Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Scientists be humble

I've just come from a lunch at which US science journalist and author Chris Mooney spoke about the war on science in the US. At the end a question was asked what advice Chris would give a young scientist on what to do to combat he war.

He replied "be prepared". I think the better answer is "be humble." Science has taken to lecturing evryone else, the worst example being the approach of the "new atheists". Scientists need to acknowledge that their "knowledge" is fallible, that it is not absolute truth but just the closest we have to something we can believe is true. On the very day of the speech an elephant in Sydney gave birth to a baby that had been pronounced dead by the veterinary experts - was it as dead as Lazarus.

The physics of Newton is wrong, the evolution of Darwin is wrong.

In the climate change debate scientists need to be humble and NOT say the science proves that the planet is warming and instead say there is a complete theory that is well supported by evidence. The two possible errors are to not act and the theory is right, or to act but the theory is wrong. It is not hard to demonstrate that these risks are assymetric, and that action is required.

Science, be humble and you wll be more successful in policy.


ian said...

I can not agree with this premise - it is guilty of the sins it accuses others of.

Richard Dawkins is NOT acting as a scientist in his current self appointed role (my wife calls him a "born-again atheist"). These people are just as offensive scientists as the proponents of "intelligent design".

Newton was not wrong (although it is only an approximation to current Einsteinian mechanics). His theory is still the basis of most day to day activities; it is only with the advent of the space age and satellites that we need to apply corrections. (If Harrison had understood Einstein he may have had an insight into the impact of gravity on time - but this is outside Newton's laws).

If only economics could come within a couple of orders of magnitude of the accuracy of Newtonian mechanics we would be much better off.

On the subject of global warming, I have never met (or even heard of) a scientist who claims that "science proves that the planet is warming", although most accept this as likely. Indeed most critics also accept this - the real debate is the cause, and future predictions.

Unfortunately most people's perceptions are formed by the simplistic and sensationalist media reporting.

Vic N said...

And I have to wade in with some disagreement too. I know Dawkins from my Oxford days, and while I know well that he grates on some people, for some like me he is an absolutely necessary corrective to the sea of bullshit that constantly surrounds us. About 50% of US congressmen disbelieve in evolution, and believe in Noah's fucking ark. From Singapore I listened to somebody called "Barnaby Joyce" lodly and publically laugh at the very notion of global warming - that it was an impossibility. And you're asking for Science to be "humble"????????????????? Why do I therefore have the feeling the barbarians are at the gates?