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Science Advice?! We Don't Need No Stinkin' Science Advice!!
More and more often, societies around the world are facing a conflict that puts us all at risk. People reject scientific evidence when it does not fit their worldviews and values, challenging governments to make evidence-based policies that do the most good for the most people over the long term, but also respond to short term pressure from small but loud and politically effective advocacy groups. This conflict is coming to a head right now in Europe, and how the European government handles this particular issue will send a loud message to the rest of the world about how to cope with the rising conflict between the facts and our feelings.
In 2011, in response to a growing number of controversial risk issues that required scientific expertise beyond the abilities of most government officials, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and the European Commission took a daring chance. They created an official Science Adviser, to provide
“ independent expert advice on any aspect of science, technology and innovation”, and “authoritative guidance on interpretation of scientific evidence in the presence of uncertainty.”
That hardly sounds daring, seeking independent scientific expertise to help inform more intelligent risk management decision making. After all, many nations have long had a Chief Science Adviser, or something like it. But the move by the EC came after a long history of health scares in Europe, the mishandling of which had undermined public confidence in government. And it came in the face of current controversies over issues like genetically modified food and climate change and drilling for shale gas, issues fraught with more than scientific complexity. They are emotionally explosive political minefields, each of them merely one more battleground in a larger war that is more about deep values than a simple quarrel about the evidence.
Into that lion’s den the EC threw Dr. Anne Glover, a Professor of Microbiology at the University of Aberdeen and Scotland’s Chief Science Adviser. And to no great surprise, the lions have attacked. A coalition of environmental organizations, including Greenpeace, have asked EC President-elect Jean-Claude Juncker to trash the whole notion of independent expert science advice to inform government decision making, eliminating the position when Dr. Glover’s term expires in February 2015. Particularly upset that Dr. Glover’s review of the research on genetically modified food found no credible evidence of human health harms (the same finding reached by every independent national science panel worldwide), the environmental coalition proposed instead that science advice should come “from a variety of independent, multi-disciplinary sources, with a focus on the public interest.” In other words, from interest groups and advocates who, by definition, see the facts through the lenses of their own values. That’s hardly independent analysis of the science. That’s a values-based view of what the evidence means, which advocates have plenty of opportunity to voice in the process of democratic decision making.
European scientists and science organizations defended the need for independent expert science advice to inform smarter government decision making about risk. One letter to Juncker, signed by 40 science and academic organizations and 773 individuals, including many prominent scientists, said, "Policy makers or lobbyists who seek to remove scientists because they don't like their findings or advice do so at the peril of their citizens." Another letter, from Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust, and other respected non-profit public health research organizations, not only rejected the call to trash the position of science adviser. They want the role expanded, the staff and funding increased, and more insulation for the science adviser from external pressure, including from politicians themselves, a problem about which Dr. Glover herself has complained.
The immediate particulars of this fight in Europe may be unique, but the same conflict is going on around the world, and our health and safety depend to no small degree on its outcome. The facts are being taken hostage in an ever more intense war over deep values, particularly about environmental issues. And several aspects of modern society are making this war, and its warriors, more angry and closed-minded than ever.
First, the issues themselves are growing more complex. We rely on a psychological risk perception system that evolved, and worked fine, when all we had to worry about were lions and tigers and bears, oh MY! Now we have to sort through climate change and biotechnology and nanotechnology, issues that demand more careful conscious consideration, not less.
Second, we have lazy brains, brains that use all sorts of subconscious mental shortcuts (the academics call them heuristics and biases) to figure things out quickly, without a lot of careful thinking, because careful thinking takes energy. It literally costs calories to pay attention, and the brain evolved these energy-saving cognitive tools back when it wasn’t sure when or where the next meal might come. That’s not new. But the new information media world certainly is, and in order to satisfy our inherently short attention spans it supplies only the amount of information we want, which generally is not that much. So just as we need more information to figure out complex risk issues, we’re getting less.
And third, the internet has given every advocate a megaphone that can reach around the globe. This too plays to an innate foible of our lazy brains. It’s a lot easier to seek confirmation than information. So not only does the online world provide less information, it provides more spin and distortion of that information from an online empire of advocates that enables us as never before to find the voices we agree with, and to ignore anybody else.
The fight over whose view of the facts win is perennial. But these modern factors are like pouring gasoline on the fire, magnifying emotions and controversy and increasing the political pressure on policy makers to ignore the evidence and respond to our passions. And that puts us all at risk, because as the issues grow ever more complex, we increasingly need our leaders to make well-informed decisions that not only respect our values, but also do thoughtful justice to the facts.
So how President-elect Juncker and the EC handle this question matters to all of us. Their decision will send a strong signal to societies everywhere struggling with this same question. How much do we want our leaders to have an independent values-free view of the scientific evidence, in addition to public input, before they decide how best to protect human and environmental health?
This post originally ran as a Guest Blog on Scientific American
Credit for the graphic; National Center for Science Education
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Philosophers have been asking the question for hundreds of years. Now neuroscientists are joining the quest to find out.
- The debate over whether or not humans have free will is centuries old and ongoing. While studies have confirmed that our brains perform many tasks without conscious effort, there remains the question of how much we control and when it matters.
- According to Dr. Uri Maoz, it comes down to what your definition of free will is and to learning more about how we make decisions versus when it is ok for our brain to subconsciously control our actions and movements.
- "If we understand the interplay between conscious and unconscious," says Maoz, "it might help us realize what we can control and what we can't."
Puerto Rico's iconic telescope facilitated important scientific discoveries while inspiring young scientists and the public imagination.
- The Arecibo Observatory's main telescope collapsed on Tuesday morning.
- Although officials had been planning to demolish the telescope, the accident marked an unceremonious end to a beloved astronomical tool.
- The Arecibo radio telescope has facilitated many discoveries in astronomy, including the mapping of near-Earth asteroids and the detection of exoplanets.
Bradley Rivera via twitter.com<p>In 1963, the concave dish was built into a natural sinkhole on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. The location was <a href="https://www.space.com/20984-arecibo-observatory.html" target="_blank">picked because it was near the equator,</a> providing scientists a clear view of planets passing overhead, and also of the ionosphere, which is the uniquely reactive layer of Earth's upper atmosphere where the northern lights form.</p><p>Since its construction, scientists have used the Arecibo telescope to map near-Earth asteroids, detect gravitational waves, study pulsars, detect exoplanets and <a href="https://www.seti.org/goodbye-arecibo" target="_blank">search for alien civilizations</a>, among other projects. Here's a brief look at some of the discoveries and accomplishments made using the Arecibo telescope:</p><ul><li>1964: Astronomer <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Pettengill" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gordon Pettengill</a> discovers that Mercury's rotation period is 59 days, significantly shorter than the previous prediction of 88 days.</li><li>1974: Physicists Russell Alan Hulse and Joseph Hooton Taylor Jr. discovers the first binary pulsar, for which they won a Nobel Prize in Physics.</li><li>1974: Scientists use the telescope to transmit the "Arecibo message" to <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Globular_Cluster_in_Hercules" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">globular star cluster M13</a>. The message, when translated into image form, contains basic information about humanity and human knowledge: the numbers one to 10, a map of our solar system, an illustration of a human being, and the atomic numbers of certain elements.</li><li>1989: Scientists use the telescope to image an asteroid for the first time.</li><li>1992: Astronomers Alex Wolszczan and Dale Frail become the first to discover exoplanets.</li></ul>
The Google-owned company developed a system that can reliably predict the 3D shapes of proteins.