The Dominion Post
Facts aren’t understanding
Conflict arises when the same set of facts are used as evidence in mutually exclusive preconceptions of ‘‘what is truth’’. Scientists are vulnerable to this, writes Jack Heinemann.
Conservation biologist Dr Wayne Linklater asks scientists who claim to be objective and have a big collection of facts to recognise that their facts are approximations of truth interpreted through the lenses of a scientist’s values (Scientists don’t own ‘facts’, Nov 13).
That is part of the story. The other part of it is that facts are interpreted through the lenses of assumptions and approximations of how things work. Both lenses are sources of bias and all scientists have them, just as non-scientists do. Look at the following historical example.
It is a fact that the Sun and Moon both move through our sky, east to west. If your only reference was your feet planted on terra firma, you might extrapolate from the similarity in behaviour of the Sun and Moon the idea that they both have orbits around the Earth.
Ancient astronomers also observed that other near planets would loop around and track backwards for a time across Earth’s sky. Mathematicians could produce models accurately predicting these paths which came to be known as epicycles.
Changing your point of reference from Earth to the Sun, you see that all the planets have elliptical orbits around the Sun, just as Earth does. The epicycle is what an elliptical orbit of a planet orbiting the Sun and viewed from planet Earth orbiting the same central star looks like.
Both the elliptical orbit and the epicycle describe verifiable and non-conflicting facts. Both can be supported by mathematical models to accurately predict the position of all the planets at any time. Conflict arises not over these facts, but when our observers on the Earth and the Sun each assume that they are standing at the centre of the system.
Oswald Avery, the scientist credited with the first solid evidence that genes can be made of DNA, famously said ‘‘be humble in the presence of facts’’. This has been interpreted to mean that facts keep us honest. It could also mean that facts make us arrogant. In weaving facts together we extrapolate from our point of reference – itself a product of values, culture, assumptions, speculation, feelings – to an explanation.
It is not possible for scientists to be both vulnerable to conflicts of interest and perfectly objective, immune to bias. Study after study shows that they are susceptible to forces that influence interpretation. However, that doesn’t make everything in science either wrong or without at least temporary value.
Science is a way to identify fake facts, errors that increase uncertainty, and ultimately to change points of reference, reorganising many facts at once. This is what Copernicus did when he placed the Sun at the centre of our solar system. It was what Einstein did with his theory of relativity.
And let’s be clear: science underpins technologies from which we derive undeniable benefits, including medicines, energy, food, machines and electronics. Billions of people could not live without these technologies. Future technologies could be just as valuable.
But let’s also not be arrogant, especially in the biological sciences. Biological sciences have tools that allow us to build and release technologies of profound potential for good and harm including, as Dr Linklater said, pesticides and the products of genetic engineering.
Biology has theory, but none as robust and of the predictive precision as those even in physics and astronomy, whose limitations have an instructive history. That is why scientists and our governments should lead with precaution and not dismiss conflict over the contentious topics in biology.
Conflict isn’t about rejection of facts by the public v the wisdom of scientists and industry. There are those in both communities that either reject facts or no longer question them. Absolutisms are hallmarks of these camps. There are also scientists and the public in both these communities that believe in facts but recognise the limitations in them and the value of true dialogue for working toward the collective good.
Scientists are no more able to predict the future than others in society. Science is not a singular qualification for a decision-maker. That person, or group of people, we can only hope has a humble appreciation of facts, compassion and empathy, and the confidence to question their objectivity.
University of Canterbury scientist Professor Jack Heinemann’s research interests include genetics and molecular biology, technology risk assessment, and the influence of language on science.