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Making facts matter — individually and collectively
My previous post, “Alternative facts naturally trump objective reality” (1), drew on West's book, The Grip of Culture (2), for understanding of why fact- and reality-based views are quite often in the minority while the mainstream consensus may be governed by emotionally powerful narratives that do not respect objective realities. The point is that human beings are social animals who join in groups, cultural entities which entail systemic beliefs.
Individuals are likely to be members simultaneously of several cultural entities. As well as the one ingrained in childhood, others are later acquired, for instance through professional or recreational activities. Each of those offers some characteristic knowledge, but also some characteristic non-factual biases.
Individuals may be more likely to be able to recognize facts of objective reality if they are aware of their own biases and try to compensate for their influence. Societies are more likely to adopt policies that respect the effects of objective reality if they manage to arrange ways of mediating among the disparate biases of the diverse cultural entities present in every society.
My own cultural entities include the community of chemical scientists; the cohort of people who were refugees from Nazism; the culture of academics and that of intellectuals, which is not identical with that of academics. In politics my cultural identity is somewhat to the left of center, but not extremely so.
The cultural identity of academic chemist brings a slight bias to regard chemistry as “the central science”, because it is needed by a great variety of other disciplines and activities; and as unique In the relative ease with which theories can be tested by experiment and observation.
I also have a slight bias against the sometime claims by physicists that theirs is the most basic or fundamental, let alone most important science (3); and I tend to think that physicists are more prone than chemists to simple-mindedness, seeking straightforward and simple rather than complex explanations — in matters of politics as well as of science: overall and on average, physicists are politically more toward the left than are chemists or engineers (4), for example.
I have not come across evidence that my chemist’s biases have led me significantly astray, but I have come across examples of my leftish political bias doing so. When The Bell Curve (5) was published in the early 1990s, nothing I heard or read about it made it seem worth reading, indeed I recall getting the impression that it was racially biased and not to be taken seriously. My leftish bias determined that the media I read and watched will have disliked the book because it acknowledges that average IQ varies somewhat between racial groups. But a couple of years ago I read the assertion that individuals of equal IQ of any racial background tend to have very similar outcomes as to employment, income, and so forth, and the assertion was supported by a reference to The Bell Curve. So I very belatedly read the book, and was pleasantly surprised It to find it not at all racially biased; it is a very carefully documented and collated examination of the evidence that IQ scores are very good predictors of all sorts of professional and academic and other outcomes in life. Evidently the media that appeal to my leftist inclination had given me quite false, misleading impressions about the book.
Another instance of being misled by leftish media bias concerned Scott Atlas, who was for a brief time advisor to the Trump Administration during the COVID epidemic. Most of the media described his appointment in terms of his highly conservative political leanings together with scant credentials for his advisory position. Quite recently, something led me to wonder whether that impression had been soundly based, so I read Atlas's book (6) about his time as advisor, and found that he has impeccable credentials on matters of public health, and that he had been publicly commenting from the very beginning about what the official policies about COVID ought to be; and in retrospect I find his views eminently sensible and based on considerable evidence.
West's book cites a highly pertinent earlier work (7) focused specifically on how best to communicate science, given that “cultural values influence what and whom we believe”: the experts who are seen as credible by laypersons are those who seem to share their values, whose cultural identity is compatible with their own. Therefore, to foster an environment for the public’s open-minded, unbiased consideration of the best available scientific information, one ought to draw on as diverse as possible a group of experts, representing as wide a range as possible of the society’s cultural entities, and have them reach the best possible shared agreement as to reality’s facts.
Achieving that sort of consensus is the aim of suggestions for the establishment of an “Institution for Scientific Judgment” (8), more usually described as a Science Court (9). Because mainstream consensuses do not typically engage with critics and dissenters and minority views, the media, the public, and policy makers can often remain unaware of serious, competent, well-informed criticism of a mainstream view. A Science Court would be able to mandate engagement of differing views under protocols that require the presenting of evidence openly and under cross-examination, as well as adjudication by independent non-partisan observers, perhaps judges or perhaps groups akin to juries.
(2) Andy A. West, The Grip of Culture — The Social Psychology of Climate Change Catastrophism, The Global Warming Policy Foundation; https://www.thegwpf.org/content/uploads/2023/07/West-Catastrophe-Culture6by9-v28.pdf
(3) Henry H. Bauer, To Rise Above Principle: The Memoirs of an Unreconstructed Dean, University of llinois Press 1988 (under the pen-name ‘Josef Martin’); 2nd ed. with added material, Wipf & Stock, 2012; pp. 127-8; Science Is Not What You Think: How It Has Changed, Why We Can’t Trust It, How It Can Be Fixed, McFarland, 2017, p. 95
(4) E. C. Ladd, Jr. & Seymour Martin Lipset, “Politics of academic natural scientists and engineers”, Science, 176 (1972) 1091-1100
(5) R. J. Herrnstein & C. Murray, The Bell Curve; 1st. ed. 1994, 2nd. ed with addition, Free Press, 1996
(6) Scott W. Atlas, A Plague upon our House, Liberatiio Protocol, Post Ill Press, 2021
(7) Dan Kahan, “Fixing the communications failure”, Nature, 463 (2010) 296-7
(8) Arthur Kantrowitz, “Proposal for an Institution for Scientiﬁc Judgment”, Science, 156 (1967) 763–4.
(9) Henry H. Bauer, Science Is Not What You Think: How It Has Changed, Why We Can’t Trust It, How It Can Be Fixed, McFarland, 2017, ch. 12