Archive for the ‘Author: Logar, N.’ Category

A Positive Side to Controversy?

July 12th, 2005

Posted by: admin

Hans von Storch’s talk last Friday, titled “Hockey sticks and the sustainability of climate science,” was divided into two parts. The second part of the talk dealt with the politicization of climate science and the possibility of negative effects stemming from this, while the first half focused almost entirely on technical details related to climate reconstruction and the algorithms of Mann, Bradley, and Hughes (MBH) that led to the hockey stick. More than a few people in the audience had no more than a passing interest in climate modeling or climate reconstruction. Their presence, and the presence of a crowd large enough to be standing room only, was indicative of one of von Storch’s major points. This point can be paraphrased as, “The political stakes for climate science are quite high, and thus we must be assiduous in presenting our science accurately and truthfully in order to ensure the science’s credibility and long-term sustainability.” von Storch was able to point to the crowded room as evidence for the amount of controversy and emotional investment surrounding the debate on the hockey stick. This made it easier for him to support one of his major points; overselling scientific results can have large consequences for public perceptions of science.

I agree with von Storch’s statement that how we present science can be important. Both von Storch and Roger Pielke Jr. point out that the prominent use of the hockey stick by the IPCC was the impetus for it’s manifestation as a symbol, which opened the door for the current debate. However, I do think that von Storch’s fear that this is damaging to the enterprise of climate science may be overblown.


Positive Feedback Gone Awry

June 28th, 2005

Posted by: admin

Last week, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences released a report entitled United States Space Policy: Challenges and Opportunities (available here). The report, authored by George Abbey, former director of the Johnson Space Center, and Neal Lane, former director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, identified four barriers to the future development of U.S. space science. According to the authors, the second of these barriers is a “projected shortfall in the U.S. science and engineering workforce.” The report utilizes data from the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators (here). and from the National Science Foundation to point to recent declines in the numbers of U.S. physics Ph.D.s, growth in science and engineering-related jobs, and increased competition for foreign scientists. The report characterizes the future prospects for science and engineering in America as a “looming shortage”, and a “crisis” because of the projected shortfalls in manpower. Roger has already written a couple posts (“Scientist Shortage”, and “Scientific Workforce, Supply Side”) on this subject that provide reason for skepticism in the face of claims of impending shortage.

Additionally, the authors of the report write in their recommendations for a healthy workforce, “Beyond all these, the most important requirement is probably a truly exciting national vision, laid out by the leaders of this country, that offers young people the opportunity for adventure that first inspired Americans to build a great nation. Space should play a large role in this national vision, just as it did during the Apollo days. If young people see exciting careers ahead in science and engineering, they are likely to pursue them with passion.”

This reasoning seems somewhat circular. The quoted paragraph posits the excitement of space science as a means for motivating young people to pursue careers in science and engineering. So, one barrier to healthy space science is the projected shortage of scientists, and the most significant means of increasing the number of scientists is to promote space science. In other words, we need more scientists and engineers for the future of our space enterprise, and we need an enhanced space enterprise for the future of our scientists and engineers. Apparently, this is a case of positive feedback gone awry.

Abstaining on evolution

June 22nd, 2005

Posted by: admin

Yesterday, a New York Times article entitled “Opting out in the debate on Evolution,” described the abstention of many in the scientific community from recent hearings by the Kansas State Board of Education. The article’s author, Cornelia Dean, quotes Eugenie Scott, of the National Center for Science Education, as saying, “We on the science side of things strong-armed the Kansas hearings because we realized this was not a scientific exchange, it was a political show trial.”

Many of those who refuse to participate argue that the debate is not won over scientific content, but instead pits the science-based theory of evolution versus the faith-based idea of intelligent design, which stipulates that the only way to explain the complexity we see on Earth lies in the existence of an intelligent agent. Although the advocates of intelligent design might disagree, I would find the arguments of evolution’s backers, which deny classification of intelligent design as a science, quite convincing. One example can be found in an article by Dr. Kenneth Miller, here.

What is laudable in this case is the recognition by scientists that the arena of debate in Kansas is not a scientific one, and the conclusion this leads to, which is that there is less reason for scientists to participate. While the outcome of the Kansas State Board of Education hearings will unfortunately play out in science classrooms, which are locales that are ostentatiously devoted to science, those scientists who refuse to participate have done well in avoiding the debate since it does not involve a scientifically pertinent question. Instead, the argument is one of those who value scientific explanations versus those who value explanations based on other ideologies and values. Since the debate did not center on the validity of the science (as defined by most of the scientific community, but not those who want to teach intelligent design), and since many people thought the hearing was a “show trial” with a foregone conclusion of teaching intelligent design alongside evolution (which is how it ended), scientists planning on arguing the merits of evolutionary theory did well to stay home. As Eugenie Scott says of the issue, “We are never going to solve it by throwing science at it.”

The lesson to be taken from this might be that some debates, even some with considerable scientific content, may not be on issues where more scientific evidence or better explanation of the science will help policy formulation. Scientists in other fields might do well to recognize cases where scientific debate is not being used to move an issue forward.