Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Promoting Science: Demand-Side Reform

I am writing a series of postings on the issue of promoting science. So far, I have covered:

Making Science Relevant: The task is not to make science relevant, but to teach people of a relevance that science already has – a relevance that, when ignored, costs lives and promotes suffering.

Science Questions: Science – the practice of making increasingly reliable predictions based on available evidence – is relevant to all policy questions, not just a subset of questions such as climate change and stem cells.

Supply-Side Reform: Attempting to reform the pubic by making more scientifically relevant facts available is a waste of time. Stockpiling and attempting to sell what nobody wants to buy is an effective way to waste a lot of time and resources.

If we are going to focus on bringing about real change – if we are serious about promoting the use of science and of scientific methods – then we need to focus on demand-side reform.

Demand-side reform is in-your-face, confrontational reform that uses the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment as a way of promoting a desire to acquire a scientific understanding of the world around us and an aversion to scientific ignorance.

Morality itself fits into the realm of demand-side reform. Morality is concerned with promoting desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibiting desires that tend to thwart other desires. This is exactly the same as saying that morality is concerned with demand-side management. It seeks to create and enlarge the demand for charity, honesty, and (as I argue here) intellectual curiosity.

It seeks to promote an aversion to (and thus decrease the demand for (such things as murder, rape, theft, and reckless and negligent behavior – including intellectual recklessness and negligence.

In the case of promoting scientific literacy, it means investing time and effort – and money – to praise and reward those who are scientifically literate, and to get our neighbors to do the same thing. It also means going to the effort if condemning and, in some cases, punishing those who lack scientific literacy.

The term "Buffoon" was once widely used to refer to such people. There is merit to the idea of resurrecting this term and applying it as a term of ridicule, applicable to anybody who engages in, or who sides with those who engage in, intellectual recklessness and negligence in matters of public policy.

Demand-side reform means NOT standing back and saying, "Well, I happen to disagree with you. However, everybody is entitled to your opinion, and I certainly respect you for what you have to say."

Imagine being in a car, and the driver happens to express the opinion that the bridge up ahead is perfectly safe, as he speeds towards it without slowing down. You, on the other hand, being a proponent of evidence-based thinking, happen to have an engineering study in your hand that suggests that the bridge cannot support the weight of the car and its passengers.

Imagine responding to that situation by saying, "While I humbly disagree with your opinion that the bridge will support us, given the evidence, I respect your right to your opinion and your right to act on your beliefs as you see fit. In fact, I share the general impression that it would be wrong for anybody to condemn or criticize you for that belief."

The results of that attitude under such circumstances are inevitably tragic.

The morally proper response to the driver's belief that the bridge will support the car would be, "You moron! You and your faith-based, evidence-free thinking is going to get you and me and the rest of us killed! Kill yourself with your own stupidity for all I care. But you have no right to take the rest of us with you. Pay attention to the frippen evidence, you idiot!"

Our remarks to the morally reckless in society should find the same type of voice.


Steelman said...

I usually try to understand others' points of view, especially when they seem rather misguided. That way I may be able to assess the roots of their false beliefs, and have some hope of convincing them to change their views.

My wife, however, usually goes straight for name calling. She'll be delighted to know there's an ethical system that employs her preferred method of operation. 8^)

More seriously, I think it's true that a vital component of science, critical thinking, has fallen out of favor in today's society. What's been substituted is the cult of the anti-establishment maverick, who writes books and gives lectures on how the "truth" about vaccines (bigfoot, UFOs, 9/11, etc.) is being covered up by Big Pharma (scientists, the military, the U.S. government).

I'm concerned that the supply side, the side that can educate the public on the differences between science and pseudoscience, is dwindling in response to low demand. Science is one of the only assets the U.S. has in this competitive world, and consumers seem mainly interested in the technology that science produces, rather than the methods it uses to produce those wonderful gadgets we all enjoy. And even with the public demand for technology, I see fewer and fewer U.S. companies being responsible for meeting that demand.

Of course, a lack of understanding science is a more than just a U.S. economic problem, its a global problem that affects the future of humanity.

anton said...

So far in my life, taking the suggested approach has cost me 2 wives and a number of friends. Looking back, I would not have done it any other way. Evil, and ignorance, triumphs when good men, or at least intelligent men, stay silent. Scientists can not financially employ the same "troops" to promote the truth as those corporations and governments who would profit from societies comfortable ignorance.