Sister blog of Physicists of the Caribbean in which I babble about non-astronomy stuff, because everyone needs a hobby

Friday, 19 March 2021

People are weird and I don't like them

I wandered into an online debate the other day and it served as a potent reminder of how little I understand people.

Well, I didn't really wander. I was invited in by someone I respect who wanted my opinion, most likely because I've previously expressed skepticism for the idea of getting more scientists into politics. He is of the opinion that we should keep science and politics separate (I completely agree), so asked me for my thoughts as to why scientists shouldn't become politicians. As a summary of "what I think is wrong with politics", it got a bit more ranty and tangential than I intended, but I'm still pretty pleased with my response, so here it is for posterity.


I don’t think there is any harm in individual scientists going into politics. I would even encourage it. Where I draw the line is getting any sort of mass movement of scientists becoming politicians, or forming political parties, for a few reasons : 1) the distrust the media (often rightly) bestows on politicians will flow back towards scientists, meaning no-one will have any trust in the facts; 2) [Probably more importantly] scientists are not representative of the whole population any more than lawyers are, nor is science the only form of expertise; 3) any proficiency for scientists to be more impartial is in large part a result of the system they operate in, and not solely due to training. Put a scientist in the system of destructive criticism formed by the system of opposition [I mean in politics, where the opposition is duty-bound to oppose utterly everything] and relentless media attacks, and there’s no reason to suppose they’ll do any better or worse than anyone else. This last point might help explain why politics is so dominated by lawyers, who for all their faults are at least trained and expected to deal with this.

But… science does unquestionably work much better than politics. My take on this is that science has a system of well-moderated debate and peer review. In some venues, like conferences and blogs and whatnot, we can say whatever we like. But in formal publications, we’re forced to only set down what we can agree on, with an editor ensuring that the debate is handled according to clear rules (at least when it works well, which it often doesn’t). There is an inherent incentive to discover something new which is counterbalanced by the need to rigorously justify it. Thus, in the main, you get a sort of optimistic, progressive skepticism. No-one is ever really silenced, all ideas are up for discussion, but only the most solid findings are written, as it were, into law.

An additional key factor is that scientists are kept relatively isolated from the media. They don’t have to fact [sic; face] the shitstorm of questions from a wilfully ignorant rabble on a daily basis - by and large they get criticism from other experts instead. Unlike in politics, there’s far less of a public shaming of anyone who - woe betide! - dares to change their mind on an issue. And more importantly, science isn’t nearly so dominated by individuals as in politics. It’s much harder to point a finger at an emergent consensus.

What politics needs is not more scientists so much as it needs more diversity - people from all kinds of walks of life, of different professions, different levels of income and other backgrounds, as well as a better system for managing discussion and an end to the winner-takes-all strategy. Science has done pretty well at marrying competition with collaboration, but the political attempt has been more of a literal shotgun wedding.


The response I got from another participant, who as far as I can tell had been entirely civil until that point, was... less than enthusiastic. The words "inane" and "bullshit" were used. Lots of pointless, let's-take-everything-literally-and-to-a-pointless-extreme questions were asked which were WRITTEN IN ALL CAPITALS BECAUSE ANGER. I was called an entitled, arrogant, fascist.


So, a scientist says, "I don't want scientists dominating politics, I would prefer to have a more representative group of people running the country"... and that is fascism how, exactly ? Okay, I didn't say it explicitly (because I forgot), but my main point is that politics should be run a la the process of scientific discovery (this is mentioned in detail in the links, but my bad for not pointing this out more directly). But nothing here amounts even to populism, let alone fascism. Nothing here says "ignore the experts". Nothing here undermines scientific credibility (quite the reverse) or demands we respect the nobility of the peasants or something. And quite what in my response should provoke anger, especially from someone I've never before interacted with before, and who otherwise gives no indication of easily provoked... well, in this case "scientists baffled" is exactly correct.

Oh well. I'll preserve this as a record as the single weirdest response I've ever encountered, and move on.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Typo-d in last comment, and expressed some sentences with less detail than I meant to, could edit so I've redone it below:
    I must say, thesedays I see worrying signs of science becoming more politicised. There's been some really nasty incidents where scientists making evidence based conclusions against the efficacy of lockdowns have been seriously verbally attacked for their words. When people disagree in science there's a vital place for debate, on all issues, no point deserves to escape being scrutinised, and anyone saying "you're wrong because..." to someone else is usually making a sensible point. But the way some people, including politicians like Neil Obrien, have come charging in amidst scientists to ad-hominen anyone who presented questions against the politically approved narrative has been disturbing. There have, so some sources suggest, been cases where scientists questioning the consensus have had politicians phone people the hierachies of their universities and try to get vice-chancellors to threaten those scientists in to silence. I worry about the damage that this whole mess could do to science overall and how the media has been portraying us more like a religion, and denouncing those who stray from the mainstream as heretics, rather than questioning their ideas purely on the merits, flaws and evidence behind those ideas. In the future will students writing literatrue reviews of certain fields find that there is a dark year in each of them where the science stops being scientific and a particular field falls in to shouting matches rather than reasoned debate? I worry that if 2020 goes down as the "year in which any epidemiology and/or public health publications became politicised" then what other fields might get swept up next? Which will be the next field to be linked to a wave of panic which politicians choose to ride, for their own ends an purposes of increasing their powers, but then to blame scientists for afterwards? How many political claims to be "following the science" are really about absolving themselves of responsibility for the consequences of politically motivated choices? Remember than Neil Ferguson's work of March 2020 did NOT recommend a lockdown, it recommended control measures such as pub and sport-stadium closures but nothing so excessive as shop closures and police harassment of dog walkers, locking down was a politicians' choice but they then made their scientific advisers look responsible for it after the decision was made.

    As for diversity of fields involved in decisions, absolutely vital. I think much of the mess of 2020/21 is because too few fields have been listened to, SAGE didn't at last count have a single economist on it, much of it was purely population modellers rather than experts on immunology and how viruses interact with cells and to pharmaceutical interventions. If any issue is of national or international scale importance it is a domain of many fields, not of one alone. Maybe there coul be a place for what sci-fi novels used to call "synthesists", people who's whle job is to gather up wide varities of expertise and help diverse groups of experts to work together rather than in per-discipline silos.


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