Tag Archives: ignorance

Whose word should you respect in any debate on science?

The Conversation

Peter Ellerton, The University of Queensland

The motto of the Royal Society, Britain’s and perhaps the world’s oldest scientific society, is “nullius in verba” which it says translates as “take nobody’s word for it”.

This is a rejection of the idea that truth can be sought through authority. It is a call to turn to experimentation and direct engagement with the physical world to discover truth. A noble sentiment indeed.

It’s also one of the key arguments used by deniers of climate science in attempts to refute both that the world is warming and that this warming is a result of human activity (anthropogenic global warming, or AGW).

This is a common approach, exemplified by Australian Senator Malcolm Roberts in his many interviews on the subject.


Malcolm Roberts misunderstanding the role of authority in science.

It gives deniers an excuse to reject the overwhelming endorsement of science organisations around the world, including the Royal Society itself, and academies of science from more than 80 other countries, that AGW is a reality.

The argument is simple, and goes a bit like this. Science does not work by appeal to authority, but rather by the acquisition of experimentally verifiable evidence. Appeals to scientific bodies are appeals to authority, so should be rejected.

The contradiction here is that the Royal Society is saying the planet is warming through human activity, but its motto seems to suggest we should not listen to it (or any other group). How can this contradiction be resolved?

Rebellion against authority

It is important to understand that the Royal Society was formed in 1660 in the shadow of a millennium of near-absolute church authority, including the general acceptance of Aristotelian natural philosophy.


Aristotle’s views went unquestioned for centuries. Shutterstock/thelefty

The rebellion against this authority was also a celebration of the freedom to elevate the credibility of scientific exploration over that of church teachings and other accepted dogma.

Importantly, the authority to which the Royal Society’s motto alludes was a non-scientific one. The motto represents the superiority of verifiable empirical claims over claims driven by religious or political ideology. No motto could better represent the optimism of the times.

It is also important to understand that much of the science then undertaken was rather crude by modern standards and, by its reliance on very basic technology, was verifiable by individuals, or at least small groups of individuals.

Modern science

The science of the 21st century is in most areas far too complex to be understood, let alone experimentally verified, by any one person. Science is now a vast collaborative web of information characterised by the dynamic interplay and testing of ideas on a global scale.

The sharing of experimental results and the collective scrutiny of ideas forge deep and complex understandings. Teams of scientists from a range of specialities are often required to interpret and use this knowledge.

The suggestion that a subject as complex as global warming, for example, could be verified by a single person, untrained and untutored in the norms of scientific inquiry, betrays a staggering ignorance about the nature of modern science.

It is also arrogant in its assumption that something not immediately obvious to oneself cannot be the case.


Engineers clean mirror with carbon dioxide snow. NASA/Chris Gunn

The non-fallacy of appealing to authority

It’s also worth pointing out that the recourse to authority is often presented as a fallacy of reasoning, the so-called “appeal to authority” fallacy.

But this is not the case. The fallacy would be more correctly named the “appeal to false authority” – for example when celebrities who are famous for their sporting or entertainment achievements are cited in support of a particular medical treatment.

Appeals to appropriate authorities, such as experts in their fields, are one of the glues that hold our technological society together. We go to our doctor for her expertise and we are happy to take her advice without the insistence that the efficacy of potential treatments be demonstrated to us there and then.

Engineers build impressively tall buildings, pilots fly incredibly complex machines, and business experts advise on financial markets. All this expertise is confidently assimilated into our lives because we recognise its value and legitimacy.

It is not fallacious reasoning to accept expert advice. We rely on the authority of experts for quality control in many areas, including the peer-review process of science and other academic disciplines.

Assuming that the motto of the Royal Society suggests we should not listen to the collective wisdom of scientists because science is not about respecting expertise is simply indefensible.

Experts advise

In fact, the role of many such societies in the 17th and 18th centuries was to act as a conduit between scientists and governments for the provision of expert advice.

If legitimate authorities are not to be consulted, presumably there is no point in having scientists around at all, as each person would need to verify any claim on their own terms and with their own resources. That would mean a speedy decline into very dark times indeed.

Deniers of climate science such as Senator Roberts are among those most in violation of the creed “nullius in verba”. Their continued insistence on “empirical evidence” while simultaneously rejecting it (usually through invoking some conspiracy theory) suggests an immature rationality at best, and outright duplicity at worst.

Their refusal to accept empirically verified evidence because it goes against their existing beliefs is the very stuff against which the Royal Society rebelled.

They may have a voice, but they have no authority in this debate.

The ConversationPeter Ellerton, Lecturer in Critical Thinking, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Socrates on ignorance

‘And is not this the most reprehensible form of ignorance, that of thinking one knows what one does not know? Perhaps, gentlemen, in this matter also I differ from other men in this way, and if I were to say that I am wiser in anything, it would be in this, that not knowing very much about the other world, I do not think I know.’

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Telegraph story on research funding does nothing to advance Australian journalism

The Conversation

Ben Eltham, Deakin University

The Daily Telegraph breached its own code of conduct in its coverage of the Australian Research Council (ARC) this week.

On Monday, the News Corp Australia tabloid splashed with a story by Natasha Bita entitled:

Taxpayer dollars wasted on ‘absurd’ studies that do nothing to advance Australian research

The article was highly critical of a number of research projects funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC) in recent rounds. It began:

Millions of taxpayer dollars destined for vital research have been handed to arty academics for social engineering projects ranging from Tibetan philosophy to office gossip and warfare in ancient Tonga.

The Daily Telegraph did not approach many of the researchers whose projects it ridiculed for comment. And while Bita approached and received comment from the ARC for her story, she did not run its comments in her report. The ARC’s chief executive, Professor Aiden Byrne, wrote in an email:

The ARC was contacted by Natasha Bita about The Daily Telegraph article prior to publishing. The ARC provided a response to Natasha, but this was not used in the article.


Daily Telegraph front page, August 22.
News Corp Australia

The Daily Telegraph’s code of conduct clearly says “facts must be reported impartially, accurately and with integrity”, and reports should “try always to tell all sides of the story in any kind of dispute. Every effort must be made to contact all relevant parties.”

However, despite gathering comment from the ARC, The Daily Telegraph elected not to tell the ARC’s side of the story. The deliberate decision to refuse the ARC and academic researchers a right of reply appears to be a straightforward breach of the News Corp Australia code of conduct and, more broadly, of basic journalistic principles of balance and accuracy.

In a public statement, Byrne defended research in the humanities. He wrote:

It is misleading to judge the short titles or brief descriptions of research projects and infer that they are not useful research without looking at the detail of the project, which is extensively considered by the ARC expert assessors in determining its worthiness for funding.

Ridiculed researchers not contacted

The Conversation has contacted all the chief investigators of the projects mentioned in Bita’s article. None of the researchers we have spoken to were contacted by The Daily Telegraph before the article was published.

Professor John Powers, of the Australian National University, is a co-chief investigator on the research project about Tibetan philosophy ridiculed by Ray Hadley on 2GB, who read about it in Bita’s article. “No, no-one contacted me about the article,” he told me in an email, adding that Buddhist studies were important for Australia’s relationship with Asia.

He continued:

There are hundreds of millions of Buddhists in Asia and around the world. Better understanding of their worldviews helps in many intangible ways, and if our leaders and policymakers had better insight into these things they’d probably be more effective in their diplomacy and in their interactions with Asian counterparts.

Associate Professor Hannah Lewi, of the University of Melbourne, is a co-chief investigator on a project examining post-war Australian universities, also attacked in Bita’s article. She confirmed The Daily Telegraph had not contacted the researchers. “No, no-one consulted us before these articles,” she wrote in an email.

We are, I guess, used to the annual research-bashing articles that come out in the press about politicians calling out waste-of-money ARC-funded research. It feels like whacking day for the humanities.

Monash University’s Andrew Benjamin shares an ARC Discovery Award with Jeffrey Malpas which “proposes a new philosophical vision of what it means to be human”. Benjamin told me bluntly:

I was not contacted, and that I think is a betrayal of journalistic standards.

Like many other academics that I spoke to, Benjamin was profoundly disappointed that The Daily Telegraph had not even bothered to let him explain the merit of the project for which he had received funding. He found the article especially frustrating, he told me, as he argues that “it’s the job of philosophy to provide criteria for social judgment”.

Monash University scholar Shane Homan’s project on Australian contemporary music also featured in the article. “I can confirm that I was not contacted by anyone from News Corp about the article,” he said.

The article ignores the precepts of good journalism. Good analysis ensures that the reader has context – to let rip simply on the basis of grant abstracts is lazy, Homer Simpson journalism.

I reached Discovery Early Career Researcher Award recipient Lucas Ihlein on the road, as he travelled to Queensland to research his project on the social engagement of art in the complex environmental dilemma of the Great Barrier Reef. He said:

No-one got in touch with me. The first I heard about it [was when] the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research at Wollongong Uni sent me a message to say ‘we’re very sorry about it and we hope you’re okay’. There was no attempt [to contact me] whatsoever.

Ihlein argued his research would benefit the farming communities of central Queensland. He wrote in a Facebook post:

The desire to make changes is coming from within the farming community itself, which has begun to recognise that traditional farming methods using chemical fertilisers and pesticides are no longer financially viable, nor are they environmentally responsible.

Instead of contacting academics, or running the comment she gathered from the ARC, Bita went shopping for an expert to buttress her report. Her article cites Michael Potter at the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), a neoliberal think-tank, as its only expert source.

The CIS did not put out a publication or media release about ARC funding results, and Potter is not an economist known for his work in research policy. His publications for the CIS have all been about tax and superannuation. The Conversation understands the CIS did not pitch any remarks about research policy, but rather that Bita contacted the CIS seeking comment for her story.

The CIS refused an interview with Potter on Thursday and Friday, claiming he was “unavailable”. A spokesperson would not comment on questions about Potter’s scholarly credentials in research policy or higher education, instead issuing a statement from Potter reiterating his remarks. “I stand by my comments,” he wrote.

I contacted a number of leading economists with research profiles in research policy and innovation. None would endorse Potter as a scholar with any record in research policy.

The University of Queensland’s highly cited innovation scholar Mark Dogdson told me:

I’ve never heard of Michael Potter, but he appears not to know that societies advance more when knowledge is pursued for its own sake, rather than for instrumental reasons, and no-one can ever predict what knowledge will be useful.

University of Queensland economist John Quiggin, author of Zombie Economics, lamented the decline of the CIS as a serious think-tank:

In the 1980s and 1990s, the CIS was at the forefront of policy debate, pushing an intellectually bold and coherent argument for free-market policies. But I haven’t seen a new idea from them in years. This tired rehash of a theme that was done to death by the late US senator William Proxmire 40 years ago, and by his Australian imitators under the Howard government, is sad evidence of this.

In a phone interview, Professor Susan Dodds, president of the Council of Deans of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, attacked the journalistic ethics of Bita and The Daily Telegraph. She said:

To simply pluck things from the ARC website and to question whether that’s a valid use of taxpayers’ resources without contacting the researchers is just a distortion. It’s a cheap move, a populist move, and it smacks of a certain type of anti-intellectualism.

The Queensland University of Technology’s Stuart Cunningham has written extensively on research and innovation policy. “As a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, I endorse the Academy President Professor John Fitzgerald’s response to The Daily Telegraph attack,” he wrote in an email. He continued:

Science and technology can’t go it alone. Tackling today’s global challenges requires deep knowledge of people, societies and cultures that underpin, fuel or react to these challenges.

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of the ARC controversy is that no media outlet has mentioned the federal government’s latest Review of Research Policy and Funding Arrangements, handed down last November. Carried out by Ian Watt, a former secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the report was largely supportive of the quality of federally funded academic research. Its very first line reads:

The overall quality of the Australian research sector is high by OECD standards.

Political ripples

Bita’s Daily Telegraph article was politically significant. It was taken up by radio host Ray Hadley, who lampooned many of the projects cited in the article on his 2GB show that day.

Hadley directly attacked the ARC, claiming its funding was “piddling up against the wall”, and used his weekly interview with Treasurer Scott Morrison to call for a “pub test” for federal research funding.

After a lukewarm defence of ARC-funded work on snail infestations, Morrison agreed with Hadley about the need for ARC decisions to enjoy “public support”. He said:

It’s a fair point, Ray, and I think it shouldn’t be lost on those who make these decisions, and it’s certainly not lost on us, and we expect them to take into account public support for these types of activities.

Those who make those decisions, whether they’re bureaucrats or ultimately politicians, you need to be mindful of that.

Morrison’s comments were then widely and shared on social media and reported by other media outlets, including an article by Jared Owens in The Australian.


Scott Morrison later discussed the research funding story with 2GB’s Ray Hadley. AAP/Sam Mooy

I made repeated efforts to contact The Daily Telegraph about this article. I emailed, tweeted and called journalist Bita – a Walkley Award winner – and The Daily Telegraph’s editor, Chris Dore, putting a series of questions to them in regard to this story.

In particular, I asked them whether the researchers working on the projects mentioned in the article had been contacted, whether the ARC had been contacted, and whether the article represented a breach of The Daily Telegraph’s code of conduct.

At the time of writing, no response had been received.

The ConversationBen Eltham, Research Fellow, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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Please don’t explain: Hanson 2.0 and the war on experts

The Conversation

Patrick Stokes, Deakin University

Along with Aqua’s “Barbie Girl,” Pauline Hanson has long stood as a grim reminder that the second half of the 1990s was much worse than the first half. And now, 18 years later, Hanson finds herself back in Canberra.

Hanson’s racist agenda will be a stain on the Senate just as surely as the views she represents are a stain on Australia itself. For that reason alone, her return is a cause for dismay. But it is not the only cause.

Both Hanson herself and her wider party have a vocal sideline in science denialism: the view that expert consensus on various topics is corrupted and unreliable.

Hanson has pushed the myth that vaccination causes autism, and wants a royal commission into the “corruption” of climate science, declaring that “Climate change should not be about making money for a lot of people and giving scientists money”.

At the time of writing, it’s quite possible Malcolm Roberts, who has the number two slot on the One Nation Senate ticket in Queensland, will be joining Hanson in Canberra. Roberts is a project leader of the Galileo Movement, a lobby group who deny anthropogenic climate change and insist the global scientific community and governments are corruptly hiding the truth from their publics.

Conspiracism in public life

This might seem small beer next to the potentially disastrous effects a Hansonite revival might have on Australia’s pluralist and multicultural society.

But remember: Hanson had an outsized impact on Australian politics in the 90s precisely because she gave voice to views that resonated with much of the electorate and, unlike other politicians, wasn’t quite canny enough to reach for the dog whistle. In openly using phrases like “swamped with Asians,” Hanson shifted the Overton Window until the political establishment found the only way her views could be contained was by absorbing them.

Enter Roberts, a man who honestly believes a “tight-knit cabal” made up of “some of the major banking families in the world” are advancing corrupted climate science with the aim of global domination. Such language has some very dark associations in the history of conspiracy theory. Hence Andrew Bolt disassociated himself from the Galileo Movement for peddling a view that “smacks too much of the Jewish world conspiracy theorising I’ve always loathed.”

One might think that if even an arch-denialist like Bolt can’t abide views like Roberts’, One Nation’s climate conspiracism will end up either repudiated or ignored. But then, nobody in 1996 thought “swamped with Asians” rhetoric would have such an impact on the Australian polity either.

‘Post-truth politics’?

Besides, this has been a good season globally for political expertise bashing. Perhaps the new One Nation senators will find that, in another echo of the Howard years, the times will suit them.

In the lead-up to the UK’s referendum on leaving the European Union, Tory MP and leading Leave campaigner Michael Gove declared “people in this country have had enough of experts”. Gove is now in the running to become the Prime Minister who will preside over the UK’s divorce from the EU – and quite possibly, the breakup of the United Kingdom itself.

Michael Gove says people have had enough of experts. Paul Clarke/Wikimedia Commons

Should Gove get the gig, his counterpart across the pond come January 2017 may well be one Donald Trump, a man who believes climate change is a hoax and that vaccines cause autism (and has given voice to suspicions that Obama wasn’t born in the US and that Ted Cruz’ father was involved the Kennedy assassination).

And of course, denialism won’t be a novelty in Canberra either. Denis Jensen won’t be there when Senator Hanson arrives, but his colleague George Christiansen will be. David Leyonhjelm may no longer grace the Senate crossbenches, but thanks to him we’ll still be paying for a Commissioner to investigate Wind Turbine Syndrome complaints despite the lack of evidence for any such condition. And lest this be dismissed as a mere lefty rant, we should also note the Greens’ stance on genetically modified organisms.

All of this might be ascribed to “post-truth politics,” the condition in which political discourse is no longer constrained by norms of truth-telling. But simply insisting people tell the truth – hardly an outrageous demand – won’t help with this specific problem. To invoke the philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s ingenious distinction, post-truth politics is not fundamentally about lies, but bullshit. The liar knows the truth, and cares about it enough to conceal it. The bullshitter, by contrast, doesn’t care (and may not know) if what they say is true; they just care that you believe it. Trump, it seems fair to say, is a bullshitter. Much of the Gove-Johnson-Farage Brexit campaign was certainly built on bullshit.

But science denialists are not, or at least not necessarily, liars or bullshitters. Their beliefs are sincere. And they are shared by a great many people, who by definition won’t be persuaded by simple appeals to expert opinion because the authority of expert opinion is precisely what they deny. How should we respond to this?

Naïve Reason won’t save us

One disastrous answer would be to retreat into a naïve conception of capital-r Reason as some sort of panacea. Surprisingly smart people end up plumping for such a view. Consider this bit of utopianism from Neil deGrasse Tyson:

Even if Tyson’s being tongue-in-cheek here, this is emblematic of a fairly widespread view that if we just consult The Facts, and then simply apply the infallible techniques of Reason to these Facts, it becomes blindingly obvious precisely What Is To Be Done. This view is only slightly less naïve, and barely less self-congratulatory, than those it opposes.

You sometimes come across people who want to insist that battles over science denialism represent a conflict between “reality” and “ideology.” But there’s no direct access to “reality” – all knowledge is mediated through our existing concepts, language, and so on – and so, arguably, no non-ideological access to it either. Human knowledge doesn’t drop from the sky fully-formed and transparently validated by some infallible faculty of Reason. It’s always filtered through language, culture, politics, history, and the foibles of psychology. Producing knowledge is something humans do – and that means power relations are involved.

Distributed knowledge and trust

While anti-intellectualism and suspicion of expertise is nothing new, the problem is amplified by the very advances that make modern life what it is. Put crudely, we now know so much that nobody can know it all for themselves, and so we have to rely more and more on other people to know things for us.

Under such conditions of distributed knowledge, trust becomes ever more important. You can’t be an expert in everything, and so you have to take more and more on trust. Is human activity warming the climate? Does the MMR vaccine cause autism? Would Brexit tank the UK’s economy? These are not questions you or I can answer, assuming you or I aren’t researchers working in the relevant fields. So we have to defer to the relevant communities of experts – and that’s a problem if you’re not good with trust or deference.

The physicist Brian Cox recently said of Gove’s expertise remark that it represents the way “back to the cave.” If that’s a fate we want to avoid, we’re stuck with distributed knowledge, and the reliance on others it involves.

That being so, we need to enhance trust in the knowledge-generating social structures we depend upon. Of course, a certain proportion of people are always going to insist that scientists are secretly lying to us for profit or that doctors are incompetent or evil. The paranoid style, as Richard Hofstadter called it, will always be with us. And there will always be demagogues willing to exploit that paranoia, to turn expertise into an us-and-them conflict, or to feed resentment and flatter egos by telling people they know better than their GP or climatologists.

But such views can only gain broader traction if people are alienated from those sources of knowledge, if they see them as disconnected from and perhaps even hostile to their own lives and interests.

Technical knowledge is predominantly produced by universities, and utilised by a political class. These are institutions that are much harder to trust if university is a place that nobody like you goes to, or if nobody in the political class sounds like you. It’s much easier to see “government” as some sort of malign, alien force if you have no investment in its processes or hope of benefiting from them. Equally, when “government” means your friends and family who work in public service rather than a distant and abstract locus of force and authority, pervasive suspicion becomes harder to maintain.

Expertise denial has become a deeply corrosive feature of modern political society. It needs to be called out wherever it appears. But we also need to think about how we reduce people’s disconnection from the sources of epistemic authority. That is a far more wickedly difficult problem. It’s one we’ll still be dealing with long after Hanson’s second fifteen minutes are over. But we can’t wait until then to start.

The ConversationPatrick Stokes, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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Obama on education

 

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Isaac Asimov on ignorance

 

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Brian Schmidt on amateur climate science ‘experts’

Brian Paul Schmidt AC, FRS, FAA (born February 24, 1967) is a Distinguished Professor, Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow and astrophysicist at The Australian National University‘s Mount Stromlo Observatory and Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics; and is known for his research in using supernovae as cosmological probes. He currently holds an Australia Research Council Federation Fellowship and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 2012. Schmidt shared both the 2006 Shaw Prize in Astronomy and the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics with Saul Perlmutter and Adam Riess for providing evidence that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, making him the only Montana-born Nobel laureate. In June 2015, his appointment as the next Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University, commencing in January 2016, was announced.

‘As a Nobel Prize winner, I travel the world meeting all kinds of people. Most of the policy, business and political leaders I meet immediately apologise for their lack of knowledge of science. Except when it comes to climate science. Whenever this subject comes up, it never ceases to amaze me how each person I meet suddenly becomes an expert.

Facts are then bandied to fit an argument for or against climate change, and on all sides, misconceptions abound. The confusion is not surprising – climate science is a very broad and complicated subject with experts working on different aspects of it worldwide. No single person knows everything about climate change. And for the average punter, it’s hard to keep up with all the latest research and what it means.

More surprising is the supreme confidence that non-experts (scientists and non-scientists alike) have in their own understanding of the subject.’

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Karl Popper on knowledge and ignorance

Sir Karl Raimund Popper CH FBA FRS (28 July 1902 – 17 September 1994) was an Austrian-British philosopher and professor. He is generally regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of science of the 20th century. Popper is known for his rejection of the classical inductivist views on the scientific method, in favour of empirical falsification: A theory in the empirical sciences can never be proven, but it can be falsified, meaning that it can and should be scrutinized by decisive experiments.

 

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5 simple chemistry facts that everyone should understand before talking about science

The Logic of Science

One of the most ludicrous things about the anti-science movement is the enormous number of arguments that are based on a lack of knowledge about high school level chemistry. These chemistry facts are so elementary and fundamental to science that the anti-scientists’ positions can only be described as willful ignorance, and these arguments once again demonstrate that despite all of the claims of being “informed free-thinkers,” anti-scientists are nothing more than uninformed (or misinformed) science deniers. Therefore, in this post I am going to explain five rudimentary facts about chemistry that you must grasp before you are even remotely qualified to make an informed decision about medicines, vaccines, food, etc.

1). Everything is made of chemicals

This seems like a simple concept, but many people seem to struggle greatly with it, so let’s get this straight: all matter is made of chemicals. You consist entirely of chemicals. All food…

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Darwin on ignorance and science

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