Thursday, July 23, 2009

We need science but don't understand it: on scientific uncertainty

Rachel Carson wrote in the 1950s (I think it was in "Under the Sea Wind") that science is "part of the fabric of life". In 1948, John Steinbeck (best known for "The Grapes of Wrath" and a 1962 Nobel Prizewinner in literature) wrote a foreword to Ed Ricketts "Between Pacific Tides" in which he notes that science is a new way of looking at the world despite its warps. Steinbeck and his marine biologist friend, Ricketts collaborated on a marine biology expedition in the Sea of Cortez in 1940. Their collaboration is considered to be a unique effort in viewing nature. Steinbeck used marine science to view nature using prose as a literary form and Ricketts viewed nature and how nature is viewed using science.

There would never be any other time since then when art and science would tryst. Art has become constructivist and science has become less reflective. Both Carson and Steinbeck had science and literary talent and training. Their works are examples of what we call now as the science essay genre. They also helped popularized science and communicate to the public how and what science does and its associated uncertainties.

Today the public wants answers to vexing questions on food security, climate change, the fate of human society, energy and a whole raft of environmental, economic and political issues. It weren't scientific papers published in "Nature" or "Science" that catalyzed public awareness on these issues but the works of Carson ("Silent Spring") and Steinbeck ("Log from the Sea of Cortez"). Carson can be the secular environmentalist counterpart of the Protestant Reformation's John Wycliffe. If Wycliffe is called today as the Morning Star of the Reformation, Carson could be called as the Morning Star of Environmentalism. In Silent Spring's first chapter, Carson described a hypothetical scenario when pesticides have eliminated 1) insects, 2) birds and people were having health problems as a result. Carson was a professional scientist and recognized that her work involved uncertainties and errors and the proposing of hypotheses were but part of her job. But today she is considered as a "witness for nature". The Christian allegory is so clear. She is a Saint. And by our understanding a Saint is definitely in heaven.

However she had trouble explaining to the US Congress especially the Senate on her scientific claims. Since the public wanted clear cut guidelines, the whole issue about pesticides became a black and white issue. It was either do away with pesticides or not and suffer the consequences. In fact, she wasn't for that but careful application of pesticides to prevent insect resistance.

Carson died of cancer (presumably due to her work on toxicology) and that ensured that she became environmentalism's first saint.

Scientists have to deal with uncertainties in their work. In reality this uncertainty is needed in motivating scientists to devise better ways, instruments and methods to do experiments to verify their hypotheses. Indeed an unwillingness to deal with uncertainties is the real barrier to progress. The products of scientific research is technology which we use in our daily lives. In using technology we expect that we certainly get a cell site signal when we want to send SMS. We expect to get a cable or broadcast signal when we turn on the TV to watch a show. We expect PAGASA to tell us when and where the next typhoon will hit.If we are certain, then we are content.

But with environmental catastrophe in the public awareness, scientists are often asked to give statements to the media and the media need certainty. Even in what wags say "scientifically backward" Philippines, we observe this. For instance I have been interviewed about biodiversity by popular media practitioners. Biodiversity is something that interests many Filipinos of all ages and social classes but even if one species does go extinct, this is unlikely to kill them immediately. So the warnings we give (despite the scientific uncertainty) are listened to but the solutions we dispense kind of give a sense of feel good hope. This is a good thing for the time being.

However contrast this with what happened to the ill fated Princess of the Stars last year. It is claimed that the captain of the ill fated ship depended on advisories issued by the Coast Guard which got them from PAGASA. Unbeknownst to the captain, he sailed his ship right into the eyewall of Typhoon Frank. The consequences as we know are tragic. The Philippine Congress had PAGASA and the PCG account for the "shortcomings" and the ship owners lodged a lawsuit against PAGASA. Too bad the media and the legal eagles in the blogosphere did not hoot much a peep on the significance of the suit. This was probably the first suit in the Philippines against a science agency and its scientists. The court dismissed the suit saying that no one can really control and predict the weather with that certainty.

But this exposed the real shortcomings of our weather bureau. It sorely needs more equipment, weather stations, and meteorologists. The Arroyo administration has recognized the equipment upgrades and the need for those Doppler radars (those who watch the Weather Channel know how Doppler radar plots look like). Around 10 radars have been ordered and they cost a million USD each. PAGASA personnel have been sent to the USA for training. However only a trickle of meteorology students enrol at UP's Institute of Environmental Science and Meteorology each year. This drought of weathermen/women means that even with new equipment, we don't have people that can use the radars and interpret the weather data. One of our major worries in the institute that this drought of students threatens the viability of the program and the weather service as a whole.

The public worldwide is not comfortable when scientists publicly express their uncertainties about their conclusions. I believe that the major reason why the global warming advocates and scientists needed an Al Gore is that he being a non-scientist may express this uncertainty without much ridicule (after all he is a layman). But in "Inconvenient Truth" this uncertainty was downplayed for the media hype purposes. The public hasn't really got the idea that uncertain science doesn't mean unsound science. But the demands for quick scientific solutions for real life problems means the public misconceptions are reinforced.

The Philippines faces an election year and in every election year, the environment becomes an election issue (aside from the usual corruption issue). Whether it is a Father Panlilio, Chiz Escudero, Manny Villar, Mar Roxas etc as candidates for president, expect that they will have a stand on environmental issues. They will depend on scientific advisors. Can the advisors advice them on how certain science is? Science will be playing a more important role in future elections as the Filipino public perceives a coming environmental catastrophe.

Society needs science but we are on the way to understand it and how it works. However we need to reexamine science in basic education and on to graduate school. The other choice is we consult with quacks, crocks and other charlatans who dispense information with nary a logical underpinning that sounds certain but whose uncertainty cannot be challenged.

SOURCE: Philippine Commentary


Dean Jorge Bocobo said...

A very thoughtful piece Ben, worthy of the world, mon ami, proving that there is much much more than political punditry at Philippine Commentary.

Now regarding Rachel do not mention at all the controversy her "Silent Spring" work is actually embroiled in today because she is blamed for almost singlehandedly causing the ban on DDT worldwide which is seen to have been unnecessary and indeed tragic as it has actually resulted in tens or hundreds of millions of preventable deaths over the years. DDT is apparently NOT the teratogenic monster maker Carson portrayed it to be.

As for Al Gore, there IS uncertainty about the proper way to deal with climate change.

Perhaps it is this that laymen and scientists both need to understand: that Science embraces uncertainty, quantifies it, deals with it, as a normal part of the various quantities we are forced to manipulate and weigh.

Indeed, in Heisenberg we see that ultimate upgrading of Uncertainty itself into a Principle of Science: that there is no free lunch even in its Cornucopia of Plenty.

As for our reflective natures, this may truly be subsumed in a manic extrovertedness in most (especially the experimentalists and explorers) but we have even greater need today for the wildest eyed THEORISTS since Science has discovered its greatest Uncertainty ever in Dark Matter and Dark Energy.

We have absolutely NO IDEA what these things ever are! Yet we cannot deny our observations.

TODAY is the most exciting day in the History of Science.

Jun Bautista said...

Science becomes uncertain in the sense that future discoveries could change current concepts or understanding or certain observable phenomena could not be fully explained. The challenge for science is to continually search for understanding and be willing to challenge current assumptions or look into other possibilities.

Recently, the FBI discredited the science of bullet lead analysis (the matching of bullets found on the crime scene with bullets in a suspect's gun as a mode
of identification) - a forensic procedure that has led to many criminal convictions - when an expert discovered that the science behind it is unreliable. What was before a scientific methodology in aiding criminal
prosecutions has suddenly been abandoned. There are other forensic methods that suffered the same
fate, and such experiences only illustrate that while scientific discoveries or assumptions may hold sway at a particular period, the room for change always remains a possibility.

Marcus Aurelius said...

Al Gore expresses uncertainty? Huh? I certainly do not agree with that notion. In fact, I would say it is the non-scientists who are most certain about climate change (on that we are in harmony).

The problem both sides in the climate change debate have is there is no way conduct experiments. The usual model is observe, hypothesize, experiment, perhaps revise, perhaps the hypothesis moves to theory, more experimentation ensues, and perhaps the theory moves up to natural law.

One can set up a small scale experiment and demonstrate CO2 traps heat but throw in clouds, ocean currents, farting bees in Zimbabwe and there is no experimenting, and this notion of computer modeling as is amply noted the last ten years or so we have undergone an unpredicted cooling trend.

So global warming debaters can not really point to science to answer what will happen to the climate ten years hence.

People seem to think science can always come up with a definite answer to all questions. In some cases our math is not fully developed and in some cases I think we are too mathematical (I get this notion that quantum mechanics and physics in the smaller scales is so many epicycles clever, ingenious, giving us predictability yes but not accurately reflecting reality).

Science can give us answers -- but it is up to us to decide how the answers are to be acted on. This is where it is messy. The Silent Spring example is a great one. The research proved DDT proved harmful to the ability of bald eagles to reproduce and society made the decision to do away with DDT. So now while the bald eagle is off the endangered species list untold numbers of people have succumbed to malaria.

Quite simply, if we knew everything we would not have science ergo uncertainty is a built in feature of science and that goes beyond Heisenberg.