Overselling Science

This post at Reason’s Hit & Run links to a Pew study that shows a divergence between the views of scientists and the laity on such matters as evolution, global warming and nuclear power. The study also shows that scientists blame the general public’s ignorance of science for the divergence. I think that scientists themselves are to blame because they too often oversell weak science. 

The problem with polling “scientists” is that there is a wide divergence in the predictive power of different fields of study that we lump together as “science”. For example, physics has tremendous predictive power but sociology has almost none. Worse, scientists in highly predictive fields tend to project their own fields’ predictive power onto less predictive fields, and scientists in low-predictive fields try to parasitize the public’s trust in highly predictive fields. 

Non-predictive sciences are highly vulnerable to social and political fads and scientists often get swept up in them. For example, a hundred years ago you would have found a wider agreement on the validity of eugenics than we see today on global warming. Even scientists such as Darwin who strongly opposed the implementation of eugenics nevertheless believed in its scientific validity. Likewise, most scientists of the era thought it obvious that different races differed in their behavioral attributes on a biological level. 

Science goes awry when both scientists and the laity project the predictive power of the entire institution onto one limited area. Scientific racism arose because (simplifying here) people projected the predictive power of evolutionary theory in explaining the fossil record and the distribution of species onto the complexity of the entirety of human biology, history and culture. A lot of bad policy, even in politically liberal countries, was based on this flawed and oversold “scientific” idea. 

They hypothesis of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming (CAGW) has the same social and political dynamics as did eugenics. Climatology has a zero-accuracy track record of predicting climate either in the short or long term. The computer models cannot be tested by any observation in the here and now, yet in the mind of the polity, climatology is accorded the same respect as meteorology, physics or chemistry.

To global warming we could add the “scientific” consensus of the population bomb, resource depletion, the energy crisis, inevitable nuclear war, etc. In all these cases, scientists and non-scientists confused untested models with no predictive power with highly predictive models.

Contrast this with nuclear power, a technology (not a science) which we’ve had 70+ years of experience in using safely. No better evidence exists that a modern, liberal democracy can safely employ nuclear power than numerous modern, liberal democracies safely using the technology decade after decade after decade, but you can find more people absolutely convinced of CAGW than you will find who believe that we can use nuclear power safely. 

I blame the overstatement of science’s predictive power by scientists themselves for the public’s refusal to accept such theories as evolution. In the case of evolutionary theory, science went on an 80-year detour in which it rejected natural selection as the primary mechanism of evolution and instead concentrated on a now wholly discredited idea called orthogenesis. Imperial German militarism, Marxism, communism, fascism, eugenics, etc. were all based on this flawed model of evolution which the vast majority of scientists of the day nevertheless pushed onto the public as settled science. Had the scientists of the time not oversold the predictive power of their models, a lot of evil might have been avoided and more people today would trust modern evolutionary theories. 

I suspect that global warming will follow the same pattern with the same dark results. In the most likely scenario, CAGW will prove to be only a minor problem on which we will waste vast resources that could have been devoted to improving the standards of living of everyone. Less likely but more dire, the hysterical overselling of the predictive power of climate models could lead to a backlash if CAGW is a serious risk but the models fail to predict a long cold snap such as the one that might be currently starting [here and here]. If we have a decade or more of unusual cold caused by solar activity or unusual ocean currents, then the general public will conclude that greenhouse gasses are not a problem. When the cold snap ends, we could get a dangerous greenhouse-gas-amplified warm period.  

We lack a social mechanism that communicates the relative predictive power of different scientific models to the general public. To date, scientists as a group have failed to rise to the challenge of educating the public. Instead, all models produced by any “scientist” are accredited the same predictive power. As a result, we end up with many political policies based on weak, non-predictive models. As we use science to make more and more decisions with serious consequences, the consequences of failing to weed out the non-predictive models grow increasingly dire.

23 thoughts on “Overselling Science”

  1. Actually, eugenics has been practiced for millions of years – largely by the female of the species.

    Consider that a surprisingly large percentage of males never procreate (20%?) yet almost all females who want to do. The females are doing the selection.

    The difference is that with eugenics, the government takes on some of the role of genetic filter.

    So who do we trust more to preserve the gene pool – women or the government?

  2. Whitehall…this raises a very interesting case in point. I’ve seen references to research purporting to show that women tend to be subconsciously more attracted to men who have complementary immune systems, thereby providing better immunity for the offspring. IF this is true (and I haven’t researched it enough to have an opinion one way or the other), and if there are sound evolutionary reasons for the preference..then imagine what would have happened if governments, using the best scientific knowledge available 20 years ago, had decided to enforce a eugenics program, substituting their own scientific judgement for that of individuals.

    1)Even if Mary Anne has an average IQ and a poor education, she may implicitly know things about genetic fitness that PhD scientists don’t.

    2)If Mary Anne sleeps with the wrong guy(s), the damage is limited. If the government makes eugenic decisions for the entire population–and gets it wrong–there is no limit to the potential harm.

  3. Whitehall,

    So who do we trust more to preserve the gene pool – women or the government?

    Well, women have been managing the gene pool for 4 million years so I say we keep with what works.

  4. The key skill of a scientist is not mathematics, it’s being able to design experiments that prove something, and being able to tell what the results of an experiment actually prove, if anything. It’s a skill most non-scientists don’t have. And so journalists look at the published results of experiments that seem to them to be overwhelming evidence for some correlation or theory and, without reference to the scientists behind the results, write their story on that basis. All the while the scientists themselves realize that the results don’t justify drawing those conclusions and are careful not to. But it’s the journalists false conclusions that get widespread publicity.

    Of course then we have degraded science, such as the CAGW fiasco, where the researchers are either corrupted by the money, or, more commonly, where they are not actually scientists at all, but computer ‘scientists’ – model jockeys – without that key skill I talk about above.

  5. Any time that anyone starts an explanation with “you idiot” he’s pretty well shot his opportunity to explain or persuade. “You heathen”, ditto. I get so frustrated sometimes trying to have a conversation about these hot button issues. Some people are unable to refrain from making value judgments about people who they think disagree with them.

  6. Actually I’d say some of the predictive sciences are just as prone to biases and fads as the others. The beauty of science is that eventually the evidence wins out. Geologists refused to accept the liklihood of plate techtonics for decades, and then decades after that refused to accept the bolide extinction event hypothesis and theory. Though to be fair the mechanisms were not well understood and some of the obvious hints at it ( i.e africa and s america do fit like a jigsaw) weren’t easy to explain.

    Bigger picture I’m not at all convinced we’ve proven nuclear power to be safe (where’s it going? yucca mountain? kegs sitting around in barbed wire) and think that the statement is pretty disengenuous in that it implies otherwise. Could be safe, sure. Maybe is safe in france, sure. is safe beyond a reasonable doubt in the US? not so much. in russia? not so much. In N Korea? you must be drinking.

    And there’s so many global warming denialists among the right wing it just feels like the rest of your peice is going there. though I agree climate is an unpredicatable and complex system, could tip any which way and we’d have trouble predicting that. My take would be best not to fiddle with a massively high energy spinning top, but maybe you figure different.

  7. Compared to the many, many millenia of human history during which magical thinking was the norm, the intelectual forms of scientific inquiry are a very new, and threatening, innovation in our way of viewing the world around us.

    Indeed, the scientic squabbles referred to by the commenter above were not between two competing scientific theories, but some conventional wisdoms which were challenged by actual scientific theories put forward as hypotheses, and then verified by the discovery of physical evidence.

    The failure of modern, self-esteem based educational theories to teach the kind of rigorous intellectual processes upon which scientific thinking is based, as well as the trivial, sensationalist culture which goes gaga over the sexual trivia of some celebrities’ escapades or the foolishness of some immature sports hero, combine to render all too many people’s mental processes into shallow, disconnected, and emotional clutter.

    Now, it is certainly true that very few people are willing to spend either the time or the focussed energy required to design a scientific theory, and validate that theory with a carefully structured experiment, all to prove that some chemical attaches a certain way to a cellular receptor, or that some plant contains a useful component for medical applications that may require years more work to bring to fruition.

    It is disappointing, then, to say the least, when hysterical luddism prevents valuable food and medical technology, or energy producing technology, from being used when they are so clearly needed by both the developed and developing nations. Most of the opposition seems to come from those engaged in either political or magical thinking, or both.

    It is bizarre that scientists, and technology in general, are viewed with suspicion by so many whose entire lives, from birth to much delayed death, have been infinitely better and easier because of the very technology they disdain, while politicians are looked upon as the some sort of protectors and guardians, even though that class is resposible for the misery and death of untold millions in just the last century alone.

    Slowly, and with great effort, we must labor to improve the educational systems whose influence could be so much more positive and effective, and to help our cultural context mature from adolescent fixations on meaningless celebrities and game players to a more sophisticated focus on those in society whose efforts result in the betterment of all around them.

    Someday, Dr Borlaug might be as well known and influential as Dr Dre. Perhaps then we would have reached childhood’s end, and could continue as adults seeking to solve the mysteries of reality, instead of children hiding under the bedcovers in terror from a little lighting and some thunder.

  8. Veryretired, you should write posts on this blog.

    The scientific mode was developed by the Ancient Greeks. Unlike other scientific-like skills (maths, astronomy etc) no other culture in the history of man, neither the Chinese, the Indians, the Egyptians, nor the Mayans etc, etc, developed the scientific method of thinking. Magical thinking has ruled 99% of mankind. Just in this little sea-faring, coastal civilization which was almost blotted out on numerous occassions, was it different. If they had been destroyed before their thinkers became known it is probable we would still be living in huts.

  9. Whatever happened to the idea of falsifiability? If you can’t conceive of anything that would prove your theory wrong, or if every apparent falsification can be explained away by a “refinement” of the original theory (helllloooo, Frankfurt School), then you are dealing with doctrine, not science.

    If you can’t prove (not just amass anecdotal evidence) whether something is right or wrong, if you can’t use it to predict, if you can’t get to the essential did/did not, is/is not, will/will not of a thing – if you don’t have that, then you don’t have science, you just have superstition with numbers sprinkled on it.

  10. > Well, women have been managing the gene
    > pool for 4 million years so I say we
    > keep with what works.

    Well… based on Y-Chromosome research an incredible number of women “chose” Genghis Khan’s genes.

    I’ll still take the choices of women over the government, but our current civilization came to be under a very specific set of societal pressure (i.e. monogamous marriage) that has distinctly different selection outcomes than societies with different arrangements.

    Also, it’s foolish to ignore the selection effects created by government. The current bi-partisan policy consensus strongly favors the propagation of irresponsible genes.

    Finally the Pew study is utter crap because their definition of a scientist is a highly-politicized, left-wing organization called the AAAS, which is open to ANYONE who wants to:

    As a member of AAAS your involvement actively supports programs that seem to have a lot more to do with advancing POLITICS than KNOWLEDGE:


    * Help governments formulate science policy (Learn More)
    * Promote advancements in science education (Learn More)
    * Increase diversity in the scientific community (Learn More)
    * Use science to advance human rights (Learn More)
    * Assist individual scientists in developing their careers (Learn More)
    * Communicate the value of science to the general public (Learn More)

  11. Shannon left a comment….

    “women have been managing the gene pool for 4 million years so I say we keep with what works.”

    And what makes you think that they haven’t been screwing it up in some way, but the damage wasn’t catastrophic? It is equally valid to say that we could all be super geniuses who live for 1,000 years in perfect health, if the women had made better choices.

  12. Tk4212,

    Bigger picture I’m not at all convinced we’ve proven nuclear power to be safe (where’s it going? yucca mountain? kegs sitting around in barbed wire) and think that the statement is pretty disengenuous in that it implies otherwise.

    Be honest, if 70 years of real-world, widespread safe use doesn’t convince you, is there anything that would convince you? I mean, what other evidence could possible be better? As for waste disposal (1) we have designs right now that have a closed waste cycle and (2) we have millions of pounds of nuclear waste (from the 70 years of use) that has to be taking care of. What do you suggest we do, sit around and stare at it.

    Maybe is safe in france, sure. is safe beyond a reasonable doubt in the US? not so much.

    That’s interesting. Why do you think the French can better handle a technology we invented and have more experience with?

    In N Korea? you must be drinking.

    Well no, I don’t think that N. Korea can handle nukes or any other technology. You’re talking about a political system that cannot even manage basic agriculture. The safe and effective use of any technology depends on the behavior of the people who manage it and that behavior in turn depends legal, political and cultural environment that guides the people. A liberal-democracy can obviously handle more powerful technology than can a dictatorship. I don’t see how the failures of communist states to create and manage safe technology in many different areas has any bearing whatsoever on whether we can use that same technology.

    More to the main point, you obviously pick and choose which scientist to listen to based on some other criteria than scientific rigor. When 85% of scientist say that nuclear power can be used safely, you decided that they don’t know what they’re talking about. However, when the same group of scientist say that human activity is altering the climate, you suddenly decide they do know what they’re talking about. Why do you trust them in one area but not another?

    Even more importantly, you trust the untested projection of the immature science of climatology over the proven 70 year track record of nuclear technology. You feel so confident that the scientist have it right on climate that you feel comfortable labeling people who question the long-term projections of that immature science, denialist (thereby analogizing them holocaust denialist). We stigmatize those who deny the historical reality of a crime so monstrous and widely observed and documented that only the insane and the malicious could assert it never happened. Isn’t your denial that that the 70 year history of safe nuclear technology more akin to holocaust denials than someone who questions the hypothetical projections of an immature science?

    Clearly, proof, evidence and expert opinion play little role in your views on these two subjects. It is this kind of behavior that makes so distrustful of people who scream the loudest about global warming.

  13. James R. Rummel,

    It is equally valid to say that we could all be super geniuses who live for 1,000 years in perfect health, if the women had made better choices.

    Being alive is success in the evolutionary game. Besides, that was tongue in cheek. In reality, women play no more of a role in selecting genes than do men. Both sexes select for best genes and their actions are complementary.

  14. Anonymous,

    Finally the Pew study is utter crap because their definition of a scientist is a highly-politicized, left-wing organization called the AAAS, which is open to ANYONE who wants to:

    Which should make their views on nuclear power even more definitive. Leftists as a subculture oppose nuclear power for non-technical reasons. If 85% of left leaning scientist think that nuclear power is safe then the numbers among less politically biased scientist would be even higher.

  15. There is no conflict between religion and evolution. God created the Big Bang and all the laws of Physics. Next, God created evolution. Although God can paint a picture or carve a statue, God prefers to create self-sustaining ever-changing processes. They are more interesting.

  16. Shannon,

    Just to disclose my biases, I’m pro nuclear, though I’m not close to the issue in a technical way, and I have a nagging worry that maybe we should wait a few years for more established technology. (does pebble bed work? are there others?) But mainly I think that oil production is plateauing, and I think we should be frantically investing in other energy sources, i.e. safe nuclear and natgas.

    I do think there’s an interesting distiction here, between technical/”scientific” risks, and political ones. I’m not picking and choosing scientists at all. I think whether nuclear power can be used safely in a technical way is a scientific type quetion, and clearly it can. Though do I think ignoring TMI and Chernobyl is picking and choosing your data sets a bit. But lets agree there are safe nuclear technologes, more or less.

    Politically safe is another matter, as i think FSU, N Korea, and others highlight. If the technology spreads it may become widely used by societies not stable or proficient enough to use it well. Your point is that should not stop developed societies from using it, and I basically agree, even though it has spread over time, and even though all technologies tend to spread.

    On the comment about france vs US, that was a technical point. France reprocesses much of its waste, and so ends up with vastly less waste than we do. Our political situation on nuclear is so screwy we cannot come up with a solution for storage, nor are we (maybe for cost/installed base reasons, maybe for fear of generating plutonium, I don’t know) switching to the french technology. This article linked below by David Frum was fastinating to me, and is what i was thinking of when i wrote that line.


    So I would/will be all for it in the US if we used a technology that generated less waste, and was safer than the ones we used in the 1960’s. But having a scientific opinion that waste can be stored safely is different form actually getting a congressman to agree to have it in his district. We’ve spent, I think, decades arguing over storage as is, and we do have casks of dangerous material sitting willy nilly at plants, having a lot more waste is worse, not neutral, and so I’m not sure that we’ve got the political will and stability to pull it off building more of our current technology, if you look at it honestly.

    We agree that “scientifically” nuclear power works. And I think its scienticifally indisputible that dumping carbon into the atmosphere is causing huge changes in our climate. And I think it should be obvious that in a very complex and unstable world, changes are dangerous if they happen to fast for societies to respond to them. I agree modelling based research is not ideal. But sometimes you have to go with what you have. we’ve only got one planet to experiment on, and waiting 50 years to see how it works might not be great.

    I would also agree that given global climate change, the best cientific and political responses to global warming are not at all clear, much less indisputible, which you also kind of say in your article. Maybe the best thing is to do nothing (prob not). Maybe the wold would have tipped into an ice age w/o all this extra carbon.

    But what I don’t agree with is that scientists have done that poor a job educating…I think right wing funded groups have done a good job sowing confusion and lies in a complex topic. And I don’t agree that the science is all that unsettled, I think it is complex, but there’s much less disagreement than you pretend, and others pretend.

    I’m not analogizing anything to the holcaust, as should be obvious, and I think discussions kind of degrade when people do, so I’ll leave your comments there untouched. As a completely unscientific sidebar, and I don’t mean this in a hostile way, have you ever walked in a greenhouse?

  17. Tk4212,

    So I would/will be all for it in the US if we used a technology that generated less waste, and was safer than the ones we used in the 1960’s.

    The reason that France’s nuclear system is better than ours is because it is a generation newer. We shutdown our civilian nuclear industry in the late 70’s but France was just getting started. Imagine if we had frozen our automotive technology with the Ford Pinto for the last 30 years while the French continued to evolve were they were making a 2009 Lexus. We have some of the worlds most advance nuclear research. Most of the breakthrough designs in nuclear technology are of primarily American origin. We are simply prevented from using this technology by political hysteria and France did not.

    Nuclear power does present challenges but it has a key advantage that all other energy technologies lack: It can, without a doubt, provide sufficient levels of live giving energy to everyone on the planet without wrecking the entire planetary ecosystem.

    And I think its scienticifally indisputible that dumping carbon into the atmosphere is causing huge changes in our climate.</i

    Okay, here’s the key point. How would you (or anyone else, scientist or not) know if you were wrong about carbon emissions driving climate change? A solid scientific hypothesis is falsifiable i.e. the hypothesis posits a phenomena that conclusively prove the hypothesis wrong. As C.P. Snow said, if you want to prove all swans are white, you don’t go out and count thousands of white swans, you go out looking for a single black swan.

    Current global warming models have no black swan. We can’t point to one observation that if made would invalidate the models. So we get stuck in the situation of counting white swans. All the “evidence” you see for global warming is basically just saying, “aha! yet another white swan!”

    This does not have any bearing on whether global warming is occurring or not. Instead, it bears on the quality of our ability to predict whether it is occurring or not and to what degree. In the end, science isn’t about absolute truth it is about sharply mapping the boundaries of our ignorance.

    On the basis of the quality of information, our understanding of global warming is far inferior to our understanding of nuclear technology. Yet far more people believe we have better quality information on global warming while at the same time treating the safe use of nuclear technology as a vast mystery. This pattern clearly demonstrates that people make their decisions about these matter using criteria other than their own scientific understands or the opinions of scientific and engineering experts.

    And I don’t agree that the science is all that unsettled, I think it is complex, but there’s much less disagreement than you pretend, and others pretend.

    As you noted above, a group consensus in science means little. What counts is predictive power. A science is “settled” only when that science has a definitively demonstrated high degree of predictive power. Global warming models have never successfully predicted global temperatures decades out. Indeed, they do a poor job of predicting temperature changes over a few years. The models cannot be falsified.

    So, no one can honestly say that global warming is “settled” science. They merely do so to shout people down. This is yet another indication that belief in global warming is driven primarily by social and political criteria. Scientist do not attempt to shout people down. They use experimentation to win arguments.

    I’m not analogizing anything to the holcaust…

    By using the phrase “global warming denialist” you are. You maybe unaware of the history but the first use of the term denialist was to describe nutjob neo-nazi types who claimed that the holocaust never happened. The term denialist means that the target not only denies something but does so in the face of the degree of overwhelming incontestable evidence as exist that the holocaust occurred. So when you call someone a global warming denialist your are asserting that an untested scientific model has a much validity as the historical fact of the holocaust.

  18. The waste can be sunk into deep sea subduction zones, there to be disposed of by plate tectonics in the mantle.

    If there weren’t so many plate tectonic deniers out there disposing of nuclear waste would not be a problem at all.

  19. “In reality, women play no more of a role in selecting genes than do men. Both sexes select for best genes and their actions are complementary.”

    Not true. Here’s a little reality check – some men will stick it in any female, and not necessarily of the right species. Women are more selective in their sexual partners. A woman can be poor, dumb and butt-ugly but still get knocked up. If the environment is supportive enough, then her offspring can survive.

    From personal experience, a poor, dumb, and butt-ugly guy like myself has LOTS more problem getting laid than a poor, dumb, butt-ugly woman.

    May I suggest E. O. Wilson’s “Sociobiology” for a through explanation of sexual selection? It’s is a great book.

    As to nuclear power, it can be dangerous – I’m a nuclear engineer. It’s danger is less than proportional to its energy density and productive utility though. Private ownership is the key. The owners of a nuclear power plant have BILLIONS on the line just from investment protection and insist that the designers, builders, and operators take extreme care of their responsibilities.

    This was made clear in the industry response to Three Mile Island. A $1 billion plant was ruined – that got everyone’s attention and management did the tighten-up but fast.

  20. > Well, women have been managing the gene pool for 4 million years so I say we keep with what works.

    Except that the current system is recently implemented and, I’d suspect, inherently flawed.

    It wasn’t until recently that women had total control over this at an early age — until recently women were a protected class, and, in general, mature minds were involved in who they mated with, usually with decent results (hemophilia is an obvious exception).

    Men were certainly involved in this, but for the most part so were older women — there are a lot of societies, Latin in particular (i.e., Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian) which are outwardly patriarchal but internally matriarchal. Even in Islam, there is a lot of historical influence from the “harem” on such.

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