Language Strangles Scientific Ideals
Big Science doesn’t have a public relations problem. It has a propaganda problem.
To hear science journal editors and science news reporters, you would think the gods are angry at stupid people. For example, on Live Science, Stephanie Pappas purports to explain “Why Americans Deny Science,” taking hold of the Yoda microphone to berate the unwashed masses. It’s not that the issues of “evolution, climate and vaccines” do not deserve informed discussion, or whether a fraction of the populace believes dumb things. It’s that her elitist stance begins and ends with the attitude, “We’re right, they’re wrong, that’s the end of the story” (see 12/23/16).
The U.S. has a science problem. Around half of the country’s citizens reject the facts of evolution; fewer than a third agree there is a scientific consensus on human-caused climate change, and the number who accept the importance of vaccines is ticking downward.
But there are reasons to doubt the “scientific consensus.” Who says so? Members of the scientific consensus itself, that’s who. Consider these recent reports from the journals and mainstream media.
Equivocation in scientific lingo. Scientific papers are known for their incomprehensible jargon. An ostensible purpose of the recondite rhetoric is to aim for precision in meaning. Here’s an example, though, of rhetorical imprecision. The phrase ‘risk factor’ sounds scientific, doesn’t it? What, exactly, does it mean? Medical Xpress points to the phrase as an example of imprecise language with multiple meanings (see Equivocation in the Baloney Detector). A post-doc scholar at METRICS (Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford) conducted a study of terminology in the literature, and found that ‘risk factor’ alone has four possible meanings. Annoyed, Anders Huitfeldt, PhD, had this to say: ”
“I have had a long-standing interest in trying to understand why published research papers often fail to find the truth,” he said. “It seems that often researchers are confused about what they are actually trying to do.”
The problem goes far beyond this one particular phrase. If scientists cannot even agree on what they mean by their own widely-used terminology, the very question they address in research gets muddled. “And this uncertainty becomes a serious impediment to processing information correctly to arrive at the scientific truth.” Conclusion: imprecision in phraseology is a risk factor for muddle-headed obtuseness.
Buzz bombs. To show we are not alone in use of the term ‘Big Science’, observe that Nature uses it, too. “Big science has a buzzword problem,” a news feature in the respected journal announces. Megan Scudellari intones, “Moonshots, road maps, frameworks and more are proliferating, but few can agree on what these names even mean.” If scientists don’t know what they mean by a research project that’s going to cost the taxpayers tons of money (e.g., Biden’s “Cancer Moonshot”), how is the public supposed to know? Here’s that imprecision risk factor again:
‘Moonshot’, ‘road map’, ‘initiative’ and other science-planning buzzwords have meaning, yet even some of the people who choose these terms have trouble defining them precisely. The terms might seem interchangeable, but close examination reveals a subtle hierarchy in their intentions and goals. Moonshots, for example, focus on achievable, but lofty, engineering problems. Road maps and decadal surveys (see ‘Alternate aliases’) lay out milestones and timelines or set priorities for a field. That said, many planning projects masquerade as one title while acting as another.
It gets worse. Scudellari points out that projects labeled with these buzzwords “add unnecessary layers of bureaucracy and overhead costs to doing science, reduce creativity and funding stability and often lack the basic science necessary to succeed.” No wonder The Martian faced death-defying challenges. Scudellari provides disturbing examples of muddle in the Big Science – Big Government nexus. She notes in passing that “Science partly progresses by serendipity” in addition to moonshots, whatever those are. Serendipity can emerge as a flash of insight for one individual scientist.
Have a nice epoch. Nature printed an interesting dialogue about the new buzzword “Anthropocene,” a proposed geological epoch that begins with human impact on the planet. (We note in passing that the words era, epoch, eon, and period, while essentially synonymous in English, take on artificial meanings in geology’s arbitrary classification scheme. The rocks know nothing of the ‘Geologic Column’ and couldn’t care less.) In his critique, Noel Castree argues that “it is folly to believe that there is an objective way to define a new ‘age of humans’.” His neologism ‘scientize’ carries a stinging bite:
What counts as epochal change is a matter of perspective and emerges from judgements about when quantitative change morphs into qualitative transformation. The interpretive and critical parts of social science can help us to appreciate that formalizing the Anthropocene is a misguided attempt to ‘scientize’ a particular set of value judgements. No such formalization is needed to underpin arguments for humans to live in ways that are less environmentally destructive.
Indignant members of the Anthropocene Working Group do their best to defend the term’s meaningfulness in their reply, but point out that once the term is settled, it will work with “physical scientists, social scientists, humanists and artists.” Something like the word evolution does?
Hidden agendas. Speaking of buzzwords, Nature‘s editors introduced one with profound consequences for citizens. “‘Nature-based solutions’ is the latest green jargon that means more than you might think,” the headline says. “It may sound vague, but the term represents real and vital concepts.” Our first impression was that it refers to biomimetics. Not. In fact, freedom-loving conservatives need to watch out for this friendly euphemism, not just because the leftist journal Nature likes it, but because it could hit their wallets. Nature likes it because it sounds nicer to innocent taxpayers than the clunky phrases, ‘ecosystem services’, ‘green–blue infrastructure’ and ‘natural capital’.” By contrast, nature-based solutions has a nice ring to it (like ‘sustainable’ or ‘evidence-based’), enough to rally the globalists and policymakers:
NBS — as almost no one yet calls it — is a newly coined umbrella term intended to sweep up all of the above phrases, add others such as ‘ecological engineering’ and ‘ecosystem-based mitigation’, and dump them into a policy-relevant pot, where sustainable practices that harness the natural world (wetlands to clean waste water, for example) can be devised, analysed and then pulled out for use by politicians, scholars and researchers….
‘Nature-based solutions’ might sound like it belongs on the side of a gardener’s van, but the concept it represents is of vital and urgent significance. As the grand challenges that face society continue to build, so does the need for multidisciplinary, evidence-based strategies to, for example, protect water supplies, address habitat loss and mitigate and adapt to climate change. And if a concept is solid, then the alien words and terms that represent it have a habit of becoming familiar and bedding into everyday discourse.
Hold onto your wallet, in other words. Nature grins at how other buzzwords, like biodiversity and sustainable development “emerged into policy debate” relatively quickly. Who are the debaters, you might ask? Big Science, Big Government, the UN, Big Media and all the other Big institutions that decide for the public what they want to do, then ask the public for their money.
Foxes elect themselves guardians of the henhouse. Speaking of policy, Nature also reported that a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) produced a document called the Brussels Declaration (odd, since they worked in Boston), “a 20-point blueprint for a set of ethics and principles to inform work at the boundaries of science, society and policy.” It’s nice that they care about ethics and integrity, but they get to define those words, too. Beware if they think integrity evolved by natural selection.
One might think that scientists are already paragons of integrity. Why, then, was this declaration needed?
Most policy decisions are informed by evidence that is provided by experts. All too often, who those experts are, how they are chosen and the true reliability of their advice is open to question. Key requirements for public dialogue and better understanding are transparency, scrutiny and inclusivity.
Inclusivity—the buzzword that usually refers to certain sexual orientations—suggests that Nature and the AAAS will be happiest if two transgender lesbians who are transparent about their gay marriage are included in Big Science & Big Government confabs to inform policy for the rest of us.
Automated bias. In the internet age, much of our information comes to us from Google searches. Many users might presume that answers to questions are evidence-based, transparent, and scrutinized with the appropriate inclusivity. Thomas Maher (U of Arizona) is concerned, though, that these answers may actually be promoting more falsehood online. He states on The Conversation that the top answer in a Google search on the question, “Did the Holocaust happen?”, led users to a neo-Nazi, white supremacist, Holocaust-denying website. In the article, Maher points out additional problems with Google answers. But the concern can cut multiple ways. What happens, for instance, if government censors decide what is fake news or fake science? As we showed in the opening Live Science article, one can imagine the kinds of answers Stephanie Pappas would give—were she put on a censor board—to questions about creation, evolution, or intelligent design.
Power corrupts in many ways, not just financial. All humans, even scientists, are prone to promote their agendas and ideologies. Some take the shortcut of propaganda. The more power, the more ability to foist fake science through large, wealthy institutions.
Avoiding propaganda requires moral qualities that Big Science admits is in short supply (else why need a Brussels Declaration?). Beware any expert who thinks that integrity evolves. That ideology could lead to things like Newspeak: war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.