Off topic: Science, Media, and the Illusory Merits of Technocracy


Ask them what, though? And which ones? To be clear, I’m not exactly disagreeing with you. This is me using your remark as a jumping off point for further discussion, hence the new topic.

People seem to want scientists (and think tanks) to answer policy questions for them, but the kinds of questions fundamentally answered by the scientific method are often far too narrow to offer clear policy guidance. Scientists can tell you that global warming is happening and predict what the consequences will be, but not necessarily make prescriptions about what to do about it with any authority, because prescriptions require a value judgement. These judgments require a certain level of buy in from the populace that isn’t alway there.

Scientists are just as driven by ideology as anyone else. When left to their devices scientists and engineers simply impose (often in good faith) their ideology on us. Water treatment is an example of this: Technocrats make decisions about the relative risks you take with tap water because no one else cares. We cannot overly rely on scientists to craft policy. Instead, lawmakers need to be able to assess scientific issues more critically themselves…and more importantly to know when the issues don’t have clear answers. The debate over the precautionary principle is not something you can leave to the scientists.

The proof of coffee’s carcinogenicity is actually objectively pretty thin, but this study is (as any one study always is) not the last word by any means. This doesn’t, in itself, answer the question of whether coffee should carry acrylamide warnings. It shouldn’t, but not on the basis of this study. I don’t even know whether this study is well-conducted.

This is sort of unrelated, but I’ll connect it back, I promise. I glanced over the paper and it looks fine, but I literally cannot possibly critically analyze the sheer volume of studies thrown at me by the media–and that wouldn’t be an issue if the media wasn’t so fucking bad at reporting studies. And BB is not better at it, on average. This is me, every time I read a headline about a study:


And yet that runs counter to the breathless tone of most news reports. So when I do downplay the significance of a single study or the findings of a panel, people accuse me of being motivated by some bizarre political or ideological animus, or rather hilariously, of being anti-science. The way this connects back to policy is: People genuinely believe, based on the way studies are reported, that scientists know more than they actually do at levels of higher certainty than are merited by the evidence, and calling on scientists is not always helpful if the question you’re asking them is formulated to elicit or confirm a specific policy answer, since scientists often operate from imperfect knowledge. Where assigning too much certainty to scientists really hurts is illustrated in this status I posted a while back (replace FB with “the media” and you lose no meaning):

I’m certainly not arguing the other extreme, where scientists are politically irrelevant. I’m just offering some food for thought on the interrelationship between science, the media, and policy.


Well, I can distract myself from throwing things at the tv and throw a few things at this instead. The nature of science is that you will pretty near never get a definitive answer, because we recognize that at any time new data may come along and change everything. So, we answer in wishy washy ways that are not always accepted well by the general public. “To the best of our knowledge…” “As best as we can tell…” “There is no evidence…” Scientists do not deal in absolutes. We can not.

Having said that, and kinda back on the topic that started the conversation, pretty much any substance is toxic in the proper circumstances. LD50s can be found for salt, water, oxygen, etc. The wisdom of putting warning labels on literally (pretty much) everything is, well, not wise. Scientific input would have been useful. Most scientists are pretty averse to prescribing policies, because it is not our thing, but that is changing with the abject denial of accepted scientific facts such as “vaccines are safe and effective” and "the huge amounts of CO2 we are putting into the atmosphere is changing our climate for the worse " have pushed some of us to be more politically involved. I do not tnink we need to turn our policy making bodies over to a board of eggheads, but when making policy decisions which are affected by scientific facts and figures, seeking input from folks who actually know their shit would be a good idea.


Ask yourself: what is the true purpose of news reports? Isn’t it simply to sell more news reports? And what sells more - dry, or desperate?


This is one of the problems with science reporting. Someone publishes a paper describing an interesting but very preliminary finding, inevitably ending with the famous phrase " this finding requires further investigation. " It gets picked up in the press with great fanfare “Scientists announce breakthrough!” Further investigation reveals that the initial finding is maybe not quite so revolutionary as it was portrayed. “See, those scientists don’t know what they are talking about. It changes all the time.” One paper is not usually definitive. It takes time to figure out the cosmos.


To be clear, I don’t disagree. I didn’t even disagree with the comment I was “replying” to. I’m just formulating ideas around what that entails. And I really want to avoid taking the following for granted:

or even,

Scientists are human, and there are a lot of them to choose from. That’s not a promise anyone can make on the behalf of scientists as a class. This is where we get to “Which scientists?” For example, take Edward Teller’s outsize impact on the Defense establishment and nuclear doctrine. Scientists who push policy have more impact. It may not be fair, or just, but it is the case. I picked Edward Teller because the issue isn’t qualifications, he wasn’t a quack per se, but he raises the issue of what it means to pick and choose your scientists. It’s not like I took an oath when I got my degree. Everything I learned about scientific ethics was about reporting results honestly, and not plagiarizing anyone. That might stop me from lying about climate change, but it’s not going to stop me from being the next Edward Teller. (My incompetence in my field is doing that quite nicely.) And yet, if I’m to respond to the Edward Tellers of the world who are pushing policy, in refutation of my concerns I will be asked, “What’s your better idea?” Am I supposed to answer with, “I have no independent ideas of my own, I just report scientific facts?” And the “right” scientists will always be selected. What happens to the high road then? You sort of touched on that with,

So you can have scientists argue for mandatory vaccination (as I, indeed, do) but that’s not a scientific position. It’s born out of a social priority connected to a scientific understanding: I don’t want children dying of the measles, and vaccines don’t have a sufficiently high rate of serious side-effects to justify even a low number of measles deaths. Arguments against this don’t have to be scientific. They could be libertarian: The rights of the individual outweigh the needs of the many. At that point, we’ve departed the scientific realm. You can still have an opinion, but is it the kind of opinion that policymakers should be soliciting from you as a scientist? To be clear, I’m not saying I have an answer here, or that just because I don’t have an answer I wouldn’t have anything to say if placed in this hypothetical. I’m just trying to complicate the narrative that scientists serve a banal and neutral advisory role in society. Especially since scientists serve the military-industrial complex rather willingly all the time. In a very real sense, the military-industrial complex is made possible by scientists.

But that’s not an accurate characterization of the precautionary principle. I do see what you’re getting at, but I think it should be more fully fleshed out that the precautionary principle–if applied consistently–is effectively putting warning labels on everything. But if society wants to do that, what’s the scientific basis for stopping it? Even if it means printing labels warning that the warning labels are possibly harmful, and labels for those labels, and labels for those labels, and labels for those labels…