Thursday, August 2, 2007

Pants On Fire, part 2

I could have done without the horrific confirmation of this bit, right in the middle of it. The collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis is exactly a case in point. The engineers (who speak yet a different language from scientists, believe me) said "this is not a good bridge" - and - nothing whatever was done to correct problems; until people died. We really need to address this as what it is; BAD COMMUNICATION; or NO communication; followed by systemic INDECISION. Rome, people, is falling. Just as they started stealing lead from Roman aqueducts, once nobody cared enough to stop them - now they're stealing copper - in the USA- and shutting down farms. copper theft. And the major, important, bridges fall down. And everybody says "not my fault".

It IS somebody's fault. There are two probabilities; either it fell as the result of serious incompetence- most likely multiple incompetences; or; it's that one in a million that collapsed in spite of everything being done right. Which one would you bet on?

Here's part 2; I hope to have something to add to this soon; it can use some updating.

Of course, nefarious individuals, or in present parlance, the evildoers, could and did and do use the reported confusion to increase the inaction. Adding to the paralysis. Ustat Quo, Inc. does not really want to have to buy scrubbers for their smokestacks, in spite of the lovely full page ads about their new nature preserve.

If you are not asleep yet, I have one more layer to the onion for you; back to professional scientist training.

Science longs for “objectivity”. It is, of course, useful if you are going to get to “truth”. Science positively hankers after objectivity.

Now the philosophers of science know, as you know, and I know, that “objectivity” is a snare and a delusion. But they yearn, and strive, for it anyway.

Striving is fine, but there is a tendency for striving to become “belief”, which is an immediate disaster in sifting facts looking for truth; belief causes blindness.

It works like this: young scientists-to-be have it beaten into them that “I” has no place in science. Writing a scientific paper that starts “I went to the woods” will get you an F. Do it over. “The woods were visited” is what happened.

The goal here is to strip the blatantly unobjective “I” from the science; science must be done by objective, non-involved persons, who can see things clearly without the clouds of personality.

This is a crock, of course. All observation is done through the lenses and smogs of our own culture, our sex, our past, our training, what we ate for breakfast, and who we last talked to. Ask any anthropologist, or psychologist, priest, or advertising exec. To believe humans can be objective, I will venture to point out, is gloriously irrational.

But that is how scientists are trained, nay forced, to communicate; through an artificial scrim of admittedly pretended objectivity.

What it does, in fact, is add a layer of camouflage to any truths that may be hiding in the scientist’s writing. You come to learn this- the “publish or perish” law has generated staggering mountains of junk noninformation that must be screened for scraps of fact. One of the things you quickly learn as an apprentice scientist is to judge the person doing the writing- are they a damfool? an incompetent? plain scum? badly trained? just silly? actually psychotic? All of those are utterly possible, indeed common; figuring out who’s what helps sift the heaps of scientific disinformation; it’s probably less worth your time to be looking through the work of an idiot, charlatan, or scoundrel.

Scientists know this, and judge other scientists; carefully, even subliminally, all the time; but they don’t talk about it or admit it to outsiders. And with all the practice, they get very good at reading between the lines of pseudo-objective idiom.

When they talk to the press, they know their peers will read it, and judge it; so they are extremely careful to speak in the most precise scientific terms- and use all the pretend objectifying language at their disposal; their professional reputation can be irretrievably damaged by unprofessional utterances (like “yes”, or “no”).

The result is statements that seem cold, distant, and full of so many obfuscatory disclaimers and weasel words that any lawyer would swell with pride. If the statements were in English.

Serious scientists lay it on thicker than the BULL shouters. Most of the BULL shouters have no professional reputation left to protect (among scientists, that is; the dean is oblivious, since Dr. Billy gets lots of press)- so in fact, to the journalist’s ears, Dr. Billy sounds more forthcoming- more personable, rambunctious, and, oh, worth a little more space in the article...

All done for the sake of Truth; and all done with the best of intentions.

And as a result, we are all on a path to a very warm place.

“Truth” has not been served; nor have we, nor the wellbeing of the world.

Is this the only case where critical information has been lost in a morass of good intentions? Of course not. Immediately after the terrorist attacks of September Eleventh, a refrain heard over and over, quite sincerely made in most cases, was “No one ever imagined that such a thing could happen...”. Utterly untrue. Repeated warnings were made by knowledgeable people, extending from briefings for Congress to books published for general consumption. Warnings stating that various kinds of precautions should be taken, immediately. The true statement would be “We did not listen to the people who knew.”

So is that the only other instance? Of course not.

So, why am I telling you all this?



There you have the 2002 essay. Why am I telling you this? Because- I do think we can start to change all this. First step; recognize the problem. Second step- get others to see. Third step- work for new decision making processes. Now there is an iceberg that can keep you busy for the next several lifetimes.

More on that next time.


valerie said...


Thank you for posting this article. It helped clarify some of my own thinking about how information is disseminated, how this very same information is interpreted, and what action (or inaction) results.

In my efforts to live green, I am often brought up short by the glut of information about the "best" way to reduce ones impact. It is overwhelming and, as you say, often paralyzing. If this is true for someone with a sincere desire to make choices that do not further harm the planet (who also has a background in biology and environmental science and may have a better chance of interpreting the information to begin with), what can we hope for from those who do not consider it their personal responsibility to sift through the jargon and find those elusive bits of "truth" or are willing to accept what they are told by Fox News or their local politician?

And, while I long to share my thoughts on these issues that ring so painfully in my own ears, I often find myself at a loss, unwilling to consider myself a source of accurate information or a model of environmental living when I am still struggling to find my own way. I am sure I'm not alone in this.

As I search for clarity and strength of purpose, I am continually inspired and heartened by those, like you, who are able to impart even a small amount of sanity into the discussion (and still retain a sense of humor!). Please keep posting. We'll keep reading and pushing those icebergs for all we're worth!

Chryss said...

AMEN. Well said, Greenpa. Well said.

Anonymous said...

Well, there's lies, damned lies and peer reviewed lies.

Beelar said...

RC, that made me laugh, but maybe I should be crying. I'm currently finishing out a Ph.D. in engineering, and intimately familiar with how insufficiently functional the peer review process can be in some "peer reviewed" communications; and this is even internal to the community. Oy.

Caroline said...

Re: Bridge disaster - imagine how much of our infrastructure we could have upgraded and replaced, not to mention how much further we could be down the road to advancing renewable energy, if we had met the aftermath of 9/11 with some ideas OTHER than waging a pointless, expensive war and buying more stuff.


Anna Haynes said...

Reality is that which, when we refuse to believe in it, doesn't go away...

re scientists not saying what they really think, due to career concerns - James Hansen is running into this (in his "huge sea level rises" piece in New Scientist, "...It seems to me that scientists downplaying the dangers of climate change fare better when it comes to getting funding..."
It seems to me the solution is, in essence, anonymous voting - AAAS should poll their members (from relevant disciplines) on relevant topics and report the results.

Mary said...


Good luck with the harvest.

I thought I would mention another book you can add to your stack of post-harvest reading - Bryan G. Norton's "Sustainability: A Philosogy of Adaptive Ecosystem Management". One reason that I thought you, and several posters, might be interested is that Norton, an environmental philosopher,explores how failures of communication among scientists, and between scientists and non-scientists, have contributed to the failure of environmental policies. Furthermore, he purports to offer a vocabulary that will enable everyone involved to speak the same language. I say purports, not to critique his effort, but in the service of 'truth' or merely honesty. I'm only at the end of chapter one. Nonetheless, based on the lucidity of his writing and arguements so far, I have high expectations for the remaining chapters.

PiƱon said...

Yes, GP, I liked your suggestion to Andrew Revkin. Tried to add a bit lower down. I work on Pleistocene lake sediments and tree ring eccentricity. What experiment do you have going at the moment?