Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Science and its Social Contract

[This post is a reply to a comment by onathanatos on my previous essay, Trust and Contradictions.  You may have to read those others comments to follow the thread. I put it here as blogger says it's too long as a comment reply.  Also, I'm traveling for three days with little computer access, so I may not reply for a while.]

Hi onathanatos, thanks for your questions.  I hope this narrative helps.

Let me back up and remind everyone that what sparked this conversation was the problem at AAA.  They have a social conflict underway, maybe a power struggle between factions, and the resolution will be a social one. So, eventually there will be some agreement to get along with each other, or they will break up.  They could patch it over and let it simmer a while longer.

My main points have been about the social issues.  AAA has a problem and I assume they will solve it within their organization.  Remember that the problem is about their mission statement. That document is a statement of their unity and their organizational “self” identity.  It is also one of their main ways of telling the general public who they are.  It is a very import presentation. It is one of the ways to affirm the social contract between researchers (scientists or not scientists) and the public.  There are no “ephemeral advantages” with the public.  There are contracts (employment, consulting, etc).

To simplify, the big social contract is that the public, through their taxes and corporations and governments, provide monies and facilities to researchers.  In return researchers provide useful, interesting knowledge and gadgets. At various times the social contract is strong or weak.  In the 1950-1960s the contract was very strong.  For scientists, they could do no wrong (although they could be crazy as in the mad scientist theme).  Scientism was strong (and many people talked about science being a religion).

All this began to weaken and decline through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. There were many issues that assisted this, the rise of anti intellectualism, the reprise of the hard Christian right, etc. Today scientism is weak and the social contract is weak with some cracks.  Some professions are trying to repair the cracks, because they recognize them, and they are doing this under the banner of Public engagement as in public anthropology, public archeology, etc.

Recently, the social contract has taken some big hits and large cracks may even become serious threats.  One was the whole Global Warming fiasco.  Regardless of what your stance on the issue is please understand that it is a public relations nightmare for all scientists.  That there is even the appearance of corruption and fraud by a few scientists reflects poorly on all scientists (especially if there is a smear campaign led by the anti intellectuals).

Next, we have the bad economy.  Here the leadership of American economics drove the economy into a train wreck. They were the conductors and, it is widely understood, they “didn’t see it coming.”  And those on the margins of their power structure did see it, talked about it, and were ignored by the conductors. This tragedy is another blow to the social contract.  The public knows that a scientific profession failed to take care of them. Again, the failure of some scientists reflects poorly on all scientists (please try to understand the perspective of people on the other side of the social contract).

The economic crisis ties us to the Jurassic Park book and to Daniel Bells book.  One of the main reasons that economists didn’t see it coming was that they were arrogant and full of hubris.  They really believed they had it under control.  The plot line of Jurassic Park is that capitalists and scientists partner to create a theme park of genetically engineered dinosaurs. Someone gets greedy and creates a situation where the dinosaurs get free and they eat many people. The scientists and capitalists are discredited (they lose credit, loss of credibility).  The moral of the story is that arrogance and hubris (thinking you know nature and can control it) will likely lead to your downfall. Daniel Bell gives us the social science description of that process.

My argument is that if you blend theory and fact you are adding another insult to the social contract.  Most people are not going to have complex understandings of scientific thought but they often know when they are being bull shit-ed.  In every day parlance that goes on in America facts are explained by theories.  When you tell someone that a theory is a fact their bull shit detector lights up, they think they are being conned or being sold snake oil. 

In the special case of evolution there is the extra energy of the science vs creationism debate that was revived in the 1970s. What happened scientists, did the debate cause so much stress that some needed to firm up their argument and claim that theory was fact? Did you sell yourselves a batch of snake oil? Are you corrupt and fraudulent? Are you purposely making bigger cracks in the social contract?  Are we seeing here the cultural contradictions of science playing out?

My concern is that the argument that evolution is “proved” reeks of arrogance and hubris. As discussed above, that likely does not end well.

Throughout this discussion I have heard that evolution was proved. When did scientists stop disproving theories?  To my knowledge evolution has never been disproven.  But, that is no reason to claim that it is fact.

For those of you who believe that evolution is fact, what theory explains it?  I’ll even help you:
a. the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics states that... entropy.. closed system
b. derived from a) the Theory of Biological Diversity on Planet Earth, a closed system, states that organic life forms are entropic as they interact within their environment.
c. the theory is supported by the process of evolution
d. evolution has been documented a 100 thousand times across thousands of earthly contexts and situations such that there is a high probability that it functions at a high mean rate with an acceptable standard deviation in un-described earthly situations and contexts.  Once thought to be a theory it was never disproven so is used as fact.

I turn know to the comments What personal evidence, exactly, are you referring to? What does "personal evidence" even mean? and I'm puzzled by your response to Paul's carefully-worded refutation.

To disagree, Paul’s comment wasn’t carefully worded. To me it demonstrated those social qualities that I have argued against, arrogance and hubris, thus he personally "proved" my points. I am sarcastic and ironic; at times I will hit someone on the head when they are being stupid to shake them out of it.  I try hard to not be demeaning.  Paul was demeaning toward economics; sure that is his opinion but I didn’t like it. He egged me on about do I believe in facts.  To me it sounded like a five year old having a tantrum.  So I told him I would never have a social contract with him.  I would not hire him or use him as a consultant because I am uncertain that I could trust him.  Social contracts, at the personal level and the societal level I discussed above, are based in trust not truth.  When I hire consultants I want technical competency, good judgment, and a pinch of wisdom. Hubris is not acceptable.

Being confused is okay; being skeptical is even better.

Update (12/17/2010)
It seems that the White House is also interested in the social contract between scientists and the public. See


  1. I'm not going to post something long, because I think it would be pointless.

    I do not and did not intend to make any larger point about AAA, scientism, intellectual elitism, anti-intellectualism or anything else.

    My point was that evolution is both a theory and a fact. No more, no less. If you wish to complain that scientists use these terms in a way that's confusing to lay people, then fine: you won't be the first nor the last to make that point. But the appropriateness of the terminology is not what I wish to discuss. The terminology is used consistently in the scientific world and evolution is considered both a theory and a fact, just as general relativity is. In fact: evolution is less likely to one day be refuted than general relativity.

  2. And the three biologists I work with were all surprised by the discussion, they also not having heard the wondrous news that evolution was 'fact.'

    The AAA problem is interesting to the broader public. At the New York Times their essay on it made their most emailed list, at least for today


  3. Late to the discussion here. I'd agree that theory and fact are not the same thing, assuming we've agreed on the semantic meaning of the words.

    Facts are bits of information we consider proven. To be considered a "fact" these bits of information must be provable (eg, they must be measurable, quantifiable, reproducible, etc.)

    A theory is a statement on the inter-relationship between certain sets of facts. To be valid, a theory must be able to be dis-proven. It must have predictive/explanatory value on sets of facts outside those used to construct it. In short, it can be tested on new facts and the validity of the theory established over time.

    Generally speaking, it is a fact that life forms evolve over time. Humans have (empirically) recognized this for at least 10,000 years. Whatever "theories" our ancestors may have used to explain "evolution" they understood it well enough to manipulate the process when they began to domesticate plants and animals.

    Darwin developed his theory of evolution from many separate sets of facts (for example, he studied the selection techniques of animal breeders in England as well as the biogeography of South Pacific islands). He did so without an understanding of genetics. Now more than a hundred years later, our far more detailed understanding of biology, especially molecular genetics, has given near universal scientific credence to the basic tenets of his theory. Evolutionary Theory in its current form is considered extremely valid.

    "Validity" and "proven fact" are not the same thing. That modern Evolutionary Theory is a valid and powerful theory for explaining how & why evolution occurs in the natural world is unquestionable. Calling it a scientific "fact" is, however, absurd. Even non-scientists recognize the difference between theory and fact.
    I agree with LMoore that conflating fact and theory in this instance is counterproductive.

    The validity of Evolutionary Theory is well established. It is the basic theory by which we integrate our understanding of all of biology. Calling it a "fact" adds nothing to... that fact.