Snodgrass: Science Embroiled In Controversy And Doubt … Is National Security At Risk?

Los Alamos Daily Post

Matthew Hughes’ 21st century science fiction/fantasy novels about Henghis Hapthorn are set in the far future, but the plots are laced with insightful allegorical connotations that are very much a reflection of the present day.  

Hapthorn, a planet-hopping private eye called a “discriminator,” makes his living solving problems for the wealthy aristocracy of Old Earth.

However, the real McGuffin for the series, as Hollywood calls the plot-enabling device in a movie, has to do with a fundamental transformation, which seems to be shifting reality in the world of the novel away from logic and reason and toward an emergent phenomenon, something that is euphemistically called, “sympathetic association.”  

The old way of deducing facts from clues has been the stock in trade of detectives since the Victorian Age. But in this series of books, sometime in the far future, that system is no longer working. So, reluctantly, Hapthorn tries to accept reality’s new regime, bidding goodbye to the rational cosmos and hello to something he almost calls “magic,” but instead calls, “sympathetic association.”

This story-telling trick is a cultural device for treating an ominous issue of our time. Maybe it’s not as simple as plain old magic, but here’s how Joel Achenbach describes the trend in the March 2015 issue of National Geographic to make it easy to recognize: “We live in an age when all manner of scientific knowledge – from the safety of fluoride and vaccines to the reality of climate change – faces organized and often furious opposition.“

There are both favorite and frustrating examples of the conflict  “Scientific controversies,” an article compiled by Nature magazine in 2013, includes the dangers of mutant flu research, Big Brother surveillance issues related to brain scanning by neuroscientists, and the perils of proliferation inherent in laser separation of radioactive medical isotopes. A conscienscious family member at the present time knows better than to talk about genetically modified organisms or geoengineering at holiday gatherings.

“Empowered by their own sources of information and their own interpretations of research,” Achenbach continues, “doubters have declared war on the consensus of experts. There are so many of these controversies these days, you’d think a diabolical agency had put something in the water to make people argumentative. And there’s so much talk about the trend these days – in books, articles, and academic conferences – that science doubt itself has become a pop-culture meme.”

So what’s eating science?

The fault goes beyond the deniers and know-nothing critics. There is a genealogy and a history of science and the way the rival notions of science and technology have been embedded together in social and political arrangements, not to mention how they have had to earn a living.

There are always a few bad-apple scientists and the ones who are simply prone to human error, but that contributes to confusion. There’s so much factually wrong about the daily output of science in the world that the Center for Scientific Integrity has put up a web site, Retraction Watch, to keep track of the comings and goings of faulty and fraudulent science papers.

Articles on geomorphology, fluid mechanics, bullying among school children in Iran, and cardiac heart repair were retracted in the last several days. The week before, there was a big flap about a study published in December 2014 in Science that was about a high success rate in changing the mind of a member of the public to be in favor of same-sex marriage. The project sounds pretty dubious on its face, but it had to be pulled May 20 at the request of one of its authors. It was exposed by a story in The New Republic and immediately inspired a New York Times op-ed.

In 2005 John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist from Stanford University, caused a stir with a paper showing why, as a matter of statistical logic, the idea that only one such paper in 20 gives a false-positive result was hugely optimistic. Instead, he argued, “most published research findings are probably false.” A current Stanford profile places Ioannidis among the 100 most-cited among all 20+ million authors publishing across science.

A prominent line of defense has been the one that calls the whole mess a “communication problem.” This is a school led by Yale University Law Professor Dan M. Kahan, who is associated with the Cultural Cognition Project, a policy research group that applies scientific methods to look at how public values influence perceptions of risk in matters like climate change and emerging technology. His findings tend to put the responsibility back on the public, suggesting that it is not a lack of scientific literacy in society, but the desire to fit in with one’s group that most influences individual response to scientific controversy.

There is much more to be said on this subject another day. But for now, the big question is, if science is dethroned as an authority, for all its flaws, what will replace it? Magic? Sympathetic Association? Cultural cognition?

Yes, national security is at risk in the issue of climate change, as the White House concluded recently in a report and a speech by President Obama. But maybe more importantly national security is at risk because science is threatened and, without it, we have lost our compass and won’t know how to find the truth anyway.

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