I’m worried about people who don’t understand science

This post originated as an address at the Penn State Brandywine Common Read kickoff event, “What Brandywine Worries About,” which took place September 11, 2014. This year’s common read is What Should We Be Worried About, which is a collection of responses to the 2013 Edge.org question. You can contribute your own response to Brandywine’s collection.

As a scientist (and yes, psychology is a science – we’ll come back to that) I am worried about people who don’t understand science. That may sound obvious, but I’m actually worried about this in two distinct but related ways. I’m worried both about people who don’t “believe” in science, and those who do “believe” in science, because they both misunderstand science, just in slightly different ways; they’re two sides of the same coin.

The first side is more obvious and more worrisome: science denialism. Science denialism is the view that science doesn’t really “work”, or succeed at providing knowledge (at least about anything useful). This usually leads to ignoring scientific evidence in favor of pre-existing opinions, biases, anecdotes, or dogma.

I think this problem is only intensified in the social sciences, compared to the physical sciences. I spend a lot of time convincing beginning students that Psychology is a science, which can be studied in the same general way as biology and physics. I see two major reasons for this: psychology is (partly) about feelings, and it’s easy to get confused between the object of study, and the method of studying it. Intuition has a role in inspiring inquiry in psychology, just as it does in chemistry, but we don’t accept it as evidence in either.

Second, Psychology is young compared to Physics and at this point has fewer well established laws, leading to the false impression that the nature of knowledge in psychology is always “squishy” and will always be open to reinterpretation.

So, even for students who take a generally scientific worldview in regard to medicine and astronomy are a bit of a hard sell in regard to psychology, but they usually come around. Those who don’t “believe” in the findings of science in other areas are a very hard sell indeed, but I think Neil Degrasse Tyson described this situation in a way that both captures my worries about science denialism and the other philosophy I’m worried about, scientism: “the good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

The first key word here is ‘believe’ – because Dr. Tyson is correct belief plays a very small role in science, at least in the way that most people mean it. The basic idea of science is that there are patterns in nature (including human behavior) that we are trying to discover and describe, and that those patterns are there whether we notice or acknowledge them or not.

The part of this quote that worries me, however, and pivots to the second group that I’m concerned about, is the word ‘true’. I’m going to give Neil the benefit of the doubt and assume that he didn’t mean it in the more troubling way I’m going to describe (scientists have a pesky tendency to take words that normal people understand, and then use them in strange, narrow ways); but the somewhat-open secret in science is that even well-established scientific theories (there’s another one of those strange scientist words again) are wrong.

Can they be both ‘wrong’ and ‘true’? Only if we mean ‘wrong’ in a different way than the science-deniers do when they say that scientific theories are wrong. Established scientific models are usually “wrong” in the sense that they are imprecise – they have some error – but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t useful in making predictions about the world. We aren’t going to throw them out just because they’re imprecise unless we can refine them or find a better model. Science progresses in incremental steps, with only occasional leaps.

Critics of science sometimes see this continual changing of ideas, and say “see, science can never get it right!” but we should be worried if scientific ideas aren’t continually changing. The other way of misunderstanding science that I’m worried about comes from taking the “trueness” of scientific theories too literally, or too statically, and forgetting about the process. Because even if you don’t deny the findings or utility of science, it’s still not something you “believe” in – it’s something you do.

Anti-science critics often science for being just another dogma, and scientists of believing it as dogmatically as any religious group but refusing to admit that they do. I’m not sure most scientists really do this, but if they do, they should stop (as should regular people who generally support science). They may be “on my side” in the sense of recognizing the utility of science, but an ally who misunderstands or misrepresents your position is not much help. There’s no need to “believe” in evolution or gravity; even if we don’t they are still useful (but flawed) theories that help us reason about and operate in the world. What scientists “believe”, or have observed, is that science is a useful process for answering certain kinds of questions about the world.

If you “believe” too much in science, you may fall into scientism: the idea that science is the best or only way to answer every question. Science is designed to answer scientific questions. Among other things, scientific questions must be testable using the methods of science, and not every question we might want to know the answer to is. For example, Which Beethoven sonata is best? What does Anna Karenina mean? Should we go to war? Is platypus kosher? Science also can’t even help us decide which scientific avenues we should prioritize. It may help us analyze data regarding these questions, but the questions themselves are not scientific.

So, even if you’re not a scientist, I want you to understand something about how it works – what it can do (and can’t do). And I worry that too many don’t.

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Is contraception healthcare?

The following post first appeared on the SEPP Blog on March 6, 2012

Given the continuing kerfuffle over mandated insurace coverage for contraception, I thought I would step back and consider a few basic questions.

  1. Is (hormonal) contraception healthcare?
    • clearly, yes; the pill is used to treat medical conditions, such as polycystic ovary syndrome.
  2. Are other forms of contraception (e.g., IUDs, condoms, surgical interventions), or the use of the pill for contraceptive purposes, healthcare?
    • Note: I assume, as an axiom, that pregnancy is not, in itself, an illness which requires prevention or treatment.
    • The answer to this question is more complex than #1, but only slightly more so:
      1. Even if pregnancy is not an illness, it is nonetheless a healthcare issue, carrying with it health risks that must be managed; it is therefore worthwhile to enable humans* to avoid assuming these risks if they would rather not.
      2. There are health benefits for mother and child (and familes) of controlling the spacing of pregnancies; contraception aids in accomplishing this.
  3. Are other methods of controlling pregnancy (i.e., celibacy or fertility awareness methods) acceptable alternatives?
  4. Are there public health or economic benefits of increased access to contraception?
    • Yes; for some contraceptive methods, decreased risk of sexually transmitted infections (on a related note, there is an argument to be made for the public health benefits of greater promiscuity).
    • For hormonal methods, there are both risks and beneficial side-effects. This is true of most drugs, of course, and as with most drugs, the cost-benefit analysis is usually left to the patient and doctor (and, unfortunately, the insurer).
    • As the article above notes, having more women on birth control provides more opportunities for reproductive and non-reproductive preventive care.
    • As noted above, mothers and children are healthier when women have more control over their fertility. This is likely to lead to better health outcomes and cost savings system-wide.

In sumary, this seems like a pretty strong case that contraception is a form of healthcare, and deserves consideration in the healthcare policy debate. Whether the current insurance  infrastructure provides the means to effectively deliver this remains a separate question.

* I say ‘humans’ because I (as a male) assume men have an interest in whether their partners become pregnant.

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Parsing the contraception controversy

This post first appeared on the SEPP Blog on February 11, 2012

Tell me if you can discern any moral difference between the following insurance policies:

  1. Every employer which provides/contributes to employees’ health insurance must provide a policy which covers contraception.
  2. Employers can choose to provide coverage which either does or does not cover contraception; health insurance companies must provide contraception coverage (for free) to individuals whose employers choose not to offer it.
  3. Every health insurance product offered for sale in the U.S. must cover contraception.

I’m pondering this because of the recent controversy surrounding the Obama administration’s decision to enforce rule #1, which was met with great anger by (some) religious groups, especially the Conference of Catholic Bishops; the administration then tried to appease these critics by changing the rule to something like #2. This satisfied some, but not others (including the Bishops).

Although I disagree with the Bishops on the cenral question, I see their point here, since I (mostly) can’t tell the difference between #1 and #2 (or #3 for that matter) [of course, they certainly have political differences, but I’m not concerned with those here]. I don’t think it can be about money, since as far I understand it, the insurance companies actually save money by offering this coverage to women for free, since it prevents other health costs; Even if it did cost the insurance company, it is likely that they would pass this cost on to their other policies, including those offered to Catholic hospitals and others opting out of contraception coverage. So, it cannot be that the Church’s objection is to some of their money going to something to which they object.

It seems that their objection is related to facilitating access to contraception by their employees in any way. I could accept this if any person could get free contraception from any insurance company, whether or not they have a comprehensive policy with that company. I don’t think this is the case – only those whose employer opts out of providing contraception coverage get this benefit from the insurance company.

So, it seems the reasoning of those who like this compromise is something like the following:

  1. Being required to contribute $0 (or -$5) for insurance which includes contraception coverage = religious oppression.
  2. Paying an additional $0 (or $5) to offer coverage which does not cover contraception, which policy entitles the policyholder to free contraception coverage from the same insurer = OK.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh. The only sliver of difference I can discern is that option #2 might require some kind of affirmative action on the part of the employee to select such coverage, which absolves the employer (in their own eyes) from the responsibility of being the one who facilitated the employees use of contraception. Since the rule isn’t in effect yet, I don’t know whether this affirmative action exists or what it would be (such as filling out an additional form). I still find it to be a pretty weak argument. If anyone can explain it to me, I would appreciate it.

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what is the goal of “learning”?

This post originally appeared on the SEPP Blog on December 14, 2011

Recently on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart reported on “controversy” surrounding the TLC show American Muslim, highlighting an unfortunate American attitude about education:



The crux of the Florida Family Association’s complaint is that the show is:

“harmful, education-wise, to the belief structures and memories of millions of Americans who will look at this and say, well, ‘all Muslims are like that’, when it’s not accurate.”

This prompts Stewart to ask:

“Is that not the purpose of education vis-a-vis belief structures? To replace your belief structures with…facts?”

This controversy surrounds cultural stereotypes, but applies to all kinds of education, including science. I think Stewart’s take on belief structures versus facts reflects the view of many science supporters, but I also think (hope?) that most educators and scientists, at least in psychology, view learning as the replacement of belief structures with other belief structures.

Does this mean all beliefs are valid, and should be taken equally seriously? Of course not; why bother learning/teaching anything if that were the case? We just hope that the new belief structures are more useful and reality-based than the old ones. Often though, some belief structures, especially those linked to religion, are held to be “out-of-bounds” by the public for re-education. This leads to clashes over scientific and political issues, such as global warming and the teaching of evolution, where some players hold that their belief systems are to be held equally or more valid than the prevailing scientific evidence.

I think that part of the cause for this lies with how scientists and scientist-educators have communicated about science. While rightfully abandoning arguments from authority and emphasizing the processes of the scientific method, we have fallen short and left a large segment of the population with the impression that all scientific knowledge is equally tentative. This has been further compounded by academic critiques of science (i.e., the Science Wars), whose unintended consequences led Bruno Latour to remark that

“dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives”.

Science isn’t perfect (and scientists certainly aren’t), and is built on the assumption that we should continually refine our theories and methods; but this doesn’t mean that the whole of science is a house of cards. Absolute truths are hard to come by, but the fundamental goal of science is to use reasoning and technology to create knowledge (or belief systems, if you will) that is more closely aligned with what is “true”.

How do we do this? Richard Dawkins has stated that he wouldn’t indoctrinate children in atheism any more than he would indoctrinate them in any religion. He would simply teach them about religion (and science, and everything else), and let them decide on their own worldview. E.O. Wilson proposed a good rule of thumb:

“To the extent that philosophical positions both confuse us and close doors to further inquiry, they are likely to be wrong.”

In this way, I think science is on the right track, but needs to work on its messaging. To the extent that opponents of science misappropriate the notion of rigorous inquiry position to attack science, their beliefs need to be held to the same standard, and scientists need to point out when these positions are not even wrong.

While I’m always discouraged to see poor understanding of science by the public and news media, I have a positive outlook. Public thought about science seems to me to be mirroring the process a child goes through in learning, which is often a U-shaped curve. Right now, we are at a developmental stage in which we have moved from an understanding of science as a set of facts to one where science is a process of inquiry, and the widespread doubts about scientific theories actually reflects the early stages of a more advanced understanding. By continuing to educate students and the public about the process and philosophy of science, I hope that we can advance our understanding up the other side of the curve.

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