The pernicious effects of disrespecting the constraints of science

By Mike Klymkowsky

Recent political events and the proliferation of “fake news” and the apparent futility of fact checking in the public domain have led me to obsess about the role played by the public presentation of science. “Truth” can often trump reality, or perhaps better put, passionately held beliefs can overwhelm a circumspect worldview based on a critical and dispassionate analysis of empirically established facts and theories. Those driven by various apocalyptic visions of the world, whether religious or political, can easily overlook or trivialize evidence that contradicts their assumptions and conclusions. While historically there have been periods during which non-empirical presumptions are called into question, more often than not such periods have been short-lived. Some may claim that the search for absolute truth, truths significant enough to sacrifice the lives of others for, is restricted to the religious, they are sadly mistaken – political (often explicitly anti- religious) movements are also susceptible, often with horrific consequences, think Nazism and communist-inspired apocalyptic purges. The history of eugenics and forced sterilization based on flawed genetic premises have similar roots.

Copyright Sidney Harris
Copyright Sidney Harris; http://sciencecartoonspplus.com/ Please note: this is not a CCBY image; must contact copyright holder above.

Given the seductive nature of belief-based Truth, many turned to science as a bulwark against wishful and arational thinking. The evolving social and empirical (data-based) nature of the scientific enterprise, beginning with guesses as to how the world (or rather some small part of the world) works, then following the guess’s logical implications together with the process of testing those implications through experiment or observation, leading to the revision (or abandonment) of the original guess, moving it toward hypothesis and then, as it becomes more explanatory and accurately predictive, and as those predictions are confirmed, into a theory.  So science is a dance between speculation and observation. In contrast to a free form dance, the dance of science is controlled by a number of rigid, and oppressive to some, constraints [see Feynman].

Perhaps surprisingly, this scientific enterprise has converged onto a small set of over- arching theories and universal laws that appear to explain much of what is observable, these include the theory of general relativity, quantum and atomic theory, the laws of thermodynamics, and the theory of evolution. With the noticeable exception of relativity and quantum mechanics, these conceptual frameworks appear to be compatible with one another. As an example, organisms, and behaviors such as consciousness, obey and are constrained by, well established and (apparently) universal physical and chemical rules.

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Last_universal_common_ancestor
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Last_universal_common_ancestor

A central constraint on scientific thinking is that what cannot in theory be known is not a suitable topic for scientific discussion. This leaves outside of the scope of science a number of interesting topics, ranging from what came before the “Big Bang” to the exact steps in the origin of life. In the latter case, the apparently inescapable conclusion that all terrestrial organisms share a complex “Last Universal Common Ancestor” (LUCA) makes theoretically unconfirmable speculations about pre-LUCA living systems outside of science.  While we can generate evidence that the various building blocks of life can be produced abiogenically (a process begun with Wohler’s synthesis of urea) we can only speculate as to the systems that preceded LUCA.

 

Various pressures have led many who claim to speak scientifically (or to speak for science) to ignore the rules of the scientific enterprise – they often act as if their are no constraints, no boundaries to scientific speculation. Consider the implications of establishing “astrobiology” programs based on speculation (rather than observations) presented with various levels of certainty as to the ubiquity of life outside of Earth [the speculations of Francis Crick and Leslie Orgel on “directed panspermia”: and the Drake equation come to mind, see Michael Crichton’s famous essay on Aliens and global warming]. Yet such public science pronouncements appear to ignore (or dismiss) the fact that we know (and can study) only one type of life, the descendants of LUCA. They appear untroubled when breaking the rules and abandoning the discipline that has made science a powerful, but strictly constrained human activity.

 

Whether life is unique to Earth or not requires future explorations and discoveries that may (or given the technological hurdles involved, may not) occur. Similarly postulating theoretically unobservable alternative universes or the presence of some form of consciousness in inanimate objects [such unscientific speculation as illustrated here] crosses a dividing line between belief for belief’s sake, and the scientific – it distorts and obscures the rules of the game, the rules that make the game worth playing [again, the Crichton article cited above makes this point]. A recent rather dramatic proposal from some in the physical-philosophical complex has been the claim that the rules of prediction and empirical confirmation (or rejection) are no longer valid – that we can abandon requiring scientific ideas to make observable predictions [see Ellis & Silk]. It is as if objective reality is no longer the benchmark against which scientific claims are made; that perhaps mathematical elegance or spiritual comfort are more important – and well they might be (more important) but they are also outside of the limited domain of science. At the 2015 “Why Trust a Theory” meeting, the physicist Carlo Rovelli concluded “by pointing out that claiming that a theory is valid even though no experiment has confirmed it destroys the confidence that society has in science, and it also misleads young scientists into embracing sterile research programs.” [quote from Massimo’s Pigliucci’s Footnotes to Plato blog].

 

While the examples above are relatively egregious, it is worth noting that various pressures for glory, fame, and funding can tend to impact science more frequently – leading to claims that are less obviously non-scientific, but that bend (and often break) the scientific charter. Take, for example, claims about animal models of human diseases. Often the expediencies associated with research make the use of such animal models necessary and productive, but they remain a scientific compromise. While mice, rats, chimpanzees, and humans are related evolutionarily, they also carry distinct traits associated with each lineage’s evolutionary history, and the associated adaptive and non-adaptive processes and events associated with that history. A story from a few years back illustrates how the differences between the immune systems of mice and humans help explain why the search, in mice, for drugs to treat sepsis in humans was so relatively unsuccessful [Mice Fall Short as Test Subjects for Some of Humans’ Deadly Ills]. A similar type of situation occurs when studies in the mouse fail to explicitly acknowledge how genetic background influences experimental phenotypes [Effect of the genetic background on the phenotype of mouse mutations], as well as how details of experimental scenarios influence human relevance [Can Animal Models of Disease Reliably Inform Human Studies?].

 

Speculations that go beyond science (while hiding under the mantel of science – see any of a number of articles on quantum consciousness) – may seem just plain silly, but by abandoning the rules of science they erode the status of the scientific process.  How, exactly, would one distinguish a conscious from an unconscious electron?

In science (again as pointed out by Crichton) we do not agree through consensus but through data (and respect for critical analyzed empirical observations). The Laws of Thermodynamics, General Relativity, the standard model of particle physics, and Evolution theory are conceptual frameworks that we are forced (if we are scientifically honest) to accept. Moreover the implications of these scientific frameworks can be annoying to some; there is no free lunch (perpetual motion machine), no efficient, intelligently-designed evolutionary process (just blind variation and differential reproduction), and no zipping around the galaxy. The apparent limitation of motion to the speed of light means that a “Star Wars” universe is impossible – happily, I would argue, given the number of genocidal events that appear to be associated with that fictional vision.

 

Whether our models for the behavior of Earth’s climate or the human brain can be completely accurate (deterministic), given the roles of chaotic and stochastic events in these systems, remains to be demonstrated; until they are, there is plenty of room for conflicting interpretations and prescriptions. That atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases are increasing due to human activities is unarguable, what it implies for future climate is less clear, and what to do about it (a social, political, and economic discussion informed but not determined by scientific observations) is another.

Courtesy NASA.As we discuss science, we must teach (and remind ourselves, even if we are working scientific practitioners) about the limits of the scientific enterprise. As science educators, one of our goals is to help students develop an appreciation of the importance of an honest and critical attitude to observations and conclusions, a recognition of the limits of scientific pronouncements. We need to explicitly identify, acknowledge, and respect the constraints under which effective science works and be honest in labeling when we have left scientific statements, lest we begin to walk down the path of little lies that morph into larger ones.  In contrast to politicians and other forms of religious and secular mystics, we should know better than to be seduced into abandoning scientific discipline, and all that that entails.

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M.W. Klymkowsky  web site:  http://klymkowskylab.colorado.edu  email: klym@colorado.edu

 

 

 

 

Creation vs Evolution: Why science communication is doomed

Last Tuesday night, Bill Nye the Science Guy had a debate with Ken Ham over creationism vs evolution. I watched part of the debate, and have conflicted feelings on it. I’m going to start by saying I think it was a brilliant marketing move. For one, it suddenly brought the Creation Museum into the forefront of society for next to nothing. While before only a handful had heard of it, now it has risen to national prominence, and I’m sure the number of visits they have will reflect that in the near future.

As for the substance itself, I don’t think this is a very good topic for a debate. Any time you bring religion into a discussion, it turns into an “us vs them” argument where neither party is willing to change their view. Even the advertising and marketing billed it as a debate of “creationism vs evolution” – effectively presupposing the view that one can believe in both (which I’ll come back to). At best, it’s snarky and offhanded, and at worst, antagonistic and ad hominem. I should point out though that this is on both sides – neither side is willing to reconcile.

And why should they? Both view their side as being right, and weigh the information they have differently. So all that this accomplishes is that both sides become further polarized and further entrenched, and any chance of meaningful dialogue between both sides becomes less and less likely with every angry jab back and forth. It turns into a 21st century war of angry op-eds, vindictive tweets and increasingly hostile and belligerent Facebook posts shared back and forth. This isn’t just limited to religion though – many discussions end this way with people being forced to take sides in an issue that is more complicated than simply being black/white. Rather than discuss the details and come to an understanding of what we agree and disagree on, we’re immediately placed into teams that are at loggerheads with each other.

What is most interesting is what happens to extreme viewpoints when they are criticized. Rather than taking in new information and evaluating it based on its merits, criticism actually results in the consolidation of those perspectives. In lay language, if you have an extreme viewpoint, you dig in your heels, build a trench and get ready to defend yourself against all attackers. This isn’t entirely surprising – when someone attacks you, and in particular attacks you *personally*, why wouldn’t you get defensive. Studies of this have look at this from a political perspective, comparing extreme conservatives to extreme liberals. To quote Psychology Today:

Extreme conservatives believed that their views about three topics were more superior: (1) the need to require voters to show identification when voting; (2) taxes, and (3) and affirmative action. Extreme liberals, on the other hand, believed that their views were superior on (1) government aid for the needy; (2) the use of torture on terrorists, and (3) not basing laws on religion.

But wait! Aren’t these just fringe opinions being heard in the media? The good news is yes. The bad news is that the extremes are what people hear. If you imagine everyone existing on a normal distribution – with extreme opinions on the edges – then the vast majority of the people exist in the gulf between those people. However, those extremes are what people hear. In fact, this is what led to Popular Science shutting down their comments, based on findings by Brossard and Scheufele. What they did was ask people to read a study, and while the article remained the same, one group was exposed to civil comments, and the other to uncivil comments. What they found was striking:

In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.

So seeing negative comments not only made people more skeptical of the article, it made them more skeptical of the science itself! That’s a huge concern for us, and how science is written about and discussed. Seeing negative comments, no matter how poorly written or ill-informed they are, makes people fundamentally view the science as being of lower quality. And that resulted in Popular Science closing their commenting section.

So to bring it all full circle, the “debate” was a microcosm of science and the public. Scientists sit back, do their work, and then turn around and say “Hey! You should do this” and then wonder why no one listens to them and why people fight them. We saw this with the New York soda ban, we’re seeing this in other spheres as well, and unless we change how we approach these hot button issues, we’ll lose the support of the fringe opinions (which we have already lost), but also the support of the moderates (which we can still get). I was having this discussion with my friend Steve Mann, who is one of the smartest men I know, and he sums it up best:

“It’s easier to poke fun at people with whom you disagree, particularly if you can imply that they are childish, old-fashioned, religious, or uneducated, than to honestly examine whether there is any merit to what they’re saying, and I think that’s a shame.”

I’m not taking sides – that wasn’t the aim of this piece. The aim of this piece is to tell you to listen with a open mind, discuss issues with others, and at all costs avoid ad hominem and personal attacks. If we want to bring people together, we have to avoid using language that drives us apart. If we want to promote science, we have to discourage hate. And if we want to educate others, we first have to start by understanding others.

Reference:
K. Toner, M. R. Leary, M. W. Asher, K. P. Jongman-Sereno. Feeling Superior Is a Bipartisan Issue: Extremity (Not Direction) of Political Views Predicts Perceived Belief Superiority. Psychological Science, 2013; DOI: 10.1177/0956797613494848

The Biggest Sci-Ed Stories of 2013

As 2013 comes to an end, it’s a time for reflection and thought about the last year, and look towards to the future. 2013 was quite the year in science, with impressive discoveries and wide reaching events. I’ve selected my five favourite science stories below, but I welcome your thoughts and would love to hear your thoughts on the top science stories of 2013.

GoldieBlox and Diversity in Science
This isn’t a new issue by any stretch, but it is one of the most important issues facing science (and higher education in general). Diversity in science is essential for a number of reasons, but perhaps most importantly, it gives us different perspectives on problems, and thus, new and novel solutions. Within the scientific establishment, there have been many stories about discrimination and inappropriate conduct (see SciCurious’ excellent series of posts on the matter, including posts by friends of the blog @RimRK and @AmasianV), and, unfortunately there are no easy solutions.

Perhaps the biggest diversity-related story this year was GoldieBlox. While initially this started as a media darling (who didn’t love the video?), further examination revealed deep-set problems in how they chose to approach the issue of gender representation in STEM disciplines.

There is a lot of change required to reach equality in science careers and to ensure that people are judged and given opportunities based on their work, not their privilege. Lets hope that in 2014 we can start the ball rolling on that change.

Fracking and Energy
Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” is a way by which natural gas is extracted from shale or coal beds deep in the ground. This is done by pumping millions of gallons of pressurized, chemically-treated water into the ground, which breaks up the rocks and allows the gas to escape and be collected at the surface. There are large deposits of gas stored in this manner throughout the Northeastern United States and Easten/Atlantic Canada, and, as you can imagine, the economic incentives to extract this gas are huge. In fact, the Hon. Craig Leonard, Minister of Energy and Mines in New Brunswick said:

Based on U.S. Department of Energy statistics, 15 trillion cubic feet of gas is enough to heat every home in New Brunswick for the next 630 years.

Or if used to generate electricity, it could supply all of New Brunswick’s residential, commercial and industrial needs for over 100 years.

In other words, it has the potential to provide a significant competitive advantage to our province.

These economic benefits, however, have to be considered along with potential risks that come along with pumping gallons of water into the ground. The most apparent is how fracking requires an excessive amount of water, which could negatively impact other industries. In addition, this treated water could potentially open cracks into underground water supplies, contaminating our drinking water supply. Finally, what do we do with this water once it’s been used – how do we dispose of it safely and efficiently? These are all concerns that need to be addressed, along with other environmental issues that may arise. There’s no doubt that we need to plan for energy independence, and a way to revitalize your economy is a benefit no politician (or citizen) would like to pass up. However, we have to think long term and plan for the future.

Typhoon Haiyan and Global Warming
Typhoon Haiyan was one of the most powerful tropical storms on record, killing an estimated 6,111 people in the Philippines alone and doing over USD$1.5 billion in damage. Currently, over 4.4 million are homeless – which is almost the population of the Phoenix metro area (4.3 million from their 2010 Census), or the entire population of New Zealand (4.2 million from their 2013 Census). While the immediate threat has passed, there are now other problems arising. Many of the victims remain unburied, and sanitation remains an important concern to prevent outbreaks of cholera, dysentery and other communicable diseases.

Typhoon Haiyan highlights what we can expect with global warming. While the general understanding is that global warming will simply lead to warmer temperatures, that is not entirely true. A “side effect” suggests that we are more likely to see extreme weather events, which include typhoons and tropical storms.

Politics impacting Science and the US Sequester
The US sequester had long reaching implications for federal scientists. For those who rely on seasonal fieldwork, this could have eliminated a full year of research, while those who were reliant on grants being submitted for this season had to reschedule research priorities. However, the effects aren’t limited to this calendar year. From this article in The Atlantic:

It’s not yet clear how much funding the National Labs will lose, but it will total tens of millions of dollars. Interrupting — or worse, halting — basic research in the physical, biological, and computational sciences would be devastating, both for science and for the many U.S. industries that rely on our national laboratory system to power their research and development efforts.

Instead, this drop in funding will force us to cancel all new programs and research initiatives, probably for at least two years. This sudden halt on new starts will freeze American science in place while the rest of the world races forward, and it will knock a generation of young scientists off their stride, ultimately costing billions in missed future opportunities.

It remains to be seen how the effects of the sequester play out. How long the effects last, and whether the US research industry simply stumbles or falls down, are still up in the air.

Commander Chris Hadfield and Science Communication
It’s no secret that I think Chris Hadfield is an amazing science communicator. His videos in space, the way he engaged with youth, and his approach to science in a “this is awesome” sense captured the imagination of the world while he was up in the International Space Station. His personality and enthusiasm for science continued once he landed back on Earth, and he recently released his first book. When it comes to issues around communicating science, one that I feel quite strongly about is that we need more science communicators. We have a few – Bill Nye, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and such. But we need others, and Chris Hadfield helps show the breadth of scientific discovery, and his personality and enthusiasm for science make him a great ambassador for science to young and old alike.

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Finally, us at PLOS Sci-Ed are now celebrating our first birthday. Since we launched last year, we’ve had over 180,000 visits and hope to continue growing in the future. A sincere thank you to the PLOS blogs community manager Victoria Costello for her constant support, and finally, a heart felt thank you to all our readers. We hope you continue to comment and share our work with your networks.

So these are my choices for the biggest science stories of 2013. What are yours?

Finally, if you enjoyed this post, consider reading The Biggest Public Health Stories of 2013, over on PLOS Public Health Perspectives!

Rolling your eyes at climate change education

I recently had an eye-opening experience at work at the National Museum of Natural History. A couple of colleagues and I went into the exhibit halls to ask groups of teens about what they would find interesting to learn more about in a museum. We had a number of preselected topics and we selected a few for each group or individual we spoke with. When asked about climate change, one group responded “Climate change?  That again?” with a roll of the eyes. “We’ve been learning about climate change as long as I can remember.”

This is not to say they did not care about climate change — in fact, they did care a great deal.  This group simply seemed to have experienced too much climate change education, and it got me wondering how many other students out there have lost interest in climate change, and why.

I later asked some of my teenage relatives, receiving a similar response. One began learning about it in third grade, with interest. Then three years later he began losing interest, perhaps because it was overkill and perhaps because his interests seemed to move on as he got older.

Is there too much climate change education? How much climate change education is there in schools, anyway? Are kids sick of learning about global warming, increased super storms, and melting glaciers?  More importantly, is there more quantity than quality in climate change education? Do kids see it as a “school topic” rather than a global crisis?

We found the museum visitors’ responses surprising and enlightening. As we did their response to our next question: “What will Earth be like in 100 years?”  Their response: “Yeah, that sounds pretty interesting.”

Fascinating.  Just this little change in perspective seems to make a big difference.  And it got me thinking…

How much is out there about climate change?

Before I continue, let me be clear that I have no problems at all with climate change education, and none at all with the lessons I mention below.

Peterborough (United Kingdom) has its own climate change game designed and made by Peterborough City Council and students at Hampton College.

It seems as though there exists a lesson plan for climate change for every age group from kindergarten through college. And outside of school curriculum the topic is covered by non-profits (Alliance for Climate Education), universities, government institutions (NASANOAAFREE), and more. I was easily able to find lesson activities for grades 6-8 and 9-12 at the University of Madison, Wisconsin’s online Water Library No sooner did I find Climate Change Education, a web portal that collects curriculum resources.

In 2010 the National Science Foundation announced the launch of a climate change education partnership with schools, universities, zoos and aquariums, and other institutions across the country.

As far as state science curricula, I first went to look in California, who I thought would surely have some mention of climate change in its curriculum.  Well, the science frameworks for grades does not mention “climate change.”  For grades 9-12 the framework states:

  1. Students know how computer models are used to predict the effects of the increase in greenhouse gases on climate for the planet as a whole and for specific regions”
  2. “Human activity, such as the burning of fossil fuels, is increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This buildup can potentially cause a significant increase in global temperatures and affect global and regional weather patterns.”
  3. “The greenhouse effect is important to Earth’s climate because without that effect the planet would be much colder and more like Mars. But if the concentration of absorbing gases is too high, trapping too much heat in the atmosphere, excessive heating could occur on Earth, producing global warming and a climate closer to that of Venus.”

I found no mention of climate change for grades K-8, which I found surprising.

I then went to check out Tennessee because I had come across a report that describes how the state will allow teachers to “teach the controversy” about evolution and climate change.  But, all things considered, I found more than I expected when I read Tennessee’s environmental science curriculum for grades 9-12.

  1. “Describe how gases in the atmosphere affect climate.”
  2. “Explain how human activity is related to ozone depletion and climate change.”

In K-8 however, there was no mention of the word “greenhouse”, and the only mention of “climate” was “The earth is surrounded by an active atmosphere and an energy system that controls the distribution life, local weather, climate, and global temperature.

It doesn’t seem like there is too much climate change education happening in Tennessee or California.  I would say too little.

In Maryland, only grade 8 environmental education covers climate change.

Interestingly, when I looked in Maryland, there was a direct mention for grade 8 environmental science in humans affecting climate change and other natural cycles.  But I couldn’t find any mention for grades 9-12.

At this point it seems as though there is very little, in my opinion climate change education happening.  However, the National Research Council has put together a framework for K-12 science education.  The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) will be using this framework as states develop new science standards.

Grade levels aren’t broken down grade-by-grade, but “by the end of grade 2, 5, 8 and 12”.  This framework is much more explicit in emphasizing climate change.  When it comes down to climate change (pages 196-198), grade 2 does not cover the topic, though grades 5, 8 and 12 progressively get more involved, from conceptual to models.  (I intentionally did not quote their text because it gets a bit long.)

A new concern

Did you notice it?

There is a lot of climate change educational resources out there between non-profits, government agencies, even camps, museums and aquariums for all age levels.  Probably more so than a teacher can fit into his or her classroom every year, for every grade.  Even in the states’ educational frameworks climate change is mentioned only briefly.  With the little mention of climate change in school frameworks, why are students becoming burnt out on climate change?  Maybe I missed something, but there are possibilities.  Climate change could be the “example” given in classrooms about some math problem or writing topic.  Maybe it’s just that the topic is covered so much more in informal environments than in formal learning environments.

Has anyone else talked with students who aren’t interested in climate change anymore?  And how much climate change education is enough before becoming too much?