Dilemma: Past and Future of Science in Society

Published: 1:04 AM GMT on March 12, 2017

Dilemma: Past and Future of Science in Society

Dilemma: I like those old Greek words. They suggest hope, or perhaps, hopelessness. It is pretty clear from, say, Aristotle’s Treatise on Rhetoric, that the types of political arguments and of political behavior we see today have been around a long time. That includes attacks on reason, logic, and science. Hope, perhaps, is represented in that this is something that we have seen before. Hopelessness, because there is seemingly nothing that can be settled by knowledge as long as knowledge is in conflict with want, belief, and emotion.

Since my transition to the chaos of Trump, I have been trying to find a foundation for analysis. We often search for such a foundation in past behavior and past experience. This leads to what I will call the past-future dilemma, which is, should we try what we have done with success in the past, or does the future require something different?

Since I have been a grown up scientist, I have been an advocate for open data and open access to knowledge. For example, if one is involved with a research instrument on a satellite, then I advocated that data from that satellite should be made available to the public as soon as there is high confidence in the quality control and verification that the data are indeed measuring what they were intended to measure.

My point of view stands in tension with a number of other points of view. There is the desire for payoff opportunity for those who collected the data; namely, that the person or team who spent, perhaps, many years in the design and building of the instrument had earned the right to have some proprietary right of use in order to write the papers that bring them credit and recognition. There is the error worry – a new data set is likely to have errors and surprises that lead to misinterpretation and wasted time. There is the ignorance worry – untrained users will naively misuse the data. These points of view suggest a data availability protocol that is to some extent closed.

The reconciliation of these points of view is more often than not, some sort of compromise or balance. The same is often true with the past-future dilemma; you use some elements of past experience, rearrange them, and add some new elements that are different.

In 2010, I was in a meeting with, for me, some pretty high rollers. The subject of the meeting was climate and climate change and, ultimately, trying to accelerate the exposure and use of climate knowledge in society. I was invited specifically to argue for open, community-based approaches. As the day went on, I was struck at the profound past looking, conservative, predisposition of scientists. There was the predominate concern that the data, knowledge, analyses, and syntheses from the science-based investigation of climate needed to be curated, reviewed, and provided by scientists and scientific organizations. This was how to provide credibility that the knowledge was good. This would contribute to trust.

Another attendee at the meeting, who came from the world of getting things done in political systems, whispered to me, “You have to keep talking or scientists are going to make themselves irrelevant to policy solutions to climate change.”

To be clear, that statement was not about the availability of data; there are many open data sets. It was a statement about the culture of scientists, and the tensions that come from use of science in society.

I understand the conservative nature of scientists and the scientific method. I respect the scientific method as our most robust way of reasoning and generating of knowledge and the uncertainty that describes that knowledge. I believe it is a duty of scientific organizations to provide curated, reviewed, and credible scientific data, knowledge, analyses, and syntheses. However, science and scientific knowledge need to be a pervasive part of society, which requires reduction of barriers, opening the doors, and removing the mystic. This would contribute to trust.

Many people advocate the practice of informed, science-based, knowledge-based decision making in policy, government, and management. Such practice seems self-evident. However, such practice does not rule the day. Proponents and opponents use scientific uncertainty to support their positions; the call for more research is a tactic that appears on both sides of the aisle, left and right, liberal and conservative. When making decisions, individuals, institutions, corporations, and governments, rarely, wait for the measured, objective reconciliation of all the tradeoffs that contribute to science-based conclusions.

I have been teaching climate change problem solving for more than a decade. We use real-world cases, and it is almost universal, that “climate science” plays an indirect role in the end. Sometimes, the end decision is “climate informed,” which: might include incorporation of some resilience; might be a yellow flag to keep an eye out for how the climate is actually changing; or might just be documenting that climate change could be important but was not substantively considered.

The reality of our world is that we have to be able to access, scan, and evaluate available information at the speed that is relevant to the problem at hand. My approach to this has been to train students who are anchored in science-based knowledge and able with the scientific method. My goal is that science-informed people will be able to access, scan, and evaluate information in a way that contributes to science-informed outcomes. This requires open and available data, information, and knowledge.

We live at a moment that is anti-science and many, more able than I, have been analyzing the emergence of anti-science points of view. What is presently occurring at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the dissolution of one of our bravest and most successful efforts of science-based, knowledge-based decision making in policy, government, and management.

I can look at the attack on science and the dissolution of the EPA in some historical context as a cycle of competing philosophies of government and governance - regulation and unregulated. This is, perhaps, an extreme cycle. There can be comfort knowing that at some time in the future the cycle will swing back.

However, this does not feel like a cycle; it feels like a critical point, where there is a separation between future and past. The election of President Trump is not the cause of this critical point; it is part of the transition. Access to information, opinions, ideologies, conspiracies, sociopathic rants, allies, and hostiles is changing individuals, communities, and institutions. This democratization of information supports the easy use of science to support wants, beliefs, and emotions. It weakens the foundation for evidenced-based, science-based decision making. There is little evidence that we will return to the past.

If we carry forward with the conservative, past-looking point of view of restoring trust in science and scientific institutions by trying to recapture what we have done in the past, we will, indeed, make science irrelevant to decisions anytime that science is in conflict with the wants, beliefs, and emotions of those in power.

In my first piece on environmental issues in the Trump administration, I maintained that new coalitions of organizations are possible, which can align to solve problems rather than to wage political warfare. That it was essential for science to shed itself of its partisan relationships.

When I wrote about new coalitions and alignments, I was envisioning incremental shifts in positions, perhaps relinquishing exaggerated feelings of rightness and wrongness, us and them. Having watched the evolution of the past few weeks, I think that we have to think about the credibility and trust of science and scientists in fundamentally different ways. Scientists and science must become nimble and more relevant – a permeating, participatory part of the citizenry.

The same information web that allows movements that erode a science-based society also supports connections that support a science-based society. We must go far beyond the politically active scientist or the scientist advocate. Science and the advancement of science need to include the voices and hands of those who are not scientists. Those who will organize, synthesize, present, and use this knowledge in ways that scientists will consider imprecise. Otherwise, groups of scientists and science advocates look like trade groups, lobbyists, advocating in their own self-interest.

Science as a value must be prepared to compete with other values and movements that scientists, on an instinctual level, are inclined to dismiss. Their dismissal, however, will only contribute to the growth of the anti-science.

The security of our future requires that a science-informed citizenry emerges and participates in the political and cultural battles. In controversial problems, for my entire career, I have heard at their resolution that it always comes down to “the science,” and the science always wins. That will not be true if it remains only a benign expectation.

r

I continue to collect resources at my OpenClimate Tumblr Site.

Here are those on the Environmental Protection Agency.

Here are those on the emerging Response of the Science Community

Here is a compilation of my blogs and editorials during the Trump Transition

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The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

About The Author
I'm a professor at U Michigan and lead a course on climate change problem solving. These articles often come from and contribute to the course.

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