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.