What do people mean when they say, ‘Science’?

What is science, exactly? Today we talk a lot about ‘evidence-based policy’ in government, academia, and in the media, but is there a widening gap in the way we define ‘evidence’ as a society?

Is ‘science’ just another segment on the evening news? How do we, as a general public, decide when to trust science? Do you believe the studies that say chocolate and coffee are good for you…or the other ones? How do you validate your beliefs about immunizing children?

Nadine Wathen (@nadinewathen) is a Full Professor in the Health Information Science Program in the Faculty of Information & Media Studies at Western University. She is a Research Scholar at the Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children in Western’s Faculty of Education. Nadine holds an affiliate appointment in Western’s Department of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research and is also cross-appointed to the Arthur Labatt Family School of Nursing. Her research develops and evaluates interventions for women and children experiencing violence, and seeks to enhance the science of knowledge translation and exchange (KTE) to ensure that new knowledge emerging from research is made available, in appropriate ways.

So accustomed to the skies

I finally made it through Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things — a first century BCE poem that sets out to summarize and synthesize a comprehensive philosophy of… everything. It is a fascinating account of the natural world: fascinating not only for the sheer grandeur of the endeavor — over 7,000 lines of didactic poetry — but also for the revolutionary ideas of its time. In Lucretius’ account world, natural events occurred through randomness and chance, not at the whims of deities. The linchpin of the poem is the proposition of atoms: tiny, invisible, indivisible particles that compose everything. Like Epicurus before him, Lucretius had no way of testing the theory, only his reasoning and observation.

By today’s understanding, Lucretius is wrong in most of his scientific conclusion. He thinks that the sun is the same size as it appears in the sky, that the orbital difference between the stars and moon are caused by air currents, and that thunder is the result of clouds crashing into each other. One does not read On the Nature of Things today for its robust physics.

So why read Lucretius? Rooted in a specific moment of time — namely, first century BCE Rome — this poem reiterates a timeless truth: what you believe about the world is inseparable from how you live in it. For Lucretius, the theory of atoms was nothing short of psychological and emotional liberation: if the events of the world could be explained by the properties of these microscopic specks, then humanity would no longer be enslaved to the appeasement of the gods. As Lucretius saw it, the science of atoms yielded the end of fear. No longer were vengeful gods to be blamed for droughts and disasters. Sacrifices were no longer required to ward off divine wrath or win divine favour.

For me, the most endearing trait of Lucretius is his giddy, childlike awe with the world. Once he got it in his head that everything could have a natural explanation, he saw everything around him through a new set of eyes. His openness and curiosity are infectious. Even though his conclusions are wonky by the standards of contemporary science, I still often found myself shifting my gaze from the pages of the book to ponder the world through Lucretius’ eyes: Look, a tree. Trees are incredible. What do I actually know about trees? How do they work?

Now, however, people hardly bother to lift their eyes
To the glittering heavens, they are so accustomed to the skies. (II.1038-1039, trans. Stallings 2007:67)

Thoughts about depolarizing contentious arguments

Traders and investors rely on data. They need criteria for weighing the benefit of buying or selling. They use hard numbers: predictive analysis, historical trend patterns, algorithmic modeling, etc. At the same time, inescapable ‘tacit’ variables informing their decision: personal tolerance for risk, goals of their portfolio or clients, and so on. The choice to buy or sell at any given moment is data-driven, yes, but it ultimately rests on a human logic of value.

Consider another example: a scientist working on an empirical question is principally concerned with an objective understanding of the phenomenon in front of them. They are looking for evidence that is falsifiable and testing measurable outcomes against a null hypothesis. But why are they studying this question? Why do they investigate macrophages instead of the atmosphere? What motivates them to get out of bed in the morning and go to work? Are they driven to find a cure for a disease? A pursuit of knowledge to further the wellbeing of humanity? Compelled by personal devotion to a career path? Boredom? Obsessive compulsive curiosity?

Whatever the reason might be, it is a human reason.

The point? There could be a billion explanations why the investor and the scientist do what they do. But no matter how devoted they might be to the principles of data, evidence, objectivity, and the refutability of hypothesis, their devotion is no less a human devotion. To the extent that a commitment to evidenced-based decision-making reflects a commitment to a normative idea, it could be described as equally ‘ideological’ as any other human commitment to a normative idea. Everyone is presumably motivated by something, lest they be automatons or robots.

Describing evidence-based decision-making as an ‘ideology’ does not deter me from my commitment to it. In fact, I am ready and happy to take up the debate in defense of evidence at any opportunity. But my commitment to ideas like ‘truth,’ ‘fact,’ and ‘evidence,’ does not endow me with a special warrant to walk around and accuse everyone else of being ‘ideological’ — as if I am a rare, enlightened creature that has somehow transcended all human limits of comprehension. No, if I define ‘ideology’ as a system of beliefs and ideals, then my commitment to evidence and fact is as ‘ideological’ as any other belief out there.

Describing another person as an ‘ideologue’ seems like a rather hypocritical strategy of rhetoric. Is not every debate is a match between at least two or more ideologues? The concept of truth itself is an ideological proposition. Pretending that logic and evidence are illimitable artifacts that live somewhere beyond the realm of the species defining them is to only call science ‘divine’ by another name. To say, “I don’t have an agenda; I only follow the evidence,” is another way of saying, “My agenda is to follow the evidence as I understand the evidence.”

Pragmatic honesty demands that I acknowledge that a) my commitment to evidence is a normative human idea, b) which intrinsically comes with an agenda when confronted with decision-points or conflicting viewpoints, and c) runs concurrent with my inherently limited understanding of the data at play (conclusive evidence is only ‘conclusive’ to the extent that I conclude the absence and nonexistence of all further evidence).

How would I engage with the public sphere of debate differently if I could hold these thoughts at front-of-mind?

Scientific consensus and social values are distinct

This lecture by Sir Peter Gluckman is thought-provoking.

For a moment, consider genetically modified foods. Let’s say, for the sake of illustration, that the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community points to the conclusion that GMOs are categorically safe for human consumption. Now, the question Gluckman presents: should science also make a decision about the prevalence of GMO in our food supply?

He concludes, no.

We need to differentiate between scientific knowledge and social values. Just because science might reach the consensus that GMOs are safe, this does not somehow require society to rejig its policies to embrace genetically modified foods. What we do with GMOs is not only a scientific debate, but a debate about what we collectively value as a society. In other words: even if GMOs are safe, there may be other reasons why a society would choose not to use them.

We’ve seen many values debates obscured by inappropriate co-option of science to avoid the values debate… I think this issue of science being misused as a proxy for societal values-based debate is very bad. I think it short-changes democracy.

Gluckman says that if we want science to remain relevant in society, scientists must act as knowledge brokers, not social policy advocates. When science becomes advocacy, it simply becomes another voice in the values debate, thereby surrendering its deference to objectivity: “scientific knowledge is imperative for consideration at every level of government, but all science is conducted by humans, and human interactions and negotiations survive only on trust.”

It boils down to a simple social hypothesis: if you want people to respect your opinion when you claim to present material facts, don’t follow up your data with your social, political, or ideological agenda.

When science purports to be the decision-makers, they set themselves up to the charges of elitism that are prevalent today.

In the GMO example, then, the role of scientists to learn and inform, not make value judgments about society’s use of GMOs one way or another. In the end, what we do collectively is a decision that is related but ultimately conceptually distinct from the scientific analysis of the issue.

Listen to the whole lecture for Gluckman’s full argument.

Anti-Vaxxer Evidence

Virtually no one goes through life thinking, “My beliefs about the world are driven by irrationality and heuristics.”

No, we all fancy ourselves to be rational.

Regardless of what we believe, we believe the evidence is on our side.

Take John and I, for example.

John is certain that the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination causes autism. But I believe John is wrong. I have evidence that John is wrong: if you look at the people in a population who are diagnosed with autism, there is no statistical difference between those who received vaccinations as children and those who did not. Epidemiologically, there is nothing that connects vaccinations to autism. (i.e. Taylor et. al 1999, etc.)

What is correlated with parents not vaccinating their children? Well, outbreaks of measles, for one. (CDC)

But my evidence is meaningless to John. Why? He believes different evidence. John’s evidence might be anecdotal (à la Jenny McCarthy), or intuitive (he’s got a hunch), ideological (don’t interfere with ‘nature’), conspiratorial (it’s all a government cover up), or unfortunately widespread misinformation (as per Andrew Wakefield). Whatever the case, John does not think to himself, My beliefs about vaccinations are irrational. No, he’s got his reasons. And he is convinced by them.

He is committed to his evidence as much as I am to mine.

As far as I can tell, given the data and evidence as I see it, John’s refusal to vaccinate his child is both irrational and irresponsible. But according to John’s evidence, he believes he is making the best decision for his child. He believes it dearly.

John and I both have our evidence, and this is the problem. Scientific, peer-reviewed, data-driven evidence is clearly only one kind of evidence — and it is a kind of evidence that John out-rightly rejects. John is so convinced by his reasons — whatever they are — that it doesn’t matter what I think.

Therefore, it is pointless for John and I to debate vaccinations. I think he is ignoring basic science. He suspects that I am deluded by blind trust in the scientific establishment. We are at an impasse. It does not matter how emphatically I drone on about ‘evidence-based medicine’, falsifiable propositions, and the null hypothesis. John is having none of it. All of this is important to me, but not to him.

John is no sooner going to entertain the validity of my evidence than I am going to accept the validity of his. I seek to surrender my intuitions to the probabilities of empirical observation, and I strive to change my position as new data emerges (especially at such a large scale of consensus). Let’s be honest: John is probably not going to talk me out of these methodological convictions. “That’s what you believe is true,” he acknowledges. “But that is not what I think and feel about the issue.”

If I am going to convince John to vaccinate his child, I need to either help him change his functional definition of evidence itself or present an appealing counter-narrative in his language — a story told in his current ‘category’ of ‘evidence.’

Herein lies the dilemma of health promotion: ‘evidence-based research’ alone has never changed the minds or behaviours of people (or policy-makers) not already convinced of the validity of quantitative data.

Before John and I can have a meaningful conversation about vaccinations, we need to have a meaningful conversation about the nature of falsifiable propositions. And this needs to be a conversation, not a monologue correcting the ‘errors’ of his evidence. I cannot change John’s convictions and conceptualizations about the nature of evidence any more than I can change his deepest hopes and dreams.

I now view the anti-vaccine movement as a sort of cult, where any sort of questioning gets you kicked out, your crunchy card revoked. I was even told I couldn’t call myself a natural mother anymore, because vaccines are too unnatural. That’s fine. I just want to be the best parent I know how to be, and that means always being open to new information and admitting when I’m wrong. (Leaving the Anti-Vaccine Movement by Megan Sandlin)

This is the bottom line: I cannot change John’s mind. Only John can change John’s mind. If I accept this premise at the outset of our conversation, my interaction with John will be markedly different than if I were to presume myself capable of correcting John’s thinking for him.

After all, I am just like John: if you are going to convince me that vaccinations cause autism, you will have to show me evidence that I accept as valid — the kind of evidence I already use and trust to make sense of the world I live in.

John and I are so different. John and I are exactly the same.

What is Life without Wonder?

If you don’t possess wonder, what do you have? Does a sterilized, impotent vision of existence have you trapped you in its claws? Without amazement and mystery, what is there, exactly?

Life without wonder is like waking up every day and reading the last page of the novel and concluding there is no point to reading the rest of the book… or waking up at all.

What hope is there if you are not left speechless at the spectacles of existence? You know: things like starry skies, epic poetry, mitochondria, and subatomic particles. If you can’t accept that the ‘point’ of conscious of existence is to be repeatedly (and constantly) stunned by the sheer awesomeness of conscious existence itself, it seems the only recourse left for you is to go about life in a numbed state — as if emotionally neutered by the blinders of pithy explanations, inoculated against awe in the name of your own chintzy, substitute dogmas.

Wonder, I say. What is a day without marvel? What is an hour without astonishment? Whether you stare at bacteria in the soil or at vapours in the clouds, present yourself to life as its subject, willing to be mesmerized by the phenomenon of it all.

Or go with the alternative, if you must. The choice is up to you. Just remember the sentence to which you imprison yourself.

What is life without wonder?

Nature and the Natural

(Thematically, this blog is all about second-guessing the obvious: thinking about different angles and perspectives. This particular post is inspired by a current environmental/political controversy that is specific to my city. The larger thesis, however, is an idea that has broader ramifications. Even if you are not a local resident, I am curious to hear your thoughts — and especially interested in the outcomes of similar debates in other regions.)

The Thames River flows through my city (London, Ontario). Intermittently, between 1870s and 2005, a dam in the Springbank region has been a feature of the river. Initially built for power, a later 1929 iteration was designed to elevate water levels sufficiently for recreational activities within the city, such as canoeing and boating. Then, in 2008, a newly refurbished version of the dam failed, leaving the municipal government in years of litigation with contractors until 2015, when a legal settlement was finally reached.

Now there is an emergent controversy about what should happen next. Some environmentalists and anglers argue that permanently decommissioning the dam is better for the ecological health of the river. As an oft mentioned 2003 environmental assessment notes, “The removal of the dam would result in the elimination of the upstream head pond that would revert the river back to its natural ‘pre-dam’ riverine state.” A 2004 report on endangered species in the watershed prompted many people to begin looking at the biodiversity of the region carefully. A February 2016 report notes:

There are now known species at risk in the area of the Springbank Dam and the part-time reservoir that it creates. They are as follows: Spiny Softshell Turtle, Queensnake, Eastern Hog-nosed Snake, Salamander (Mudpuppy) Mussel and Silver Shiner (fish), as well as species of special concern such as the Northern Map Turtle, Snapping Turtle and Green Dragon (perennial wildflower)

On the other hand, canoeists and other recreational users of the river are suspicious about the environmental claims. They point out that there are already 10 other operational dams and 244 flow barriers in the upper Thames watershed alone, not to mention 3 major flood control structures. Supporters of the dam reconstruction, like a some city planners and tourism advocates, insist on the aesthetic and social value of recreational waterways. This camp wants the dam fixed yesterday. Everyone has an angle.

First, a clarification is necessary: I resonate greatly with the ecological concerns addressed by critics of the dam. I publicly consider myself an ‘environmentalist’ — I appreciate that the very cells I am composed of exist in an irrefutably entwined relationship with my habitat. I’m a bit of a ‘systems head‘ too. You don’t have to convince me that everything is, indeed, interconnected. Yes, sign me up for ecological responsibility. I’m all in. This, in fact, is exactly why I am writing this piece to begin with.

Therefore, I propose that we apply a broader systems approach to this controversy. This means we must ask questions. How does decommissioning one dam make an urban watershed more ‘natural’? Upstream, in terms of flow rate, the Springbank dam affects about 22.5km of waterway (for local readers, see 21km from the Fanshawe dam to the Springbank dam, plus 1.5km from the Richmond Street dam to the Forks), plus related watershed. This stretch of about 22.5km is surrounded by an urban population of over 360,000 human beings.

If by ‘natural’ we mean, ‘unaffected by human activity’, then there is obviously no way that 22.5km of river surrounded by 360,000 humans can really be ‘natural’ at all. So what do we mean when we speak of ‘naturalization’ in this context? If we removed all three flood control structures upstream, parts of our own municipal region would occasionally be uninhabitable (i.e. underwater) every year. The point is this: the only way this river system is ever going to be ‘natural’ again is if we all leave (and go set up our camp in another environment somewhere else).

The idea of a ‘natural’ river, in this sense, is impossible to achieve. Even if we diligently treat every ounce of raw sewage before dumping it into the river, 360,000 inhabitants are still going to leave a significant mark on the local ecology. Therefore, this is not a question of whether or not the river should be naturalized, it’s specifically a question about what it means for the river to be healthy. But this means we actually asking a deceptively difficult question: what does it mean for 22.5km of river to be ‘healthy’ while it is surrounded by 360,000 human beings? We clearly ought not confuse the idea of a ‘healthy river’ with the concept of a ‘natural river’ here.

We might think of this another way: an urban park is full of nature, but it is not particularly natural. It is often mowed, manicured, and trimmed. Using our definitions, a ‘natural’ park would not be much of a ‘park’ at all: it would be an undisturbed swath of land at some stage in an ecological fauna/flora cyclical, probably initially beginning with a dense underbrush. Parks may be beautiful, they might ‘connect’ us with nature, but they are not naturally occurring phenomena. Like human dwellings, highways, pets, vegetable gardens, and parking lots, every recreational park also encroaches on and displaces certain species of plants and wildlife, too. On one hand, our ‘green spaces’ are a bit like our shopping malls: they exist because we create them; they are designed by us. But is this a reason to get rid of all our urban parks? No. In fact, on the contrary, we protect them. As much as parks are unnatural, we tend to weigh the social and environmental cost of losing them as greater than the social and environmental cost of keeping them. Culturally, we seem attuned to the notion that maintaining this ethereal ‘connection to nature’ in our urban centres is important, even if our tactile experience of nature is admittedly fabricated and contrived.

We want a healthy river. We also want to convince generations who are not yet born that they should want a healthy river, too. How do we send this memo forward in time? Obviously, our best efforts will all be for naught if our great grandchildren are elected to higher government and decide that imposing sewage treatment regulations on municipalities is a superfluous demand on tax payers! (Indoor plumbing and sewage treatment, incidentally, are not ‘natural’ phenomena either: they are human inventions designed precisely for the betterment of our own health as per the health of our environment.)

Here’s my point: If we want a healthier river tomorrow, we need as many people as possible to appreciate the river today, in much the same way we hope our descendants will continue to protect and value the parks and green spaces we have inherited. Ultimately, systemically, if we want fewer swimming pools and car washes emptied into the Thames in the future, we need to be inspiring more families to become canoeists, evening strollers, and park enthusiasts. If we want future terms of council to fix sewage plant bypass problems when they arise, we need another generation of electable individuals who value the river.

If there is such a thing as an environmental case for fixing the Springbank dam, I suppose it might be this: increasing the usability, accessibility, functionality, and aesthetics of this relatively short, 22.5km stretch of river is our best hope for assuring its health in future generations. For it to be healthy, a river surrounded by 360,000 people must be respected by a critical mass. For it to be respected, it must be valued. For it to be valued, it must be a focal point and a concern for as many people as possible.

From the perspective of a broader, long-term, system analysis, the Springbank dam is an issue that is bigger than our own city alone. Protecting other remote and isolated environments from the unnecessary human interference begins here, when people come to value the ecology around them. In urban environments, we ‘save’ environments beyond our region principally by creating ways for people to fall in love with nature. Therefore, we ought to use our 22.5kms of river as an asset in the cause of bringing people closer to nature, instead of pretending that a small stretch of river surrounded by 360,000 people — book-ended by dams on every side — can ever truly be something we should honestly describe as ‘natural’.

In the end, I do not personally know whether we should fix the dam or not. But I suspect the least helpful thing for anyone to do is to continue framing this as a debate between ‘recreationists’ and ‘environmentalists’. At a fundamental level, virtually everyone here is arguing for the same outcome: a healthy, well-loved river, that is cherished by everyone in the community. How might this discussion be different if we were all to back up to our first principles and listen to one another? Unfortunately, the tenor of the debate in my city has led to the ‘people who love being in nature’ into contention with the ‘people who love protecting nature’ — as if these must be two fundamentally different, ideologically opposed camps.

Think ‘Adaptivity’, Not ‘Fitness’

We hear sentiments about fitness all the time, especially in early January. We tend to describe fitness as a state or as an end goal — “I’m getting fit,” “That person is really fit,” or “I’m really out of shape.” But I wonder: does the language and terminology we associate with ‘fitness’ unwittingly bewitch us?

Let’s think about fitness is a spectrum or a continuum, rather than a state. No matter how ‘fit’ you are, you could always technically be ‘fitter’. (And what does ‘unfitness’ mean, exactly?) You can never really ‘get fit’ in a literal sense — you never cross a magical threshold and receive a certificate of achievement that says, “Congratulations! You are now Officially Fit!”

Let’s consider the concept of adaptiveness instead. Like all living creatures, humans are continually adapting organisms. If you sit on the couch all day eating potato chips and Smarties, you will adapt to these demands. If you run 5km every morning, you will adapt to this demand instead. Your body adapts to whatever you do in order to be fit for that purpose. This is equally true whether you are eating potato chips or running a daily 5km. If you constantly lift lots of heavy things, the continual tearing of muscle demands more muscle growth.

The composition of your body is a case study in adaptation: for the most part you are probably remarkably well acclimated to whatever you do on a regular basis. At the cellular level, these adaptations are not necessarily positive or negative, your body has simply adapted to the demands placed on it. These might be demands to store excess caloric energy or demands to increase cardiovascular capacity. Adaptivity is inherently neutral: it does nothing but mould to variables and demands. Your body is continually conforming itself to the world you inhabit, the activities you perform, the diet you consume, and the contexts and circumstances you experience. Indeed, it is the essence of life itself to revise, modify, and conform to its particular situation. Adaptiveness is what it means to be alive. The big question is: what are you adapting to?

One thing seems for sure: you are adapting to something.

An adaptivity approach appreciates the complex interconnectedness of the brain and body. The psychological and physical are not independent, isolated systems. Several extra pounds can nurture a lethargic desire to tarry in Candyland. Getting accustomed to an exercise-induced endorphin rush can make you feel miserable if you don’t get your daily dose. The point: You can never eliminate the reciprocal patterns of biology that influence your behaviour — but you can influence them. This is the key. You can shape who you are becoming inasmuch as you can shape the variables that you must adapt to. ‘Fitness’ is a chronically ambiguous goal, but hacking your own addictions and habits can seismically alter your evolutionary trajectory as an individual. This is an adaptivity mindset.

As a human, I am in a unique position to take some degree of ownership for my own adaptive potential. I can hijack my own micro-evolution, in a sense. To a limited extent, I can select my own nature. But the key lesson here is that self-transformation does not transpire by sitting in a room and willing myself to change, but rather by changing the room or leaving it.

This whole mindset derives from basic evolutionary biology. If you want to change a species, you can only really change the variables that the species must interact with. You might adjust context, pressures, and circumstances of a generation, but you can do little to rewire an individual animal itself. But at the cellular level, we are fractals of our evolutionary origins. Genetically identical seeds produce varyingly unique plants depending on the conditions wherein they are planted. In this sense we are all well-adapted to the unique lives we are living. We are all ‘fit’, so to speak, as evidenced by the fact that we’ve survived thus far.

But what are we becoming? This is the underlying concern of self-change and we cannot address it without asking how our circumstances and environments inform our ideas, wills, emotions, and choices. What does the world around us presently demand us to become adapted to? This is not just an interesting question to ask ourselves because it is January, but it might be the question that makes us uniquely human. There is much more to ‘fitness’ than whether or not we go to the gym today.

The Anatomy of a Terrible Idea

A few days ago I found myself standing before the breathtaking majesty of Niagara Falls.

But all I could think about was Lake Huron, which lies upstream, about 250km to the West.

There is a plan to bury radioactive nuclear waste on the shores of Lake Huron, in the basin of these very headwaters, despite extensive public protest.

If you could guarantee me with 99.9% confidence that buried nuclear waste in the Huron basin would never leak — an idea which alone ignores some basic principles of entropy, as far as I can reckon — this still seems like a terrible proposition to me. Expediency in the short-term is not worth the risk, even a 0.1% risk, when you look at the magnitude of what is interconnected to these waters.

Canadian_Horseshoe_Falls_with_Buffalo_in_backgroundI’m not a physicist. Far from it. But I stood before Niagara Falls — with it’s cooling spray showering me, along with hundreds of other tourists — I found myself wondering: could radioactivity be aerosolized in this gigantic cloud of mist constantly pluming above us? Am I only fear mongering myself, now? All I can say for certain is that this is not just a debate for one company or one municipality… This involves us all, irrespective of borders. I’d encourage you to take action on this, and to invite your own personal network to do so as well.

The Antidote to Pseudo Science?

Who can you believe when everyone claims that “science” is on their side? This question has been preoccupying me lately. It strikes me as a fundamental issue at the heart of many policy debates today, especially environmental ones.

Quite by accident, this week I came across an article entitled Between complacency and panic by Philip Handler and Alexander Zucker. (It seems to be publicly unavailable online, but I was able to dig up a copy from the archives at the university.) Published in 1973, the article is a little dated, but highly prescient of the role that science might go on to play in political and ideological standoffs.

Consider just about any hot-button issue related to environmental policy:

Out of a great melange of brutal immediacies, conflicting theses, and sometimes sheer nonsense, one must try to extract some generalized approaches to the problems of the environment. The first impression is an abundance of unrelated issues, a babble of voices, some raised in protest, others reassuring in calming tones; prophecies of doom–and grand schemes to alleviate these problems. (p. 1748)

When it comes to systemic, long-term environmental risks and threats, scientists find themselves in a permanently awkward position: raw data is never prescriptive until it is interpreted by a human, and yet data is not valuable to humans unless it is interpreted.

Unfortunately, “risk/benefit analysis” is a facile phrase rather than an established science and, in the end, even with adequate data will usually turn on value judgements. (Ibid 1749)

Ergo, science finds itself inseparable from morality: the genuine scientist must walk a line of “absolute integrity” by clearly emphasizing the limit of her knowledge to the issue at hand. What she admits to not knowing is equally as important as what she declares to understand.

Scientists are now asked to forecast answers which they not only do not have, but see little hope of obtaining within the limits of present knowledge and technique. The individual scientist must then frankly admit the limits of his present knowledge and understanding, but at the same time, so as not to be counted out of the councils of decision-makers, he must say, “I don’t know the answer, but I know the reasons for my ignorance and I do know quite a bit about how the problem should be approached.” This difficult role demands absolute integrity on the part of the scientist. If not clearly understood, science, as well as the scientist, becomes vulnerable to attack by policy makers. (Ibid 1752)

When science fails to declare its ignorance on issues, it risks devolving into a blunt, ideological weapon. This, argue the writers, will lead to a situation that seems eerily similar to our world today: policy-makers and the public at large are left to choose between opposing “scientific views” on almost every issue. “The science clearly shows…” is quoted by both sides, with equal conviction and vigour. Predictive models predict opposing outcomes. The validity of peer-reviewed science becomes solely a question of who one’s peers are. The nature of scientific inquiry becomes an inquiry into who funded the research.

Science, in other words, becomes a battleground. “The science says” turns into a rhetorical tool for just about any argument. What good is “science”, then, if it fits in the arsenal of every propagandist and can be used to validate just about any proposition?

Here we reach the crux of the problem: if science can be so confidently cited and quoted by opposite arguments, why bother listening to science at all? How can you and I, average citizens that we are, ever hope to tease out the honest science from all the pseudo science? How can those of us without expertise choose which expert to listen to?

Is there an antidote to pseudo science?

True expertise on a subject not only includes comprehensive knowledge, it also entails an equally extensive understanding of the questions, gaps, and holes in the data… and an unyielding appreciation for the exhaustive nature of the unknown beyond them. These points of ignorance are as important to the scientist as her hypotheses, discoveries, and conclusions. When she speaks “from the pulpit of science” — especially to the public and to policy makers — she must disclose her lack of expertise as well as to her knowledge.

This overt disclosure of uncertainty is the moral code of science. Handler and Zucker argue that this “ethic” must be “enforced by the scientific fraternity” if science is to continue to have any relevance at all. (Ibid 1752) When science shirks away from its uncertainties, it loses validity.  Ultimately, the consequence of making science exclusively about answers and expertise is that science will ultimately become pointless in the public sphere, for it devolve into a meaningless game of  “My science is right. His science is wrong. Believe my science.”

we run the risk that scientific advice will no longer be sought because responsible laymen will find it too difficult to establish who represents science on which occasion–a steep price indeed! (Ibid)

Those of who us who wish to integrate some semblance of scientific rigour into policy consideration need to do a difficult thing: admit everything we don’t know. We need to not only admit uncertainty, we need to advertise our ignorance. Admittedly, in a world of polarized opinion on issues with high-stake consequences, this strategy might seem counter-intuitive. Indeed, many of us have become obsessed with the cause of bringing robust empiricism to triumph over cherry-picked results. But this is just the point: if we want science — true, honest, open science — on the table of policy-makers, we need to get over our preoccupation with winning arguments. This only makes our discipline irrelevant.

Science is laced with contingencies. Pseudo science claims to possess indisputable answers.

The antidote to the declining relevance of science in public discourse is not to madly insist that “science has the answers”, but to also unapologetically expound the woeful inadequacy of what we presently know.

At least, this is one hypothesis.

Quorum Sensing

Imagine yourself as a single-cell bacterium. You are happily living in your colony until one day, for reasons far beyond anyone’s control, your community’s reserve of nutrients is depleted. Your search for sustenance turns futile and now, it seems, the end is neigh.

Now, as a bacterium, you have two options for responding to this dire situation: sporulation or competence.

Sporulation essentially means choosing death. But before you perish you replicate your genome, wrap it in a membrane, and leave it behind as a genetic copy of yourself that can germinate again later when conditions are more favourable. By entering this dormant condition you embrace your demise, but your genetic code is left behind. As a spore, your DNA is almost indestructible: it is even able to withstand the solar electromagnetic radiation of outer space. (Horneck 1994)

Competence is your other option. All around you, millions of fellow bacteria are sporulating, and when they perish they leave behind their original genetic nucleotides, after encasing their new copied DNA in a spore. You are now surrounded by a supply of nutrients and bits of genetic code that could be very valuable to you. So maybe you should hold off on sporulating? But what if everyone else was to stop sporulating too? Then you would be in real trouble because it means you may have missed your opportunity to sporulate when you had the chance.

So how do you decide what to do? Well, in the absence of actually having a brain, you will not spend too much time fretting over the options. Rather, you are genetically wired to make this decision in concert with the rest of the colony. On a regular interval, you and every other bacterium emit a chemical signal expressing your current level of stress. Through this massive exchange of information, everyone knows the collective stress level of the community. This information is routinely processed by your genetic circuitry, as if by an interval timer. If stress levels are high enough, a random switch is thrown, determining whether or not you will sporulate. In other words, the signals you receive from your community set the threshold for your own ‘decision’. Your decision, in turn, affects the threshold for the decisions of other cells. In this way, you are part of a massive self-regulating process. You are part of assuring adequate sporulation for future colonization, as well as calculating precise resource requirements of the present. (Schultz, et al, 2013)

Bacteria are living proof that the most expansive, adaptive, resilient, and successful forms of life are those that make collective ‘decisions’ to determine the needs of the present in light of the future. As a rudimentary form of life, and the most abundant kind of life on Earth, bacteria represent something fundamental about the nature of life itself.

Bacteria do not even have a cellular nucleus, but they are extremely self-organized nonetheless. Their ‘decision-making process’ is a huge enterprise of quorum sensing. There is no such thing as an isolated choice when it comes to making decisions about the future of your colony. Every choice is influenced by every other choice — and every choice influences every other choice in turn.

There is little reason to think that the choices we make about our future, today, are any less consequential in the lives of those around us.