About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Between scientists and citizens, part II

by Massimo Pigliucci

[Second and last post concerning the proceedings of a conference organized by the Science Communication Project at Iowa State University, entitled Between Scientists and Citizens: Assessing Expertise in Policy Controversies. Part I is here.]

Second day, the first talk I attended was “Stephen Jay Gould and McClean v. Arkansas,” by Myma Perez (Harvard). There has been a long history of scientists engaging in public debates about public understanding of science, going back to the famous one between T.H. Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce. Gould’s contribution to the 1981 McLean v. Arkansas case centered on not one, but three different identities as an expert that he wore: as a biologist, as a science popularizer, and as a historian of science.

Gould always claimed that his professional and public works were part of the same sphere of activity, but it was often the case that he was under pressure in both cases, though from different quarters (some of his colleagues objected to his conceptual work in evolutionary biology; creationists objected to his public writings about Darwin and evolution).

Somewhat typically, Gould was so confident of a positive outcome for the trial that he submitted an op-ed piece about it to the New York Times before Judge Overton ruling was actually made public. (Turns out, he was correct.) Gould also explicitly and repeatedly compared the McLean trial to the famous 1925 Scopes trial, even though the former — at least initially — had none of the social and public impact of the latter. The author suggests that it was Gould’s forceful comparison between the two that helped raise public awareness and interest in the McLean case.

Gould increasingly saw his involvement as a call to arms for their colleagues, who had been sleeping at the helm, so to speak, and were not aware of the dangers posed to science by the creationist movement. The creationist debate eventually made it much less controversial for evolutionary biologists to be socially and politically involved — unlike the much more bruising fight over sociobiology just a few years earlier, in which of course Gould had also played a dominant role.

The second talk of the morning was “Examples, illustrations, inductions, anecdotes... Are they essentially different?” by Dale Hample (University of Maryland). Examples can be understood as based on a simple premise leading to a straightforward conclusion: the premise is that a given instance of X has certain properties, therefore (conclusion) a second instance Y, relevantly similar to X, will have the same properties as X. So examples work as a type of induction from particular to particular. Illustrations, instead, merely strengthen adherence to an already established or accepted rule. As for induction, according to the author it “merely” multiplies examples.

The case of analogies is more complex: A is to B as C is to D means that we are using the first relationship as an example that indicates what the second relationship is. So, in examples it is the two things that resemble each other; in the case of analogies, it is the relationship between two things that is analogous to the relationship between two other things.

There is a variety of other cases, which however can be reduced to the previous categories: precedents are examples expressed legally; anecdotes are interesting or entertaining examples; narratives are long anecdotes; and personal testimony is an example featuring yourself.

A set of questions can then be asked when an argument deploys any of the above mentioned approaches. For instance: does the example cited support the generalization it is supposed to be an instance of? Or, do special circumstances of the example impair its generalizability? And so on.

Finally for the morning we had “Public understanding of climate science and the ethics of expertise,” by Ben Almassi (College of Lake County). Surveys show that both believers and non believers in climate change seem to think that their own assessment of the evidence is their primary reason for believing/not believing — which seems somewhat presumptuous, given that most people are not experts in atmospheric physics.

The author suggests that progress depends on a better understanding of the relationship of trust between public and experts. Rational trust requires good grounds for confidence that another has good will toward us (he will not harm us). Trust is an affective attitude of optimism. Trust is not mere reliance on another (reliance does not involve an affective dimension), and of course is opposed to distrust (where there is a negative affective dimension).

The author presented a detailed analysis of a somewhat unethical defense by the Marshal Institute (an anti-climate change think tank), which represents a clear betrayal of trust of their readership. Almassi concluded with considerations about the ethics of expertise, particularly as it concerns evidentially grounded and morally healthy public trust on climate change.

Last session, first talk: “A pragmatic paradox inherent in expert reports addressed to lay citizens,” by Fred Kauffeld (Edgewood College). According to John Dewey a government by experts in which the masses do not have a chance to inform the experts leads to an oligarchy in the interest of the few. “The essential need, in other words, is the improvement of the methods and conditions of debate, discussion and persuasion.” That was, for Dewey, the problem of the public.

The author suggests a pragmatic approach in which reports from experts can be designed to enable critical and responsible appropriation by autonomous citizens. (This is complementary to the standard approach from the perspective of lay citizens, attempting to equip them with critical questions which they can utilize in evaluating statements by experts.)

Reporting characteristically involves an authorization relating two or more parties. In its simplest structure, reporting involves some party which authorizes and ultimately receives the report; and some other party who is authorized to investigate some matter and provide the first party with a statement of the results. The structure involves a relationship of trust between the two parties.

A good example, according to the author, is the report commissioned by Miller Brewing Co. in 1983 on the attitudes of Americans toward sports. Another good example is a April 19, 2012 report by National Public Radio on “Should we kill the dollar bill?” The latter report in particular presents the issue clearly, provides arguments from both sides, and draws a conclusion based on both expert testimony and accumulated empirical evidence.

[Yes, but it is hard to imagine how this could be done with technical scientific issues like vaccines, or climate change.]

The next and last talk was “What is ‘responsible advocacy’ in science? Good advice,” by Jean Goodwin (Iowa State, one of the organizers of the conference). The author addressed the question of whether it is appropriate for scientists to engage in advocacy. Pro: science is inherently value laden anyway; scientists are citizens, so they have a right/duty to advocate; if scientists don’t do it, who will? Con: advocacy imperils scientists’ objectivity; it corrupts the scientific process; scientists are then perceived as being motivated by personal interests, which will undermine their credibility.

Scientists shouldn’t just engage in advocacy, but in responsible advocacy, which includes relying only on the best peer reviewed papers, as well as being willing to publicly change their mind if the data requires it. The author looked at norms for responsible advocacy within the law community, which after all is visibly in the business of advocacy. The American Bar Association says that attorneys should represent their clients “zealously, within the bounds of the law.” A zealous advocate makes the strongest possible case on behalf of their cause. This may lead to situations in which advocates do not personally endorse what they say as their own best judgment.

The problem is that scientists wouldn’t be advocating zealously if they started discussing caveats, counter-examples, etc. In other words, if they were presenting an honest case rather than one based on the principle of zealous (as distinct from responsible) advocacy. However, there are reasons to believe that responsible advocacy is not efficacious, and may in fact undermine the cause one is advocating. The author concludes that the best role for scientists is not that of advocates, but of advisors. This allows them to provide the best available data, reveal uncertainties and margins of errors, and acknowledge counter-considerations.

[Well, this sounds good indeed, though I do wander how practical such a sharp distinction between advocacy and advising is going to be.]


  1. Thank you for the excellent summary of the presentations.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Absolutely. Thanks, Massimo.


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