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Manual on Scientific Evidence

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My email had a notice for the US National Academies Press and an interesting link in the just-published section. Their blurb:

The Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence, Third Edition, assists judges in managing cases involving complex scientific and technical evidence by describing the basic tenets of key scientific fields from which legal evidence is typically derived and by providing examples of cases in which that evidence has been used.

The chapter on How Science Works is really useful. It’s by David Goodstein, a physicist, and gives a quick tour through the development of the scientific method. It is an entertaining read, perhaps surprising for a manual. It starts with Francis Bacon who said the scientist should be an impartial observer of nature. Goodstein quickly skewers this – no serious thinker accepts that observation is done without prejudice – she must have assumptions about how the world works. Yet look around today, and you’ll find the Baconian ideal still alive and kicking (Plimer has it, for example. Ok, go ahead and laugh).

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Written by Roger Jones

October 5, 2011 at 9:12 am

Science in a democratic society

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This post was precipitated by several stoushes held at Larvatus Prodeo over climate science but reflects more widely on the state of climate science and its public perception in the English-speaking democracies. It’s an issue I’ve been interested in for a number of years because of the attacks on climate science and the need to build better links between science and the risk management of global change. The post title is also the title of Phillip Kitcher’s new book released earlier this month. Kitcher is an English philosopher based at Colombia University and in 2006 won the Prometheus Prize of the US Philosopher’s Association – this book is the result. He has made his case really well.

The main points of this piece are that:

  • Society needs to draw from a body of public knowledge in order to be successful. Psychological and cognitive limitations lead to the sum of individual decisions producing suboptimal outcomes.
  • Attacks on public knowledge driven by self-interest and opaque values are being made under the cover of free speech and individual freedoms. The evidence used by these attacks is generally untrue, distorted or selective or fails basic tests for scientific proof.
  • Science is a values-driven enterprise. Those values need to be made explicit in what Kitcher refers to as well-ordered science.
  • Science is secular. Passing certain probative (proof) tests allows it to be shared as knowledge that has claims to objectivity.
  • Belief is personal and can also be shared but does not require the same tests (Belief also expresses a set of human needs not necessarily addressed by science).
  • Public knowledge in English-speaking democracies has become degraded. Science is vulnerable to vulgar democracy, where under the guise of free speech, any belief can masquerade as knowledge.
  • Science also needs to become better ordered, through measures that cover:
  • Education – for most students teaching what science does and what its impacts are, rather than how it works (technical), by separating pedagogy into liberal education and technical specialisation. This works on the presumption that most people need to understand the role science plays in society while fewer will become actual scientists.
  • Bringing people into the scientific workplace to familiarise them with knowledge goals and probative values and methods of certifying science.
  • Avoidance of universal punditry (experts speaking beyond their expertise) and overconfidence in findings in favour of communicating scientific evidence with the appropriate levels of confidence in theory and uncertainties in outcomes.
  • A process that steps through claims of consensus, consequences of those claims, ethical exploration of a potential policy framework and an exploration of how current actions can be balanced against future harm. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Roger Jones

September 28, 2011 at 11:55 pm