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Editorial: Through a glass, darkly

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 2004. Editorial: Through a glass, darkly. the Exchange 11(3): 2, 6–7. http://www.stcsig.org/sc/newsletter/html/2004-3.htm#editorial

In Sir Francis Bacon's Novum Organum, the early scientist and philosopher of science observed that we poor mortals find it far more difficult than most of us would believe to be objective in our assessments of what we observe:

"For the mind of man is far from the nature of a clear and equal glass, wherein the beams of things should reflect according to their true incidence; nay, it is rather like an enchanted glass, full of superstition and imposture, if it be not delivered and reduced."

Bacon identified several types of unclear thought process (cognitive bias) that interfere with our attempts at objectivity. In this editorial, I'll focus on three of them:

Individual peculiarities

These peculiarities represent the biases or idiosyncratic ways of thinking that make each of us interpret the evidence of our senses somewhat differently. These biases may be extremely subtle and difficult to communicate; for example, even though the wavelength of a particular color of light may be objectively measurable and quantifiable, each of us experiences that color somewhat differently. (Your mauve is my purple and someone else's reddish blue.) The biases may also be as overt as the preference for a purely scientific explanation of everything versus the preference for a supernatural explanation. Reading Michael Shermer's columns in Scientific American always makes me uncomfortable because of how singlemindedly he ignores anything that is not quantifiable. I don't often disagree with Shermer's conclusions; it's his rhetorical style that annoys me.

Limitations imposed by language

Our minds are immensely powerful tools for manipulating symbols, but are astonishingly weak at grappling with concepts for which we lack symbols. The importance of this phenomenon is easy enough to see in most interpersonal relationships: it can take enormous effort to move past a feeling of discomfort to attain an understanding of why we're uncomfortable with the other person, often because we lack the words to describe that discomfort. On the other hand, the symbols we do have can prejudice how we think of things. By writing so compellingly about the metaphor of "the selfish gene", Richard Dawkins simultaneously gave us a powerful tool for thinking about natural selection and an anthropomorphic metaphor ("selfishness") that can be quite misleading. For example, Dawkins ignores the fact that as thinking beings, we are capable of changing our behavior to a startling degree despite the selfish urgings of our genes.

Pre-existing and "inherited" beliefs

Those things that we already believe can powerfully shape what new things we're prepared to believe. This is a particular problem in the sciences, because so much of our work builds on pre-existing belief structures. As John S. Mattick, an Australian molecular biologist, observes so trenchantly in the October 2004 issue of Scientific American:

"Assumptions can be dangerous, especially in science. They usually start as the most plausible or comfortable interpretation of the available facts. But when their truth cannot be immediately tested and their flaws are not obvious, assumptions often graduate to articles of faith, and new observations are forced to fit them. Eventually, if the volume of troublesome information becomes unsustainable, the orthodoxy must collapse."

Once a scientific "fact" becomes established, it becomes very difficult indeed to challenge that fact. For decades after the discovery that genes occupied relatively clearly defined positions on chromosomes, this fact strongly affected how geneticists thought about genes—so much so that when Barbara McClintock discovered that some genes in corn seemed to be moving around, nobody believed her. On the contrary, the mere notion of "jumping genes" (now called transposons) was widely ignored for nearly 20 years—until the evidence could no longer be ignored, and earned her a Nobel Prize in 1983. As Galileo Galilei noted, "In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual."

As Mattick points out in his article, a similar phenomenon may be occuring today in the wake of the completion of the Human Genome Project. For nearly half a century, the "central dogma" of genetics has stated that genes and their transcription into proteins are solely responsible for the development and behavior of organisms. The emerging sciences of proteomics and of RNA metabolism in cells now pose a strong challenge to this assumption: the situation is clearly far more complex than is acknowledged by the central dogma. Overturning that dogma—and replacing it with a new one—may still take decades, but the past history of science strongly suggests that it will be overturned, just as Newton's mechanics were replaced by Einstein's relativity and quantum mechanics. It's not that the central dogma of genetics or Newton's mechanics were wrong: they were simply imprecise or incomplete descriptions of a more complex reality.

Making your biases heard

There are obviously many other biases, such as a willful blindness to anything that challenges our self-image that forces us to rigorously examine our thoughts, or that is likely to disrupt our comfort. Moreover, there are many unconscious biases we don't even know exist until someone points them out. (I can see all the married readers in the audience nodding their heads sagely.) In the minds of government officials, these biases have a much more serious consequence than the biases that lead to me subject you to yet another of my editorials: they can shape the fate of whole nations, and if the greenhouse warming theorists are correct (as I believe they are after editing several recent journal manuscripts on this topic), perhaps even the fate of life on Earth as a whole.

This issue becomes uniquely significant to us every 4 years or so, when national elections come around—as is presently the case in the United States. It's a truism that any national government attains its power by juggling the affections of a range of special-interest groups, and maintains power by not challenging the assumptions of their supporters. For a recent example of how politics can influence the process of science, with potentially disastrous consequences, I encourage you to read the 2004 position paper published by the Union of Concerned Scientists (listed in the bibiography of this article). Let me make my bias clear right now: I have a lot of sympathy for this paper, and have seen several damning assessments of the government's weak response. Unfortunately, though I'm no fan of the current administration, President Bush and his cronies hardly invented this kind of meddling in things they don't really understand.

Promoting that particular bias is not my goal here; this is a newsletter about communication, not politics. But I do want to emphasize the importance of our skills as scientific communicators in the context of politics. Whether you're Republican, Democrat, politically inert, or (like me) someone who doesn't even live in the United States, I urge you to have a look at the report and decide for yourself whether you should be disturbed by what you read. If you are, write to your elected representatives—and to the people who may replace them in the next government—and use all the communication skills at your disposal to complain. (Of course, if you agree with a policy, write to tell these people that you support it. This also sends a clear message that science is important to our lives in the modern world.)

As scientific communicators, we have the ability to help shape the debate over how science in our respective countries is conducted by intelligently communicating the facts as we see them, always acknowledging the power of our own acknowledged and unperceived biases. I encourage you to do so.

Bibliography

Bacon, F. 1620. The new organon or true directions concerning the interpretation of nature.

Mattick, J.S. 2004. The hidden genetic program of complex organisms. Scientific American October:60–67.

Miller, K.R. 1997. The thing about facts (Barbara McClintock and the jumping genes).

Shermer, M. 2004. The enchanted glass. Scientific American May:46.

Union of Concerned Scientists. 2004. Restoring scientific integrity.


My essays on scientific communication have now been collected in the following book:

Hart, G. 2011. Exchanges: 10 years of essays on scientific communication. Diaskeuasis Publishing, Pointe-Claire, Que. Printed version, 242 p.; eBook in PDF format, 327 p.


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