Ken Green and his coauthor Hiwa Alaghebandian have gone out and collected data to support their proposition that science is “turning authoritarian”. This is an admirable first step, but let’s apply a bit of skepticism and see where it goes.
Here’s the data:
Now, the first thing I note is that all the curves are pretty much the same shape just with different scaling. So perhaps the size of the data set grows over time.
Yet G & A proceed to claim that “Some of this may simply reflect the general growth of media output and the growth of new media, but if that were the case, we would expect all of the terms to have shown similar growth, which they do not.” But, um, they do. Well, these guys don’t look at charts and graphs all that much, perhaps they’ve never thought about what that might look like. But anyway, the way they eliminate “general growth” is, um, how to put this charitably, “exactly wrong”.
Anyway, the next question, of course, is whether the language is being used in the way they suggest. Their own examples are far from convincing on this score.
The climate community is probably the biggest user of the authoritarian voice, with frequent pronouncements that “the science says we must limit atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to 350 parts per million,” or some dire outcome will eventuate. Friends of the Earth writes, “For example, science tells us we must reduce our global greenhouse gas emissions to prevent dangerous climate change.” America’s climate change negotiator in Copenhagen is quoted by World Wildlife Fund as saying, “China must do significantly more if we are to have a chance to solve the problem and to arrive at an international agreement that achieves what science tells us we must.” Science as dictator—not a pretty sight.
If science wants to redeem itself and regain its place with the public’s affection, scientists need to come out every time some politician says, “The science says we must…” and reply, “Science only tells us what is. It does not, and can never tell us what we should or must do.
But the example “China must do significantly more if we are to have a chance to solve the problem” is not an instruction, it is a statement of fact: consequence X cannot be avoided without action Y. “For example, science tells us we must reduce our global greenhouse gas emissions to prevent dangerous climate change” can at least be read that way. Are these authoritaruan statements? No, they are claims of fact. They don’t tell you you must avoid consequence X; they tell you that if you want to avoid consequence X, then Y is required.
So let’s look for ourselves. Those of us who don’t have Lexis/Nexis kind of bucks are no longer at a great disadvantage; we can ask the Google/Oogle.
And the great Oogle Bird reveals two things. The first, not unexpected, is that there are plenty of other ways you can use the phrases:
“Science requires faith”
“Science requires interpretation”
“Science requires mathematics”
“Lithuanian law on science requires online access for publicly-funded research”
“Computer Science requires critical thinking skills”
“that if the law differs from what cognitive science tells us, we should change the law to conform to the “objective” truth of the human brain”
“The increase in global temperature is consistent with what science tells us we should expect”
“That’s what all the science tells us we should expect”
“But Occam’s razor (a standard paradigm in science) tells us we should pick the simplest model that is consistent with the data”
So phrase counts themselves don;t tell the whole stories.
But that was to be expected. What I did not expect was how very few hits Google had. On the exact phrase “science tells us we should” (using quote delimiters) Google had exactly 49 hits, perhaps a quarter of them referring to Green and Alaghebandian either directly or at one remove, (and another quarter absurdly off topic in one way or another). So we are looking at two dozen hits from google. I can’t see how this is consistent with 1500 per year from Lexis,
Note that the curves are nearly monotonic: you might even suspect that these numbers are cumulative except for the declines in 2003 and 2006. I would like to see these results reproduced (not just replicated) before I would recommend putting much credence into them.
But what is this all about anyway? It’s true enough that “science tells us we should” seems to be applied to environmental issues and climate issues in particular, in the rare cases it’s used. And it’s clear that this is usually expressed by a nonscientist. So the nonscientist may be respecting authority, but there is no sign of an exercise or assertion of power.
Why should there be? The question comes down to the purpose of expertise. Science itself, in the pure form, is and should be value neutral. Science-based advice cannot be. In other words, expertise is one thing, and expert advice is another thing. There can be expertise without expert advice, but there cannot be expert advice without expertise. Exactly what words the expert uses, or even exactly what words the person taking the advice uses, is hairsplitting.
Many of the ideas from our critics have a dreamlike, bizarre quality to them. Apparently, Phil Jones has been doing what he has been doing because that is how to become a modern Napoleon; you collate thermometers. Before you know it you will rule the world.
Right. A good theory, demonstrated beyond doubt by a clever Lexis search. That explains everything except the 99 degree temperature in Helsinki yesterday. That and why Google only got 49 hits on their most prominent phrase.
What it really means is that freedom is just another word for ignoring informed opinion when it suits you. I guess that’s why they need those think tanks. If they weren’t in a heavily armored vehicle they wouldn’t last five minutes in fair combat. But give them some credit. They drew a graph. That’s progress…