• #1
PeterDonis
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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-scientist’s 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...
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  • #2
DaveC426913
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I find there is no substitute for educating onesself.
 
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  • #3
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The subject becomes more and more interesting weekly. Of course the slippery is in the final paragraph:
"and if they are presenting their information with due attention to whatever uncertainties are present"
Ay, there's the rub: definition of due attention becomes the fallback point of the contentious Look at global warming. Anti-Vaxers. Racists. Fundamentalists of all kinds. These folks cannot abide any uncertainty.
“ The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function .” (F Scott Fitzgerald)
I applaud your analysis but fear we will soon see a more dire truth: you can't fix stupid (and apparently you can't even quarantine it)

Source https://www.physicsforums.com/insights/is-science-an-authority/
 
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  • #4
PeterDonis
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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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  • #5
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I agree with all of that and realize care must always be taken to be forthright..
But admission of uncertainty is a two-edged sword among the general public. How many non-scientists actually understand the fundamental tenet that: you can never actually prove anything correct. It is inherently a negative business.
In my engineering R&D hat I was always astonished by otherwise very smart people telling me they wanted to spec ±0 tolerances and 0% failure rates....it is the same issue. And so perfectly acceptable levels of uncertainty are often used as a cudgel by the ignorant or nefarious.
 
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  • #6
symbolipoint
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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.
The public then easily confuses Engineering with Science.
 
  • #7
PeterDonis
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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.
 
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  • #9
symbolipoint
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I don't follow. Can you be more specific?
Think about what part of your post I quoted. Post number 6. What you said. That was what I meant.

Scientists mostly investigate to understand; they theorize and test, and often retheorize to find something that fits better. Engineers must be certain.
 
  • #10
PeterDonis
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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?
 
  • #11
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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
 
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  • #12
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Scientists mostly investigate to understand; they theorize and test, and often retheorize to find something that fits better. Engineers must be certain.

Engineers need to be more certain that their risk estimates are correct.
But show me an engineer who is certain there is no risk and I will show you a very bad engineer.
 
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  • #13
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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
 
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  • #14
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Well I think there is a continuum. For instance i did some early work in photoacoustic spectroscopy. There were no new physical principles involved but the confluence of tunable lasers and good phase sensitive detection produced a useful tool. Now they do tomography with it.
This was not fundamental physics but not purely engineering. Applied Science. Turning it into a useful laboratory tool was Engineering. So (Science-Applied Science-Engineering) form a continuum for me. The measure of where you are on the continuum is the degree to which your targets are "unknown unknowns" or "known unknowns". But the methods of resolution are very similar. And they are all science in my vernacular
 
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  • #15
atyy
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And as we know from Wilson, there is no such thing as fundamental physics :oldtongue:
 
  • #16
symbolipoint
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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?
Yes both. The two alternatives do not completely exclude each other.

Maybe @hutchphd understands what I mean.
 
  • #17
PeterDonis
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Yes both.
Ok, got it. I think there is a continuum between science and engineering such as @hutchphd describes, and I certainly would not claim that public misunderstandings are restricted to one particular portion of that continuum.

The two alternatives do not completely exclude each other.
Neither does "or". :wink:
 
  • #18
symbolipoint
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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?
Let me check that quote again.

First sentence, YES, and not only "now", but many occasions in the past, the present, and the future.

Second sentence, I not know if you omitted some word or not. I cannot understand the second sentence. I am guessing most people expect scientists who deal in the public interest to be as certain as an engineer, and get upset with scientists when talking in terms of uncertainty. I believe many in the public expect SCIENTISTS to always be using some established and unbreakable knowledge, as reliable as what the engineers use.
 
  • #19
anorlunda
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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.
 
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  • #20
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One important case is allocation of public funds.
Absolutely.
But I disagree that science is just another competitor and deserves no deference.
In order to allocate public funds we need to agree on what we will call facts. This country has prospered for many reasons but primary among them was the founding fathers banishment of divine right in favor of scientific consensus. Many of the founders were, in fact, scientists.
Therefore scientists have a twofold responsibility in the public realm: to promulgate the scientific method, and to forcefully resist all forms of superstition in public decisions. I believe this is a special requirement and capability. Folks seem to be preternaturally tempted to burn some witches.
 
  • #21
atyy
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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.
 
  • #22
anorlunda
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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.
 
  • #23
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I must not be expressing myself well.
Scientists should not be the "keepers of scientific facts" and allowed to issue forth only on some subset of facts called "scientific". Science is a method of seeking truth by logically winnowing that which is demonstrably false. It is, to quote Feynman, "the belief in the fallibility of experts". In that sense scientists are most valuable as an addition to the public discourse. Surely we are subject to the same petty crap as all humans. But as practitioners of the scientific method our input should be valued on a panoply of topics, not just Quantum Electrodynamics.
From a childhood proximate to a Lutheran Seminary I have a great respect for ministers (all my friend's dads). I do not believe in any supernatural tenet of Christian doctrine but I still highly value the opinions of ministers, because I respect their patterns of thought. But the USA was founded as a scientific nation and not, as I am so tired of hearing, a Christian one. The opinions of scientists equally deserve broad recognition.
 
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  • #24
PeterDonis
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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?
 
  • #25
PeterDonis
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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.
 
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