[The following remarks were delivered live at the University of Connecticut on November 5th, 2019.]
I feel I must begin today by justifying the now-unconventional decision to speak to you, in the only manner in which it was possible for humans to speak to one another for the first several eons of our history, and without any of the electronic or digital accoutrement that since the late 1900s have come to be seen as de rigeur components of the academic talk. I assure you it is only after suffering a long and lamentable marriage to the aforesaid accoutrement that I have arrived at the conclusion that the only satisfactory disposition of our affairs would be our current separation and pending divorce, but I can testify as a man now liberated from that unholy matrimony, that laying aside an institution many of us have come to view as a kind of sacrament has not only failed to atrophy, but indeed has substantially whetted, my appetite for fulsome and fruitful intellectual congress.
It is, I believe, still quite possible to give a truly engaging academic speech while neither speaker nor listeners are devoting any attention at all to loudspeakers or display screens; a talk in which the only medium of communication is the air itself, a talk in which the ringing in your ears is powered only by the breath in my lungs. And so I ask you to humor me for these brief remarks. I hope that you will find, as I have, that by casting aside the technology, I have given myself both the opportunity and the inclination to carefully craft the words themselves, and I hope that as a result, they are, absent any visual garnish, worth the time it takes to listen.
The title I chose for today’s remarks is “The Case Against Science,” and in them I hope to offer a critique, a kind of counter-narrative, to the established wisdom about scientific communication that many scholars in the field (including myself) have been preaching for a matter of decades.
That established wisdom goes something like this:
“Science Rules. Science knows and does a million and one super cool things. Everyone should know about it, love it, and support it. The problem is people. People don’t like science, they don’t understand it, they don’t support it. This problem is worst among a certain kind of American people. You know the people I mean. Those people. Those people may be ignorant, or willful, or victims of some kind of misinformation. They are more likely to deserve pity than scorn, but there is most definitely something wrong with them, as evidenced by the fact that they neither like nor trust us. And so it is up to us to do something to help them.”
Almost all of modern science communication is shaped by this paradigm; it is an effort to help “us” correct some perceived deficiency in “them.”
This paradigm is so deeply ingrained that we rarely even bother to articulate it, let alone question it, but after nearly fifteen years of working within that paradigm myself, which has been dominant for more than half a century, I am now convinced that it is no longer sufficient to achieve the ends with which it has been tasked. My evidence for this belief is simple; despite the widespread use of this paradigm, despite the skill and passion of the many professionals working within it, and despite the significant resources devoted to its pursuit, the half-century of its dominance has been a period in which American interest in, understanding of, and support for science, has experience a marked decline.
The proposal of any new paradigm would be far beyond the scope of my remarks here today, and possibly a question I lack the necessary training to profitably explore, but operating under the theory that one needn’t be a carpenter to spot a leaky roof, it is my intent here to explore in detail the nature of the current paradigm’s limitations, if only to set some boundaries on the theoretical space in which a new paradigm might be formed.
The central thesis of my remarks here is simply this: science communication has been failing because science kind of sucks. What too many scientists see as the defeat of “us” at the hands of “them” can be viewed as a failure on our part to formulate science which is useful, meaningful, or easily understood, not a failure on their part to understand or appreciate it.
In order to make this point, I am going to offer a kind “narrative critique” of three of science’s best-known stories. For science is not a solely quantitative endeavor. While it is true that observation and experiment are mostly directed toward analytical or quantitative reasoning, it is also true that successful science depends on qualitative models, models which can (and I argue, should) be judged not simply by their technical efficacy or utility, but by what one might call their aesthetic appeal, how easily they are framed as narratives, and what responses those narratives are likely to engender when they are heard or told. In each case I will identify what I see as the key shortcomings of those narratives, and in closing will offer a proposal for how I think science as a whole can chart a path forward.
The three scientific issues I will offer as case studies are: The Origin of the Universe, Human Evolution, and Global Climate Change.
Our first case, The Origin of the Universe, is one of the most basic questions asked in all of science. Cosmology, which in the 21st century has become a highly technical observational science, is also a very old endeavor. For nearly as long as people have been looking up they have been crafting stories about the things that appear in the night sky, and traditional origin stories from many cultures around the world make references to what even some astronomers still refer to as “The Heavens.” The modern story of where the Cosmos came from goes like this:
“13.8 billion years ago, at one precise moment in time, all there is or ever was or ever will be sprang instantaneously into existence for no reason at all. That springing took the form of a giant explosion with the hugely imaginative name: The Big Bang. This Bang hurled all of everything away from everything else, and space has been expanding ever since. We thought for many years that the expansion of space was either constant or slowing down, but we are now certain that it is in fact speeding up, a result of a unknown and unexplained force called Dark Energy. In short, we, all of us, the whole planet, the sun, the moon, and all of the stars, is: debris, ejecta from a cosmic explosion, speeding away into nothingness, driven only by the force of darkness.”
While this model has proven effective for making sense of cosmological data, it fails completely with regard to storytelling. The narrative has no clear actors (protagonists or antagonists) it has no clear objective or obstacles, and there is little or nothing at stake. It not only lacks a cohesive structure, it is also hinges on concepts that violate basic common sense; the singularity at the beginning of the universe is a logical paradox that cannot have been physically true, the model makes predictions at a timescale that we aren’t even certain exists, and it fixes the origin of everything at this one arbitrary moment in time, despite the fact that knowing the supposed “Age of the Universe” tells us absolutely nothing of any value, as evidenced by the fact that the number is never used within the cosmological literature, it is only trotted out when cosmologists try to talk to journalists or more general publics.
What’s worse, the scientists who preach this model insist that because it is rigorous, empirical, and confirmed by experiment, it must be really true, despite the fact that they struggle to articulate what it actually means. They seem to see no issues whatsoever with the bleak and hopeless nature of the narrative, and insist the evidence makes clear that there is no room for alternative explanations, especially if they carry the whiff of the supernatural, ensuring that the only people who will be invited to contribute to cosmological research are those who are willing to subscribe to this model. And that’s bad, for a bunch of reasons. The first is simply that it keeps people out of the field. By presenting the origin story of the universe (which is, in many ways, the most important story in all of science) as a settled question, as one in which only one conceptual model is allowed, the field creates invisible barriers to different worldviews, and by extension to diversity and inclusion. The second is that it impedes progress within the field; so long as alternative models are considered taboo, people will continue to devote resources to attempts to modify the existing model despite its growing list of obvious shortcomings. Finally, it’s bad because it hampers public understanding and embrace of the theory. The Standard Model of Cosmology is hard to swallow on its own for anyone who wants or needs to believe in some notion of the eternal. But worse, by proclaiming that the science also somehow disproves stories of Genesis from religious traditions, cosmology strengthens the barriers that drive people of faith away from science generally and toward more dubious explanations.
It is this kind of scientific thinking that best illustrates my main point: People neither like nor comprehend cosmology because cosmology is both unlikable and incomprehensible. What is needed in my view is not better communications about cosmology, but a better cosmology. We now have a huge body of data about the universe that didn’t exist when the qualitative model was first formulated, and it is entirely possible that using that data, one could go back and construct a different framework, one that avoids the chief shortcomings of the current one. This is not without historical precedent; the Copernican Revolution, which eliminated the geocentric cosmologies of the ancients in favor of a heliocentric model, was not an observational revolution, but a theoretical one. Copernicus neither collected nor analyzed data, he simply fit the existing data into a simpler and more intuitive qualitative model. It seems to me a powerful statement about the state of modern science that while I can imagine a scholar doing that good and important work in the 21st century, I cannot imagine a University Physics department that would be content to have her on their faculty while she did it.
Our Second Case Study is the story of human evolution, which because it is familiar to most of us I will summarize only briefly: Species change over time. The changes are caused by random mutations in our genetic code, which can manifest as new traits. Competition between and amongst individuals selects for those traits which are most beneficial to the species’ survival, and are passed on. Through these incremental changes, organisms on this planet evolved from single-celled creatures to all of the forms of plant and animal life we see today, including ourselves.
That our theory of evolution has been as successful as it has is a testament to its strength as a narrative. In the story of evolution, life itself is the protagonist, and the environments of this planet are the antagonists. Every living things wants to survive to pass on its genetic information to the next generation, and almost everything around it (including its predators and its prey) is trying to kill it. It’s a pretty good story, with (to my eyes) one major flaw.
Despite being fairly intuitive, and despite having a strong and clear narrative structure, the story of evolution has long been one of the most contentious science topics in America, and I believe the lion’s share of that contention can be laid squarely at the feet of a single word: random. Most treatments of evolution refer to the genetic mutations as “randomly-occurring” which we in the sciences take to mean “happening in a way we cannot predict,” but the majority of Americans take to mean “happening without the guide of any method of conscious decision-making.” The effect of this is that evolution is often presented as positive disproof of the existence of a Creator; because species evolved from other species, God must have had nothing to do with it. And the truth is, we don’t know that. All that we can say for certain about the mutations (or replication errors or other sources of genetic alteration) is that we cannot predict them, and that we cannot see any mechanism directing them. It seems to me that there is plenty of room in the theory of evolution for the hand of a Creator to play a decisive role. So why don’t we say that? Why do we let a handful of self-important blowhards suck all the air out of the room, and allow them to pretend to speak for all of science? I suspect the likely answer is simple inertia; we feel we cannot preach both evolution and the potential existence of God because the grumpy old white men who pioneered our field will mock us if we do, but we should get over it, because eventually all of them will leave the field, one way or another. The truth is that evolutionary biology doesn’t tell us anything about God, and if allowing evolutionary biology to serve as a kind of worship leads more people to subscribe to goals like conservation and biodiversity, I for one say, let us widen Our Circle and embrace them.
Third and last among our cases today, Global Climate Change, is perhaps the single most influential scientific issue in our current public discourse. The severity of its potential impacts, the ubiquity of the threats it poses, and the immediacy with which it must be dealt all make it truly consequential in a way that scientific questions rarely are. And to their credit, advocates for action on global climate change have done a reasonably good job of creating a narrative framework in which to tell their story, which goes something like this:
“We, the people of the Earth, are in great peril. The planet’s climate is changing as a result of human activity, and those changes will bring grave consequences. We, the Good, Green, Heroes of the Earth, must band together to defeat the Evil Forces of Industry, and adopt this list of prescriptions, which (if used as directed) will solve the problem by stabilizing the planet’s climate, thus preventing global apocalypse. We know all this because we are smarter than you and have studied it our whole lives and all of us agree so if you don’t believe us I fart in your general direction.”
Of our three cases, this is by far the strongest from a narrative perspective. It has a clear protagonist (good green heroes of earth) antagonist (evil forces of industry) objective (save the planet) and stakes (global apocalypse). Yet I believe it is, in many ways, actually the most destructive to public understanding of science, because climate scientists have fallen into the one great trap of scientific narratives, they found a narrative so good they have proven willing to bend the science to fit the framework.
This bending is subtle, but it’s really there. It comes chiefly from the way in which climate science is presented as a unified body of knowledge (which it sort of is) each component of which has equally strong evidence behind it (which it most certainly does not). That the Earth’s climate is changing is a simple matter of fact, the result of a measurement. The Earth’s climate is changing, and those changes are now rapid and dramatic enough that almost no one attempts to deny it. That the change is anthropogenic is impossible to prove conclusively, but also has a very strong body of observational, experimental, and computational evidence to support it, to the point that it’s hardly worth arguing about. The trouble, in my view, comes from the third part of the claim, which is that if we reduce the output of certain gases by a certain amount, the rate of change will slow by a corresponding amount, and the worst consequences can be avoided. But the truth is, that is not something we know with any certainty at all.
The analogy I use here is a group of hikers who reach the crest of the hill, where they find a large boulder at rest. Together, they all begin to push against it, and eventually, the boulder begins to roll. The hikers will not debate whether or not it is moving, or whether or not it is moving because they are pushing it, but they are quite likely to wonder: if we stop pushing, will it stop rolling? And in the case of the Earth’s climate, the truth is we just don’t know.
Future climate predictions are all based on huge computational models of an inherently unpredictable system for which there is only one known example. The truth is that even if we take all of the most aggressive actions on climate change that have been proposed, it may already be too late. And yet, the world’s climate scientists almost never speak publicly about this, because they have been told by communications consultants that they should project certainty, which in this case I believe to have been terrible advice.
It particularly troubles me that consensus among a huge majority of climate scientists is sometimes offered as a kind of evidence, for as to the Philosophy of Science I am a strict Feynmanian, subscribing fully to Richard Feynman’s definition of science as a belief in the fallibility of the experts. Every field of science is littered with theories that were broadly embraced until they were disproven. The whole idea behind science is that it doesn’t matter what the experts say, the impartial observe should arrive at their own conclusions based on the evidence, and it sets a dangerous precedent if we misrepresent science merely in the hopes of winning of a scientific argument.
The truth is that there is a real debate to be had about climate change. There are no evil forces of industry, or good green heroes of the Earth. Reducing our climate impact will mean slowing the global economy in some way, and that will have different costs and benefits for different stakeholders. In some ways the opposition to climate science is already victorious, in that they have succeeded in drawing us into a pointless debate about whether or not climate science is real; a debate we can never win, and which only allows them to paint us as agenda-drive idealogues.
Rather than denying the uncertainty of climate science, we should embrace it, thus forcing the opposition to engage us in the debate we want to have, about how we make decisions based on probabilities and numerical models, about weighing the costs of action vs. the costs of inaction, a debate which can be framed in accessible terms, like the metaphor of the hikers and the boulder. Whether or not we should stop pushing depends on what in the valley below lies in the boulder’s path. Because that boulder threatens to crush all of our children, I suspect that most Americans would agree that we should probably stop pushing. But we will not have that debate, a real debate about the actual science, unless or until we come clean about how uncertain that science really is.
If there is to be an us and a them in a scientific debate, rather than standing in a field of no strategic importance bombarding one another with less and less discriminate intellectual firepower, I would have us stage a tactical retreat to more advantageous terrain, where we might entrench and fortify, there to let the adversary come to us, and see that battle joined on ground of our choosing.
The story of climate change, then, is really a counter-example of my thesis, that we can construct narratives within science that make the science more approachable and more accessible, but as we do, we must always be cognizant that we are never undermining the science itself. Most big theoretical frameworks would probably benefit from a re-evaluation of their undergirding narratives, and there is a tremendous amount of fascinating science to be done in crafting new and more accessible narratives that could make science palatable to a wider audience, but in pursuing those narratives, we must remain true to the spirit of science itself. Within the sciences, we know that science is a messy, uncertain, unpredictable landscape of interconnected unsolved problems, yet too many of us have been led to believe that we must present science as something known, something solid, something settled. It is this basic hypocrisy which I think most stymies our efforts at public engagement, and we as a field would do well to remember that while stories and storytelling and hugely important means of sharing ideas, what makes science special is that it tells stories whose truth can be tested. Finding, crafting and sharing better versions of those stories represents one of the great unexplored scientific frontiers, because those stories don’t simply engender, enhance or promote better science, those stories ARE better science.
Science communication is sometimes thought of us a marketing effort; the job is to go out there and sell the product. Having spent most of my career as a salesman in that industry, I now firmly believe that addressing the systemic problems we see with regard to American attitudes about science is not something that salesforce can achieve on its own, it must be accomplished by those of you designing and building the products. I believe that the American public will continue to reject science until science gets better. I no longer believe that chief problem is that people need to know more about science, and am now quite convinced that science needs to know more about people.