Saturday, September 05, 2009

What right do non-scientists have to argue about issues having to do with science?

An occasional commenter on this blog, "Truti," complains that Jonah Goldberg, whom I quoted in a recent post about Global Warming, is not qualified to comment on the issue:
It's hard to understand how the views of an scientifically unlettered person like Jonah can count for anything on a technical subject like earth science. But then again it takes just a day to master Latin, and maybe an evening to conquer Sanskrit. Right?
This brings up an interesting issue: What latitude does the non-expert on such technical issues have to say anything constructive about them? This question would apply, one supposes to any scientific issues.

I responded to Truti as follows:
If scientific laymen are going to be asked to foot the bill for programs to prevent Global Warming, then the pronouncements of those who are pushing for such policies should make sense, and right now they don't.

And besides, Goldberg is questioning the logic of the Global Warming alarmists' predictions, not the science of it. And Goldberg has no less expertise in that area than those he is criticizing.
Truti retorted by ignoring my points and asserting once again that a non-scientist has no standing on the issue:
Scientific questions are not a matter of opinion, but have a correct answer. Laymen have a choice --learn the subject in detail, read up on the current literature; or go by the conclusions of experts. If it doesn't make sense read up some more. If it still doesn't make sense abandon commonsense, it serves no purpose. Goldberg has no expertise in the earth sciences. Without that nothing else matters.
He completely ignored my point that Goldberg was not making scientific assertions, but political assertions. What Truti doesn't seem to get is that when scientists enter the field of policy, they give up the cloak of invulnerability they enjoy when making technical scientific pronouncements and have to open themselves up to criticism on the non-scientific questions that arise when making policy pronouncements. And this is exactly the situation we are in with some scientists advocating policies in response to Global Warming.

To say that carbon emissions bring about Global Warming is a scientific statement. But to say we should pass legislation to reduce carbon emissions is a policy statement. Truti's comments seem to betray a complete confusion between these two kinds of questions. And, once having confused himself, he then argues as if the two questions are one and the same.

Let's use his remarks about Latin and Sanskrit. If say that Latin is an inflected language and possesses a very regular set of grammar rules, then I am making a statement about Latin, and only someone who knows Latin can say it with authority. But if I say that, because of its inflected nature and regular grammar, the study of Latin is ideally suited for the development of mental skills and should therefore be required in schools, that is no longer a statement about Latin that requires expertise in the language; it is rather a policy statement that happens to involve Latin.

What Goldberg was doing was the latter, not the former. But, not recognizing the distinction, Truti treats himself to unwarranted conclusions about Goldberg's standing on the issue.

To say that policy questions concerning science should be decided only by scientific professionals is like saying that policy questions on insurance should be decided only by insurance professionals; policy questions on banking should be decided only by banking professionals; policy question on military issues should be made only by military professionals.

In one sense this would make things very easy: we could disband school boards all across the country, since policy questions on education should be decided only by education professionals. And we could shut down our popularly elected legislatures altogether, since questions on law should be made only by legal professionals.

We have a big debate going on right now about health care reform. But I know of no one who says that the issue should be decided only by health care professionals.

Is there some reason science is exempt from the civilian control we practice in virtually every other area? It would, of course, be illogical to say so. Speaking of which, does Truti have some professional expertise in logic? If not, then what business does he have trying to employ it--on this blog, or anywhere else?


Anonymous said...

Policies have to be scientifically founded. Everything we do about climate change has to be driven by the science. And the least we can do at present is to clamp down on carbon emissions. If scientists have recommended legislation to regulate and reduce carbon emissions they are probably doing so because they understand that's how democracies work, although I am not sure how many scientists have actually called for legislation. As a rule scientists are careful about calling for the passage of a particular law because they believe it is their duty to educate people in order to equip them to inflence the legislative process, and not enter the legislative process directly.

I am not sure how the example of Latin applies here. Because the study of climate change and its regulation are both in the domain of related communities of scientists. If a climate scientist were to make recommendations on cropping patterns a plant ecologist or a botanist or a habitat scientist could possibly raise a point of disagreement. Of course such things do happen and are resolved among scientists, where a constant exchange of hypotheses and counterarguments takes place all the time. Environmental studies possibly draws from the widest range of scientific disciplines compared to any other cross-functional scientific discipline. In a similar fashion I could see a case for introducing Latin/Greek in schools being developed by a classics teacher working in concert with a educational psychologist. It's another matter that I would welcome a compulsory course in Latin in schools, having missed out on Sanskrit when I grew up in India.

Science isn't a monolithic discipline, it is simply a way of acquiring knowledge. We already follow the interdisciplinary process of the applied sciences of today in other fields. The military has used foreign policy experts, and yes scientists, even philosophers, economists, historians, and ethicists to review and plan strategy. So for health care reform too instead of the cacophony emerging from the disruptive deathers we would be guided by a panel of experts (headed by Krugman, Robert Reich, Ralph Nader, and that whistleblower formerly of United Healthcare) joined by experts from the OECD countries everyone of which does five times better than us at delivering healthcare, and also one from Taiwan which after a worldwide study recently implemented a single-payer system. What there should be no room for (I know I am fantasising, but why not go the whole hog if I can imagine that we will one day listen to Krugman, Reich and Nader?) is the likes of Inhofe (I don't plan to read it, I will simply vote no) or Grassley (death panels? it is true).

As for schoolboards looking at the disastrous job many of them have done (Dover, Tangipoha, Cobb County, and many others) we should think of rolling them up at least into county level boards as is already happening in places like Virginia. I am not sure how reliable state boards are, because they too are subject to popular whim. After the Kansas hearings and now Louisiana and Texas, I am not sure if even states can be left to decide their science curriculum. The humanities curriculum will always be controversial and only time will wear away the blinkers we have constructed for ourselves. If the members of the Texas BOE doen't think Thurgood Marshall is worthy of study by the students of Texas their grandchildren surely will disagree sometime in the future. As for the science curriculum the federal government should prescribe a minimum standard, with the state BOEs building on it to create a detailed set of standards, and all of it guided by university academics. Local boards can then work within these parameters.

Martin, I have no expertise whatsoever in logic, which is why I am only talking about science. This is your blog and regardless of what I know you decide whether my comments will be posted or not.


Martin Cothran said...


I made the point that your argument logically leads to the position that every policy decision about a particular issue should be decided by professionals dealing with that issue. This conclusion--that the locus of control on issues that affect citizens in a democratic republic should be with the experts--is fundamentally at odds with a democratic society, and yet you seem to embrace it.

This is ironic given your acknowledgment that scientists are properly reticent to call for legislation because they "understand how democracies work."

Your position also seems to beg the question of what our citizen-controlled government (which, regardless of whether one approves of it, is in fact the way it is done here in America) should do when it has a policy proposal before it having to do with science, but hears important dissenting voices from inside the scientific community.

The citizen legislator is in a position in which he has to weigh the detrimental affects of the policy--which, in the case of policy prescriptions like "cap and trade" are significant--against the possibility that the conclusions of those who claim the planet is melting may not be settled science, in which case his "yes" vote on such a policy may bring about worse consequences than a "no" vote.

Your disclaimer about logic is sincere I am sure. But I think you are severely mistaken when you say "I am only talking about science." Not when you get into policy debates you aren't. If you're only saying that humans are causing the greater part of Global Warming, then you are talking science (although even then you are employing logic to come to your scientific conclusions). But you are clearly saying more than that, in which case you are not just "talking about science." You are taking your scientific conclusions and employing them as premises in a public policy argument, at which point your argument enters the non-scientific public realm and you can no longer plead the special protection you have when doing technical science.

sfauthor said...

Interesting. Do you know about these Sanskrit books?

Anonymous said...


You write The citizen legislator is in a position in which he has to weigh the detrimental affects of the policy--No, not unless the legislator has cared to read and understand the issue in depth. The choice that confronts us on many questions of policy is not "whether" but "when and how".

SFauthor, I am currently reading "“Reign of Realism in Indian Philosophy", by R. Naga Raja Sarma, an out of copyright work published in the 30s. I have not read about yoga and that is next on my list. Of course I am not even close to being familiar with these works, what to talk about being an expert.