Working Together for Democracy and Science

Science is needed to save democracy

Democracy doesn’t work if its participants support parties through blind loyalty as if they were their home-town sports team, it works through reasoned debate built on facts supported by evidence and reason. Roughly speaking, that’s science, although other disciplines are needed, such as history, journalism, philosophy and politics itself, which should be based on the same foundation but with different methods.

The public doesn’t know enough science

There are too many people who have too little knowledge of how to use science to make informed political decisions about important political matters that will have profound impacts on their lives. They are at great risk of making decisions that go against their direct personal interests and their desire to make ethical decisions that affect others. They need to know science not just as a collection of facts but also as one of the approaches they can use to separate facts from fiction. This is under increasing attack. Canada spent too long under a government that actively suppressed scientific communication and, although the current government is considerably better, it still has a long way to go in enabling science to play its full role in a healthy democracy. The US has recently elected an actively anti-science federal government, with several of the States in collusion, while the UK is somewhere in between.

The fault is not with scientists

While there are scientists who do lock themselves up in their ivory towers, there are easily enough scientists spending considerable amounts of their personal time in communicating science. We are not short of material, so demanding more outreach from scientists will get us nowhere. Look at the many books, magazines, TV programs and similar material with lots of information about science. Go on social media. It is full of scientists communicating in easy-to-understand bites, full of passion about what they do.

There is no simple answer

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” – H. L. Mencken

Science communication participants

Science literacy will not be improved by one simple measure.  In the diagram above, I have shown a few of the participants and a few of their influences on the goal of achieving a scientifically literate public, a public with, among other factors

  • The skill to assess basic inputs: to know when to trust what they hear or see
  • A sufficient knowledge base, both to understand the world and as a foundation for evaluating new information
  • A motivation to question and to learn

There are forces against science literacy

These forces corrupt people’s understanding people have of science by disseminating falsehoods or half-truths that are only one side of a more complex picture. Some of these have very large budgets and are able to reach a lot of people through social and traditional media and through word of mouth. It is naive to think that a set of scientists can fully counter their influence. They distort the set of skills, knowledge and motivation that each person has, resulting in lower science literacy and lower trust in rationality and science.

Some participants are deliberately attacking science because the results of scientific inquiry oppose their vested interests. These include corporations that benefit from activities that scientists have identified as harmful, such as carbon emitters that damage the climate and tobacco companies that damage our health, and include the politicians who spread their message.

Some have internalized the anti-science message and campaign against vaccination or in favour of “alternative” medicine with little or no foundation in evidence. These are often well-intentioned people who genuinely think that they are doing the best thing for themselves or their children and believe that scientists are acting out of other motivations.

Almost the entire advertising industry and the industries they act for are a force against science literacy. They do this both by presenting at best one-sided accounts of the facts (‘tastes great but very unhealthy’) and by reducing trust in scientists by using actors in white coats and other devices to exploit people’s trust in science to sell their products and thereby dilute that trust.

Media hacks (as opposed to genuine reporters) who generate click-bait headlines with very distorted view of emerging science, just to attract attention. These are parasites who also dilute people’s trust in scientists because there are so many contradictions in their reports that people believe indicate that science itself is riddled with contradictions. “Everything both cures and causes cancer.”

Some people in administrative authority in school systems attempt to campaign against science, in particular areas such as evolution or climate change because of their own ideology or vested interests. Others, of course, are strongly supportive of science education, but not all are aware of what is most important to teach.

The relative exclusion of Indigenous people and people of colour generally, women, (would-be) first-generation scholars and other under-represented groups from science is another major inhibitor. The lack of role models for the members of this group not active in science means it is much less likely that they will understand science and that they will feel actively excluded. These communities will not include scientists who return home and talk science at the dinner tables or in communal places like bars, raising interest levels and encouraging the children to take up science.

There are many participants that help

Probably the strongest force is members of the public. People in their communities have more influence on each other than most external sources. From the school kids who insult other kids by calling them  ‘nerds’ and the science enthusiasts who happily call themselves nerds while reinforcing each others’ enthusiasm, to their grown-up equivalents, people create the social environment in which science is nurtured or ignored and opposed.

Scientists themselves are the most enthusiastic supporters of science. Nobody goes into science with the intention of getting rich. Younger ones in particular spend a lot of time and energy promoting science in many ways. There is no shortage of information and enthusiasm. We do have to make sure it reaches the right channels. We also need to institutionalize it, by which I mean:

  • Pay them for outreach. This helps both in the obvious way, that they need the money to eat, pay rent and often to pay off student loans, but also it is an important social signal that this work is valued.
  • Make it count towards career evaluation and enhancement.

This requires action by science administrators (which includes senior scientists) and by politicians and the people who elect them.

Journalists who represent science and scientists to the public are vital participants in science communication. Some have scientific training and do a great job by themselves; others are able to work with scientists to create a good story. I do hope that more will represent not just what has been discovered, but how. That can also make a good story but helps the public understand better why they should put more trust in genuine science than pseudo-science and how to tell the difference.

What is to be done?

Every little helps. Society everywhere will benefit if more people adopt enough science to benefit themselves, their families, friends and neighbours; in this context, I mean both using small-scale scientific methods to address issues important to them and being aware of what professional scientists have shown. In these difficult times, there is some urgency to action as we are forced ever more into a choice between obedience to authority or independent assessment of the facts, but a lot of the heavy lifting their needs to be done by more radical means. However, even while doing that, we should always be asking ourselves “is this helping restore evidence-based rationality” and acting accordingly. In the longer run, education of the young is the focus both because they are more receptive to the message of enlightenment or of adherence to authority and of course, they are the ones who will be around in the longer run.

We can each do something to push members of our social circles or public figures a little bit in positive directions. It may be that the few people who read this are all already working hard on spreading enthusiasm for science and calling politicians asking for actions. Thank you, you are doing a great service for all of us.

For those of you who feel you can take more on, think where you can best influence others. We all have different skills and different spheres of influence, you know yours best. Every conversation can leave the participants a little more knowledgeable, a little more energetic and a little more confident in their ability to influence others.

I have quite a few general ideas bouncing around in my head but they need a bit more thought. I hope they gel enough for a future post.

One that I’m wondering about is “is the science education in high schools and university useful mostly for those aiming at a career in science, or is there enough for those who need a more general understanding for life in other careers and for making wise political choices”. I’m too long out of school and too immersed in science to know without more research. Thoughts, anyone?

Other thoughts are around how we can support each other. For example, for journalists who publish on science, I know they’d love you to reach out and comment on their articles. Praise and useful criticism are both usually welcome.




IT Architecture career

I found IT architecture to be the ideal career for me because I’m a dabbler. I want to know everything at some level. IT architecture let me get some insight and participation in many other careers since there is very little that does not use computers. In the course of designing systems for other people, you spend a lot of time with them, learning about their jobs, so you can understand how you can help them. Personally, I worked with

  • River modeling and flood forecasting
  • Geographic Information Systems
  • Many things governments do, including social services, taxation, health care, various registries (land, property, vehicles,….), defence
  • Bioinformatics
  • Defence
  • Financial Services

and many more. I worked with civil servants, scientists, First Nations, charities, banks and others, from the front-line workers to senior executives. I worked on location in most Canadian Provinces, several US States, Netherlands, UK, Czech Republic, as well as several other countries via video conference, and taught in France and Poland as well.

I also got time to do my own research and develop courses.

When I taught IT architecture. I usually asked each class if their significant others knew what they did for a living. The answer was usually “no”. So the odds are you don’t either. I’ll try to explain.

There are several kinds of IT Architects, with various specialties, such as infrastructure, security, applications. I started off as a programmer and worked my way through application architecture (designing the functional software) to being chief architect where I had to do a bit of everything and integrate the whole thing into one big system. Generally speaking, there are two main jobs. You get to be in charge of the technical aspects of the whole system or a subsystem. You are responsible for the design and for providing technical leadership to the team who builds your piece. You usually are, or report to the chief architect. You usually work extremely closely with your best friend, the Project Manager (PM). If you are on the application side or chief architect, you spend a lot of time with your clients at every level of their organization.

Since I had the programming skills, I would also review the technical designs and code of developers. In the end, I had overall responsibility for the technical success of the project, so had to make sure everything was going to work. Although the PM was responsible for schedule and budget, I would usually do most of the estimating and help the PM keep on track. Since the projects were often for tens or hundreds of million dollars, this could be a bit stressful.

If this is of any interest to you, “like” the posts on Twitter or comment on this blog, and I’ll write some more. Perhaps some anecdotes and what you need to do if you may be interested in IT architecture.

Science and public policy

The editorial in this week’s Science1 is called The science-policy interface. The editorial itself admits that this is a “well worn, long-standing question”. Why is this? The editorial provides a hint when it says that “Providing scientific advice to government takes place within an ecosystem. It is a combination of actors who are both internal and external to government.”

Although the point of the editorial is to draw attention to the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA) forum, it does spend some time on the wider question.

I take this as a hint to go wider still. There are many more actors within this “ecosystem2” than are considered in the editorial. The actors in the editorial seem to be those who are providing fact-based advice, at least nominally accepting that evidence and rational argument are required, even if that is in the form of opinion polls and anecdotes. However, we need to acknowledge that there are others who are less inclined to play by the restrained rules implied by the editorial. These are the lobbyists and other powerful actors whose influence is based on their money and connections. These are also likely to use the techniques of rhetoric and half-truths and lies used by those who want to persuade people to points of view to the actors’ advantage.

This invites the next question: should those of us on the side of evidence and rationality stick to those tools of our trade, or should we go beyond that?

Figure 1 shows some of the primary influences on policy. The social climate influences and is influenced by most of the actors but is probably most strongly influenced by the actors in the middle column, including the government itself, and it most strongly influences the electorate.

Policy influences
Policy influences

How much should scientists use tactics such as lobbying and advertising techniques to persuade the government and electorate to adopt policies based on evidence and logic? How much should they use them to persuade the government where the policy is directly related to the science, such as public funding for science, especially where evidence is hard to come by?

There is significant risk (and ethical concerns) that using those techniques will reduce public trust in scientists. However, that leaves us with the challenge of countering the massive lobbying and media campaigns to deny science and reduce its role in decision making. What should our counter be, to the climate change denial funded by enormously wealthy fossil fuels companies and by tobacco companies? The poll numbers suggest that they have had excessive influence, detrimental to the public interest, on these and other topics.

The tobacco industry is doing less well these days, thanks to public campaigns against their products and press engagement that has publicized at least some of the tactics they used to sell their products. Law suits for damages to health have helped.

That suggests that similar tactics may work against the fossil fuel giants and more generally against other lobbyists and advertisers. Lawsuits may be more difficult in the case of climate change as it is more difficult to demonstrate causality for specific damages and more difficult to identify those responsible (is the producer liable, or the consumer).

However, I suggest that in the long run, more benefit will come from efforts to change the social climate. This can have a longer term effect (although with some chance of rapid changes sweeping through). Although education is a big part of this, requiring changes to funding, curriculum and techniques, it also involves professional and social media generating sufficient interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) that means that the education is sustained for a lifetime and that people will seek out scientific content as much as possible, as well as learning and using the thinking tools that will allow them to combat the misinformation that is everywhere.

What does this mean in practice? It means having more scientists and their allies involved in science communication. Not only communicating the cool facts, but also changing the image of what science is all about and why non-scientists should be more interested, as well as giving more insight into what scientists are like.

1. Science, 2 September 2016 doi: 10.1126/science.aai8837

2. The use of “ecosystem” in a metaphorical sense is not to be taken too seriously, but it does invite some analogies. Where are the predators and parasites? It’s not clear that any actors literally eat others, but they do compete for resources, and analogies to parasites within actors can be imagined.