Should our leaders know about the process of science?

Should our leaders know about the process of science?

Short courses in science and statistics should be mandated for all politicians because of their importance to so much public policy. And because so few demonstrate any knowledge of even the basic process of science.

Ian Chubb, neuroscientist and former Chief Scientist of Australia

Do you know the basic process of science?

Maybe you have a distant memory of a school teacher saying something about cause and effect or experiment or maybe hypothesis. Perhaps you were told to mix a few chemicals in some test tubes and record the colour changes.

Well, that’s it in the formal sense — the testing of hypotheses through controlled experiments. All that stuff about the scientific method.

It began with the Scientific Revolution in Europe towards the end of the Renaissance period and continued through the late 18th century when developments in mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology, and chemistry transformed the views of society about nature.

This period is also known as the Enlightenment when a few radical thinkers decided they had had enough of religions telling them obvious lies about the world around them. The likes of Beccaria, Baruch, Spinoza, Diderot, Kant, Hume, Rousseau, and Adam Smith decided a better approach was needed, one based on fact, things known to be true.

Now let’s see what happened next.

The rise of democracy, the industrial revolution, huge increases in health and well-being for more and more people.

The average westerner now lives in more luxury and comfort than Louis XIV, the king who was miffed at all those philosophers bursting his bubble. Way more in fact.

The arts and social science types will not be happy that I am suggesting progress is down to the natural sciences, but you have to admit, it put a rocket under the process. The changes seen in societies across the globe in the last 200 years have been so much faster than at any other time in human history.

In short, science is important.

It makes good sense for leaders as well as thinkers to at least know how science works and something about the philosophy behind it. Especially the idea that the scientific method generates evidence, facts know to be true.

It is vital that decision-makers know what is known and how reliable that information is. We took the piss out of Donald Rumsfeld but actually, he was onto something, although he was lampooned for saying it.

The scientific method and the results from the researchers who apply it reliably generate the facts that give us the full suite of knowns.

Professor Chubb said something else. He also wanted the political muppets to know about statistics.

He is spot on.

Without the basics of probability — how likely something is to happen — combined with an understanding of the scientific method, the results of research and the advice of the experts are meaningless.

Probability seems quite difficult to understand for most people. Here are a few conundrums as examples…

  • If I toss a coin and get five heads in a row, what is the probability of the next coin toss delivering heads? Exactly 50%, just like it was for the previous five tosses.
  • The median is not the same as the mean even though they are both measures of central tendency unless the data is normally distributed.
  • An unlikely event is not impossible — ask Nassim Taleb about black swans.
  • Correlation is not causation.
  • And here is a statistic that everyone should know — 8,000 per hour

These statistics and likelihoods and measures of distributions are not lies, they are vital to understanding risk and opportunity, the very essence of what policy for the collective benefit should be about. Minimising risk and maximising opportunities for as many citizens and visitors as possible.

Politicians are ignorant of this at our peril.

Go ahead and share this extraordinary missive, you know you want to.

Also let us know in the comments section if a short course on the scientific method would be of interest to you