is the easy case: take the scientists seriously. (An example would be astronomers predicting the trajectories of asteroids.)

    (2) Scientists are unable to present any significant predictive track record at all, or if they do present one, it does not stand up to scrutiny. This is a harder case than the first one, but the answer is still pretty clear, though disappointing: science is simply unable to provide any useful guidelines for public policy in this area. So any public policy decision in this area will need to be made on other grounds entirely. (An example would be something like global poverty: nobody really has a good predictive track record on how to address poverty. So whatever public policy decisions we make about it cannot rely on any significant scientific guidelines. Which, unfortunately but unavoidably, means that such decisions tend to be ad hoc and the resulting policies don’t work very well.)

    (3) There are multiple disputing communities of scientists, none of which has a predictive track record that is compelling enough to overcome the others. This is the hardest case, and I don’t think there is a general rule that can be given about it, except that, like the second case, the grounds for whatever public policy decision gets made will end up not being based on the relative scientific merits of the various proposals. (An example of this case would be decisions that various countries have made about funding high energy physics experiments, for example the cancellation of the SSC in the US in the 1990s vs. the European decision to fund the LHC, in the light of the disputes within physics about the status of string theory vs. other approaches to going beyond the Standard Model of particle physics, and also about the relative status of high energy physics vs. other subdisciplines, such as condensed matter physics, that many physicists think are underfunded.)

  17. PeterDonis says:
    an inability to bootstrap participants onto an even playing field of understanding for the purpose of having a cogent discussion in the first place.

    I think it’s fair to say that this phenomenon has been observed here at PF. :wink:

    The Nichols article is interesting, but it is using a definition of "expert" that is quite a bit broader than the category "scientist with a strong predictive track record to back up their claims" that I was using as a basis for discussion in my article.

    For example, Nichols says he is (or at least would like to think he is) an expert in social science and public policy. But I don’t think he could show very much of a predictive track record to back up that claim. His basis for saying he is an expert appears to be, basically, that he is better informed and has a better grasp of the techniques of using reason than most of the people he encounters. But it is perfectly possible to be all those things and still not be able to make useful predictions in a specific domain, even if that domain is of great practical interest, simply because the domain is too complex and intractable to analysis, and too unsuited to the kinds of controlled experiments that have allowed us to develop a strong predictive track record in physics or astronomy.

    In that kind of domain, I think the best attitude is to recognize that there are no "experts" in the sense of people who have a better predictive track record than others. There are certainly people who are better informed and have a better grasp of correct reasoning. And there are elements of expertise, considered in a broader sense than "predictive track record", that are much more of an art than a science. Nichols mentions doctors and lawyers as examples of experts, but while those disciplines are (or at least should be) informed by science, they are not sciences, they are arts, and much of what they do consists of applying non-repeatable human judgment to non-repeatable unique situations. There are certainly people who are better at that, but recognizing them, I think, is itself an art, as is assigning them their proper role in public discourse, and is outside the scope of what I was discussing in my article. It’s probably worth a separate article to itself.

  18. PeterDonis says:
    The Nature paper is behind a paywall.

    It’s hard for me to evaluate this specific case if I can’t see the actual scientific paper. In general terms, the track record of such predictions does not seem to be very good (this particular set of predictions being an example of that).

  19. Vanadium 50 says:
    Scientists only deserve deference when they can demonstrate the necessary predictive track record based on scientific models to support whatever claims they are making.

    Do you have an opinion on Neil Ferguson’s 2005 comments on H5N1 flu?

    1. 150M-200M could die, based on scaling up 1918. (Reported in The Guardian)
    2. 1.5B (e.g. 1500M) could die, assuming a mutation that produces a more deadly and contagious strain (Reported in New Scientist; to be fair, the "more deadly" part was entirely of New Scientist‘s making. The relevant paper doesn’t discuss outcomes at all.)
  20. PeterDonis says:
    If I understand you, this presupposes that data sufficient to test the predictions already exists.

    Yes. If it doesn’t, obviously you can’t test the predictions, so you can’t know whether or not they are accurate.

    often it requires the aforementioned consensus to generate the data

    Yes, this is included in deciding what is researched and what gets scrutiny.

  21. PeterDonis says:
    The negative nature of science is that nothing can ever be proven completely correct

    Agreed.

    Things we rely upon as "true" are those that have been the most researched and withstood the scrutiny

    This is not how I would put it. I would put it that things we rely upon as "true", at least in a scientific context, are those that are based on a solid track record of accurate predictions. Usually those things are also the ones that have been the most researched and withstood the scrutiny, but the latter are just proxies, and since we should have direct access to the track record of successful predictions, there is no need to use proxies to judge the claims. We can just examine the track record directly.

    The role of consensus in shaping the outlines body of scientific truth should not be minimized

    Again, I would put it differently. I would say that the role of consensus in determining what is researched and what gets scrutiny should not be minimized.

    I also would say that the role of consensus in that process can be significantly affected by how science is funded. Today almost all science is funded by government grants, which means funding is centralized, and so one would expect consensus to play a larger role in determining where the funding goes. Contrast this with the situation in, say, the middle of the nineteenth century, when almost all science was funded privately, and consensus played much less of a role, since each scientist only had to convince his own private patron (who in many cases was just himself) that he was working on something worthwhile.

  22. PeterDonis says:
    In practice, at least for the medical analog to which i was alluding, the Google search and some working knowledge of the interpretation thereof, constitute a kind of search for consensus opinion.

    I can’t speak for other people, but when I am looking up information about a medical question, I’m not looking for consensus. I’m looking for what the information is based on. Have there been studies done? Are there papers I can read that describe them? Is what I’m finding consistent with my general understanding of how the human body works and how chemicals work? And so on.

    I think mainstream science relies on concensus when necessary.

    I think it depends on what you mean by "relies". I don’t think scientific claims should be established by consensus. They should be established by a track record of accurate predictions.

    I do think consensus plays a role in mainstream science when scientists decide which research areas to work on.

  23. PeterDonis says:
    If it is an important question one should seek a second opinion.

    And then you have the same problem with respect to the second opinion that you had with respect to the first: how can you evaluate it?

    What else can one do?

    That question is what my suggestions in the article are intended to address.

  24. PeterDonis says:
    your argument about liberty fails completely in the current COVID-19 pandemic

    This is off topic here; too many other considerations are involved that are outside the purview of science. Please keep discussion in this thread focused on the Insights article and its topic.

  25. jack action says:
    From my perspective about science, a scientific method exists and you choose to use it or not. This scientific method has evolved throughout the time – and continues to evolve – to give us guidelines on how to observe our environment to better find patterns that are accurate. The theory is that one who uses the scientific method has better chances of finding a reliable pattern. But that is a probability, not a certitude.

    The problem raised in this thread about determining if we should follow (blindly?) ‘scientists’ (who is a scientist?) or not is not one about the merits of the scientific method, but about personal freedom and acceptance of diversity.

    Say a group of people decides we need to build an ark because a catastrophic flood is coming. Let’s take 2 scenarios:

    • in one case, 90% of the population wants to follow them and participate in the project;
    • in the other case, only 15% of the population wants to follow them.

    In any case, why would anyone wants to force the people who don’t want to participate, to do so, against their will? If you want to build an ark, do it, no matter what are your reasons, no matter what are your means, no matter what are the outcomes. The same judgement applies if you don’t want to build an ark.

    If I tell you that the group of people who wants to build an ark (whether they are followed by 90% or 15% of the population), based their decision on a quote from the bible, it would be laughable for anyone who chooses to follow the scientific method. In such a case, any ‘scientist’ would be glad to have the freedom to choose which project they can invest in.

    But what if I tell you that the group of people who wants to build an ark (whether they are followed by 90% or 15% of the population), based their decision on a thorough examination of weather data and elaborate mathematical models? Why would the rest of the population lose their freedom to choose their own path? Whether their choice is based on a bible quote or simply on an "I don’t care" mentality.

    Even with the argument that if they don’t participate, we’re all going to die or that they will be saved by your ark anyway and that’s unfair, your choice still lies with what you will do with the conditions given. It shouldn’t be about what others will do, even if what others will do will have an influence on your decision.

    It’s funny how if a squirrel don’t help you build the ark and you can’t finish it in time, nobody blames the squirrel. If a squirrel jumps on your ark and get saved, again, nobody blames the squirrel. Why is it different with another human being? Why not accepting the fact that some will know the outcome (maybe out of pure luck), some will not, and that the one who doesn’t have a clue might be you? People who use the scientific method should understand more than anyone else that everything is about probabilities, thus anyone can be a winner or a looser. Pretty much the whole scientific concept behind diversity.

    The scientific method is a tool, not a magic wand.

  26. PeterDonis says:
    I should have said "claims to be communicating information that has a scientific basis which they have personal knowledge of as a researcher".

    To give an example: I cannot claim to be a scientist regarding general relativity, because I haven’t personally done any research, or personally investigated any research done by others by looking at the primary source data, verifying calculations, etc. (Actually, that’s not strictly true; I have done this in a few particular cases. But it’s true to a good enough approximation for this discussion.) But Clifford Will, who wrote the Living Reviews article "The Confrontation Between General Relativity And Experiment" can claim to be a scientist regarding general relativity regarding what he wrote in that article; even though he didn’t personally conduct every experiment described (though he was personally involved in some), he took the time to personally read the original papers and satisfy himself that they were correct before including them as references in the article and explaining what they showed.

  27. PeterDonis says:
    In that sense, everyone should be a scientist, in that we hope that everyone uses sound science in forming their policy preferences.

    I see that I phrased my statement much too broadly. I should have said "claims to be communicating information that has a scientific basis which they have personal knowledge of as a researcher".

  28. atyy says:
    Of course there are many ways of answering that question. For purposes of this discussion, I would say a scientist is someone who claims to be communicating information that has a scientific basis and is relevant to some issue of public concern.

    In that sense, everyone should be a scientist, in that we hope that everyone uses sound science in forming their policy preferences.

    The preceding statement is of course, made not as a scientist, but as a lay member of society.

  29. PeterDonis says:
    What are the responsibilities of a scientist?

    I would say:

    – A scientist is responsible for honestly reporting all experiments and their results (including the raw data, not just the results of data analysis), whether or not they supported whatever hypothesis the scientist was trying to test.

    – A scientist is responsible for accurately communicating the current state of scientific knowledge in whatever field they are working in, including all uncertainties. This includes drawing careful distinctions between scientific theories that have been tested experimentally, and hypotheses or speculations that have not. It also includes carefully distinguishing their own personal opinions from scientific theories or hypotheses.

    – A scientist is responsible for not invoking the authority of Science for what they say, unless what they are saying is backed by a strong predictive track record that they can verify of their own personal knowledge.

    What are not the responsibilities of a scientist?

    I would say:

    – A scientist, in their capacity as a scientist, is not responsible for deciding what public policy should be, even in an area where their scientific work provides critical information. In their capacity as a citizen, a scientist of course has a voice in public policy, just as all citizens do, but their status as a scientist gives them no special responsibility in that regard over and above the normal responsibilities of a citizen. (They should, of course, accurately communicate the current state of scientific knowledge in discussions about public policy, but that is already covered above.)

    You might also want to say, exactly what IS a scientist?

    Of course there are many ways of answering that question. For purposes of this discussion, I would say a scientist is someone who claims to be communicating information that has a scientific basis and is relevant to some issue of public concern.

  30. benorin says:

    As I recall, statistics is the one last math course required for most non-STEM majors. But stats is not intuitive all the way through, same as probability—and on both these one must have a grasp to intelligibly interpret science claims made with uncertainties as prescribed by the OP.

    One example I’d be interested to hear the OP’s view of comes from a documentary I watched the other night: it was a homicide case and either one of the first, or the first, case depending entirely on circumstantial evidence such as fibers found on the victims were consistent with the fibers found in the accused’s house and mathematically contrived probabilities that were (iirc) many million or so to one, derived by the “and rule” of probability and based off incomplete sales records that were assumed to be complete that showed how many rooms worth of a certain carpet was distributed amongst several states and it was assumed an equal distribution amongst states for the purposes of calculating said probabilities. These “facts” were reported by the FBI using very “we-know-what-we-are-doing” posters with blown up images of fibers etc and the jury ate it up. I could go on, but…

  31. PeterDonis says:
    as practitioners of the scientific method our input should be valued on a panoply of topics

    You’re assuming that "scientist" and "practitioner of the scientific method" are coextensive. They’re not.

    I think a person’s input should be valued based on the content of the input, not on who it is coming from. Non-scientists might be just as good at constructing models and building a sound predictive track record in a particular domain as scientists are; conversely, scientists might not always do a good job of that even in their own fields.

  32. PeterDonis says:
    My intention was to make it clear that they deserve deference only when speaking of science.

    I don’t think this is quite the right way of putting it. Scientists only deserve deference when they can demonstrate the necessary predictive track record based on scientific models to support whatever claims they are making. Many scientists cannot do that even when they are speaking of science. That’s part of the nature of science.

  33. PeterDonis says:
    In order to allocate public funds we need to agree on what we will call facts.

    I agree with your general sentiment here, but I’m not sure "facts" is the best word to use in this context, because I think it promotes the mistaken view that science gives binary true/false statements. It doesn’t. Science builds models that make predictions, and compares those predictions with data. The comparison is never perfect; there are always some error bars in the predictions and some error bars in the data. Also, all models are approximations, in the sense that we can never be sure there isn’t something left out that will turn out to be significant. Using the word "facts" obscures all of these important aspects of the information that science provides.

    I think a better way of expressing the public policy aspect is to say that, in order to make a public policy decision–whether it is to allocate funds or anything else–we need to agree on what questions need to be answered to support the decision, and what our best current knowledge is regarding the answers to those questions. If our best current knowledge is "insufficient data for a meaningful answer", then the correct public policy decision is to not make a decision at all. Either that, or figure out some different public policy decision we can make that will address whatever absolutely must be addressed now, that doesn’t require having answers to questions we don’t currently have answers to.

  34. PeterDonis says:
    I cannot understand the second sentence.

    I’m asking: suppose that scientists started doing a much better job than they are currently doing, of accurately communicating to the public the current state of scientific knowledge, including all the uncertainties. Would that make the public more likely to confuse science with engineering than they are now?

  35. anorlunda says:
    But I disagree that science is just another competitor and deserves no deference.

    My intention was to make it clear that they deserve deference only when speaking of science. When a question such as "should we fund multiverse research" comes up, non-scientists should make the decision and wannabe grant recipients should be excluded. There would be no "facts" in that decision, only the prospects of success.

    Debunking superstition and misinformation is a separate topic. But one fraught with danger. In this contentious world, one man’s education is another man’s misinformation. Wannabe truthsayers beware. I think it would be wise for scientists to publish the facts as they know them, but to allow others to get up on the public debate stage.

    Sticking with the COVID-19 case, epidemiologists deserve deference when discussing epidemiology, but not when declaring what is "best" for society.

  36. atyy says:
    Re: Engineering versus science. Yes it is a continuum. My nominee for the best engineer of the 20th Century would be the physicist Enrico Fermi.

    That’s one I hadn’t heard before. But now that you mention it, it’s hard to think of anything comparable.

  37. anorlunda says:
    Thank you Peter for addressing a difficult topic.

    One important case is allocation of public funds. Citizens have the right to care how their tax money is spent, and to be skeptical of anyone coming forward with their hand out. Regarding science budgets it is fair to say that all scientists have a conflict of interest. We should reserve the spending decisions to non-scientists. But in real life, it’s often the opposite.

    Another chronic problem is scientists exploiting deference while advocating for public policies that are not science. That damages the reputation of science in general. We all have political opinions, but when someone says, "My scientific opinions count more than yours because I’m a member of this elite group. Hear and obey." that’s injurious to the group. Politicians are sometimes criticized for not obeying the dictates of scientists (not the dictates of science, but scientists speaking out on public policy issues).

    It is playing out right now with the COVID-19 crisis. We need to balance the economy versus epidemiology. Scientists should voice the scientific predictions of their models, but not dictate public policy.

    Re: Engineering versus science. Yes it is a continuum. My nominee for the best engineer of the 20th Century would be the physicist Enrico Fermi.

  38. bhobba says:
    Engineers need to be more certain that their risk estimates are correct.

    After reading Feynman’s – What Do You Care What Other People Think? (again I think something all HS students should read) you realize not only is that required, those they report to must be receptive to it. To me the difference between engineering and science is I would categorise engineering as more like applied science. Which raises the question – is applied science actually science?

    Thanks
    Bill

  39. bhobba says:
    Excellent article about a difficult issue. When someone asks me what is the essence of science – I always say – doubt. It is of course more subtle than that, and to those that want to know more I ask them to read Feynman’s Character Of Physical Law (or watch the videos). I believe it should be part of the general reading at school for all students. With that background I think a proper socratic discussion can take place led by someone that does understand the issue – which I fear most teachers at High School do not.

    Thanks
    Bill

  40. PeterDonis says:
    Scientists mostly investigate to understand; they theorize and test, and often retheorize to find something that fits better. Engineers must be certain.

    I’m still not sure I follow. Are you saying the public confuses engineering with science now? Or that the would if scientists did a better job of accurately describing the current state of knowledge, uncertainties and all?

  41. PeterDonis says:
    admission of uncertainty is a two-edged sword among the general public

    While this is true, I don’t think you can solve it by not admitting uncertainty. Since the public is quite capable of misinterpreting no matter what the scientist says, the best the scientist can do is to just describe the current state of knowledge, including lack of knowledge and uncertainty, as accurately as possible.

  42. PeterDonis says:
    Of course the slippery is in the final paragraph:
    "and if they are presenting their information with due attention to whatever uncertainties are present"

    It’s worth bearing in mind that in that clause, I am referring to a situation (such as the intial OPERA results) in which the scientists are explicitly not claiming the authority of science for what they say; they are explicitly saying "we haven’t fully figured this out yet, stand by for further updates in the future". And then I go on to say "if it ends up that the uncertainties are resolved and a definite, precise claim is made in such a case, it is worth taking very seriously" (emphasis added on the "if").

    definition of due attention becomes the fallback point of the contentious

    Yes, and one of the points I was trying to make is that scientists themselves have a responsibility to be very careful and scrupulous about what they say to the public in their capacity as scientists. I have seen a number of scientists bemoan the fact that the public doesn’t trust science as much as they should, but I think scientists themselves are in large part to blame, because they themselves have painted a picture of science as an authority much too broadly, instead of being careful about levels of confidence and being open about uncertainties. So when something that the public was told was "science" turns out to be wrong, the public does not get the correct message, which is that what they were told was "science" was just preliminary research and much of such research later turns out to be wrong, and that’s a normal and expected part of science. Instead the public gets the message that science is just another false authority, claiming to have an inside track to the truth when it really doesn’t, so they think they’re free to just ignore it whenever it says something they don’t like.

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