Sunday, April 23, 2017

Assorted comments regarding the March for Science


I like science.  A bunch of thoughts:

1)  Several months ago, the faculty at Case Western Reserve University received an email from our University President instructing us to download any data sets containing sensitive data from federal databases in case the government were to decide to cut off access.  She meant mostly climate data because, well, Trump and his climate bullshit.  Please refer to the following Onion article:  "Fearful Americans Stockpiling Facts Before Federal Government Comes To Take Them Away."  I'm not fucking kidding you.  I got that email from my University President.  I was seriously told to stockpile my facts.  The Onion is practically a real newspaper at this point.

2)  Science is a method, not a subject.  This is a line that some of my students probably get sick of hearing from me, but it has several implications.  First, it is a defense of political science as a science.  The application of the scientific method to questions about politics.  That kind of matters to me.  We get funding through NSF, and some asshole occasionally comes along to try to cut that off, as former Senator Tom Coburn did a few years ago.  It would be nice if the people marching didn't sneer at the social sciences.  I kinda suspect that some of them probably do.  FUCK THEM.  To paraphrase an old poem, first they came for political science, and I did not speak out because I was not a political scientist...

3)  Next implication of the observation that science is a method, not a subject.  It is not, actually, knowledge, despite the funny sign above, and today's music clip.  It is not a body of findings.  Remember the humble phlogiston.  You probably don't.  The phlogiston was the particle that was supposedly lost by wood, metal, paper, etc. in the process of either rusting or burning.  Problem:  Antoine Lavoisier weighed the metal after it rusted and found that it got heavier, not lighter when it rusted.  It wasn't losing phlogistons.  But, phlogiston theory was pretty prominent until Lavoisier came along and decided to weigh the damned metal.  Something you think is true right now is a phlogiston.  A piece of rusted metal that hasn't been weighed yet.  The field of psychology is going through a replication crisis...

4)  What are the critical aspects of that method?  Here's the kicker for most people:  science is evidence-based, and intrinsically skeptical.  You must reject a claim in the absence of evidence.  Belief without evidence is a violation of science.  There are... lots of ways that this society venerates belief without evidence.  Do you believe without evidence?  Do you say "yay science!" and then compartmentalize?

5)  While lefties can be sanctimonious about the Clinton versus Trump comparison with regard to science, there are some anti-science leanings on the left.  They just aren't as prominent, and the divisions aren't as cleanly partisan.  But the left doesn't get off scot-free here.  Jill Fucking Stein.  An anti-vaccination doctor.


[pausing for moment to control temper]


I occasionally teach a course called "Interrogating Bullshit."  Yes, really.  Much of the class is devoted to bashing Andrew Fucking Wakefield, the fraud doctor who murdered people with bullshit by faking data in a bullshit study that claimed that vaccines caused autism.  The study was retracted, and his license was revoked, but a lot of people bought into that shit.  And children died.  And it played into certain lefties' leanings, particularly if they have certain new age, hippy-dippy bullshit beliefs about medicine.  This is a mere sample, but a demonstration of how there are some anti-science factions among the left.  You'll find others if you wander the isles of Whole Paycheck.

6)  And while I'm at it, at some point soon, I'll address the shit happening at Berkeley, where I got my Ph.D.  Another recent Onion gem:  "Berkeley Campus on Lockdown After Loose Pages From 'Wall Street Journal' Found On Park Bench.'"  What elevates science is that those of us who use the scientific method change our interpretations of the world in response to evidence.  That requires reading and thinking about the world from different perspectives.  With respect to climate change, the science is pretty much in on that, and the burden of evidence for those denying conventional science is so high that I'm just not paying much attention to them anymore.  Whether the formerly-Republican position of cap-and-trade is an appropriate response, or simply dumping money into research on carbon capture, or something else is an open and ideological question, but when someone says that climate change is a Chinese hoax, they don't deserve to have their opinions on the matter heard out.

Economics, though, is a heavily contested discipline, and if you aren't paying attention to people who disagree with you, then you run the risk of being the last advocate of phlogiston theory.  To be fair to Berkeley, the protests tend to be more about race issues than economics, to the degree that they are separable (which is another matter...), but if you are going to position yourself as a defender of science, then you need to be very careful about when you stop listening to people.

I think you are pretty safe not listening to Donald Trump.  Unfortunately, I have to.  It's my job.  Sometimes, I hate my job.  Cable news sucks.  Wall Street Journal?  You kind of need to pay attention to them.  Of course, I gave Berkeley a hard time for bothering to invite future NAMBLA President Milo Hasbeen, which was one of the incidents that sparked protest, along with giving the protesters a hard time.  Still, be very careful about deciding who doesn't get to be heard anymore.  Science requires never being certain that you are right, and that means leaving open the possibility that even the most idiotic-sounding person might be right.

Unless that person is Trump.

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