Science as Religion

This is the claim made by opponents of public funding of science, recently and notably Simon Jenkins in The Guardian. This has garnered a hostile yet somewhat lighthearted response from science professionals: A Mammoth of Research by Jon Butterworth.

Jenkins’ article is not completely without value. It does however veer wildly between the indefensible and unsupported and the reasonable. It is not clear to me that he is aware of this.

Value

“A ‘mammoth of research’ is about to rise behind London’s St Pancras station, a biomedical centre costing £600m and housing about 1,250 ‘cutting-edge’ scientists. Ask not its value. Science jeers at the idea.”

This is unfair. Scientists are aware that they have a duty to account for their use of public funds. They are sometimes wary about making that case with maximum force however because they are unsure whether the approach is correct. Certainly, civil servants ‘picking winners’ in science is as ineffective as having them do so in the wider economy. They lack the skills (numeracy) because they are often arts graduates, motivation because they do not get fired if they fail. I do not disparage arts graduates – notably because I am a philosophy student – I just do not think that person or indeed anyone can decide from proposals what science or manufacturing will produce an economic return. The situation is somewhat more clear in the case of economic decisions because by definition, the market has not pursued an opportunity that civil servants deem worthy of subsidy. The question as to why can be answered. But scientists themselves do not know which avenues will result in the next world wide web – they just know, that as in finance generally, risk diversification calls for a wide spread of angles of attack.

There is a detailed defence of the economic value of particle physics here.

Orthodoxy

Jenkins complains that there is excess reverence paid to science in the media: “Today programme science items, all reverential. No scepticism is admitted to this new orthodoxy”; the Reith lectures involve “safe, hand-picked questions”. This is bizarre. The commentary might apply very well to Thought for the Day, which can naturally endure no questioning as to evidence, but the idea that science coverage on the Today programme does not involve controversy and aggressive questioning is at variance with the facts. Many in fact have made the opposite complaint in relation to the BBC searching for ‘balance’. This involved it in considering both sides of the MMR debate, an approach which appeared excessively even handed when the doctor in question was merely alone in claiming that the vaccine caused autism and now appears foolish when he has been struck off. The climate change debate has a similar two-sided appearance in the media when there is only one side in the labs. And yet there is a way to attack scientists for orthodoxy which Jenkins has missed: ask them about evidence for string theory.

Interpretation

“It was too bad that the Icelandic ash clouds turned out to be not as bad as “the science” had claimed. It was too bad if science banned beef on the bone; too bad if science wasted £2bn on Tamiflu; too bad if science wrecked the case for nuclear power by its hypersafe radiation limits, or failed properly to defend GM foods.”

This is unfair. Science does not give advice. It tells you what the answer is if you ask questions like “what number of extra cancers can I expect with a 66% confidence level if I build a nuclear power station 5km away?”. Politicians decide what they can sell to the public, but since they and especially the public lack numerical ability and especially risk assessment skills (for example, people are frequently up in arms about lack of access to a particular drug on the NHS that improves their status for three months when they are happy to smoke which is extraordinarily more risk by orders of magnitude). And that approach just won’t work.

Funding

“Since science supplies its own “organised scepticism”, its claims on the public purse should be asserted as infallible.”

No scientists claim this. But consider the numbers. As I have pointed out several times here, we could build 41 LHC-scale science projects in the UK every year with the £231bn social security budget. Science funding through STFC, the relevant council, is something like £800m. Which of those numbers should you cut and which is likely to produce a return?

More real than finance

“In his lecture he insulted the financial sector as ‘not the real world’, as ‘faffing around with derivatives’ and as undeserving of any graduate’s respect. (Yet within minutes Rees was moaning that in Britain there was not enough ‘venture capital for startups’.)”

This is one place I agree with Jenkins. There aren’t many people who understand the value of derivatives or their very real value in the actual world, arising as they do from the desire of Japanese farmers several centuries ago to have a stable known future price for their crops. But it also ill behooves scientists to attack derivatives as in some way airy fairy because they sometimes employ mathematics and also employ many of the scientists who cannot find permanent jobs in labs or universities. And since the financial sector produces 31% of UK GDP, taxes on it will be needed to support science.

Supply of practitioners

” ‘Britain needs more scientists.’ Their canticle was: ‘More money for research.’ Other vocational subjects such as law, accountancy and finance were deplored, even as the jobs market screamed for them.”

This can’t be right. If any market anywhere is screaming for anything, then it gets it. That is how our system works. I am not aware that law, accountancy and finance are underpaid. New graduates in banking can still get close to £40k as a starting salary. If the system wants more of them, it pays them more and more are thereby trained, especially if the employers offer to pay off student loans as well. They will do so if the value to them justifies it.

We are not short of lawyers in this country and not short of them in Parliament either. And that’s fine. But can anyone name an MP with a science degree? Shouldn’t we have a few of them?

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14 Responses to Science as Religion

  1. markl981 says:

    The scientists in parliament are listed here – for instance 4 with a physics background. The number with a law background in 2005 was 72 – see this report. It has probably increased in 2010 since there are a higher fraction of Tory MPs with a law background (22% in 2005). The number of lawyers has declined markedly since 1979 and I’ve heard lawyers remark that they have been replaced by “career politicians” who are less qualified to be MPs than lawyers…

    • timlshort says:

      I don’t mind there being many lawyers in what is after all a legislature. I also think that career politicians are a bad idea. But 4 physicists is surely inadequate. Not because we especially need physicists, but because it presumably means the total in parliament with any kind of numerical ability is around 20. The report is useful but we are being very very thin on the criteria. It is amusing that we have 1.3% farmers.

      The reason we need this is to avoid this type of situation:

      http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/10449430.stm

  2. Dave says:

    “I studied advanced maths to 16.”

    My favorite Jenkins line.

    • timlshort says:

      Where does he say that? He cannot be serious.

      • timlshort says:

        That’s pretty extraordinary. One occasionally meets lawyers etc who seem proud of their lack of facility with maths; it is rather more rare to meet a physicist pleased about not being able to read. But isn’t he right to say that for most people, any maths beyond 16 will not be used?

      • Dave says:

        “But isn’t he right to say that for most people, any maths beyond 16 will not be used?”

        Depends what you mean by used; but certainly he isn’t consistent about it. I’ve never seen a column of his written in Latin. I probably won’t ‘use’ in any direct sense any of the philosophy I’ve spent the last 9yrs learning. But hopefully a decent ability to spot a good from a bad argument is something that may come in handy.

      • timlshort says:

        Well yes. Let’s say that there is a subset of people who will live by their wits: philosophers, traders, entrepreneurs…the common factor being that for all of them, doing what is routine, doing what worked last week and doing what other people are doing will not work. Arguably, for all of these people, the value in doing anything hard (maths, Latin, philosophy) does not lie in doing those same things in the future but in the training benefit of the challenge. So those people would benefit from doing anything difficult even if they never do any maths etc again. But I don’t think Jenkins has those people in mind. He wants to know why we make maybe 60% of people do square roots etc when they will never use one. I think I can sketch a reply based on the above but the point is whether everything he says is entirely stupid – however I think he has a legitimate question here.

  3. Dave says:

    “And since the financial sector produces 31% of UK GDP”

    I still have no idea where you get this figure. It’s way above what’s discussed in this
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8270404.stm

  4. Sam says:

    “And yet there is a way to attack scientists for orthodoxy which Jenkins has missed: ask them about evidence for string theory.”

    I’m not sure string theory is orthodox, not by a long way. It’s a theory, just like SUSY and Little Higgs, and unlike either SUSY or little higgs there’s unlikely to be any evidence for or against it for a while.

    • timlshort says:

      I think the ways to check on that are to ask practitioners two questions. Is it easy for vehemently anti string theorists to get a permanent job in theoretical physics? And what would evidence distinguishing different string theories look like? (we have answers to the latter for the two analogues you supply.)

      • Sam says:

        With the first question, assuming it’s not an irrational vehemence against the theory (ie that shown by creationists for evolution) then being against a theory shouldn’t make any difference. Of course that’s before you involve people: if the person you are applying for a job with loves string theory then you’ll struggle. As to how easy finding a non-string theory job is I don’t know as I haven’t applied but I do know that not all theorists work in string theory and I’m pretty sure they don’t all support it.

        Evidence to distinguish variations on String theory, I would assume, be found in the values of various physical constants; the number of particles and their properties as well the presence/absence of certain processes. As I’m not a String theorists that’s about all I can say.

        My main point was more that I don’t think that String theory is considered “orthodox” within the science world, if for no other reason than people want to test it which I would say is the main division between science and religion: the willingness to test and (at least theoretically) discard ideas that don’t work.

      • timlshort says:

        I certainly don’t claim that people are irrationallly vehement and I wouldn’t have a problem with anything being irrational counting against someone in a job situation. Though that would include religious beliefs and I imagine discriminating against people because of those is illegal. But it is my understanding that not being in favour of strings does not help – it is the establishment view as it were. Which is fine as long it’s true…

        Para 2: correct in general, but I understand that there are many different versions of string theory which cannot in principle be distinguished. ‘In principle’ may mean not logically impossible, but you would need an accelerator which could reach energies seen 10^-15 s after the Big Bang, and you can forget about that.

        Para 3: I think this is the problem.

        There are other issues like Underdetermination of Theory by Evidence. For example, an apple falling to the ground is equally good evidence for (a) gravity and (b) gravity plus the moon is made of cheese.

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