Tag Archives: ScienceAndSociety

Alternative Facts and Crying Wolf

My satire about “alternative facts” from yesterday took some flak for propagating the controversial photos of inaugurations that some say are real and some say aren’t. I don’t honestly care one bit about those photos. I think it is of absolutely no importance how many people went to Trump’s inauguration; it has no bearing on how he will perform as president, and frankly I don’t know why he’s making such a big deal out of it. Even if attendance was far less than he and his people claim, it could be for two very good reasons that would not reflect badly on him at all.

First, Obama’s inauguration was extraordinarily historic. For a nation with our horrific past —  with most of our dark-skinned citizens brought to this continent to serve as property and suffer under slavery for generations — it was a huge step to finally elect an African-American president. I am sure many people chose to go to the 2009 inauguration because it was special to them to be able to witness it, and to be able to say that they were there. Much as many people adore Trump, it’s not so historic to have an aging rich white guy as president.

Second, look at a map of the US, with its population distribution. A huge population with a substantial number of Obama’s supporters live within driving distance or train distance of Washington DC. From South Carolina to Massachusetts there are large left-leaning populations. Trump’s support was largest in the center of the US, but people would not have been able to drive from there or take a train. The cost of travel to Washington could have reduced Trump’s inauguration numbers without reflecting on his popularity.

So as far as I’m concerned, it really doesn’t make any difference if Trump’s inauguration numbers were small, medium or large. It doesn’t count in making legislation or in trade negotiations; it doesn’t count in anything except pride.

But what does count, especially in foreign affairs, is whether people listen to what a president says, and by extension to what his or her press secretary says. What bothers me is not the political spinning of facts. All politicians do that. What bothers me is the claim of having hosted “the best-attended inauguration ever” without showing any convincing evidence, and the defense of those claims (and we heard it again today) that this is because it’s ok to disagree with facts.

If facts can be chosen at will, even in principle, then science ceases to function. Science — a word that means “evidence-based reasoning applied logically to determine how reality really works” — depends on the existence and undeniability of evidence. It’s not an accident that physics, unlike some subjects, does not have a Republican branch and a Democratic branch; it doesn’t have a Muslim, Christian, Buddhist or Jewish branch;  there’s just one type.  I work with people from many countries and with many religious and political beliefs; we work together just fine, and we don’t have discussions about “alternative facts.”

If instead you give up evidence-based reasoning, then soon you have politics instead of science determining your decisions on all sorts of things that matter to people because it can hurt or kill them: food safety, road safety, airplane safety, medicine, energy policy, environmental protection, and most importantly, defense. A nation that abandons evidence is abandoning applied reason and logic; and the inevitable consequence is that people will die unnecessarily.  It’s not a minor matter, and it’s not outside the purview of scientists to take a stand on the issue.

Meanwhile, I find the context for this discussion almost as astonishing as the discussion itself. It’s one thing to say unbelievable things during a campaign, but it’s much worse once in power. For the press secretary on day two of a new administration to make an astonishing and striking claim, but provide unconvincing evidence, has the effect of completely undermining his function.  As every scientist knows by heart, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  Imagine the press office at the CERN laboratory announcing the discovery of the Higgs particle without presenting plots of its two experiments’ data; or imagine if the LIGO experimenters had claimed discovery of gravitational waves but shown no evidence.  Mistakes are going to happen, but they have to be owned: imagine if OPERA’s tentative suggestion of neutrinos-faster-than-light, which was an experimental blunder, or BICEP’s loud misinterpretation of their cosmological data, had not been publicly retracted, with a clear public explanation of what happened.  When an organization makes a strong statement but won’t present clear evidence in favor, and isn’t willing to retract the statement when shown evidence against it, it not only introduces immediate suspicion of the particular claim but creates a wider credibility problem that is extremely difficult to fix.

Fortunately, the Higgs boson has been observed by two different experiments, in two different data-taking runs of both experiments; the evidence is extraordinary.  And LIGO’s gravitational waves data is public; you can check it yourself, and moreover there will be plenty of opportunities for further verification as Advanced VIRGO comes on-line this year.    But the inauguration claim hasn’t been presented with extraordinary evidence in its favor, and there’s significant contradictory evidence (from train ridership and from local sales).    When something extraordinary is actually true, it’s true from all points of view, not subject to “alternative facts”; and the person claiming it has the responsibility to find evidence, of several different types, as soon as possible.  If firm evidence is lacking, the claim should only be made tentatively.  (A single photo isn’t convincing, one way or the other, especially nowadays.)

As any child knows, it’s like crying wolf.  If your loud claim isn’t immediately backed up, or isn’t later retracted with a public admission of error, then the next time you claim something exceptional, people will just laugh and ignore you.  And nothing’s worse than suggesting that “I have my facts and you have yours;” that’s the worst possible argument, used only when firm evidence simply isn’t available.

I can’t understand why a press secretary would blow his credibility so quickly on something of so little importance.  But he did it.  If the new standards are this low, can one expect truth on anything that actually matters?  It’s certainly not good for Russia that few outside the country believe a word that Putin says; speaking for myself, I would never invest a dollar there. Unfortunately, leaders and peoples around the world, learning that the new U.S. administration has “alternative facts” at its disposal, may already have drawn the obvious conclusion.    [The extraordinary claim that “3-5 million” non-citizens (up from 2-3 million, the previous version of the claim) voted in the last election, also presented without extraordinary evidence, isn’t helping matters.] There’s now already a risk that only the president’s core supporters will believe what comes from this White House, even in a time of crisis or war.

Of course all governments lie sometimes.  But it’s wise to tell the truth most of the time, so that your occasional lies will sometimes be thought to be true.  Governments that lie constantly, even pointlessly, aren’t believed even when they say something true.  They’ve cried wolf too often.

So what’s next?  Made-up numbers for inflation, employment, the budget deficit, tax revenue? Invented statistics for the number of people who have health insurance?  False information about the readiness of our armed forces and the cost of our self-defense?  How far will this go?  And how will we know?

Not As Painless As They’d Have You Believe

I’m still seeing articles in the news media (here’s one) that say that the majority of Americans think the recent sequester in the US federal budget isn’t affecting them. These articles implicitly suggest that maybe the sequester’s across-the-board cuts aren’t really doing any serious damage.

Well, talk to scientists, and to research universities and government laboratories, if you want to hear about damage.

I haven’t yet got the stomach to write about the gut-wrenching destruction I’m hearing about across my own field of particle physics — essential grants being cut by a quarter, a third, or altogether; researchers being forced to lay off long-standing scientific staff whose expertise, of international importance, is irreplaceable; the very best postdoctoral researchers considering leaving the field because hard-hit universities across the country won’t be hiring many faculty anytime soon… There’s so much happening simultaneously that I’m not sure how I can get my head around it all, much less convey it to you.

But meanwhile, I would like to point you to a strong and strongly-worded article by Eric Klemetti, a well-known blogger and professor who writes at WIRED about volcanoes.  Please read what he wrote, and consider passing it on to those you know.  Everyone needs to understand that the damage that’s being done now across the U.S. scientific landscape, following a period of neglect that extends back many years before the recession, will last a generation or more, if it’s not addressed.

These deep, broad and sudden cuts are a short-sighted way of saving money.  Not only do they waste a lot of money already spent, the long-term cost of the permanent loss of expertise, and of future science and technology, is likely to exceed what we’ll save.  It’s not a good approach to reducing a budget.  So tell your representatives in Congress, and anyone who will listen: Scientific research isn’t excess fat to be chopped off crudely with a cleaver; it’s fuel for the nation’s future, and it needs wiser management than it’s receiving.

Why Government Investment in Scientific Research Is Worthwhile

[NOTE ADDED: Unfortunately, within two months of this post, Mr. Zakaria was suspended from his job for plagiarism.  Such a spectacular lack of integrity calls into question everything he has ever written, and so I cannot anymore recommend his article, nor will he ever be quoted on this website again.]

 

Today I’d like to call your attention to an article by Fareed Zakaria, entitled “How government funding of science rewards U.S. taxpayers.”  (The sentiment also applies to taxpayers elsewhere, of course.) I can’t vouch for the details inside the article, but the point that Zakaria makes is one that I personally feel is very important.

When I give public talks about the fundamental research that I or my colleagues are doing, I am often asked, “what are its benefits to society?”  It’s a completely fair question, but with fundamental research it is typically far too early to know the answer; it can be many decades before the benefits, if any, become evident.  I think the best answer requires a long view — the kind of view Zakaria lays out in the article.  I often reply this way: that you should think about government investment in fundamental scientific research as similar to venture capital investments in many small startup companies; most of these efforts will fail, or will succeed with a small payout, but one or two will pay off in spectacular fashion and change the world.

And you surely want that payout to happen in a friendly country.  Zakaria  points out the worrying slope that the United States is on; though scientific breakthroughs have a big impact on the economy over the long term, funding for science is on a long-term decline (as a fraction of GDP) in the United States, while it is sharply increasing in a list of countries that include some that are not friendly to the United States.

Zakaria focuses on what is happening today in biotechnology, genetics, genomics, etc.  He also mentions the historical case of the transistor, the device that lies at the heart of our computer-based society. This last is an even nicer example if you expand your view.   The research that was done in the late years of the 19th century on the emission of light by atoms and on the electron led eventually to the equations of quantum mechanics, which in turn were essential in the development of the transistor.  No 19th century scientist could have predicted that the discovery of the electron would help put a cell phone in your pocket.

[Thanks are due to Leonid Kruglyak for bringing this article to my attention.]