Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Ivory Tower Science and the Rest of Us


We all are capable of dismissing scientific observations when it doesn't confirm our beliefs, even scientists.  The above video talks about how those on the left can reject science and put themselves in danger.  Below is a lampoon of the creationist view of the cosmos.


Chris Mooney of Mother Jones has written an article titled:

This Is Why You Have No Business Challenging Scientific Experts


with a podcast by science sociologist Harry Collins who has studied how science gets done (a field called science studies).  In the past Collins has been critical of the way in which science really works.  He discussed in the podcast below about the discovery process often involves fits and starts and egos do get in the way of real progress as they can in everyday life.



Often we take the information we get from authorities either at face value or reject it entirely as we can see in the debate between creation and evolution or in the debate on the safety of vaccines between the medical and lay communities.  The Daily Show clip at the top of this post shows that many of the vaccine deniers have college educations with some having graduate degrees.  There are college educated creationists as well.  Collins argues in his book "Are we All Scientific Experts Now?" that we should not dismiss out of hand the opinions of experts and his research has been misrepresented. 

When one issues and ultimatum that one should not do something, a natural response is to want to know why.  Just like a child being told not to go into the cookie jar.  Collins argues that one cannot know what is real in science by simply looking at the journals.  One needs access to the dialogue that scientists have.  Access to the journals is often limited to those at universities or belong to members of trade organizations like the American Medical AssociationAaron Swartz, the founder of Reddit, was prosecuted for hacking into the online scientific journal repository JSTOR, downloading articles and making them public.  He was prosecuted for this breech and committed suicide.  This access to either the dialogue or the journals is still limited.

Thomas Kuhn in the classic work on the philosophy of science argues that scientific research is usually guided by their world view or paradigm.  The source of paradigm shifts in a field of science can often come from outside the field.  John Dalton, the creator of the atomic theory in chemistry, was trained in meteorology and his theory dominated chemistry until the end of the 19th century.  Ben Franklin and Michael Faraday made many contributions to the field of electricity with little formal education.  Famous linguist Noam Chomsky helped spurr the cognitive revolution in psychology in addition to his challenging the powers that be on the War in Vietnam and other foreign policy issues.

We all need clear answers to the issues that matter to us most.  Yes the discovery process has many fits and starts and it's easy to draw the wrong conclusions when we only hear part of a discussion.  Very few of us can know scientists intimately in the way that Collins advocates.  That is why the public needs acess to the process, not just the results.  Scientists can live in fear of animal rights activists and others who object to research on the grounds of their belief systems.  Efforts are made to clarify process on this blog and elsewhere.

**Update** 


Kevin Drum of Mother Jones has issued a response to the Daily Show's skewering of the anti vaccine movement as liberal while climate change is conservative.  He produced a chart from Dan Kahan of Yale showing the correlation between political orientation and belief in the risk associated with the issues of gun ownership, global warming, marijuana legalization, and childhood vaccinations.  There are significant correlations between political orientation and each of these issues.  The strongest association is between both gun ownership and global warming and are both negative with correlation coefficients of -0.64 and -0.69 respectively.  This negative correlation means that as conservatism increases, perception of the risk of these issues decreases.  The weakest association is between childhood vaccination and political orientation but it is statistically significant and it is positive with a coefficient of 0.21 suggesting that as conservatism increases, so does perception of the risk.  This correlation is weak suggesting that there are some outliers in the data.  Drum states that the curve is flat but it's also important to consider the correlation coefficient which is significant.  Correlation coefficients range from -1 to +1.

As I have a Master's degree in biostatistics and am ABD (all but dissertation) in research methodology I feel reasonably attuned to the scientific dialogue and can comment on the study.  I looked at the article and found that the study was a long survey to a cohort of 900 respondents with many items.  A factor analysis was done to find the most salient points and summary scores and to identify latent variables.

**Related Posts**

Cosmos Redux?

The Civil War in a Larger International Context: Darwinian Edition

The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science | Mother Jones

Cause and Effect, Slip Slidin' Away