Uncertainty and Science

Kevin Drum posts about Chris Mooney’s new book, The Republicans War on Science. Overall it isn’t a bad post…except when we get to the end.

As Chris put it last night, Republicans want to turn science into yet another of the he-said/she-said shouting matches that work so well for them in other areas, generating uncertainty where none exists and undermining one of the few sources of objective knowledge we have.

Let me say up front that I’m not a big fan of Bush’s. I don’t like his stance on embryonic stem cell research. I think Bush’s position in regards to Intelligent Design is embarassing. And the HIV/Condom issue is another area that I find annoying. But the above sentence indicates somebody who doesn’t understand science. Science does not report eternal truths. Ever.

Science gives us evidence for evaluating various hypotheses. However, there is rarely if ever going to be enough evidence where we can claim something is TrueTM. For example, if a scientist is evaluating his data using Frequentist statistical methods he will often report the results as “we fail to reject/we reject the null hypothesis”. The issue is even more stark with Bayesian statistics where the validity of competing hypotheses are put in terms of probabilities. In the latter case, you really don’t want to assign any hypothesis a probability of 1.

So science does not remove uncertainty, it merely allows us to better understand the issue at hand and to reduce the level of uncertainty. There are plenty of instances where scientists have thought one way, only to find out that they were wrong and had to change the model, theory, etc. that they were working with due to new discoveries and advancements.

FILED UNDER: Science & Technology
Steve Verdon
About Steve Verdon
Steve has a B.A. in Economics from the University of California, Los Angeles and attended graduate school at The George Washington University, leaving school shortly before staring work on his dissertation when his first child was born. He works in the energy industry and prior to that worked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Division of Price Index and Number Research. He joined the staff at OTB in November 2004.

Comments

  1. bryan says:

    “Scientific knowledge is by its very nature tentative,” Mooney just said on the jon stewart show.

    This must be Drum’s turn as a PR hack, since Mooney is showing up on the Stewart show today. Eerie coincidence, eh?

  2. whatever says:

    Stem Cell research isn’t a scientific issue, it’s an ethical one.

    For example, vivasecting newborns can be called a valid scientific experiment. However, we as a society have decided that is not ethical.

    We can decide stem cell research is ethical or not ethical, but let’s not call it a scientific debate.

  3. Steve Verdon says:

    whatever,

    Sure, but the ethics should also be informed by science as well. They aren’t mutually exclusive and I think Bush’s stance ignores some of the science.

  4. Yes, but Mr. Drum is so unshakeably certain that his subjective views are objectively true that he finds it morally offensive that others may doubt his received wisdom. Perhaps someday, he’ll learn to distinguish between facts and truth.

  5. Kevin Drum says:

    So, Steve, I guess you’d prefer to say “evolution is 99.9999% likely to be true” rather than “evolution is true”?

    Pedantically, I suppose you’re right, but in the real world I think most people are likely to stick with the latter formulation.

    Generating unjustified uncertainty is a prime tactic of the anti-science right, as you must surely know by listening to the ID nitwits — and it’s one of the main points that Chris made both in his book and on TV last night. And if you don’t believe that “objective knowledge” is a reasonable English language description of what science generates, then you ought to just join the pomo left and be done with it.

    Remember, blog posts are not PhD dissertations. They’re written in common English and are usually just a few sentences long. But if you really want a lengthy discussion of the philosophy of science, email is just a click away.

  6. odograph says:

    Start droning monty python voice …

    As a lifelong conservative and Republican, who was also educated in the sciences

    … end droning monty python voice.

    I think the key thing here is how the arguments are made, and how opinions are modified over time. It’s broken when people are fixed in their positions, or shore their arguments up with “bad timber.” It works when people are rational, and basically … respect the data.

    I think we’ve got a lot of “bad Republicans” these days who do not respect the data, and will even go so far as to substitute bad data for good.

    So in broad strokes, I think the idea of a Republican War on Science is correct.

  7. Frank says:

    Ideally, science is objective…Ideally, communism delivers equality…you get the point

  8. odograph says:

    Correct me if I’m off base here Frank, but if we believe communism is a flawed system, we can can choose another. We choose democracy, which is oft-described as the worst political system in the world – except for all the others.

    Now, do you have a better alternative to develop your medicines, spacecraft, and hurricane predictions than science? What if science is the worst truth-discovery system in the world – except for all the others.

    If that is the case, I think the scientists are on the right tract when they doggedly persue the (most) rational explanations provided by the (best) data.

  9. MattK says:

    Kevin Drum writes:

    …undermining one of the few sources of objective knowledge we have.

    And Steve Verdon replies:

    But the above sentence indicates somebody who doesn’t understand science. Science does not report eternal truths. Ever.

    I don’t believe it’s accurate to say that Kevin was talking about “eternal truths”. Saying that science provides us with a base of objective knowledge is not an outrageous claim.

  10. Steve Verdon says:

    No Kevin, evolution is a fact. That is, it is observed (i.e. data). The Theory of Evolution has a probability of “truth” attached to it.

    Pedantically, I suppose you’re right, but in the real world I think most people are likely to stick with the latter formulation.

    Are we talking about “the real world”–i.e. the public or science? Science works pretty much the way I described it. The problem you are, in part, highlighting is that the public’s view of science is skewed. Funny you should be relying on this skewed view as a defense.

    Generating unjustified uncertainty is a prime tactic of the anti-science right, as you must surely know by listening to the ID nitwits—and it’s one of the main points that Chris made both in his book and on TV last night. And if you don’t believe that “objective knowledge” is a reasonable English language description of what science generates, then you ought to just join the pomo left and be done with it.

    I believe that data is objective–i.e. facts. I believe that methods can be objective–i.e. the same methods used across different experiments. However, the interpretation and beliefs about theories is subjective and hence it is best to spell that out completely for those who are reading the research (hence my preference for the Bayesian viewpoint which forces researchers to do this).

    Remember, blog posts are not PhD dissertations. They’re written in common English and are usually just a few sentences long. But if you really want a lengthy discussion of the philosophy of science, email is just a click away.

    I thought I did use “plain english”. Part of the problem is taking these Philosophy of Science issues and making them accessible to the common man. Trying to hide it behind “plain english” is actually part of the problem.

    I don’t believe it’s accurate to say that Kevin was talking about “eternal truths”. Saying that science provides us with a base of objective knowledge is not an outrageous claim.

    Outrageous? No. Wrongheaded? Yes. The problem is that people have beliefs, even beliefs about which hypothesis is true. As such, I think the best way to do science is to acknowledge those beliefs and include them in the analysis, hence the Bayesian approach to science and evaluating hypotheses.

  11. Herb says:

    It seems to me that I made a comment on this post and I made sure that it was in the comments right after I made the comment,

    I notice that my comment is not here now,

    Could it be that OTB practices censorship?

    I have had it happen on previous occasions

  12. Steve Verdon says:

    Not by me Herb. Perhaps you thought you were hitting post, but instead hit preview again and then closed the window? I know I’ve done that once or twice before.

  13. MattK says:

    Outrageous? No. Wrongheaded? Yes. The problem is that people have beliefs, even beliefs about which hypothesis is true.

    Of course. And science is just the process that we use to sort out those beliefs into objective knowledge.

    Take for example aerodynamics. No belief you could possibly have would make airplanes fall out of the sky. There is a certain pool of objective knowledge in aerodynamics that is at the very least partially correct. That pool of objective knowledge exists due to experimental and theoretical science.

    It isn’t wrong-headed to conclude that we many real world answers to many real world problems.

  14. Steve Verdon says:

    Of course. And science is just the process that we use to sort out those beliefs into objective knowledge.

    Uhhmmmm no. Science is what we use to update and inform our beliefs about whatever is being researched.

    Take for example aerodynamics. No belief you could possibly have would make airplanes fall out of the sky. There is a certain pool of objective knowledge in aerodynamics that is at the very least partially correct. That pool of objective knowledge exists due to experimental and theoretical science.

    You clearly don’t understand what I’m talking about.

    Suppose a person has the hypothesis that planes would fall out of the sky. The alternate is that they wont. So, we plug in probabilities, and then go observe planes. After the first observation of a plane flying and not falling, the initial hypothesis would quickly result in a lower probability than the alternate. The beliefs don’t impact on reality directly (e.g. beliefs making planes fall out of the sky) but they can influence what we expect to see, how we interpret the data, etc.

    A better example is a coin tossing exemple. You may formulate the belief that the coin is fair. Then you can update this belief based on the observations. Your beliefs don’t change the nature of the coin, but it does impact on what you expect to see. If what you do see is different than what you expected you update your beliefs based on the data.