Why don’t scientists have more authority in government? | Robert Crease | TEDxCERN


Translator: Mary Kay
Reviewer: Denise RQ There’s a cartoon
by Randall Munroe, the xkcd artist, that shows two people speaking
and one says to the other, “That person over there
believes silly things, like that fossils are fakes,
and the world is only 6,000 years old.” And the other person goes, “Not a problem, the Universe
doesn’t care what people believe.” And the first person goes,
“But that’s our congressman.” And the second person says,
“OK, we have a problem.” I love that joke
because we do have a problem, we have congressmen who don’t believe in things
like fossils and evolution. But what’s wrong with that?
After all, they were elected. I’m going to say what’s wrong with that, and what we can do about it, if anything. First of all, this is not what I thought 21st century politics
was going to be like. When I was a graduate student
in the Humanities in the 1970s – the late 1970s – my professors thundered
against what they called the coming technocratic state. “Politicians,” they said, “would soon not care about
human values but only about efficiency.” “Politicians,” they said, “would soon not listen to citizens
but only to scientists and engineers. If only! Never before have there been
so many issues that required
so much scientific input to solve. Issues involving energy,
the environment, infectious diseases, pollution, global warming, and so forth. But never before has the required scientific input been
so sabotaged, misused, or ignored. Politicians sometimes even
view scientists as the enemy. Is that over the top? Few years ago, a US Congressman,
Paul Broun of Georgia, declared that evolution, embryology,
and the Big Bang theory were lies straight from the pit of hell, and said that he knew the Universe
was only a few thousand years old. And what is supposed to happen to him? He not only got reelected
but he was put on the House Committee in charge of the United States’
Science, [Space] and Technology Program. How does science denial work? I’m fascinated by stories,
both real and fictional, which illustrate
the dynamics of the collision between science and social,
economic, or religious values. And one of my favorites
is in the movie Jaws. Has anyone seen it? Small seaside town that depends for
its livelihood on tourism. The day before
the first major holiday of the season, a woman’s badly mangled body
washes up onshore. A scientist from
the Oceanographic Institute, played by the nerdy Richard Dreyfuss, says, “It’s a shark!” The town’s mayor, who is terrified at the prospect of closing
the beaches, says, ‘We have to be reasonable, we have
to act in the town’s best interest. It was probably a boating accident.” And, by the way, isn’t Richard Dreyfuss
acting in his own self-interest? Isn’t he really interested in getting
into the pages of National Geographic? Now, we in the audience,
we, watching the film, are in a special position. Unlike anyone in the film at the point,
we have actually seen the shark. So we know what’s up,
and we know whom to believe. But what about the people on film? What about the people in the town? To them, it seems like just a question of the judgment of one person,
Richard Dreyfuss, versus the other, the town’s mayor. Now, when science denial
happens, it’s really easy – whoops, I forgot to show you
my picture of the shark – when science denial happens, it’s really easy to try to find
a villain to blame it on. The press, scientific illiteracy, maybe what sociologists call
amoral calculators, or people who know
what the right thing to do is but are swayed by political,
economic, or religious factors. Or villains, people who know
what the good is, but don’t do it. But really, it’s a question of authority. Why is the authority of science
in government so low? Someone who thought
about that an awful lot was Jack Marburger, the former
US Presidential Science Adviser. And Marburger liked to tell
the following story. Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attack,
– you might recall – someone sent letters
containing deadly anthrax spores to a number of congressmen
and to some news agencies; five people died and more were injured. And mail became piling up
that might or might not contain anthrax. And Marburger was asked to come up
with a method to neutralize the anthrax so that the letters could be read. He convened a team of scientists, they did some research,
consulted the literature, and came up with the recommendation
involving electron beam irradiation. He turned the method
over to the government, and it looked like a triumph
of the use of science for the public good. But a funny thing happened,
when the method was first tried, it didn’t work. It burned the mail to a crisp. And Marburger looked into it, and found that the government officials
had second guessed the scientists. They had reasoned
that if the scientists had said that X was the right dose, wouldn’t it be a lot safer to up the dose? To make it 5X or 10X. And when he had the dose scaled back,
the method worked just fine. Marbuger called this
a relatively benign instance of a potentially disastrous behavior. Namely, the tendency
of government officials to ignore, or alter scientific advice. And he had more serious examples,
such as the Bush administration’s claim in 2002, that the Iraqi government
was looking for a certain kind of aluminium tubes because they wanted
to produce nuclear weapons, which scientists said was wrong. But after Marburger stepped down
as science adviser, he began to investigate why is science such a weak force
in government circles? He consulted the writings of Max Weber, a German sociologist and historian, who is well-known for his writings
on the nature of authority, or the reasons why we obey commands
that were issued by others. And Weber distinguished
between three kinds of authority: traditional, legal-rational,
and charismatic. Traditional authority is
the authority of age-old practices, it’s the authority of the village elders. Legal-rational authority
is grounded in the belief and the legitimacy of enacted rules;
it is the authority of the law. Charismatic authority
is grounded in the perception that certain individuals
have exceptional powers or are able to do exceptional things
that no one else could. And Weber said
charismatic authority was irrational, but it is one of the few means
that politicians have to take people on new paths. Think of Martin Luther King,
or Mahatma Gandhi, or Winston Churchill. Which of these three is science? Not the first two;
no society is traditionally scientific, and no country mandates
that its laws be grounded in science. So Marbuger concluded
that the authority of science in government circles was charismatic. That is, politicians consider scientists
authoritative to the extent they perceive them
as having special powers or being able to do special things; create new kinds of bombs
that couldn’t be done otherwise. Scientists, and probably many of you,
think that this is crazy. Isn’t it because science
is not grounded in charisma that we can rely on it? And isn’t a scientific finding
not someone’s particular opinion but the product of a huge infrastructure, a collective set of institutions that involve a collective set
of procedures like analysis, data,
testing, and so forth? True, but Marbuger’s point was that’s the way
it might look from the inside, but from the outside, it may look like one person’s
judgment against another. Richard Dreyfuss’s opinion
versus the town mayor’s. I know what you’re probably all thinking. You’re thinking,
‘Oh no, I’m about to say that the solution for the problem
of the low authority science has in government
is to make scientists more charismatic. Make them great performers,
maybe bring in scientific star power, maybe we can get Beyoncé
or Angelina Jolie to promote science. And doesn’t this cheapen science?’ I agree with you. Fortunately,
there’s a fourth kind of authority that Weber doesn’t mention,
and that is trust. Trust is a powerful force in politics,
it’s much more powerful than data. And when we trust science,
we aren’t trusting one person’s viewpoint, one person’s opinion, we are trusting
the entire scientific infrastructure. So the long range solution
for the low authority that science has in government
is to increase the trust that politicians have
in the scientific infrastructure, and what happens
in laboratories like this one. But that is not easy. And there are some very serious problems, one of which is that the infrastructure
tends to withdraw into the background, it tends to become invisible. A few years ago,
a US congressman said, “Why do we need Landsat satellites for
when we have Google Earth?” (Laughter) It’s easy to use the products
of science, Google Earth, without even seeing the infrastructure the Landsat satellites
that make it possible. And it’s because the infrastructure
tends to withdraw that leaves the vacuum for these other forces: social,
political, and religious to come in. There are other problems, too. Another is that scientific institutions
can make mistakes. And people can seize on these mistakes, and exploit them
in order to undermine trust in science. I call these people “social lagos,”
after Shakespeare’s character in Othello, who advances his career
by sowing distrust. And the third problem is simply time. Trust takes time to develop. And the speed of political decision making
moves much quicker than the speed of trust development. OK so are there any little things
we can do in the meantime? And there are a few, and they involve exposing
how bad decision making tends to be if it doesn’t trust
the scientific infrastructure. And one method is humor. Here at CERN, you may recall
The Daily Show episode a few years ago about the possibility
that your accelerator, the LHC would produce a black hole that would destroy the Universe,
anybody see that? The amazing thing about that episode was that even though it extensively took
the threat seriously, a viewer came away, not only reassured but also with a pretty good idea
just what was feeding the hype. Humor is a great way
of exposing the magical thinking involved in shark denial. A second method is
to get nasty and aggressive. The next time a politician says
they don’t believe in evolution, let’s demand that that politician
take a pledge saying they will refuse, and will insist
that their constituents refuse, any medical treatment whose development
was based on evolutionary biology. The president of my university,
whose specialty is infectious diseases likes to say that microbes and viruses
are evolution in motion. In light of the Ebola plague,
isn’t any legislator who doesn’t believe in evolution,
and therefore, in the value of doing research into it,
an urgent public health threat? Making these pledges, and you can concoct
different kinds of pledges for different kinds of science denial,
is a way of saying, “Science walks the walk, do you?” How strong are your other commitments? And a final thing we can do
is tell parables. Parables are short stories,
which are very accessible, with a built-in meaning. And parables tend to circulate and become part
of the cultural common sense. Let’s multiply the parables we have
about how bad decision making is if it doesn’t trust
the scientific infrastructure. The relatively benign parables,
like the postal service story, or very serious ones,
like the aluminium tubes equals the desire to produce nuclear weapons parable. Let’s point to episodes
like those in Jaws. Let’s write and stage more plays
like Ibsen’s play “Enemy of the people,” which is the granddad of the genre. And what these parables do
is to point out how silly it is to try and to make the shark go away
by magical thinking. If we do all of these things,
all of the time, we might not change the mind
of the politician in the xkcd cartoon, but I think we will begin
to change the climate in which they get elected. And our challenge, in the long run, is to find ways to make more visible
the scientific infrastructure, what happens
in laboratories like this one, that make very explicit
the source of its authority, and therefore, why it can be trusted. Thank you. (Applause)

Maurice Vega

6 Responses

  1. Theres definitly to much anti science movement going on people think they can judge things like global warming,energy and biotechnology just thru media and things they hear in there friendscircle things like evidence and stuff get completly ignored and people who make the biggest claims are the ones that are listend to(like in the fitness&nutrition world)

  2. Well chosen topic, especially for the location and audience.  Presented with delightfully charismatic authority, by someone who has thought and felt his way through this dilemma, and with excellent workability.  Could he be … a … scientist?  OMG!

  3. This is an important issue. I don´t know why people doesn´t care about this. WE HAVE A PROBLEM. If a scientific and rational method were used to manage the public resources not a particular ego. I´m sure we´d be better society.

  4. Science, contrary to common perceptions even among practicing scientists, is not a true search for truth. Modern Science is actually a search what cannot be true. Ideas and theories remain exactly that…Ideas and theories. Although science does have value in that its understanding can help us innovate, science does not create truth. A persons rejection of scientific principles can be foolish, but all "scientific understanding" is essentially flawed because we do not know what is absolute. How could we? At the end of the day we are as much a piece of creation as creation is a piece of us.

  5. Screw politicians, go straight for the people! Educate them and don't diss their beliefs whilst you're doing it, not the best road but one often taken. Or if all else fails invent a fucking religion and get em that way, I'll be the first to sign up coz telling people I'm a Jedi is getting a little stale.

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