Just before the lockdown, I made my annual pilgrimage to the hospital to see my cardiologist. It’s a long story to do with genes and familial lines and some inevitabilities of the way biology works.
The visit was a success from my end thanks to a fine doctor who is a sensible and pragmatic professional. His motto seems to be ‘if it ain’t broke don’t try to fix it’. This is somewhat unusual in our interventionist times and a bonus for me because the last thing I want is another procedure.
Anyway, we dealt with my heart issues fairly briskly and got onto stress.
This was a problem for me and the cardiologist agreed although he was quick to say that he was not qualified to advise on what I should do about it. My blood tests are good and my blood pressure in the middle of normal so from his perspective not much to be done.
My wife asked if retirement might be a solution.
“Oh no, that would not work,” he said, ‘you’re an environmental scientist right?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Well then, the stress will still be there even if you retire. This country is in a political mess.”
He was actually rather less polite than this but his point was a good one. There is a level of stress and malaise over many scientists right now in the age of spin, fake news and normative science.
Scientists, especially environmental ones, are purposely misunderstood, maligned and ignored.
I experience it every day.
When I try to speak the listeners switch off or glaze over. People seem to have no skills with logic and numbers and have no interest in gaining any. Anything more complex than 2 + 2 is near impossible to communicate.
The really important issues that involve an understanding of settled science, some skills with likelihoods, and the application of proper scepticism — these things are just not even in the conversation.
Why can’t I retire
Well, I can and I will, but only from the day job.
A lifetime of buzzing around as a lonely fly avoiding the wafts of the disinterested and the annoyed is debilitating. I’m knackered.
But then there the issues that still get me excited and incited. My normative feelings rush in and I’m wanting to say something, even if it is to extoll the virtue (another normative word) of being objective.
I will be my own worst enemy and keep on thinking about all this until I get hit by a bus.
Meantime there was another thing.
It was a relief to hear that the expert thinks my heart with its grafts is doing fine. Keep doing what you’re doing and come back in a year was the message. I will take that from a fellow scientist.
It was a shock to hear how much trouble he thought the world was in and that was before we had a pandemic.
A short primer
Normative science — science based on preference or value.
This means that it is not true science at all but an opinion or bias towards a particular outcome held by the scientist on her own behalf or by the people who support her.
Food and diet are obviously normative. They are both chockablock full of values. What we eat is what we can afford and what we choose based on our preferences that are rarely free of value.
There are ways to quite quickly decide if the science presented is normative.
1 – Look out for ‘is’ and ‘ought’ and value-laden words
In the English language, the difference between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ is critical. The use of the word ‘is’ determines a fact whilst ‘ought’ refers to an opinion.
Science should be all about the world of ‘is’, the facts about the past, present, or future. So if the language that a scientist uses has too many ‘oughts’ then there is a good chance she is being normative.
The use of ‘should’ is a giveaway too.
Bad, better, bigger, catastrophe, destroy, disaster, good, slashed, tremendous, ugly and all similar value-laden words and phrases are red flags for normative language.
2 – How was the evidence generated
True scientific evidence comes from deduction. This is a process of setting forth an idea as a hypothesis and testing it with an experiment where treatments are assigned to observational units at random.
Some evidence comes from observation alone. As the plane flies low over the savannah the elephants browsing below are counted. This tells us how many elephants there are viewable from the aircraft — an observation.
It is only an estimate of how many elephants there might be all together and tells us nothing about what elephants do or if their numbers are decreasing or on the rise.
The quality of evidence to explain how things work is really what science is about. Observation alone is rarely enough.
3 – Who provided the evidence?
If you are paid $100,000 a week to play soccer for a premier league team you would not want to score goals for the opposition. You are paid to score goals for your team.
Scientists are prone to this employer bias as much as anyone. If your boss wants to see great yield response in trails of the companies new fertilizer it will be hard to present evidence to the contrary. He might say you had a poor design and get you to repeat the experiment or worse.
Ask yourself who generated the evidence as well as how they did it. Academics are less likely to be based than scientists working for commercial companies and those who work for government agencies might be somewhere in between.
Beware though, for no one is immune.
Feel free to browse some more ideas for healthy thinking