In preparation for a post on the political origins of anti-vaccination ideology, I want to make a point about the way that the ordinary public interact with scientists. My last post on anti-vax and Republicans has been linked to by a climate change blog, and on that blog one of the commenters is making big claims about what the public should do to understand climate science. In particular he or she says:

‘Trust the science’ is a very ambiguous statement. People should follow the scientific method, but I think what you mean is closer to ‘people should blindly believe what authority figures in science tell them’. This can get very dangerous and appeal to authority is not part of the scientific method. Rather the scientific method involves questioning authority and skepticism.

I think this is an incredibly unreasonable and unrealistic depiction of how people should interact with scientists, and is an advanced form of epistemological nihilism. I want to give a specific example of why, though I’m sure there are many others.

My father left school at 15 to take up a trade as a typesetter, my mother left school at 13 to work in a cake shop and her father left school in Spain at 15 to fight fascism (he subsequently became a forester in England after the war and devoted his spare time to raising a family and learning English). Not only did all my forebears leave school before they got a chance to receive an advanced science education, but they went to school before computers were common, when quantum mechanics was still in its learning stage (e.g. before Bell’s Inequality) and in my grandfather’s case before the invention of the microwave, the guided missile, or a man on the moon. The idea that my parents and my grandfather can “follow the scientific method” – indeed, that they even know what it is – is ludicrous, as is the idea that they have any kind of skill or capacity to question authority where science is concerned. Furthermore, the idea that they should work 9 hour days of physical labour and then come home and devote their time to learning about these things in order to understand policy about important issues like global warming is both unreasonable and, frankly, insulting. If you can’t explain this shit to these people in a way they understand, don’t get uppity that they aren’t willing to put the time into learning your shit properly. They’re busy, and their reasons for being busy are just as valid as yours. I would go further and say that most scientists don’t have a clue about how typesetting works (that’s why LateX was invented!) and would get quite miffed if they got an email from their publisher saying “we can’t be bothered fixing up the typesetting in your paper so that it can be legible in print. You should have learnt this stuff. Your paper is going to look like shit.” Life is too big to learn everything, and this is why we have specialization. Expecting everyone to engage with your trivial little skillset[1] is called “arrogance” in the real world.

So, I don’t think this is how ordinary people should interact with science. In a functioning society, ordinary people should be able to assume that scientists are working for the good of all, that government funds are expended on science in a way that is somehow subject to reasonable oversight and judgement, that experts translate this stuff into public policy, and that ordinary people with no science background can trust that their political representatives are handling the science in a way that is open, rational and coherent. With proper governance structures they can have mild confidence that science is being done ethically and to certain basic standards of intellectual rigor, and with a professional and well-run media they can have some confidence that the popularization of science doesn’t also debase and ruin it. In this sense, while “appeal to authority” is not part of the scientific method it is very much part of how we the public interact with and make decisions about the implications of the scientific method for policy. If 97% of climate scientists say the earth is warming through human influence, then the public should be able to be confident that this means mitigation needs to be debated. If doctors say vaccination for mumps, measles and rubella is needed at a certain age, we should be able to go along with it because we trust that those doctors came to that position through a transparent, ethical process of scientific inquiry, and this position only entered practical health policy through a well-governed and robust process of policy development. We should not have to follow the chain of logic, statistics and biological science that led to this decision in order to support it.

This process by which people actually engage with science in practice is the reason that ideologically-determined views of science are both unavoidable and necessary. Left-wing or working class people will trust that the science minister they voted in from the labour party interprets science into policy in a way that is both a) in the interests of all of society and b) in their class interests; similarly right-wing or rich people will assume that the science minister they voted in will interpret science into policy in a way that represents their love of the free market and eating puppies while kittens cry. This is both inevitable and right (except for the kittens crying). The breakdown of political responses to climate change and the acrimonious debate surrounding it has not occurred because ordinary people failed to follow the scientific method (or did, and found it wanting); it has occurred because a certain part of the political scene in the rich west has abandoned its responsibilities to its electors and started lying to them about a fundamentally important issue. This is a failure of governance and ethics on the part of our leaders, not a failure of ordinary people to engage in scientific critique.

Provided their political representatives hold their best interests at heart, people can be as ignorant as sin about science, and still see good scientific outcomes without even knowing that there is such a thing as “the scientific method.” Conversely, when our political representatives go feral on us and refuse to act on science that is compelling and urgent, it doesn’t matter how educated and engaged ordinary people are – we’re toast. This is why the global warming issue is not being addressed, and in my opinion (as I hope to show in my next post) there is absolutely no lesson to be learnt about vaccination policy from the clusterfuck that is global warming. And in any of these scientific debates, the expectation that ordinary people should engage with science rather than judging it through reference to their authority figures is simultaneously arrogant, unrealistic and ignorant.

fn1: “Skillset” is one of my most hated words, and I use it here to be deliberately insulting