Robert Crease – TRANSCRIPT
There’s a cartoon by Randall Munroe, the xkcd artist, that shows two people speaking and one says to the other, “That person over there believes silly things, like that fossils are fakes, and the world is only 6,000 years old.” And the other person goes, “Not a problem, the Universe doesn’t care what people believe.”
And the first person goes, “But that’s our congressman.” And the second person says, “OK, we have a problem.” I love that joke because we do have a problem, we have congressmen who don’t believe in things like fossils and evolution. But what’s wrong with that? After all, they were elected. I’m going to say what’s wrong with that, and what we can do about it, if anything.
First of all, this is not what I thought 21st century politics was going to be like. When I was a graduate student in the Humanities in the 1970s – the late 1970s – my professors thundered against what they called the coming technocratic state “Politicians,” they said, “would soon not care about human values but only about efficiency.” “Politicians,” they said, “would soon not listen to citizens but only to scientists and engineers”. If only! Never before have there been so many issues that required so much scientific input to solve.
Issues involving energy, the environment, infectious diseases, pollution, global warming, and so forth. But never before has the required scientific input been so sabotaged, misused, or ignored Politicians sometimes even view scientists as the enemy. Is that over the top?
Few years ago, a US Congressman, Paul Broun of Georgia, declared that evolution, embryology, and the Big Bang theory were lies straight from the pit of hell, and said that he knew the Universe was only a few thousand years old. And what is supposed to happen to him? He not only got reelected but he was put on the House Committee in charge of the United States’ Science, Space and Technology Program.
How does science denial work? I’m fascinated by stories, both real and fictional, which illustrate the dynamics of the collision between science and social, economic, or religious values. And one of my favorites is in the movie Jaws. Has anyone seen it? Small seaside town that depends for its livelihood on tourism. The day before the first major holiday of the season, a woman’s badly mangled body washes up onshore. A scientist from the Oceanographic Institute, played by the nerdy Richard Dreyfuss, says, “It’s a shark!” The town’s mayor, who is terrified at the prospect of closing the beaches, says, ‘We have to be reasonable, we have to act in the town’s best interest. It was probably a boating accident.” And, by the way, isn’t Richard Dreyfuss acting in his own self-interest? Isn’t he really interested in getting into the pages of National Geographic?
Now, we in the audience, we, watching the film, are in a special position. Unlike anyone in the film at the point, we have actually seen the shark. So we know what’s up, and we know whom to believe. But what about the people on film? What about the people in the town? To them, it seems like just a question of the judgment of one person, Richard Dreyfuss, versus the other, the town’s mayor.
Now, when science denial happens, it’s really easy – whoops, I forgot to show you my picture of the shark – when science denial happens, it’s really easy to try to find a villain to blame it on. The press, scientific illiteracy, maybe what sociologists call amoral calculators, or people who know what the right thing to do is but are swayed by political, economic, or religious factors. Or villains, people who know what the good is, but don’t do it. But really, it’s a question of authority. Why is the authority of science in government so low? Someone who thought about that an awful lot was Jack Marburger, the former US Presidential Science Adviser.
And Marburger liked to tell the following story. Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attack, – you might recall – someone sent letters containing deadly anthrax spores to a number of congressmen and to some news agencies; five people died and more were injured. And mail became piling up that might or might not contain anthrax. And Marburger was asked to come up with a method to neutralize the anthrax so that the letters could be read. He convened a team of scientists, they did some research, consulted the literature, and came up with the recommendation involving electron beam irradiation.
He turned the method over to the government, and it looked like a triumph of the use of science for the public good. But a funny thing happened, when the method was first tried, it didn’t work. It burned the mail to a crisp. And Marburger looked into it, and found that the government officials had second guessed the scientists. They had reasoned that if the scientists had said that X was the right dose, wouldn’t it be a lot safer to up the dose? To make it 5X or 10X.
And when he had the dose scaled back, the method worked just fine. Marbuger called this a relatively benign instance of a potentially disastrous behavior. Namely, the tendency of government officials to ignore, or alter scientific advice. And he had more serious examples, such as the Bush administration’s claim in 2002, that the Iraqi government was looking for a certain kind of aluminium tubes because they wanted to produce nuclear weapons, which scientists said was wrong.
But after Marburger stepped down as science adviser, he began to investigate why is science such a weak force in government circles? He consulted the writings of Max Weber, a German sociologist and historian, who is well-known for his writings on the nature of authority, or the reasons why we obey commands that were issued by others.
And Weber distinguished between three kinds of authority: traditional, legal-rational, and charismatic. Traditional authority is the authority of age-old practices, it’s the authority of the village elders. Legal-rational authority is grounded in the belief and the legitimacy of enacted rules; it is the authority of the law. Charismatic authority is grounded in the perception that certain individuals have exceptional powers or are able to do exceptional things that no one else could. And Weber said charismatic authority was irrational, but it is one of the few means that politicians have to take people on new paths.
Think of Martin Luther King, or Mahatma Gandhi, or Winston Churchill. Which of these three is science? Not the first two; no society is traditionally scientific, and no country mandates that its laws be grounded in science. So Marbuger concluded that the authority of science in government circles was charismatic. That is, politicians consider scientists authoritative to the extent they perceive them as having special powers or being able to do special things; create new kinds of bombs that couldn’t be done otherwise. Scientists, and probably many of you, think that this is crazy.
Isn’t it because science is not grounded in charisma that we can rely on it? And isn’t a scientific finding not someone’s particular opinion but the product of a huge infrastructure, a collective set of institutions that involve a collective set of procedures like analysis, data, testing, and so forth? True, but Marbuger’s point was that’s the way it might look from the inside, but from the outside, it may look like one person’s judgment against another Richard Dreyfuss’s opinion versus the town mayor’s. I know what you’re probably all thinking. You’re thinking, ‘Oh no, I’m about to say that the solution for the problem of the low authority science has in government is to make scientists more charismatic. Make them great performers, maybe bring in scientific star power, maybe we can get Beyoncé or Angelina Jolie to promote science.
And doesn’t this cheapen science?’ I agree with you. Fortunately, there’s a fourth kind of authority that Weber doesn’t mention, and that is trust. Trust is a powerful force in politics, it’s much more powerful than data. And when we trust science, we aren’t trusting one person’s viewpoint, one person’s opinion, we are trusting the entire scientific infrastructure. So the long range solution for the low authority that science has in government is to increase the trust that politicians have in the scientific infrastructure, and what happens in laboratories like this one.
But that is not easy. And there are some very serious problems, one of which is that the infrastructure tends to withdraw into the background, it tends to become invisible. A few years ago, a US congressman said, “Why do we need Landsat satellites for when we have Google Earth?” It’s easy to use the products of science, Google Earth, without even seeing the infrastructure the Landsat satellites that make it possible. And it’s because the infrastructure tends to withdraw that leaves the vacuum for these other forces: social, political, and religious to come in. There are other problems, too.