Archive for November 5, 2009

Godless Uncertainty

Posted in Bad Statistics with tags , , , , , , on November 5, 2009 by telescoper

As usual I’m a bit slow to comment on something that’s been the topic of much twittering and blogging over the past few days. This one is the terrible article by A.N. Wilson in, inevitably, the Daily Mail. I’ve already fumed once at the Mail and didn’t really want to go off the deep end again so soon after that. But here goes anyway. The piece by Wilson is a half-baked pile of shit not worth wasting energy investigating too deeply, but there are a few points I think it might be worth making even if I am a bit late with my rant.

The article is a response to the (justifiable) outcry after the government sacked Professor David Nutt, an independent scientific adviser, for having the temerity to give independent scientific advice. His position was Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, and his sin was to have pointed out the ludicrous inconsistency of government policies on drug abuse compared to other harmful activities such as smoking and drinking. The issues have been aired, protests lodged and other members of the Advisory Council have resigned in protest. Except to say I think the government’s position is indefensible I can’t add much here that hasn’t been said.

This is the background to Wilson’s article which is basically a backlash against the backlash. The (verbose) headline states

Yes, scientists do much good. But a country run by these arrogant gods of certainty would truly be hell on earth.

Obviously he’s not afraid of generalisation. All scientists are arrogant; everyone knows it because it says so in the Daily Mail. There’s another irony too. Nutt’s argument was all about the proper way to assess risk arising from drug use, and was appropriately phrased  in language not of certainty but of probability. But the Mail never lets truth get in the way of a good story.

He goes on

The trouble with a ‘scientific’ argument, of course, is that it is not made in the real world, but in a laboratory by an unimaginative academic relying solely on empirical facts.

It’s desperately sad that there are people – even moderately intelligent ones like Wilson – who think that’s what science is like. Unimaginative? Nothing could be further from the truth. It takes a great deal of imagination (and hard work) to come up with a theory. Few scientists have the imagination of an Einstein or a Feynman, but at least most of us recognize the importance of creativity in advancing knowledge.  But even imagination is not enough for a scientist. Once we have a beautiful hypothesis we must then try to subject it to rigorous quantitative testing. Even if we have spent years nurturing it, we have to let it die if it doesn’t fit the data. That takes courage and integrity too.

Imagination. Courage. Integrity. Not qualities ever likely be associated with someone who writes for the Daily Mail.

That’s not to say that scientists are all perfect. We are human. Sometimes the process doesn’t work at all well. Mistakes are made. There is occasional misconduct. Researchers get too wedded to their pet theories. There can be measurement glitches. But the scientific method at least requires its practitioners to approach the subject rationally and objectively, taking into account all relevant factors and eschewing arguments based on sheer prejudice. You can see why Daily Mail writers don’t like scientists. Facts make them uncomfortable.

Wilson goes on to blame science for some of the atrocities perpetrated by Hitler:

Going back in time, some people think that Hitler invented the revolting experiments performed by Dr Mengele on human beings and animals.

But the Nazis did not invent these things. The only difference between Hitler and previous governments was that he believed, with babyish credulity, in science as the only truth. He allowed scientists freedoms which a civilised government would have checked.

Garbage. Hitler knew nothing about science. Had he done so he wouldn’t have driven out a huge proportion of the talented scientists in Germany’s universities and stuffed their departments full of ghoulish dolts who supported his prejudices.

It was only after reading the article that it was pointed out to be that this particularly offensive passage invoked Godwin’s Law: anyone who brings Hitler into an argument has already lost the debate.

Wilson’s piece seems to be a modern-day manifestation of old problem, famously expounded by C.P. Snow in his lecture on Two Cultures. The issue is that the overwhelming majority of people in positions of power and influence, including the media, are entirely illiterate from a scientific point of view. Science is viewed by most people with either incomprehension or suspicion (and sometimes both).

As society becomes more reliant on science and technology, the fewer people there are that seem to understand what science is or how it works. Moronic articles like Wilson’s indicate the depth of the problem.
Who needs scientific literacy when you can get paid a large amount of money for writing sheer drivel?

I’m sure a great many scientists would agree with most of what I’ve said but I’d like to end with a comment that might be a bit more controversial. I do agree to some extent with Wilson, in that I think some scientists insist on claiming things are facts when they don’t have that status at all. I remember being on a TV programme in which a prominent cosmologist said that he thought the Big Bang was as real to him as the fact that the Sun is shining. I think it’s quite irrational to be that certain. Time and time again scientists present their work to the public in a language that suggests unshakeable self-belief. Sometimes they are badgered into doing that by journalists who want to simplify everything to a level they (and the public) can understand. But some don’t need any encouragement. Too many scientists are too comfortable presenting their profession as some sort of priesthood even if they do stop short of playing God.

2006-11-09-1525-20The critical importance of dealing rationally with uncertainty in science, both within itself and in its relationship to society at large, was the principal issue I addressed in From Cosmos to Chaos, a paperback edition of which is about to be published by Oxford University Press..

From the jacket blurb:

Why do so many people think that science is about absolute certainty when, at its core, it is actually dominated by uncertainty?

I’ve blogged before about why I think scientists need to pay much more attention to the role of statistics and probability when they explain what they do to the wider world.

And to anyone who accuses me of using the occasion presented by Wilson’s article to engage in gratuitous marketing, I have only one answer:

BUY MY BOOK!

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