Thursday, April 9, 2020
In the framework of the ongoing joint project of Kompassi and Sallux on politics and science, Tapio Luoma-aho, manager of Kompassi, wrote an excellent and timely contribution to this debate which we are happy to publish here. We thank him for this article that has been published as well at the website of Kompassi in Finnish.
Science and politics: Why is the reliability of science as a basis for decision-making still questioned?
“Forest research misguided the entire forestry sector… Research material was manipulated… There are repeated lies about “tree fields” growing more wood than continuous cover forestry. Measurements taken at different times and thus under different conditions do not meet the criteria for reliable scientific research…
Erkki Lähde, Professor emeritus of Finnish Forest Research Institute (Metla, today Luke). Suomen Kuvalehti 30.6.2019
Why is the reliability of science as a basis for decision-making still questioned?
In another recent column in the same magazine, science journalist and researcher PhD Tiina Raevaara suggests that “even political decision-makers are constantly raising the issue of whether certain disciplines should exist at all. ”
Most probably she is referring to certain statements by some politicians from a more “populist” background. Those stupid populist politicians that doubt science… Oh, if everything was that simple and straightforward.
Political decision-makers should be able to make guided and well-grounded decisions – decisions that are based on science. But where do you stand when a whole tradition of research in a given domain is questioned in a popular quality newspaper by a retired professor from that very field?
The example above is rather extreme, yet to say that science is settled, is far from reality in many domains. The more complex the system under study, the less certainty we have. Such disciplines include many applied sciences, humanities, history, social sciences, economics and so forth. Well, and perhaps to some extent also climate science.
On the other hand, the importance and reliability of science as the basis for political decision-making is something to be sworn in. That is the only right way of doing things, is it not? Decisions that are based on research, scientific understanding and wisdom of the experts is – or at least is seems as – the only right and rational way to make decisions. What is “not science” means things such as ideologies, beliefs, subjective experiences, emotions, irrationality, self-interest, corruption… (By “science” I mean here the scientific method as a tool for producing information and the related institutions.)
Is “science” an impartial, infallible, unified, and unanimous source of truth and light to the right path? Leaving the political populism aside for a while, what is being criticized when some do criticize the reliability of a certain scientific tradition? Where do these doubts arise from? Is there, for example, behind the science critique:
A) Irrational beliefs that arise, for example, from a dogmatic belief in an ideology or a “religious” worldview?
B) Healthy skepticism, encouraged by both scientific tradition itself and perhaps also the Western and Judeo-Christian tradition and mentality?
C) The simple fact that there is too little information about the complex topic?
D) Or is it about inadequacies in popularization of science or even deliberate confusing of of true knowledge with lies, misemphasis with purposeful rumors, and so on?
E) Financial or political interests, corruption?
As has been pointed out within the scientific community since at least the 1960s, the practice of science is not in itself independent of other human realities, our weaknesses, ideological premises, and cognitive bias. Nevertheless, the scientific method is the most reliable - and often the only way to source information about most phenomena in the world. At least science ought to fix itself. In addition, there are different perceptions on how the science progresses: gradually, i.e. incrementally or through major paradigm shifts (revolutions). Scientific consensus has proved to be wrong so many times before. Could we still be missing some pieces even today?
Examples of “politicized” disciplines
a) The various fields of social sciences have received strong criticism from time to time. According to the most critical voices, they are already almost entirely permeated by various ideologies (such as so-called “cultural Marxism”) and are more reminiscent of political activism than scientific research. In the question of certain politically hot or controversial issues, some researchers also want to actively influence how people think and may choose research topics according to their own purposes. It should be noted, however, that some of the criticism that is being repeated in Europe originates from North America and is arising from the critique to the issues in the discipline there. However, that is not the whole story. In Finland, for example, Jussi K. Niemelä and Osmo Tammisalo pointed out the methodological problems women's studies (nowadays: Gender Studies) in a book Keisarinnan uudet (v)aatteet (The Empress’ New Ideologies) published in 2006.
b) Similarly, the reliability of economics - or its various schools - as an explanation of human activity is constantly being questioned. The economy (as all human activity) is a very complex system and difficult to model. When modeling the economy, a variety of assumptions have to be made and these can be of great importance: for example, what do we assume about the functioning of the human mind, motives (psychology, behavioral economics), etc.? A large part of all public political debate is somehow related to the economy (employment, social security, industry, entrepreneurship, economic growth, externalities and so forth) and the importance of economic research for decision-making is very high.
c) Research on climate change still continues to raise questions (at least in some circles). Are we focusing on the right culprits when we mainly focus on CO2 alone? What would be the best policy recommendations that should be drawn from climate science – and should they even be given in the name of science, and so forth? The issue is highly political as climate change is seen by many scientists as well as Western politicians as the most pressing existential threat facing humanity. But not all see things that way.
d) Research of history is particularly prone to bias. Our sources and our interpretation of them may be one-sided or even purposeful. A classical example is how wars, crises, rulers, and exceptional individuals are overemphasized in historiography at the expense of everyday things, which can also distort our understanding. Small but very important day-to-day things and subtle trends may easily remain totally unnoticed…
e) And finally, as an example from applied sciences, in Finland Erkki Lähde, Professor Emeritus of Forest Research, rejected a large part of the history of his own field, forest management research, in his previously cited widely popularized article from 2019. According to his criticism, most of all past Finnish comparative research between continuous cover forestry (a type of forest management that has hardly ever been intentionally practiced in Finland and that was almost totally banned by law between 1940s and 1990s) and modern silviculture with clear-cut fellings (supposedly more productive type of forest management practiced and promoted widely since 1940s) and has been of poor quality and guided by political objectives, short-sighted interest of the forest industry and even intentional lies.
"Joseph Goebbels, the famous propaganda minister of Nazi Germany, once declared that the bigger a lie you make and the more often you repeat it, the more confidently it will be believed."
Professor emeritus Erkki Lähde, Suomen Kuvalehti magazine 30th of June 2019
Media, emotions and populism
So, in the end the realms of science are not free from us – humans. How could they be? Humility and self-criticism are among the most important virtues in science.
When we think of the popular discussion around any of these examples below, we know that there are a lot of emotions and sometimes very strong language involved. In the case of forest sciences in Finland, the wider scientific community has not repeated such strong critique, but it is very often the most vocal and expressive critic that gets the attention of the media. That is the logic of the media. Populist leaders and their voters get their ideas from somewhere. Emotions catch our attention and emotional messages are being repeated by populists of all sort, color and party affiliation, from east to west and left to right.
Indeed, in the last few years some populist national leaders have made cuts to national science budgets and expressed disrespect to science. This includes populist leaders from so-called political left, such as president Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico, to the political “right” such as Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Donald Trump of USA. In the face of the corona crisis this disrespect is beginning to look very questionable and populism could lose its edge for a while. But it could all go another way as well.
Decisions should be made, but is the truth even “out there”?
Going back to the original point of this article, when the reliability of scientific research (or even a whole discipline) is questioned from within the scientific community, normal citizens, including the MPs that represent them do not really have anything solid to stand on.
If respected scientists disagree with each other in public, how should the average citizen or decision-maker be able to perceive the “truth”? Obviously, either someone doesn’t see something correctly and the discipline could expect a paradigm shift, or the underlying assumptions behind some of the research (or interpretations) are very different between for researchers. Or something else.
Is the truth to be found? Does it even exist? In Finland the Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture and Forestry will at some point make a decision concerning a citizens' initiative to ban clear-cut logging in state-owned forests. In the committee there is not a single forest professional, let alone a forest researcher or a biologist. The upcoming discussion in the committee is situation in which an emeritus professor in the field has barked at the deliberate lying of scientific research on the subject. Unfortunately, according to the logic of the media, the “defense speech” is always weaker than “attack” and once an idea becomes public, it’s very difficult to pull it back.
The busy MPs read the same newspapers as everyone and most often we all, including journalists and decision-makers lack the time to dig deeper to e.g. the history of some scientific research. May this story serve as an example of the challenges in politics and science.
Another potentially significant question is the choice of experts to the hearings in the parliamentary committees – and media. In the parliamentary committees that organize hearings, a situation could come up when representatives of different parties/opinions may want to invite and hear experts who might support their views. As far as I am aware, there is no research evidence of such behavior, however rumors and stories there are. In the case of some more “politicized” issues, it is not hard to think of motives. As stated by the Finnish Society of Researchers and Members of Parliament (Tutkas), at a seminar on 18 February 2020, the increased number of expert consultations does not necessarily mean an increase in the weight of scientifically valid information in committee hearings.
What is the use of the correct answer if the question is irrelevant?
An nescis, mi fili, quantilla prudentia mundus regatur.
(Do you not know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed?)
- Axel Oxenstierna 1648
Scientific research may have its weak points. But how do we know that we are even asking the right and relevant questions? What about the questions that are never asked? Can one build a “holistic understanding of the world” by reading Science, Nature and latest research papers from different fields? Narrow expert knowledge is not the same thing as a “world explanation” - not at all. Knowledge is a prerequisite for wisdom, but knowledge alone does not make anyone wise and capable of making good decisions. Parliament - and in all life - should also be able to make decisions that take into account as many different things as possible and look forward to decades to come. Could intuition be a more reliable source of information, after all?
The scientific method has its limits, and in some cases they are also recognized. Heikki Pursiainen, former director of thinktank Libera writes in his defense speech in economics (MustRead July 10, 2018), that “economics predicts that economic crises cannot be predicted”.
On the other hand, one could ask whether or not even some kind of forecasting of economic and other systemic crises would not be very useful information for any policymaking, and the political and economic incentives for such research would be great.
But rules don’t always work. As economics is not of much help in providing simple answers in this kind of really challenging systemic situations that appear unexpectedly – such as the one we are facing today with the corona pandemic – decision-makers have to make their decisions based on other sources of information than scientific inquiry in the classical sense. Scientific knowledge of course does greatly help build an understanding of the situation, and experts will provide best expert advice, but in the end, it is up to the judgment of the politicians to make the final decisions - with very limited knowledge.
As we can now see more clearly, the world is extremely complicated and interdependent in many ways. Systemic risks are enormous, and decisions have to be made fast. Waiting for the scientific method to provide best answers to extremely complicated global issues is not an option. One cannot model the whole world.
Talk is cheap
However, it is easy to criticize science and research. Science has its limits. However, talk is cheap. It is always easier to provide superficial criticism than actually putting your hands and time in doing research. Genuine criticism of research and its underlying assumptions could be even more laborious than actually doing science. Science critique also has weak incentives: once a study is published, it is of no (personal) benefit to anyone to go through it again.
In a joint project by think tanks Sallux and Kompassi, we aim to keep on discussing the questions of science and its reliability and significance as a basis for political decision-making. We started in February 2020 with a seminar on the reliability of forest sciences in the question above.
Ajatushautomo Kompassi ry