Thursday, February 28, 2008

We gotta take the scientists down!

Okay, maybe we don't really.

I had a great time tonight. After Nancy's Objectivity seminar, where I got kind of angry and loud, I repaired to the pub with ECM and Marilena to continue the discussion. The question is the science-policy boundary. I was riled up about the practice that is common where scientists get together (on their own or at government's behest) and try to tell people what to think on the basis of their authority (rather than, say, because they have a good argument or know anything about what they're talking about). More charitably to everyone involved, we were interested in hashing out what the proper relationship of government and science is.

I guess I have a radical view? I think that we don't need the thin kind of interaction that we have now, with committee reports and funding streams forming the bulk of the science-policy relationship, but rather multiple levels of inquiry that bridge the gap. Just like in privately funded research, where ultimately we have a private interest to further or problem to solve (say, how to sell widgets to suckers), where we go from high-level theory to applied science to engineering to corporate research labs to development and production to corporate decision making and back again in a complex but high-bandwidth set of interactions and cross-border talk (where each part nevertheless retains some autonomy), so in the case of private interests and practical problems of a social nature, we need some more robust set of bridges analogous to the levels of engineering, research and development that we have in the technological case.

Anyhow, that's schematic, but the basic principle is, if you have a problem which current research doesn't already solve, the best long-term solution is not to rely on a committee report, but to do more research. Of course, there are all kinds of messy issues here, about whether the analogy holds, how to make decisions under uncertainty, how to implement, how to make sure there isn't too much interference with science, and that was a lot of our discussion.

It was really nice, though. We had a beer, we yelled, pounded the table, did some armchair history of science, made some distinctions, got careful, reached some tentative agreements. It was some good intense philosophy of the sort I hadn't done for a while...

Of course, the seminar ended at 8 and I didn't get home until 12:30, so there's that. But it was worth it.


Sabrina said...

Why is your view so radical? Or is that just me, being radical?

Sounds like a wonderful night. I know nights like the one you just had are one of the reasons I came to graduate school and intend to stay in academia. Not that those sorts of conversations don't happen elsewhere, but I think they are more common and easier to have here just based on proximity and community.

Matt Brown said...

I guess it's radical because I'm gonna be forced to claim that knowledge in the context of one area of science is not automatically authoritative for some other problem which is apparently related, which is the reason to think that genuine inquiries have to take place at the boundaries. And also that policy has to behave in some vague sense like a science, i.e., it has to be an instance of inquiry. And also this will end up having some directive effect on scientific research.

Bryan said...

Down with the uppity scientists! Why would anybody want to spend millions of dollars studying bear DNA?

KI said...

I'm happy that these discussions happen in grad school :-) I have fond memories of all-night intellectual brawls from my undergrad days, and it brings a smile to my face that table pounding happens at Porter's Pub!

Incidentally (and only somewhat relatedly), when The Don was in SF a few weeks ago, I floated the possibility of tweaking my Phil of Rel class this summer towards a "philosophical intersection of religion and science" theme. (The idea had been kicking around in my head for a while, ever since the first "Beyond Belief" seminar at Salk.) He advised a more standard version of phil rel first, but the original idea is still percolating, and probably will for a while. I'll have to pick your brain about it soon :-)

ravi said...

Well, I think you know what PKF wrote in Science in a Free Society... did that come up?