Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Science and Democracy IV

Dennis Overbye recently had a nice opinion piece in the NYT, titled “Elevating Science, Elevating Democracy.” Since we have discussed the topic of Science and Democracy repeatedly on this blog (Part I, Part II, Part III) I thought it is worthwhile to comment on this piece (see also Daniel's comment).

Before Overbye spirals off into an elaboration on China's problems, he lays out values that are essential both for science and democracy:
“Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view.”

I agree with him on that, but this is about were similarities end. In its function, democracy serves an entirely different purpose than science, and it uses a different mechanism to reach this aim.

Democracy, as other forms of government, is a way to take people's opinions and come to a common conclusion about what to do, which eventually reflects in the organization of people's lives. In a monarchy, this process is pretty simple: neglect everybody's opinion except that of the king. In a grassroots democracy you might sum everything up and take the majority opinion. In a representative democracy the process is quite involved. It gets even more complicated due to the constraint that legislation should be self-consistent.

The aim of science on the other hand is not to come to a common conclusion about people's opinions by whatever mechanism. The aim is to come to a common conclusion about Nature. The decisions in the end are not made by scientists, but by the evidence we have gathered, whether we like that or not. In this process, opinions hopefully come to largely agree on some insights that then enter the established body of knowledge. Ideally, the evidence becomes so clear that virtually nobody in his right might holds differing opinions.

But if you want to know what the scientific opinion is on a matter that has not yet been settled, you are not going to get a reply in unison. (Possibly not even if you ask one single person.) Indeed, if that was the case it would pretty much mean that science is completely disfunct. Instead, you might be offered a selection of different approaches and their pros and cons, the present status of research and the lacking pieces of the puzzle. But there is no formal process by which a decision about open question is made.

There are certainly also in politics questions that are highly discussed during some period, and later become pretty much settled. Think about slavery, women's right to vote, or homosexual's right to marry. (Well, there are so-called 'civilized' countries that are a bit behind on some of these issues.) But these are questions of opinion, opinions that evidently change over time, and as much as you'd want to argue such neither opinion is “wrong” in the scientific sense as that it can be falsified by experiment.

What I had been writing about in my earlier posts (eg here or more recently here) is a different aspect of democracy in science, which does not address the question of how a scientific fact becomes established, but about the process of knowledge discovery itself. As I have argued many times, the present organization of scientific research leads to an inefficient use of human, financial and time resources. Besides inertia, the dominant reason for this state of affairs to prevail is that scientists have virtually no influence of how the system they operate in is organized. That, sad as it is, currupts the status of the above quoted values Overbye ranks so highly.

Overbye has further many nice words for scientists - he goes so far to praises science as “the most successful human activity of all time.” I would have thought the most successful human activity is sex. But maybe I am confusing matters.

13 comments:

Arun said...

I would have thought the most successful human activity is sex.

Sorry, any human activity that results in George W. Bush as one of its products cannot be counted as successful.

Plato said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Plato said...

oops!

Bee:but about the process of knowledge discovery itself

I think wandering in and around those of the trade leave an indelible mark on the process.

Experimental validation serving as a an end mark to a successful conclusion. Good or bad. Is brought to bear on the simplicity of how to approach life "so neat and tidy in a box?"

So, some have then been converted to atheistic validation about belief in things? Rightly so? :) They leave nothing to chance yet they are surrounded by it. String theorists leave nothing to chance either.:) Some still believe in a God.

But there was always something missing to me. Being your own "self starter," how is that quotation of yours brought to bear?

Here is something Phil just wrote recently that I thought brings us to the point "much closer to your
quotation."

As Bacon and Descartes so long fought
as hence how science best to be wrought
induced sensory sleuth
or reasoning's truth?
Between which we continue to be caught



Aristotle’s Arch Sorry about plugging the blog posting.

It was meant to demonstrate how complicated information can be in terms of Kandinsky's painting and is comparative to me of information being badly scrambled in the interior of the blackhole. Most would not even know what Kandinsky was accomplishing something that was "unseen" yet held an important factor about
life and belief. Interpreting it at another level. To all appearance he is a "mad man in artistic expression?" To me he is brilliant.

Yet, what do we hope to come out of it? At a most fundamental level, a microscopic process revealing a macroscopic interpretation? So one indeed sees where the cosmological landscape must reveal "a conclusion" just as if the experimental process can be demonstrated and move across this microscopic divide and reveals information of real things happening "on the other side?"

"Neutrino oscillations" changing what.

On the "other side" is ICECUBE, SNO or Muons in Gran Sasso.


This process actually demonstrates the external, is a internal process as well(the student and teacher are one). It is progressive. That place is always is trying to exemplify by demonstrating the relation between Plato and Aristotle under Raphael's painting located in the Signtore's room at the Vatican in my mind. Because it demonstrates not only the Aristotlean arche as to what Phil points out rightly, but also, reveals the principals of Plato and Aristotle in relation to EACH OTHER. Reveals the process that can go on inside each of us.

By demonstrating Bacon and Descartes Phil is revealing the external process in relation to each other, yet, toward the internal struggle, Plato or a Descartes who hold an end point in terms of what that Aristotelean arch represents.

Thus in an external relationship one might see "other relevant relations" like where we are today in terms of the Black hole wars and its provocateurs?

Progressive then, that such a conclusion could define the relationship to each other, as providing "the question" for the next step.

Democracy is indeed something different, yet, it can reveal a chilling truth, if such a discussion is held under the air of that process, by speaking to the motions put forward and seconded. Your evidence can be compelling, yet, the vote can still go the other way. You accept the process "because you are part of it."

"Who controls the internet" in these gatherings too ( some unseen mind overseer to some?) where scientists discuss the overall picture of where science is going and what scientific process would best serve to demonstrate where we are in terms of that question( the place "being" self evident).

Think of LIgo operation in face of Kip thorne as student of Wheeler or Piere Auger and cosmic particles in relation to the microscopic process in the LHC. Each experiment is a progressive feature to "elevating the question" to the next step.

We of course can get lost and sidetracked on the "disaster scenarios" but we are much more progressive to reveal "more information" then was previously thought.

Best,

coraifeartaigh said...

Re "The aim of science on the other hand is not to come to a common conclusion about people's opinions by whatever mechanism. The aim is to come to a common conclusion about Nature", there is another difference.
In science, it is the opinions of the experts (or at least the well-informed) that carries weight and that eventually settles the dispute.
One problem with modern democracy is that the public vote is not always informed - sometimes majority opinion is simply wrong (think of Hitler). Another problem is that even scientific issues such as climate change are being debated more and more by non-informed commentators, resulting in total confusion..
Regards, Cormac

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

A nice continuance on the theme and I would also agree that Overbye has gone somewhat overboard in his linking democracy and science. However, I would agree if the virtues of science are held by people in earnest that democracy would most likely follow as the only reasonable way to govern. However, as I believe Plato is alluding to it has more to do with the requirement to examine what one holds as being true, rather more so what the world as a whole projects.

This was summed up by Socrates who I consider as being both the true father of modern science and champion of democracy when he said two things. The first being:

"Know thyself,"

The second extended this concept as a whole to society when he said:

"the unexamined life is not worth living."

It is with this principle carefully adhered to that is the key to both science and people in the course of governing themselves and the governance of others I would understand what follows as being simply the phenomena they mandate to be. This would appear too simple perhaps, yet like in science although the theory and its equations might appear at first to be simple, it’s the solutions they bring that are oft times more difficult to have become evident and then to accept.

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Dear Arun,

Well, it might not be 'successful' in absolute terms, but has certainly been 'more successful' than science. Just ask yourself if there had been science without sex? Otoh, this might be changing: nowadays it seems two people can have children together without ever meeting each other (or the children for that matter). Quite strange what science can do. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Cormac,

One problem with modern democracy is that the public vote is not always informed - sometimes majority opinion is simply wrong (think of Hitler).

That's why in 'modern democracies' we only in very rare cases make decisions by majority votes. What you have in mind is a very simplistic form of democracy that is in fact practiced in no country I know of (it is certainly practiced on smaller scales). Possibly Switzerland comes as close as can be. We have all kinds of safety nets that are supposed to protect us from our own stupidity.

The issue of delegating decisions to experts however is very non-trivial. It begs the question who decides what is to be exported to experts and what isn't. It carries a danger not unlike the idea that in case of emergency power be focused in the hands of one or a few people. Both are a delegation of power away from the people that can potentially go disastrously wrong when the 'experts' act in the believe of doing the best, but do exactly the wrong thing.

It is thus a recurrring theme in my writings that democracy can only work if the people that constitute a nation are well-informed (that means well informed also about which question require expert knowledge). This is why I keep repeating that information is crucial to the working of our democracies and that it needs to be protected, and that providing information is a public service and should be financed like a public service, because in some matters capitalism fails to take care of our interests.

It is in this context interesting that recently the issue of how to finance information providers has been discussed in the NYT. Best,

B.

Georg said...

Sorry, any human activity that results in George W. Bush as one of its products cannot be counted as successful.

Hello Arun,
that activity should not measured
by the "result" G.W.Bush. There are
millions of men on earth which are
even more idiotic.
The problem is the system which selected him twice to the
presidency of a superpower.
Georg

changcho said...

Very nice, short piece Bee. In particular

"It is thus a recurrring theme in my writings that democracy can only work if the people that constitute a nation are well-informed (that means well informed also about which question require expert knowledge)."

Hence, each country (well, let's be more general, each society) must strive to have a strong system of public education. I think you'd agree with that?

Arun said...

Dear Bee,

Since breathing is a prerequisite for science and presumably for sex as well, breathing must be the most successful human activity -- which brings one to realize we're comparing things from different levels on a hierarchy, which doesn't make a lot of sense.

---

The difficult to resolve human problem is the balance between independence (free to work on what one likes) and responsibility (producing something meaningful and not wasting time and resources). Figure that out and then science can be organized around it :)

Bee said...

Dear Arun,

Sure, I was just trying to say labeling something as 'the most succesfull human activity' is a very fuzzy notion and without further specification subject to interpretation (and silly jokes). Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

I would agree if the virtues of science are held by people in earnest that democracy would most likely follow as the only reasonable way to govern

I would agree on this, but I neither think this is likely to happen, nor is it necessary. What commonly seems to happen instead is that a well-meant change becomes popularized and then is transformed into an ideology that people just believe, as they believed the earlier one. In this regard, I found the paper Learning to be Thoughtless quite to the point. Though extremely simplistic, it seems to me to capture a fundamental truth that in many cases people do just accept something as a norm for not having to think about it, and this wish of not having to think is rational in the sense that it saves time and energy. I guess the best one can do is to get a message across such that it takes a minimum of time and energy to understand it. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

“Though extremely simplistic, it seems to me to capture a fundamental truth that in many cases people do just accept something as a norm for not having to think about it, and this wish of not having to think is rational in the sense that it saves time and energy.”

When you look at it what this turns out to be is very close to instinct and what then follows instinctive behavior. Sadly this may be true, yet is this what’s to be considered as acceptable for beings that otherwise pride themselves as being rational. I think what Socrates was doing was holding out the challenge for all to demonstrate we deserve to be considered as such creatures.

Best,

Phil