11 March 2012

Paul Nurse's Dimbleby Lecture

A few weeks ago, Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society and Nobel Laureate, gave the Richard Dimbleby Lecture for the BBC (here in PDF). In it he presented a rather simplistic and two-dimensional picture of the relationship of science and decision making.

He first conflates scientific judgments with judgments about action:
It is impossible to achieve complete certainty on many complex scientific problems, yet sometimes we still need to take action. The sensible course is to turn to the expert scientists for their consensus view. When doctors found I had blockages in the arteries around my heart I asked them for their expert view as to what I should do. They recommended a bypass, I took their consensus advice, and here I am. That is how science works.
As the doctor metaphor is a common one in this context, I have written about it on numerous occasions to illustrate that consulting a medical expert is not as simple as the patient doing whatever the doctor says. For instance, here is what I wrote in The Climate Fix (p. 215):
So your child is sick and you take him to the doctor. How might the doctor best serve the parent’s decisions about the child? The answer depends on the context.
  • If you feel that you can gain the necessary expertise to make an informed decision, you might consult peer-reviewed medical journals (or a medical Web site) to understand treatment options for your child instead of directly interacting with a doctor.
  • If you are well informed about your child’s condition and there is time to act, you might engage in a back-and-forth exchange with the doctor, asking her questions about the condition and the effects of different treatments.
  • If your child is deathly ill and action is needed immediately, you might ask the doctor to make whatever decisions are deemed necessary to save your child’s life, without including you in the decision-making process.
  • If there is a range of treatments available with different possible outcomes, you might ask the doctor to spell out the entire range of treatment options and their likely consequences to inform your decision.
Even in the superficially simple scenario of a doctor, a parent and child, it’s clear that the issues are complicated. Understanding the different forms of this relationship is the first step toward the effective governance of expertise.
Nurse asserts that we must resolve science questions prior to resolving political questions:
Today the world faces major problems. Some uppermost in my mind are food security, climate change, global health and making economies sustainable, all of which need science. It is critical for our democracy to have mature discussions about these issues. But these debates are sometimes threatened by a misinformed sense of balance and inappropriate headlines in the media, which can give credence to views not supported by the science, and by those who distort the science with ideology, politics, and religion.

From the very beginning of science there have always been such threats. When Galileo argued that the earth orbited the sun, the Inquisition did not argue back with science, they simply showed him the instruments of torture. It is very important that we keep such influences separate from scientific debate. The time for politics is after the science not before.
Nurse chooses (unwisely) to illustrate his point with genetically modified crops:
It is time to reopen the debate about GM crops in the UK but this time based on scientific facts and analysis. We need to consider what the science has to say about risks and benefits, uncoloured by commercial interests and ideological opinion. It is not acceptable if we deny the world’s poorest access to ways that could help their food security, if that denial is based on fashion and ill-informed opinion rather than good science.
Good luck separating science and politics in that debate, much less getting the science before the politics! Debates over GM crops at times involve questions that might be resolved through the tools of science, but more often, such debates involve questions of values grafted on to issues of risk and benefits, as if science might resolve them.

Nurse ends his speech with a passionate and conventional plea for more government support for science and more autonomy for researchers:
We need more science in Government, the boardroom, and public services, we need more funding for science, we need greater engagement with the public and a society comfortable with science, we need to convey the wonder of science, and what it contributes to our culture and our civilization.
But other than broad generalities, he does not address what science is needed (all of it I suppose), how it is to be paid for or what returns ought to be expected. Such hand waving is of course common place in science policy debates.

In an editorial last week, Nature politely took issue with Nurse's arguments about the relationship of science and society, and offered a somewhat more nuanced extension and re-characterization of Nurse's remarks:
[A]lthough political (and religious) ideology has no place in deciding scientific questions, the practice of science is inherently political. In that sense, science can never come before politics. Scientists everywhere enter into a social contract, not least because they are not their own paymasters. Much, if not most, scientific research has social and political implications, often broadly visible from the outset. In times of crisis (like the present), scientists must respond intellectually and professionally to the challenges facing society, and not think that safeguarding their funding is enough.

The consequences of imagining that science can remain aloof from politics became acutely apparent in Germany in 1933, when the consensus view that politics was, as Heisenberg put it, an unseemly “money business” meant that most scientists saw no reason to mount concerted resistance to the expulsion of Jewish colleagues — regarded as a political rather than a moral matter. This 'apolitical' attitude can now be seen as a convenient myth that led to acquiescence in the Nazi regime and made it easy for German scientists to be manipulated. It would be naive to imagine that only totalitarianism could create such a situation.

The rare and most prominent exception to apolitical behaviour was Einstein, whose outspokenness dismayed even his principled friends the German physicists Max Planck and Max von Laue. “I do not share your view that the scientist should observe silence in political matters,” he told them. “Does not such restraint signify a lack of responsibility?” There was no hint of such a lack in Nurse's talk. But we must take care to distinguish the political immunity of scientific reasoning from the political dimensions and obligations of doing science.
Nature is on target. Ultimately, the question facing scientists is not whether to engage in the political arena, but how - and resolving the science before the politics is just not an option in all but the most simplistic of decision settings.