Paradigm hunting December 3, 2009 at 3:12 pm

Like most things which create careers and make money, science isn’t what it claims to be.

It claims to be objective; validated by experiment; unbiased. Of course it isn’t because that takes far too much time. Usually the cranks are exactly that. So it would be an awful waste to test their claims or otherwise take them seriously. Similarly the promotions are in the hot topics, the topics that are getting published in the big journals. Stick with those, stick with the orthodoxy, and you have a career. This is entirely rational: paradigm changing science comes along infrequently, and it is a very good working assumption that any given anomalous result is a screw up rather than a harbinger of a dramatic new theory. Moreover, scientists are people: they have rivalries, jealousies, and such like too.

Scientists, then, for entirely practical and understandable reasons, don’t do science very objectively. And mostly that does not matter. A really good idea will win out eventually, albeit possibly after its creator has died. Some middling good ideas never make it, but the loss is not huge given the increase in efficiency that seeming-crank-avoidance brings. It’s OK, really, most of the time.

(Much of the landscape here has been surveyed by sociologists of science, such as Pierre Bourdieu. Donald MacKenzie has a nice take in the LRB here.)

Unfortunately, as Daniel Henninger points out in the WSJ, when politics enters the picture, things become rather less OK. I don’t agree with much of the Henninger article. However, his basic point – that the failure of scientists at the East Anglia Climate Research Unit to act the way scientists are supposed to act has caused great damage to the image of science – is sound. And it is a great pity.

First, it is worth saying that most people’s emails, if widely published, would cause some embarrassment. It is no surprise that things are no different for scientists.

Second, as we have seen in several cases recently, politics asks too much from science. Or at least politicians do. The real answer to many, perhaps most scientific questions is we don’t know. Experts give advice based on best guesses. This is particularly the case with climate models: like models in many other areas, they are approximations. We think that they work. There is good evidence that the work in some domains. But we are using them well beyond the area that we are really comfortable with. That means that there is model risk. So yes, climate change might not be as bad as our best guess – and it might be worse. It might happen sooner or later than we think. The balance of risk versus cost strongly suggests doing something now, and something pretty drastic. But we can no more know for sure that this is the right thing to do than we can know for sure that the sun won’t explode tomorrow.

What we need desperately is more evidence based politics. This requires three things:

  • Carefully gathering evidence, and using the best available theory to analyse it;
  • Forming policy on the basis of that analysis;
  • Ongoing review, including changing your mind if the evidence and/or the theory changes.

Politicians find that last part particularly hard as it can involve loss of face. But what would you rather have, someone trying to do the right thing, while acknowledging that they might be wrong about what that thing is, or someone who has blind faith in their decisions whatever the evidence?

2 Responses to “Paradigm hunting”

  1. There’s a small but growing movement calling for beta releases of public policy in the same way that software is released: it’s tried out by a small population, then released to a larger population, with bugs being found and fixed along the way. That fits nicely with your ongoing review idea.

  2. I really like that idea, thank you. In some ways, we already have small countries performing that role in the EU. For instance, both Latvia and Lithuania have flat tax systems, and their experiences have proved useful trials for those larger countries contemplating such a thing. http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/wp/2006/wp06218.pdf

    So yes, public policy beta releases – very nice.