Guest Opinion by Kip Hansen — 12 October 2020
Judith Curry recently highlighted the 9 October 2020 Wall Street Journal piece by Matt Ridley titled: “What the Pandemic Has Taught Us About Science”. [ It is annoyingly paywalled, so Dr. Curry offers extensive excerpts at her own blog, Climate Etc. ]
[ Full version of Matt Ridley’s piece is available at his own website here. — h/t to Malcolm Robinson]
The Ridley piece, intentionally or not, is a foil to a science column published in Forbes on 30 July 2020 by Ethan Siegel, Senior Contributor, which declared in its headline “You Must Not ‘Do Your Own Research’ When It Comes To Science “. The piece is marked by Forbes as an “Editor’s Pick”.
I encourage readers to take the time to read both of these fine essays, in full. Please don’t just stop when you find something with which you disagree (and you will find things, I promise). If you have access to the Wall Street Journal read Ridley’s full piece there. If not, you can read the extensive excerpts supplied by Judith Curry here. The Siegel column is available at Forbes.
What follows is a rather long Opinion Piece on the topic:
Should we “do our own research when it comes to Science”?
Both of these essays are valuable – and contain truths we need to be aware of and accept. But they also represent the problem we see all across human endeavors in today’s rather complicated world, and particularly in scientific fields: It ain’t that simple.
The arguments in opposition can be simplified to these two quotes:
SIEGEL — “You Must Not ‘Do Your Own Research’ When It Comes To Science”:
“The reason is simple: most of us, even those of us who are scientists ourselves, lack the relevant scientific expertise needed to adequately evaluate that research on our own. In our own fields, we are aware of the full suite of data, of how those puzzle pieces fit together, and what the frontiers of our knowledge is. When laypersons espouse opinions on those matters, it’s immediately clear to us where the gaps in their understanding are and where they’ve misled themselves in their reasoning. When they take up the arguments of a contrarian scientist, we recognize what they’re overlooking, misinterpreting, or omitting. Unless we start valuing the actual expertise that legitimate experts have spent lifetimes developing, “doing our own research” could lead to immeasurable, unnecessary suffering.” [the link is given by Siegel in the original – kh]
RIDLEY — “What the Pandemic Has Taught Us About Science”:
“The Covid-19 pandemic has stretched the bond between the public and the scientific profession as never before. Scientists have been revealed to be neither omniscient demigods whose opinions automatically outweigh all political disagreement, nor unscrupulous fraudsters pursuing a political agenda under a cloak of impartiality. Somewhere between the two lies the truth: Science is a flawed and all too human affair, but it can generate timeless truths, and reliable practical guidance, in a way that other approaches cannot.”
“Organized science is indeed able to distill sufficient expertise out of debate in such a way as to solve practical problems. It does so imperfectly, and with wrong turns, but it still does so. …. How should the public begin to make sense of the flurry of sometimes contradictory scientific views generated by the Covid-19 crisis? The only way to be absolutely sure that one scientific pronouncement is reliable and another is not is to examine the evidence yourself. Relying on the reputation of the scientist, or the reporter reporting it, is the way that many of us go, and is better than nothing, but it is not infallible. If in doubt, do your homework.” [my bolding — kh]
I agree with both of these fine, well-meaning individuals.
Who are they?
Matt Ridley is a scientist (DPhil or PhD in zoology from Oxford), the author of several science books, a celebrated British journalist and a Conservative hereditary peer since 2013, with a seat in the UK’s House of Lords. He has been called “a heretic on most counts”.
Ethan Siegel is a theoretical astrophysicist and professional science writer. He studied physics at Northwestern and got his PhD in astrophysics from the University of Florida. To get a fuller picture of the man, see his personal science blog: Starts With A Bang!.
I agree . . . but . . .
Ethan Siegel makes most of the points I would make about the average Joe or Jill “doing their own research”. I speak from experience…I do a lot of my own research. And I deal with family and friends and readers here at WUWT who “do their own research”. I wrote the following comment in response to the WUWT re-post of Judith Curry’s essay on Matt Ridley’s piece:
“Do Your Own Research!
Even this common-sense idea is strongly contested.
You Must Not ‘Do Your Own Research’ When It Comes To Science by Ethan Siegel — Senior Contributor — Forbes Editors’ Pick — Jul 30, 2020 [link in text above]
I always do my own research when it is important or some current proclamation or pronouncement pins my BS Meter to full on.
But in the real world, many people are incapable of doing their own research — either from lack of adequate general and/or specific education or from (and it is dangerous to even say this bit…) low IQ (meaning here: inability to understand/comprehend complex data).
These people, instead of “doing their own research”, do something that they think is that [doing their own research] but is in reality just surfing the web or channel searching the TV looking for opinions that agree with their own biases or new information that “seems true” to them — something that mixes well in their muddled understanding of reality.
Gads — that sounds so elitist, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it is all too true.
I have relatives that are terrific people — do anything to help anyone in need — but who, for various reasons, would find it totally impossible to research and come to any kind of reasonable evidence-based or fact-based opinion on any of today’s complex problems. They simply don’t have the educational background, don’t have enough foundational understanding of basic science, political theory and practice, biology, physics, philosophy, etc — and, truthfully, they have never learned how to think clearly or critically. This includes people who are “professionals” — but only in their narrow fields.
Asking many of our neighbors and relatives — people on the street — or even professional journalists and columnists — to “Do Your Own Research” is like YoYo Ma asking them to “Play the cello like me!”.
I agree with Dr. Curry and Matt Ridley — with the above caveat.”
At first glance, I agree with Siegel that many people are unable to “do their own research”. The call for people to do their own research is hampered by the points above and by other simple facets of the human condition. What does this mean?
PRIDE: Many, if not most, if not all, people suffer from Pride. In this sense, that means they think they already know and are unwilling to read, research or accept information that doesn’t agree with their pre-existing “knowledge” – in quotes because this knowledge becomes, almost always, a bias that prevents further learning and understanding. This is true even for scientists and professionals who are even more prone to believing that their existing knowledge is superior to any contrary knowledge being offered by others, even by other professionals in the same field of study.
LAZINESS: Let’s admit it – far too many of us (occasionally including myself) are simply too lazy to bother fact-checking, reading original sources or comparing the value of evidences offered by various voices – too lazy even when it is important. This laziness often leads to ready acceptance of “consensus science” – we rest assured that what “the experts say…” is correct — even when we are fully aware that the consensus is politically, and not scientifically, based.
BUSYNESS: Many people simply don’t have the time to “do their own research” even when motivated to do so. Busy professionals, busy students, busy mothers and fathers. How many of us even fail to read the whole essay or column on topics we are interested in, instead skipping ahead to write a comment, only to be told the answer is in the essay? Unsure about Global Warming? Sure! Do Your Own Research! If you already have all the basic science and math under your belt and have a year to spare….
As Ridley points out, we are human. Scientists are human. Doctors are human. Astrophysicists are human. And we are all fallible. We make mistakes, we misunderstand things, we are prideful, we are hubristic, we fall in love with our own theories and opinions, we have “better things to do”. And, being human, we all have differing abilities – some are mathematical, some artistic, some philosophical, some spiritual, some intellectual, some mechanically practical.
So, in this sense, Ethan Siegel is right. However, Siegel’s column is spoiled by his selection of examples (you really must read his essay) which exposes his biases and misunderstandings and leads him to a conclusion not supported by his argument.
It does not follow that
- Because “doing your own research” is hard or even “impossible” for many people
- And “doing your own research” can be done incorrectly, even by scientists
- That thus “you need … to turn to the consensus of scientific experts” and that we must “all agree that we should base our policies on the scientific consensus”.
This is what I call “almost true”. The most dangerous kind of mendacity. Certainly, we can all agree with Newton’s Laws of Motion in a practical sense. But not because there exists a “scientific consensus” on the issue, rather because they have been found to be true (enough) in actual practice through innumerable tests and trials.
Siegel, in effect, concludes: “Always stick with the apparent consensus.”
I say “apparent”, because in many fields there is almost always a vast difference in the publicly perceived – media presented – apparent consensus and the real professional-field-wide-scientists consensus. See my series on Modern Scientific Controversies.
Even worse is Siegel’s proposition that “When they [people] take up the arguments of a contrarian scientist, we recognize what they’re overlooking, misinterpreting, or omitting.” In this, Siegel uses the “Royal We” so often seen in declarations in support of consensus science – a usage with the definition here of “Us Right-Thinking Scientific Elites”. Somehow Siegel overlooks that his very own field, theoretical astrophysics, is itself filled with conflicting theories, “contrarian scientists” and that many would assign Siegel himself to that category.
Matt Ridley is correct: He calls for us to “examine the evidence yourself. ….If in doubt, do your homework.”
Why? Because, in the end, “The only way to be absolutely sure that one scientific pronouncement is reliable and another is not is to examine the evidence yourself. Relying on the reputation of the scientist, or the reporter reporting it, is the way that many of us go, and is better than nothing, but it is not infallible. If in doubt, do your homework.”
Matt Ridley is pragmatic. For instance, on the virus, his view is straight-forward:
“The health of science depends on tolerating, even encouraging, at least some disagreement. In practice, science is prevented from turning into religion not by asking scientists to challenge their own theories but by getting them to challenge each other, sometimes with gusto. Where science becomes political, as in climate change and Covid-19, this diversity of opinion is sometimes extinguished in the pursuit of a consensus to present to a politician or a press conference, and to deny the oxygen of publicity to cranks. This year has driven home as never before the message that there is no such thing as “the science”; there are different scientific views on how to suppress the virus.”
I maintain that there are “different scientific views” on almost all modern scientific questions. Why? Because for these questions we are just starting along the necessary scientific path to discovering the basic truths of these topics. When we are uncertain what to believe, what to think or how to understand one of these topics, we can, as Matt Ridley suggests try “Relying on the reputation of the scientist, or the reporter reporting it, is the way that many of us go, and is better than nothing”.
Or, if it is important enough to us individually or societally and we are capable of doing so, we should examine the evidence ourselves – we should do our own homework.
We should, however, acknowledge that not everyone is capable of doing so, for the reasons I identified at the beginning of this essay. Some people can overcome their deficiencies, they can study up, read widely, retrain their minds to think clearly and critically and learn to ignore their own biases. Others may not be able to do so. In this case, they need to call upon others, who are capable, to help them examine the evidence – honest information brokers.
This task becomes the responsibility of Science Journalists. People like myself and many other professional authors, paid and unpaid. It is not our job to dictate what “the Science” says. It is our job to publicly examine the evidence on different topics in a way that the general public can understand it – carefully giving the various major viewpoints and laying out the evidence for all to see, in a way that they can comprehend it and come to their own understandings.
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It is interesting to me that Ethan Siegel could be right about the details of the human condition that impede efforts to do one’s own research and yet come to the exactly wrong conclusion of discouraging people from examining the evidence for themselves. Because he fails to take Matt Ridley’s advice, and does not examine the evidence for himself, he ultimately falls back on “Listen to us, we’re the experts!” and denigrates all other professionals who don’t agree with the “us” as “contrarian scientists” unworthy of serious consideration. And that last part, my friends, is an intellectual crime most foul.
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