The purpose of this blog is to provide a platform for commentary on science matters. The Office of the Prime Minister’s Science Advisory Committee is politically independent and will refrain from political debate.


Anti-scientism

Recently I was the guest of the Government of Canada as the inaugural Prime Ministerial fellow—this is a reciprocal programme to exchange senior leaders between Canada and New Zealand. I started by attending the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Vancouver, then spent most of the visit meeting both with the science leadership and exploring how Canada is developing its innovation system.

Perhaps the only depressing note in the visit was the presidential address at the AAAS meeting by Dr Nina Federoff, a good friend of New Zealand and formerly science advisor to the US Secretary of State. In her speech she highlighted the rise of anti-scientism, which has become rife in North America, and the challenge it creates. This is a very real phenomenon and we have seen this to a lesser extent throughout the West.

Its origins are complex: partially ideological, partially the tension that knowledge can bring to belief systems, and perhaps spurred by the patronizing attitude many public scientists have had. But it also reflects the discomfort that comes with the speed of technological change and scientific discovery and the simple reality that science alone cannot address many of the complex issues that we face.

Evolutionary science and anthropology both demonstrate the importance of belief to cultural and social identity, and it is important that science is explained in ways that understand the importance of belief, rational or not. Experiments in decision theory (see Daniel Kahnemann’s latest book Thinking, Fast and Slow) also point out the limited capacity of empiricism to over-ride emotionally based beliefs. Such conflicts manifest in how the scientist and public approach risk analysis differently.

In no small part that is why in my work I emphasise the importance of distinguishing three elements in complex science in relationship to public policy (in so far as is possible): the empirical knowledge base, the values dimensions, and varying perceptions of risks and tradeoffs.

As I pointed out in my speech to the BlueGreens conference a couple of weeks ago, the major political and public conundrum facing every country into the foreseeable future will be achieving the appropriate balance between resource conservation and resource extraction as the world struggles to deal with the projected increase in population to the order of 10 billion people, yet recognises the increasing need to protect our fragile planet.

No matter how passionately environmental protection is believed in, the inevitable rise in global population, and the associated demands for much of that growth to be associated with better quality of life, must mean greater energy use and greater extraction of resources (and I mean this in a much broader sense than minerals and fossil fuels, encompassing issues such as agricultural intensification, use of fresh water, and the impacts of greater urbanisation) using either current or new technologies.

For politicians and the public, this is going to mean a constant consideration of tradeoffs, for holding an extreme position either of unlimited extraction or of absolute conservation is unrealistic. The growth curve for the global population is, barring epidemics or war, inevitable and in a connected world; humane considerations make advancing the conditions of the less developed essential.

The role of the public scientist must be to present the empirical evidence, to acknowledge the limits of our knowledge, and to assist and inform the complex debates that every society must have on these issues.

But just because scientific knowledge can challenge our biases and our beliefs is not a reason to reject it. Anti-scientism is illogical—it is rejecting the only process we have for obtaining reliable (but not necessarily complete) knowledge of the world we live in and have created.

But equally science must recognise its limits and accept that while it may provide knowledge that has a privileged place in the formation of policy, it is not the only consideration in resolving these tradeoffs.

There were many other important observations I made during my trip to Canada—they will be the subject of future postings.

 

 

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