15 September 2011

Somebody Send Paul Nurse a Copy of The Honest Broker, Fast!

In a commentary in New Scientist, Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and President of the Royal Society, illustrates that he is well behind the curve on understanding science and politics:
One problem is treating scientific discussion as if it were political debate. When some politicians try to sway public opinion, they employ the tricks of the debating chamber: cherry-picking data, ignoring the consensus opinions of experts, adept use of a sneer or a misplaced comparison, reliance on the power of rhetoric rather than argument. They can often get away with this because the media rely too much on confrontational debate in place of reasoned discussion.

It is essential, in public issues, to separate science from politics and ideology. Get the science right first, then discuss the political implications.
Note to Dr. Nurse: Politicians do engage in "political debate" and not "scientific discussion" hence they often employ the "tricks of the debating chamber," and the linear model of science is so 1945 . . .

8 comments:

  1. Society must allow scientists the freedom to do science. That does not mean the public may not make value and policy judgments and that do not match the preferences of scientists.

    The Right does get to argue that a fetus has (non-scientifically established) value. The Left does get to argue that juries or lawmakers should impose inordinate (unscientific) risk assumptions on industry.

    The biggest problem with scientists writing about policy (climate science being Exhibit A) is that they increasingly conflate their on-campus aesthetic and ideological views with science, logical necessity and empirical method.

    Just because everyone else in the department with tenure shares one's political and ideological outlook does not mean those views are the product of scientific rigor, much less does it mean that the peasants are obliged to accept those views without question.

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  2. Glad I'm not the only one annoyed at that piece.

    I can see his concern (made there and more subtly elsewhere) about the need for scientists to speak out against things they see as wrong, but I really can't stand by this linear model framing. We need space to acknowledge not only the inevitability of an external critique of science, but that this critique can actually be a good thing at times - it's not all climate deniers and anti-vaxers. It seems to me that this is just being simplistically polarised - the worst kind of politics.

    NB: in some respects it echos something from the UK Chief Sci Advisor not long ago.

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  3. oldhoya:

    When a system is properly characterized, a measure of risk can be reasonably assessed, and so it can be quantified.

    As for the fetus, what criteria would you employ when assigning dignity to a human life?

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  4. Scientists don't use "tricks of the debating chamber." Who knew?

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  5. Here, I've fixed that Nurse quote:
    "When some Climate activists try to sway public opinion, they employ the tricks of the debating chamber: cherry-picking data, ignoring the consensus opinions of experts, adept use of a sneer or a misplaced comparison, reliance on the power of rhetoric rather than argument. They can often get away with this because the media rely too much on confrontational debate in place of reasoned discussion."

    There, that's better.

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  6. He's acknowledging what +does+ happen and then, after that, what +ought+ to happen. What's the problem with that?

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  7. -6-timbird

    Thanks for your comment, you ask, "What's the problem with that?"

    Well, aside from a deeply flawed "is" and a deeply flawed "ought" -- not much ;-)

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  8. The Nature link to your article is paywalled. Accessible here:
    http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/admin/publication_files/2010.24.pdf

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