Sunday, January 13, 2013

Science Informing Government

Scientific Knowledge

One of the many problems plaguing our society is scientific illiteracy; and this is a serious problem, chiefly since much of what we take for granted in our advancement as a civilization is due to scientific progress. An article in The Guardian, by Jeff Forshaw, is helpful in explaining why governments, which means politicians, ought to rely more on scientists when addressing complex scientific questions. It all centres on the Scientific Method:
The scientific input to a political debate can be in the form of bare facts, such as the numbers that result from measuring something. It can also be in the form of predictions about what is likely to happen, or what has happened in the past. To do this requires the construction of a model, which is an effort that often takes a good deal of technical knowledge and creative guesswork. Once we have the model, we test it against measured data. If the data agree with the predictions the model is not excluded. This process should be repeated, to test the model in a variety of different ways, and a good model is one that agrees with data spanning a wide range of disconnected phenomena.
We would be all the more convinced of a model's veracity if it also succeeds in predicting something genuinely new. Over time, a body of evidence accumulates and the quality of a model is judged against it. However, no body of evidence is utterly compelling and it remains logically possible to reject a whole mountain of it in favour of some extreme viewpoint. The process I just described is what scientists actually do and it is not complicated.
There is a huge difference between hearsay and scientific facts, between an invalidated opinion and a rigorously tested experiment. There is a tendency in a democracy to think that all opinions are equally valid; this of course is nonsense. The media is often to blame, journalists themselves often ill-equipped to understand science, seeking sensationalism and controversy over facts. As for politicians, intelligent in many areas, they often fall into the trap of saying foolish unscientific things without any understanding or knowledge they have done so. It would be better if they understood first and that's where scientists come into the picture.

Science can't address or solve all of society's ills, but they can address the scientific questions better than anyone else before an issue becomes hopelessly politicized. (The controversial issue of climate change is one recent example.) As Forshaw writes rather persuasively in the article: "In other words, scientific experts know better than anyone how nature works and we should be prepared either to develop sufficient expertise to engage in a scientific dialogue or defer to their better understanding." That makes perfect sense.

You can read the rest of the article at [The Guardian]