Thanks to everyone who participated in our last events. I have finally uploaded the video and audio files from Dr. Baird’s seminar presentation. Our tripod was missing an essential piece, so you’ll see a bit of moving around and the backs of audience members’ heads for the first 10 minutes. You can find the links by navigating to our Events section for 2011. Unfortunately, if you missed the discussion, you’ll just have to come to the next one. We welcome any ideas/topics/speakers you may have for planning a future discussion group.
In his seminar, Dr. Baird was able to point to some areas needing improvement both in Congress and the scientific community. As scientists, we have training and experiences which allow us to accept scientific facts as well as to define uncertainties enveloping the data. Baird pointed out the lack of epistemology used in congress, which has obvious huge implications for the way in which legislation is passed or blocked. Factions can tend to form on either side of facts when (incorrect) interpretations tend to favor the views, dispositions, or convictions that people already have, rather than to evaluate the body of evidence and the weight of the certainty. And for many topics of political debate, it is observed that these factions do not cross party lines in Congress (as Baird attested to with several anecdotes).
However, the lack of skepticism in Congress does not mean that scientists (or other individuals) on the other side of a disagreement are completely without factual error. An excellent example was made in our discussion which followed the seminar, in which a participant commented to the amount of people holding certain beliefs. I don’t recall his exact statement, but it went something like the following:
Participant: “A majority of people believe X…”
Baird: “Well actually, the ___ Report by ____ says it is about __% of them.”
Participant: “Well I know lots of people who believe X”
Baird: “How do you define ‘lots of’? Because according to this study, with results published in ___, is is about _% of the population.”
The participant retreated from his original statement of his estimate of [whatever it was we were discussing] when he was countered with a factual reference. Baird highlighted that rather than telling someone they are wrong, which can lead to emotional backlash, dead-lock or the “We’ll just have to agree to disagree”, propose a comparison of the facts and provide the resources and qualify the claims. In his own anecdotes, this commonly causes people to go from firm opposition to a calm rapport in which factual discussions can actually take place. Once rapport is established, then communication can begin in the political arena or where scientific facts are provided as evidence.
To tie this experience back into the seminar, scientists and politicians alike need to work on the discourse in discussion of scientific evidence. Everyone could use a healthy dose of empirical skepticism (not to be confused with denial skepticism, which isn’t actually skepticism). But assuming that we all are operating with our skeptical- and critical-thinking caps on, their needs to be a better job of the scientist experts on supplying this information to Congress (and to the public). If the layperson is willing to inspect your scientific data, whether they be in Congress, a friend, or someone you meet while waiting for the bus, you ought to make it accessible to them. Further, not only should you be able to excite them about the prospects of the research, but you have to convince them that this is worth the discretionary spending of their taxes – especially in these times of fiscal crises. The bottom line, and the most powerful moment in the talk for me, was when Baird instructed the scientists to
Make sure it’s worth while…it isn’t always.
There is a need for everyone (on the Hill, in the lab, on Main Street, in the ‘Burbs) to stay true with themselves and to be honest about what the objectives should be for public spending and what is the most effective use of our combined resources. When science proposals are literally at odds with spending on other programs and trying to make the latest cut, even some of the most interesting studies fall short. In my personal experience as a federally-funded researcher, when I actually have to weigh the spending choices for my research against a friend in another group/department/university/field or against other public services, it not only is breathtaking and grounding, but it illustrates the great privilege that I have being able to work as a scientist because the general public (or at least a board of an appropriations and grant selection committees) thinks it is worth while, because I sure do.
Some literary resources from the seminar:
What Do You Care What Other People Think? and The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, by Richard Feynman
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change, by Thomas Kuhn
The Logic of Scientific Discovery, by Karl Popper
The Open and Closed Mind, by Milton Rokeach
Character Politics & Responsibility, by Brian Baird