Archive for April 7, 2009

Statistics Matters, Science Matters

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , on April 7, 2009 by telescoper

I thought I’d say something about why I think statistics and statistical reasoning are so important. Of course they are important in science. In fact, I think they lie at the very core of the scientific method, although I am still surprised how few practising scientists are comfortable even with statistical language. A more important problem is the popular impression that science is about facts and absolute truths. It isn’t. It’s a process. In order to advance it has to question itself.

Statistical reasoning also applies to many facets of everyday life, including business, commerce, transport, the media, and politics. Probability even plays a role in personal relationships, though mostly at a subconscious level. It is a feature of everyday life that science and technology are deeply embedded in every aspect of what we do each day. Science has given us greater levels of comfort, better health care, and a plethora of labour-saving devices. It has also given us unprecedented ability to destroy the environment and each other, whether through accident or design.

Civilized societies face rigorous challenges in this century. We must confront the threat of climate change and forthcoming energy crises. We must find better ways of resolving conflicts peacefully lest nuclear or conventional weapons lead us to global catastrophe. We must stop large-scale pollution or systematic destruction of the biosphere that nurtures us. And we must do all of these things without abandoning the many positive things that science has brought us. Abandoning science and rationality by retreating into religious or political fundamentalism would be a catastrophe for humanity.

Unfortunately, recent decades have seen a wholesale breakdown of trust between scientists and the public at large. This is due partly to the deliberate abuse of science for immoral purposes, and partly to the sheer carelessness with which various agencies have exploited scientific discoveries without proper evaluation of the risks involved. The abuse of statistical arguments have undoubtedly contributed to the suspicion with which many individuals view science.

There is an increasing alienation between scientists and the general public. Many fewer students enrol for courses in physics and chemistry than a a few decades ago. Fewer graduates mean fewer qualified science teachers in schools. This is a vicious cycle that threatens our future. It must be broken.

The danger is that the decreasing level of understanding of science in society means that knowledge (as well as its consequent power) becomes concentrated in the minds of a few individuals. This could have dire consequences for the future of our democracy. Even as things stand now, very few Members of Parliament are scientifically literate. How can we expect to control the application of science when the necessary understanding rests with an unelected “priesthood” that is hardly understood by, or represented in, our democratic institutions?

Very few journalists or television producers know enough about science to report sensibly on the latest discoveries or controversies. As a result, important matters that the public needs to know about do not appear at all in the media, or if they do it is in such a garbled fashion that they do more harm than good.

Years ago I used to listen to radio interviews with scientists on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. I even did such an interview once. It is a deeply frustrating experience. The scientist usually starts by explaining what the discovery is about in the way a scientist should, with careful statements of what is assumed, how the data is interpreted, and what other possible interpretations might be and the likely sources of error. The interviewer then loses patience and asks for a yes or no answer. The scientist tries to continue, but is badgered. Either the interview ends as a row, or the scientist ends up stating a grossly oversimplified version of the story.

Some scientists offer the oversimplified version at the outset, of course, and these are the ones that contribute to the image of scientists as priests. Such individuals often believe in their theories in exactly the same way that some people believe religiously. Not with the conditional and possibly temporary belief that characterizes the scientific method, but with the unquestioning fervour of an unthinking zealot. This approach may pay off for the individual in the short term, in popular esteem and media recognition – but when it goes wrong it is science as a whole that suffers. When a result that has been proclaimed certain is later shown to be false, the result is widespread disillusionment.

The worst example of this tendency that I can think of is the constant use of the phrase “Mind of God” by theoretical physicists to describe fundamental theories. This is not only meaningless but also damaging. As scientists we should know better than to use it. Our theories do not represent absolute truths: they are just the best we can do with the available data and the limited powers of the human mind. We believe in our theories, but only to the extent that we need to accept working hypotheses in order to make progress. Our approach is pragmatic rather than idealistic. We should be humble and avoid making extravagant claims that can’t be justified either theoretically or experimentally.

The more that people get used to the image of “scientist as priest” the more dissatisfied they are with real science. Most of the questions asked of scientists simply can’t be answered with “yes” or “no”. This leaves many with the impression that science is very vague and subjective. The public also tend to lose faith in science when it is unable to come up with quick answers. Science is a process, a way of looking at problems not a list of ready-made answers to impossible problems. Of course it is sometimes vague, but I think it is vague in a rational way and that’s what makes it worthwhile. It is also the reason why science has led to so many objectively measurable advances in our understanding of the World.

I don’t have any easy answers to the question of how to cure this malaise, but do have a few suggestions. It would be easy for a scientist such as myself to blame everything on the media and the education system, but in fact I think the responsibility lies mainly with ourselves. We are usually so obsessed with our own research, and the need to publish specialist papers by the lorry-load in order to advance our own careers that we usually spend very little time explaining what we do to the public or why.

I think every working scientist in the country should be required to spend at least 10% of their time working in schools or with the general media on “outreach”, including writing blogs like this. People in my field – astronomers and cosmologists – do this quite a lot, but these are areas where the public has some empathy with what we do. If only biologists, chemists, nuclear physicists and the rest were viewed in such a friendly light. Doing this sort of thing is not easy, especially when it comes to saying something on the radio that the interviewer does not want to hear. Media training for scientists has been a welcome recent innovation for some branches of science, but most of my colleagues have never had any help at all in this direction.

The second thing that must be done is to improve the dire state of science education in schools. Over the last two decades the national curriculum for British schools has been dumbed down to the point of absurdity. Pupils that leave school at 18 having taken “Advanced Level” physics do so with no useful knowledge of physics at all, even if they have obtained the highest grade. I do not at all blame the students for this; they can only do what they are asked to do. It’s all the fault of the educationalists, who have done the best they can for a long time to convince our young people that science is too hard for them. Science can be difficult, of course, and not everyone will be able to make a career out of it. But that doesn’t mean that it should not be taught properly to those that can take it in. If some students find it is not for them, then so be it. I always wanted to be a musician, but never had the talent for it.

I realise I must sound very gloomy about this, but I do think there are good prospects that the gap between science and society may gradually be healed. The fact that the public distrust scientists leads many of them to question us, which is a very good thing. They should question us and we should be prepared to answer them. If they ask us why, we should be prepared to give reasons. If enough scientists engage in this process then what will emerge is and understanding of the enduring value of science. I don’t just mean through the DVD players and computer games science has given us, but through its cultural impact. It is part of human nature to question our place in the Universe, so science is part of what we are. It gives us purpose. But it also shows us a way of living our lives. Except for a few individuals, the scientific community is tolerant, open, internationally-minded, and imbued with a philosophy of cooperation. It values reason and looks to the future rather than the past. Like anyone else, scientists will always make mistakes, but we can always learn from them. The logic of science may not be infallible, but it’s probably the best logic there is in a world so filled with uncertainty.