Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A brief meditation on science, democracy and complexity

A recent article in the Ventura County Reporter, Our Ocean: As Healthy as it Looks?, does a nice job of contrasting public perception (the ocean looks great from Highway 101, the fishing is good, altogether it seems pretty healthy) with a series of scientific reports predicting environmental catastrophe due to ocean acidification, rising global carbon emissions, overfishing, pollution and a variety of other factors.

What accounts for the differing views of scientists and the public? And why is the situation likely to get much worse? Read on after the jump ...

During the 1980's researchers in an area known as 'public understanding of science' came up with a way to account for such discrepancies -- the deficit model in which the public is rendered as lacking the relevant knowledge/understanding of science and the solution is increased science education/literacy. Aside from making scientists feel superior and funding lots of not particularly successful research aimed at better science education/literacy/communication, this approach has pretty much self-destructed. Take, for example, the abysmal failure of the climate change crowd to convince the public about the scientific consensus surrounding global warming. While they were reasonably successful in getting a change in the way the media portrayed the science -- moving away from articles involving dueling 'experts' on different sides of the issue to a predominance of articles emphasizing scientific consensus -- public attitude, particularly in the US, has not changed substantially. While there are some interesting suggestions on how to proceed in the light of these experiences, my aim is to point to a more fundamental issue -- the inherent conflict embedded in two institutions fundamentally responsible for the success of western civilization, science and democracy, in the context of an increasingly complex world.

Science is about expert specialization and depth of knowledge. We typically ascribe the authority of science to its ability to accomplish things, but this is really a relatively recent phenomena. Engineering and the idea that technological progress can result from applied science rather than trial and error learning is a product of the industrial revolution. Edison's famous saying -- genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration -- illustrates this. He had the idea for the light bulb (inspiration!) but no idea how to make it work. Rather than attack the problem on the basis of science (i.e., analyzing the physical characteristics of different materials and using a theoretical understanding of what material might work as a filament to inform his design) he opted for trial and error (perspiration!). He hired hundreds of individuals to build different light bulbs and systematically test literally thousands of materials until he found one that worked satisfactorily.

Back in the days of the scientific revolution, science got its authority not from practical utility but, rather, by displaying the world as profoundly different from conventional wisdom. Everyone knew that Ptolemy was right and the sun goes around the earth. It was self evident. All you had to do was look up into the sky and watch the sun trace its arc on a daily basis. Through systematic observation over long periods of time, however, Copernicus and other astronomers were able to show that the conventional wisdom was wrong. In short, the authority of science is rooted in the recognition that experts following specified methods could discover fundamental truths that often went against common sense and were inaccessible to non-scientists. Developing the requisite skills requires substantial training and, hence, that expertise is limited to a few specialists. The rest of us, fundamentally, take that knowledge on trust.

Democracy operates in exactly the opposite manner. Its power comes from openness and inclusivity; the ability to harness the skills, talents, ideas, and creativity of individuals who are excluded from significantly affecting the trajectory of social development in totalitarian, authoritarian and other types of less open societies. Egalitarian democracy, in this one narrow sense, is the opposite of elitist science.

Over the past 50 years science has become politicized. Or, should I say democratized? Scientific knowledge, taken on trust at an earlier time by the public, is no longer. Now, it seems, individual gut feelings and conventional wisdom are trusted more than scientists. This trend upsets many. Here is Paul Krugman from his editorial Republicans Against Science
Lately, for example, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page has gone beyond its long-term preference for the economic ideas of “charlatans and cranks” — as one of former President George W. Bush’s chief economic advisers famously put it — to a general denigration of hard thinking about matters economic. Pay no attention to “fancy theories” that conflict with “common sense,” the Journal tells us. Because why should anyone imagine that you need more than gut feelings to analyze things like financial crises and recessions?

Now, we don’t know who will win next year’s presidential election. But the odds are that one of these years the world’s greatest nation will find itself ruled by a party that is aggressively anti-science, indeed anti-knowledge. And, in a time of severe challenges — environmental, economic, and more — that’s a terrifying prospect.
It's one thing to decry the situation, another to come to grips with the causes. No doubt there are many. Here I'll focus on one that receives relatively little discussion and accounts for this rather disturbing factoid: According to Public Policy Polling, substantially fewer Republican voters in Iowa believe in global warming (21 percent) than believe in evolution (35 percent)! Interestingly, the anti-warming fervor is even stronger among Tea Party members, where 27% believe in evolution but a miniscule 5% believe in global warming. It seems that climate science has surpassed the centuries long rift between science and religion as the locus of politicization.

To understand why requires recognition that the world has changed. We can't go back to the way things were -- where the public trusted science. The genie is out of the bottle and no matter how hard people like Paul Krugman, Joe Romm, Naomi Oreskes or Andrew Weaver try, they aren't going to change the minds of the Republican deniers in Iowa (or anywhere else).  And, despite their best efforts, I doubt they will be able to ride a righteous rally-the-troops and defeat the enemy campaign to victory.

The underlying dynamic suggests that, through time, people will become less and less trusting of science, not more trusting. The reason for this has to do with the increasing complexity of our world. There are two aspects to the process. First, in the past social and natural processes were largely separate. This isn't to say that humans had no impact on the environment but, rather, that those impacts were more or less the same as those of other species. That changed significantly around 10,000 years ago with the development of agriculture and even more dramatically a couple centuries ago with industrialization. Crudely put, we've gone from a world of separate social and ecological systems to a world of conjoined socio-ecological systems, the Anthropocene.  (Or, for the panarchically inclined, human impacts have moved up the hierarchy of adaptive cycles; going from effects at the small/local level to today's effects on the most macro of cycles).

The second aspect is the flip of the first. If the causes of our problems now involve a mix of natural and social processes, then the solutions must involve a similar mix. It is this element of our complexified modern world that has politicized science. Fifty years ago, solutions to environmental problems involved relatively minor social disruption. If the Cuyahoga river catches on fire or you fear a Silent Spring, the solution is to control certain major point sources of pollution into the river or limit the use of DDT.While these actions may cause some problems for the companies involved, they don't threaten the lives of everyday folks. The proposed solutions to global warming, in contrast, hit people where they live -- both individually (e.g., reduced automobile use) and societally (e.g., calls for the end of capitalism or the need to transition to another form of society).  Whatever the merits of such solutions, they run headlong into the social values of a significant chunk of the public. And, as the Iowa polling results show, forced to choose between gut attachment to a personal vision of society and science, a significant chunk of the population goes with their gut and rejects science.

Simply put, in the good old days science and politics were separate because the processes governing the natural world were largely separate from those governing the social world. In Durkheimian terms, natural facts were explainable through reference to other natural facts while social facts were explainable through reference to other social facts. In the modern, complexified world, the natural and the social are intertwined. As a result, the solutions are also intertwined; it is no longer possible to solve global ecological problems without significantly affecting the global social system. It's a trend that will only get worse, not better, as time goes on and social and ecological processes become more complexly linked and more tightly coupled. That's the prospect I find terrifying.

No comments:

Post a Comment