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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Leadership, positivity, and respect for the truth

Political initiatives can succeed only if activists are positive and adhere to empirical facts.

S omething rather disturbing seems to be happening to the concept of truth. Extreme narratives are being adopted as if they were factually true, despite the absence of a grounding in empirical reality. The protagonists then threaten their opponents instead of trying to convince them.

It's as if scientists got tired of doing scientific experiments and just sat at their desks and made up results, then called colleagues names if they disagreed with them. Certainly, it would make life easier, but it would be irresponsible.

There are two ways this could happen. One might be that the standard of evidence has declined. More likely is that an incentive exists for exaggerating. Take Bill Nye, the global warming guy. Last week Nye went full metal alarmist, revealing his negative side:

By the end of this century, if emissions keep rising, the average temperature on Earth could go up another four to eight degrees. What I'm saying is the planet's on f***ing fire. There are a lot of things we could do to put it out. Are any of them free? No, of course not. Nothing's free, you idiots.

Compare that to the calm, reflective tone of climate scientist Patrick J. Michaels, who wrote in his recent book Lukewarming:

Lukewarmers know that severe weather is a characteristic of the Earth's atmosphere and that every day some kind of storm or extreme event can (and likely will) be associated with global warming. Lukewarmers also know that if the issue of the day were global cooling, such extreme weather events could be made to fit that paradigm, too. [p 177]

Nye's message is that he's frustrated and angry that he can't convince anyone that global warming is a dire threat, so he crudely berates them and calls them idiots. By being negative, he makes the story about his own emotions instead of the climate. Michaels's message is much more positive and factual. Unlike Nye and his fellow activists, Michaels's optimistic and fact-based presentation is an example of good leadership, which is to say he convinces people to adopt his interpretation.

There are many other examples where we're being pressured to accept politically motivated narratives that conflict with scientific evidence: that sex is not binary but a continuum, that male and female brains are identical, and that intelligence tests are biased and inaccurate.

These aren't convenient fictions contrived solely to buttress somebody's ideology, but neither are they deductions arrived at dispassionately to explain some observation; they are some­where in between, in an epistemological no man's land, and thus they are fragile and must be protected from doubt all the more for the good of the Cause.

Such ideas as conflict with common sense create friction in the brain, which rather than turning them into pearls casts them out as un-assimilable, and in so doing discards the entire body of the argument, even those parts of which are valid, for the same reason.

Likewise with the myths about IQ and intelligence testing. A recent book (The Neuroscience of Intelligence, Cambridge 2017) by Richard J. Haier, a professor emeritus at UC Irvine, thoroughly and calmly debunks the activism-driven myths about intelligence tests. He writes

Modern quantitative genetic studies overwhelmingly support a major role for genes in explaining the variance of intelligence test scores among individuals. [p.66]

About 50% of general intelligence, or g, says Haier, is determined by genetics. As a person matures, this percentage increases, suggesting that the genes controlling intelligence are maximally expressed in early adulthood. One possible explanation is that it is not the basic brain structure that's important, but biochemical or synaptic changes that happen during development. Another is that the rate of brain development varies independently of IQ but reaches a plateau that is fixed at a level that is strongly heritable.

This book is interesting and readable by the general public, though un-provocative; Haier's writing is nuanced, evidence-based, and honest about the level of certainty, and the results showing marked differences in how males and females process information are uncontroversial in science. It's a good example of how a scientist can exert leadership and avoid the hysteria that's increasingly common.

If ideologies are based on beliefs that are inconsistent with empirical evidence, support for them will gradually slip away. Skepticism manifests itself among the public as apathy. This may be one reason why global warming generates so little interest these days, and why, in compensation, the media push climate alarmism with ever greater urgency.

Certainly, political considerations, if democratically consented to, are important, but to base a policy on a scientific falsehood would create more problems than it solves. Scientists must have the courage to correct falsehoods and to insist that the media report both sides of scientific disputes in a manner consistent with our current understanding and uncertainty.

University administrators also have a responsibility to protect scientists and faculty when they discuss an issue that may be controversial. Historically, that was the purpose of tenure, but nowadays even tenured scientists are fired for saying factual things that were politically incorrect. This damages the reputation of both science and of the universities.

Since government funds most science, the federal government also has a responsibility to ensure that both sides of scientific issues are funded fairly. This is particularly true on questions where the severity of the problem is disputed. Funding on the basis of the purported size of the effect leads to a pathological dynamic that has destroyed several promising research fields in the past. Michaels writes:

The federal takeover of much of science (and all of science) has created a systematic distortion in the direction of alarmism.

To say this in a more positive way: the federal government can be of enormous benefit to the dialogue about scientific controversies if they maintain an even-handed and apolitical approach. Maybe that's not a scary, end-of-the-world conclusion like we're used to seeing in the press, but it makes up for it by being true.

may 14 2019, 7:12 am. last edited may 15 2019, 6:11 am

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