Monday, June 26, 2017

Dear Dr B: Is science democratic?

    “Hi Bee,

    One of the often repeated phrases here in Italy by so called “science enthusiasts” is that “science is not democratic”, which to me sounds like an excuse for someone to justify some authoritarian or semi-fascist fantasy.

    We see this on countless “Science pages”, one very popular example being Fare Serata Con Galileo. It's not a bad page per se, quite the contrary, but the level of comments including variations of “Democracy is overrated”, “Darwin works to eliminate weak and stupid people” and the usual “Science is not democratic” is unbearable. It underscores a troubling “sympathy for authoritarian politics” that to me seems to be more and more common among “science enthusiasts". The classic example it’s made is “the speed of light is not voted”, which to me, as true as it may be, has some sinister resonance.

    Could you comment on this on your blog?

    Luca S.”


Dear Luca,

Wow, I had no idea there’s so much hatred in the backyards of science communication.

Hand count at convention of the German
party CDU. Image Source: AFP
It’s correct that science isn’t democratic, but that doesn’t mean it’s fascistic. Science is a collective enterprise and a type of adaptive system, just like democracy is. But science isn’t democratic any more than sausage is a fruit just because you can eat both.

In an adaptive system, small modifications create a feedback that leads to optimization. The best-known example is probably Darwinian evolution, in which a species’ genetic information receives feedback through natural selection, thereby optimizing the odds of successful reproduction. A market economy is also an adaptive system. Here, the feedback happens through pricing. A free market optimizes “utility” that is, roughly speaking, a measure of the agents’ (customers/producers) satisfaction.

Democracy too is an adaptive system. Its task is to match decisions that affect the whole collective with the electorate’s values. We use democracy to keep our “is” close to the “ought.”

Democracies are more stable than monarchies or autocracies because an independent leader is unlikely to continuously make decisions which the governed people approve of. And the more governed people disapprove, the more likely they are to chop off the king’s head. Democracy, hence, works better than monarchy for the same reason a free market works better than a planned economy: It uses feedback for optimization, and thereby increases the probability for serving peoples’ interests.

The scientific system too uses feedback for optimization – this is the very basis of the scientific method: A hypothesis that does not explain observations has to be discarded or amended. But that’s about where similarities end.

The most important difference between the scientific, democratic, and economic system is the weight of an individual’s influence. In a free market, influence is weighted by wealth: The more money you can invest, the more influence you can have. In a democracy, each voter’s opinion has the same weight. That’s pretty much the definition of democracy – and note that this is a value in itself.

In science, influence is correlated with expertise. While expertise doesn’t guarantee influence, an expert is more likely to hold relevant knowledge, hence expertise is in practice strongly correlated with influence.

There are a lot of things that can go wrong with scientific self-optimization – and a lot of things do go wrong – but that’s a different story and shall be told another time. Still, optimizing hypotheses by evaluating empirical adequacy is how it works in principle. Hence, science clearly isn’t democratic.

Democracy, however, plays an important role for science.

For science to work properly, scientists must be free to communicate and discuss their findings. Non-democratic societies often stifle discussion on certain topics which can create a tension with the scientific system. This doesn’t have to be the case – science can flourish just fine in non-democratic societies – but free speech strongly links the two.

Science also plays an important role for democracy.

Politics isn’t done with polling the electorate on what future they would like to see. Elected representatives then have to find out how to best work towards this future, and scientific knowledge is necessary to get from “is” to “ought.”

But things often go wrong at the step from “is” to “ought.” Trouble is, the scientific system does not export knowledge in a format that can be directly imported by the political system. The information that elected representatives would need to make decisions is a breakdown of predictions with quantified risks and uncertainties. But science doesn’t come with a mechanism to aggregate knowledge. For an outsider, it’s a mess of technical terms and scientific papers and conferences – and every possible opinion seems to be defended by someone!

As a result, public discourse often draws on the “scientific consensus” but this is a bad way to quantify risk and uncertainty.

To begin with, scientists are terribly disagreeable and the only consensuses I know of are those on thousand years-old questions. More important, counting the numbers of people who agree with a statement simply isn’t an accurate quantifier of certainty. The result of such counting inevitably depends on how much expertise the counted people have: Too little expertise, and they’re likely to be ill-informed. Too much expertise, and they’re likely to have personal stakes in the debate. Worse, still, the head-count can easily be skewed by pouring money into some research programs.

Therefore, the best way we presently have make scientific knowledge digestible for politicians is to use independent panels. Such panels – done well – can both circumvent the problem of personal bias and the skewed head count. In the long run, however, I think we need a fourth arm of government to prevent politicians from attempting to interpret scientific debate. It’s not their job and it shouldn’t be.

But those “science enthusiasts” who you complain about are as wrong-headed as the science deniers who selectively disregard facts that are inconvenient for their political agenda. Both of them confuse opinions about what “ought to be” with the question how to get there. The former is a matter of opinion, the latter isn’t.

That vaccine debate that you mentioned, for example. It’s one question what are the benefits of vaccination and who is at risk from side-effects – that’s a scientific debate. It’s another question entirely whether we should allow parents to put their and other peoples’ children at an increased risk of early death or a life of disability. There’s no scientific and no logical argument that tells us where to draw the line.

Personally, I think parents who don’t vaccinate their kids are harming minors and society shouldn’t tolerate such behavior. But this debate has very little to do with scientific authority. Rather, the issue is to what extent parents are allowed to ruin their offspring’s life. Your values may differ from mine.

There is also, I should add, no scientific and no logical argument for counting the vote of everyone (above some quite arbitrary age threshold) with the same weight. Indeed, as Daniel Gilbert argues, we are pretty bad at predicting what will make us happy. If he’s right, then the whole idea of democracy is based on a flawed premise.

So – science isn’t democratic, never has been, never will be. But rather than stating the obvious, we should find ways to better integrate this non-democratically obtained knowledge into our democracies. Claiming that science settles political debate is as stupid as ignoring knowledge that is relevant to make informed decisions.

Science can only help us to understand the risks and opportunities that our actions bring. It can’t tell us what to do.

Thanks for an interesting question.

23 comments:

Tony Proctor said...

There might be some ambiguity in this post, Sabine. Are you referring to pure or applied science? Also, are you referring to democracy in a political sense, or the sense of new theories being accepted on their merits (technically, a meritocracy) rather than being vetted by a few with power, influence, and an alternative agenda. The history of science is littered with examples of work being squashed (or at least deferred) because it conflicted with the mainstream, or it was created by people of the wrong ethnicity/sex/occupation, or it conflicted with religious dogma, blah blah ...

Andrew Wells said...

Oh, yeah I think there is a lot of hatred in the back rooms of science. Scientists can be very catty, sometimes.

Leibniz said...

Bee:

That was a very eloquent and thoughtful response, which has definitively answered a question I’ve pondered for a long time. The late Admiral “Amazing” Grace Hopper frequently gave talks about the early days when she had been a pioneer in computer software. She emphasized the importance of building efficient computer programs by handing out foot long pieces of wire to illustrate a nanosecond, and told everyone not to waste nanoseconds. But, she said she still couldn’t figure out how to write programs that could quickly and automatically value the incoming information going to the bridge of a ship. For example, “The movie shown tonight will be…” is less useful than ”Torpedo starboard side!” Could we ever automate providing the value of information?

I have long suspected that, given what you mentioned about individual economic utility, the answer to her question about the possibility of quickly providing relative or absolute measures of the value of information, is “probably no.” But, incorporating your discussion of the necessity of undergoing a torturous process of creating independent panels and/or an additional arm of government, I can now conclude that the answer is “definitely no.”

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Tony,

As I pointed out explicitly, science clearly doesn't always work as it should, in case that's what you mean. I am referring to both pure and applied science.

Euphonium said...

"...because an independent leader is unlikely to continuously make decisions which the governed people approve of. "
should be:
disapprove of.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Euphonium,

I actually meant 'approve'.

Uncle Al said...

"It uses feedback for optimization," the antithesis of management (Table of Command) and social intent (the most to the worst). Empirical bad news ascending from below battles fictional good news descending from above. Reality is not a peer vote.

https://netwar.wordpress.com/2007/07/03/feminist-epistemology/

Aristotle (rigorous derivation is sufficient) offers large volume outputs. Galileo (question assumptions) is insubordination. Young faculty are broken, then tamed, then funded. Nothing supersedes general relativity; SUSY is excuses ̶ forever.

Science’s hegemons are daydreaming and screwing around. PERT chart and DCF/ROI them, then chart anticipated growth scenarios.

Matthew Rapaport said...

Your common-sensical grounded viewpoint on social and political issues always refreshing to me! Good essay Dr. H. Thanks!

JimV said...

Another way of stating the adaptive-systems analogy might be to say that votes are to a democracy as empirical evidence is to science. Candidates with the most votes win in a democracy (theoretically) and theories with the most empirical evidence win in science (theoretically). Further, it would be better (if possible) to replace votes with empirical evidence (as to who are the best candidates), but this evidence is impractical to obtain and get agreement on. Therefore, democracy, which uses "the wisdom of crowds" as a best available substitute for objective data, is the form of government which is closest to science currently.

John Anderson said...

Very interesting discussion, but you may have opened a Pandora’s Box of long-lived, radioactive isotopes. Frontier areas of physics are toying with some ideas that are frightening to me especially if misapplied politically. Historical example: from Darwinism to social Darwinism to eugenics to ethnic cleansing. Novel concepts like the block universe model, the breakdown of causality, or even multiverse can be misappropriated irrespective of their scientific merits. By asserting scientific authority, political operatives can do much damage. (Trofim Lysenko)

According to Plato democracy is the next lowest form of government to tyranny. Democracies can become mob-like and unstable. The American Founders tried to construct systems of checks and balances to prevent “factions” from oppressing others. (Madison: Federalist Number 10) The US is a constitutional republic with some democratic institutions. An informed, interested, and “moral” electorate is necessary; but that is not a good assumption if you watch any person-on-the-street interviews shown on TV.

giralua said...

A couple of thoughts:

Evolution does not produce what is optimal; it can only choose the better of the currently available alternatives. My own personal health often reminds me of that. But of course I am using my own concept of "optimal" to make that evaluation...

A "free market" is a theoretical construct somewhat useful in modeling and decision-making. In the real world there is no such thing, as there are barriers to entry, economies of scale, etc., etc. The construct, when intentionally conflated with real-world behavior, is EXTREMELY useful to certain politicians (much in evidence in my country) who favor rampant deregulation regardless of harm, and who do not want us to dwell on the idea that a free market is what produces child prostitution and murder-for-hire.

Louis Tagliaferro said...

Sabine,

I enjoyed the article, it gave me a better perspective when you pointed out the "feedback loop" in the systems mentioned. While at some level it's been understood, the precise term added clarity to the underpinnings of such systems.

Lou

Phillip Helbig said...

"That vaccine debate that you mentioned, for example. It’s one question what are the benefits of vaccination and who is at risk from side-effects – that’s a scientific debate. It’s another question entirely whether we should allow parents to put their and other peoples’ children at an increased risk of early death or a life of disability. There’s no scientific and no logical argument that tells us where to draw the line."javascript:void(0)

Perhaps no scientific or logical argument, but in every sensible society, one's freedom ends where it compromises the freedom of others, thus vaccines should be mandatory.

Most anti-vaxxers base their opposition on false claims, such as that by fraudster Andrew Wakefield, and investigating and debunking false claims is part of science.

George Rush said...

Luca S. said: ... “science is not democratic”, which to me sounds like an excuse for someone to justify some authoritarian or semi-fascist fantasy. ... It underscores a troubling “sympathy for authoritarian politics” that to me seems to be more and more common among “science enthusiasts".

Case in point:

Phillip Helbig said: ... in every sensible society, one's freedom ends where it compromises the freedom of others, thus vaccines should be mandatory.

If parents object, I recommend a few months' hard labor in a "People's Glorious Re-Education Camp", with a sign over the entrance: "Wissenschaft setzt dich frei".

Phillip Helbig said...

@George Rush:

Why do you enjoy constructing so many strawmen to attack?

Science is not democratic. One can't vote on the mass of the electron. It is a measurable quantity. Truth is not decided by vote. That's what Bee means, nothing to do with authoritarian politics.

Yes, in every sensible society, one's freedom ends where the freedom of others is compromised. Do you disagree with this? Would you be happy with someone who says that his freedom implies that he can take all your possessions and do what he wants with them?

If parents object, then the children get vaccinated anyway and they have to pay a fine or whatever, like any other crime. With your logic, parents could roast their children alive in the name of freedom.

George Rush said...

@Phillip Helbig, I don't "enjoy constructing strawmen to attack". Indeed, I abhor rhetorical tricks. (Although sometimes you have to fight fire with fire.) If I constructed a strawman, which I doubt, it was accidental. However I was wrong to use sarcasm. I don't blame you for being annoyed. Please accept my apology.

Since you don't respond to my point, I'll say it again. Luca S. says scientists seem to have a troubling sympathy for authoritarian politics. He's right. Your comment about vaccination is a case in point.

"Bee" also wants mandatory vaccination: "Personally, I think parents who don’t vaccinate their kids are harming minors and society shouldn’t tolerate such behavior." But she clearly knows that this is just a value judgment: "There’s no scientific and no logical argument that tells us where to draw the line."

Personally I don't want mandatory vaccination (but care very little about it). Regardless, her stance is fine because it doesn't claim "scientific" or "logical" backing. If the majority of voters have different values she'll accept their verdict, without labelling them idiots.

But your stance is different. "Perhaps no scientific or logical argument, but in every sensible society one's freedom ends where it compromises the freedom of others, thus vaccines should be mandatory."

"Perhaps" (the classic weasel-word) it's not scientific or logical, but it is "sensible"! This is just terminological hair-splitting. You're trying to make a logical (or "sensible") argument for mandatory vaccination. Premise: "freedom ends where it compromises freedom of others" (a content-free statement). Conclusion: "THUS vaccines should be mandatory".

You're cloaking your value opinion (to which you're perfectly entitled) in a fake, illogical syllogism. The implication is that anyone who disagrees doesn't merely have different values, rather they aren't "sensible". I.e., idiots. Can't you see the difference between your stance and Bee's? Hers is democratic, yours is authoritarian.

PH >> "With your logic, parents could roast their children alive in the name of freedom."

Ok, tit for tat. I deserved that sarcasm. But since you ask: if it can be proven the kid would grow up to be a science semi-fascist, roasting might be justified :-)

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Phillip,

George is right, you are illustrating exactly the problem I was emphasizing.

Francesco Rocchi said...

I found this post very interesting, but eventually disagreed with it. While I really appreciated the analysis of democracy as a sensibile form of adaptive optimization, I think that the idea of a fourth branch of the government and Gilbert's idea to weigh differently votes are flawed.

As for the fourth -scientific- arm of the administration: it might be perfect to correctly process and insert scientific information into public debate, but how could it deal with the other arms? What arm would prevail in case of conflict and on what ground? At the end of the day, even such an institution should bow to the principles of democratic representation. Sure, the scientists in it would be more knowledgeable and competent than any other else in the administration (by definition, so to speak) , but who would guarantee they're using their knowledge and competence properly? AThey'd have (legitimately) their agenda and their own interests as anyone else, and the discussion would soon turn political -which would be perfectly fine, as we are talking of political bodies, but in no way more efficient than the democracy we already have.

As for the idea of weighing votes differently, I think it would never work. As for the "scientific arm" of the government, the heavy weight voters would use their votes to promote they're own interests, as anyone else in any democratic political system. Some people might be better at predicting what makes people happy, but this does not guarantee heavy weight voters would use such knowledge against their own interest. Why should they? Election are used to get a functional representation and composition of different interests, not to ascertain what is "generally better" (assuming it is possibile to define correctly what is "general").

Furthermore, weighing votes differently would push some part of the voters out of the democratic process (as if they were denied the right of voting altogether). It is hard to imagine they would quietly accept such a situation. If not democratically, they would influence the public decision making in other ways. And where institutional ways are not allowed, violence soon becomes an option.

Democracy works because takes everyone into the process of policy determination, without forcing anyone to find other methods. And even so, it sometimes look fragile. It's core (equality) cannot be removed without dire consequences.

As for science, there are no shortcuts: it will effectively shape the public debate and will be kept in proper regard only when everyone will have a good degree of scientific competence.

Thanks and sorry for such a long comment.

Anatol Sevashko said...

Democratic values are irrational. The science is based and develops on rational principles. The rational methodology of knowledge of the world leads to creation of the rational model of society in the progress final, unfortunately.

I see the decision from an opposite side. The rational science is not strict. We can, and we should build a strict science.

I see the decision in the strict irrational mathematics: rational relations arise as a fragment of development of strict irrational relations.

I have a key to a strict science. The solution will satisfy all parties, but I see a transition period problem. I study this problem at the moment.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Francesco,

I appreciate your thoughtful comment.

Regarding Gilbert, I think this is a misunderstanding. I am not aware that he said anything about democracy. I just meant to point out that if he is correct, then the whole idea of democracy is based on a flawed premise - namely that humans are able to make a good choice when being asked what is most likely to make them happy in the future.

I agree with you that unless humans dramatically change there's no way any other weight for people's opinions will be accepted. I actually don't think that's the fate of democracy however - I suspect that AI will do largely away with it.

In any case, regarding the 4th arm of government, I think this is pretty much unavoidable in the short run. Of course you want to make sure that scientists in such an institution are as unbiased as possible, have no conflicts of interest, have some oath and so on. That of course will never be perfect, but at least we can try to get as close as possible.

We simply need something like this to prevent that courts that were created for entirely purposes end up having to decide what is and what isn't scientific fact - because that is the present situation. You point out that a 4th arm of government isn't optimal either and that's correct, but it's still better than what we previously have. Best,

B.

Phillip Helbig said...

"George is right, you are illustrating exactly the problem I was emphasizing."

I've never been more surprised by any comment on any blog, ever. What have you been smoking? :-)

There can be no debate that George's characterizations are extremely exaggerated, i.e. all who cite scientific evidence for political decisions want to sentence those who disagree to 30 years of hard labour or whatever.

Francesco Rocchi said...

Dear Bee

I quote this passage of yours "We simply need something like this to prevent that courts that were created for entirely purposes end up having to decide what is what isn't scientific fact".

I think it could be a sensible idea to give judges (and law experts in general) a more specific scientific education: statistics, epistemology and and a general course in "science" should become mandatory in their academic curriculum. That would help a lot, I think, without stretching the general structure of our democracies.

Anatol Sevashko said...

Scientists do not see laws of democracy in the scientific theories. Democracy is an element of culture for them. The culture loses to a science. We see such result in the forecast of scientific-technical progress. Progress is not scientific-cultural. The rational science cannot serve as a conductor to the future. The rational science studies only a part of a world.

I have found the strict scientific decision of this contradiction. Rational relations are a fragment of development of irrational relations. I see a problem of building of an irrational science – at a transitive stage. The strict irrational mathematics creates a platform for unified system of knowledge.