Editor’s Note: We are very pleased to announce our first serious post to this site, the text of a speech by Bryson Brown at the Stand Up for Science Rally at the University of Lethbridge on Monday, Sept. 16.
Facing Facts: The value of science
Bryson Brown, Lethbridge
We’re here to protest against something quite frightening—a government that seems intent on suppressing evidence rather than responding to it. But I’m a philosopher, with a long interest in the history of science, and it’s hard to change my stripes. So I’m going to start a very long way from here and now. Please bear with me… I really do aim to get to the point in the end.
1. A Bad Bet—
Blaise Pascal’s decision theory identified two kinds of input for rational decision making:
- Beliefs about the probability of different states of the world.
- Gains or losses associated with <action, state> pairs.
A ‘rational gambler’ chooses the action with the highest expected value, where the expected value of an action is calculated by adding up, for each state the world could be in, the probability of that state of the world times the gain (or loss) the action produces in that state.
If our beliefs about these probabilities aren’t dependable (if they don’t match the long run frequencies of the different states) this rational gambler is in trouble. What she does might be rational given her beliefs, but her beliefs were misleading. No matter how rational we are from our point of view, if our beliefs don’t reflect (and respond to) the way things are, we’re in trouble.
(This is why Pascal’s famous wager is really just a cheap trick: unless our beliefs are dependable guides to the truth, there’s no reason to use Pascal’s method to make decisions. But the wager puts the cart before the horse by assuming that we can apply the method to choose our beliefs.)
There was a lot of debate over Jenner’s discovery of vaccination. People asked, ‘how could something icky that comes from a cow do a human being any good?” But in fact, it does (it turns out we’re not as different from cows, or mice, as some people had assumed). Since Jenner, this scientific discovery has made smallpox history, and it’s on the verge of making polio history too.
The point is clear—if we want our decisions and policies to succeed, we have to begin by learning the relevant facts. And science has a long history of producing information we can depend on. When that information bears on public policy, governments can use it to make better policy choices.
3. Carts and Horses—
But Stephen Harper’s so-called “conservative” government has a bad habit. It decides whether scientists in our public service will be allowed to tell us about their work based on whether or not that work supports government policy ( “The Assault on Science”, Alberta Views, Sept 2013). They’re putting the cart in front of the horse—which is not a safe way to move a cart forward.
Canadians have a right to hear what scientists working in the public sector are learning—whether the government likes the results or not. Canadians have a right to expect government to go on funding research efforts like the experimental lakes area, which has already produced crucial information about the impact of pollution on our lakes.
Suppressing inconvenient truths and de-funding research that may lead to inconvenient truths is an attack on the public interest. It’s like putting a blindfold on the whole country, the better to lead us where Mr. Harper wants to go. It’s a violation of the Canadian values of peace, order and good government. It may not be obvious to everyone yet, but this is leading to real trouble. Caught out in a lie, Chico Marx once asked “Who are you gonna believe? Me? Or your own eyes?” I think I’ll stick with my eyes, Mr. Harper.
More Coverage of the Stand Up For Science, Lethbridge
Local Coverage of the nation wide protests:
Topic: Science Advocacy