Should We Expect Our Politicians to be Science Literate?


Should we expect our politicians to be science literate?

We know that they're not scientists, they keep reminding us of that.

One of the common moves that a politician will make when asked his or her opinion about a scientific issue that they themselves don't want to publicly endorse is to defer and say "I'm not a scientist, I'll leave that judgment to the scientists".

This has become a frustrating trend in recent years.

On the other hand, I can barely go a day without reading a story about a public official who is happy to share their opinion about what is and isn't science, or what the scientific evidence says about this or that issue, when they want to advocate for a particular view.

So what do we want? Do we want politicians who defer on scientific questions, or do we want politicians who are willing to advocate for particular scientific views?

Well, I think the answer is that sometimes we want them to defer, and sometimes we want them to acknowledge scientific consensus and be willing and able to engage in a critical discussion about a particular scientific issue.

And that means that what we really want is for our politicians to be science literate -- not scientists, but literate in the nature and methods of science.

As I define it, science literacy, at its essence, is the ability think critically about science and its role in modern life.

I think it's important for the well-being of any modern liberal democracy that a decent proportion of its citizenry, and certainly its political representatives, have some foundational understanding of how science works.

But I also think it's clear that we're nowhere near this ideal. The base level of science literacy is really quite low, lower than you might expect even among people with high school and college degrees.

I'm interested in why this is so, and I'm going to talk a lot more about this question in the next video.

But first, I want to give an example of what I mean by "science literacy", by looking at a statement by a politician who isn't afraid to share his opinion about science.

Here's a story that showed up in my news feed this past winter.

"B.C. Conservative MP James Lunney tweets against evolution"

Lunney is a Member of Parliament for the Federal Conservative Party of Canada.

He went on Twitter to speak up in support of a member of the Ontario Conservative Party who had told reporters the previous week that he didn't believe in evolution.

Lunney's tweets were basically expressing his conviction that evolution is a theory, not a fact.

This sentiment harkened back to a fuller statement he made back in 2009. And here I'll quote …

"Any scientist who declares that the theory of evolution is a fact has already abandoned the foundations of science. For science establishes fact through the study of things observable and reproducible. Since origins can neither be reproduced nor observed, they remain the realm of hypothesis."

So what we have here is a Member of Parliament expressing a thesis about the nature of science and scientific reasoning.

And his thesis is this: He's saying that the only way that we can know with confidence that a singular historical event occurred in the way that a scientific theory says it occurred, is if we were present to directly observe that historical event.

But since no one can go back in time and directly observe the origins of new species or species traits, then there's no way to establish the truth of any evolutionary hypothesis. So at best any such hypothesis is just a theory, a possible story, not something we could ever establish as a scientific fact.

Now, I'll wager money that most people will have a hard time identifying what if anything is wrong with this reasoning. I've presented versions of this reasoning to students in my classes, and one time I surveyed them up front, before we get into any discussion, and well over half agreed with the reasoning, even if they were suspicious of the conclusion.

But there are some major problems with this.

The most notable one is that, if we held strict to this standard for establishing scientific facts -- that they need to be observable or reproducible (whatever that means), then a lot of established science, wouldn't count as established anymore.

Why? Because Lunney is basically saying that science is unable to justify any historical claims, any claims about the causes of events in the past, that were not open to direct observation by human beings at the time, or that weren't recorded by human beings.

So, that eliminates claims about the origins of organisms, but it also eliminates much of the historical content of geology and astronomy -- after all, we can't go back and directly observe the origins of the earth, or singular events like asteroid impacts that may have lead to the extinction of the dinosaurs, or the events surrounding the Big Bang. According to this view, scientists who think that we have overwhelming evidence for the Big Bang, are just mistaken. We can't directly observe or replicate events in early human history, such much of anthropology is out of the running too.

Maybe we should call and let all these scientists know that they're deluded about the scientific status of their own fields.

The deeper issue is that the conception of scientific reasoning that is being expressed here, is just wrong. I'd like to say that it's obviously wrong, but unfortunately the wrongness is not obvious to most people.

But I will say that the wrongness is obvious upon closer inspection, and it's wrong in a way that anyone can understand when it's pointed out to them.

What's wrong about this view of the logic of scientific reasoning is that it ignores the central role that hypothetical reasoning plays in almost all of our ordinary reasoning about the world.

Hypothetical reasoning involves reasoning about "if ... then" relationships. If A then B. If such-and-such occurs, then such-and-such will follow. If this theory of the world is true, then we should expect to see this and this and this.

This is the root of hypothesis testing in science.

In many cases, the hypothesis being tested isn't something that you can directly confirm or falsify through observation.

But that doesn't stop us from testing them. The logic is straightforward. We say that IF this hypothesis WERE true, then it would have such-and-such observable consequences. Then we test to see if those consequences are observed or not, and then we use the results of those tests to infer something about the status of the original hypothesis, and how it stacks up against any competing hypotheses.

This reasoning is by its nature, indirect. It's an inference from claims about directly observable phenomena to claims about phenomena that are not directly observable.

It's generally the case, in fact, that the core theoretical claims of any interesting scientific theory are going to be confirmed or falsified indirectly in this way, not through direct observation.

Now, claims about the causes of past events are a type of scientific hypothesis, and in principle they're just as open to confirmation and falsification as any other hypothesis.

And scientists routinely test hypotheses like this, every day, all around the world. They're a perfectly common and accepted part of scientific practice.

The logic of this pattern of reasoning is quite general and common. Doctors use it to diagnose the causes of illness, mechanics use it diagnose car problems, detectives use it to solve crimes. You use it to infer who the mostly likely person is knocking on your front door right now, before opening it.

Now, this is not to say that in some cases it can be hard to come up with informative tests of scientific hypotheses, but that's a separate issue, that a problem for specific hypotheses within specific fields. But it's the general principle that I'm concerned with here.

And at the level of general principles, what Mr. Lunney said in this article about the nature of scientific reasoning is just patently false.

So, what's the upshot of all this?

Well, I said earlier that we want, really, are politicians who are science literate. Here's a case in point.

If Mr. Lunney was literate in the nature and methods of scientific reasoning, he would not have said what he said; he would have recognized that the view he expressed is problematic -- that's part of what science literacy means, that you can distinguish between more plausible and less plausible conceptions of what science is and how it works.

And notice that you don't need to be a credentialed scientist to be able to make these distinctions.

Sure, there are cases where you need a certain level of academic training and expertise to make certain kinds of scientific judgments, but this is not one of those cases.

A base level of science literacy can be acquired by almost anyone with an interest in doing so. In that respect it's just like any other kind of literacy. Not everyone is literate about numbers, or literate about finances, or literate about cars -- but most people could become literate in these areas, if they wanted to.

You don't need to be a working mathematician to know what a mathematical proof is.

You don't need to be a financial planner to know how compound interest works.

You don't need to be a mechanic to know why you need to change the oil in your car on a regular basis.

And you don't need to be a scientist to know that we can make reliable inferences about the causes of past events.

Having said that, it's certainly not surprising to me that most people can't talk about science in this way. Even people with many years of science education under their belts often have a hard time answering basic questions about how scientific reasoning works.

In the next video I'm going to revisit this issue, and I'm going to argue for a position that is going to upset some people. I'm going to argue that a typical science education, leading to an undergraduate degree, and even a graduate degree in science, can still leave a person, for all practical purposes, scientifically illiterate.

And this is a problem if we want one of the goals of science education to be science literacy.