There's no one behind the curtain
By Scott Sumner
Post-modernists often claim that science reflects cultural biases, and that scientific objectivity is a myth. Conservatives have traditionally been quite hostile to this message. But at least some conservatives are beginning to see that “science studies” may have some merit. Here’s a Razib Khan tweet, quoted by Chad Orzel:
one change btwn 2000 and 2020 is that i respect ‘science studies’ a lot more. in fields i keep close track of i’ve seen wholesale reinterpretation of the same data which reflects cultural shifts, not underlying data.
The solution is not to blindly accept left-wing post-modernism, which has its own biases (humorously exposed in the Alan Sokal hoax.) Rather, we need to guard against blindly accepting any pronouncements from scientists, and instead think about how those claims might be shaped by various cultural forces. Here’s Razib Khan:
In November I did a quick interview with a producer for a Spanish television program. He reached out for comment because so many scientists who off the record, would credit the idea of lab escape wouldn’t speak on the record. He related how demoralizing he was finding the difference in how scientists talk off-camera versus what they were willing to say on the record. He had grown much more skeptical of scientific pronouncements in public as a consequence.
I wish I had a more positive spin on this. Much of what you see pronounced with certainty about COVID-19 is likely wrong. SARS-Cov-2 is a new virus, and COVID-19 is a new disease. We don’t have all the details. The experts have a great deal of experience with pathogens and pandemics in general, but there remain limitations to their accrued wisdom in novel situations like this. As a consumer of news and analysis, you have to be personally critical-rational. The consequences of your conclusions, of your actions, are going to impact you, as well as society. Buying fully into the consensus du jour may have more than abstract consequences. Remember washing produce with baking soda? Or the conventional wisdom that droplets, not aerosols were the major vector? No one was lying. But experts were not nearly as certain about the truth as they signaled to the public.
Some people have too much faith in the scientific consensus, believing that scientists hold some sort of “objective truth” above and beyond their empirical observations. But as Tyler Cowen suggests, when you pull back the curtain there is no objective observer:
The most striking thing about the Biden administration shift to a version of “First Doses First” is how little protest there has been. Given how many public health experts were upset about the idea only a few days ago, you might expect them to organize a Wall Street Journal petition from hundreds of their colleagues: “Biden administration proposal endangers the lives of millions of Americans.” . . .
as I had explained, sins of omission are treated as far less significant than sins of commission. Now that a version of “First Doses First” is on the verge of becoming policy, to do nothing about that is only a sin of omission, and thus not so bad. Remarkable! Status quo bias really matters here.
I haven’t seen a single peep on Twitter opposing the new policy.
Just keep all this in mind the next time you see a debate over public health policy. There is often less behind the curtain than you might think.
Just a bunch of empirical observations. The first dose is estimated as 80% effective. A new and more virulent strain is on the way. Manufacturing capacity is limited and hard to expand rapidly. An inadequate dose of vaccine risks creating a mutant form of the virus. Lots of facts, which point in different directions. But these facts don’t by themselves solve complex public policy problems, and we should not expect the scientists who study these facts to be good at solving complex public policy problems. Their expertise is in ascertaining empirical facts and building useful models of causality from those facts.
Speaking for myself, I mostly tend to defer to scientists on empirical questions, and also questions of how to model those empirical facts (except on controversial political issues). But once I’ve learned their views, I bring my own area of expertise (economics) into the picture before forming my view on how scientific data should inform public policy. That’s why I favor kidney markets and price gouging for masks.
When I first read yesterday’s story about the Biden administration’s decision to go with “first dose first”, I thought to myself, “Wow, this is going to be incredibly controversial.” After all, when I suggested the idea to a professional vaccine researcher than I knew, she said I didn’t know what I was talking about. And yet apparently the decision is not controversial at all. I learned something today.
We need to keep our eyes open and pay attention to what the world is telling us. I wonder how many people read Tyler’s post today without changing their views of how the world works. If so, they made a mistake.
People often respond, “Of course I know that’s how the world works”. But do they? I once raised the puzzling fact that roughly 100% of the people claiming the election was stolen were Trump supporters, and zero percent were Biden supporters. Why should there have been any correlation at all? It doesn’t seem rational. Of course commenters rolled their eyes at my naiveté. They told me that there was nothing surprising about this; this is how we all form beliefs.
I had two reactions. First, I’m not sure it is how everyone forms beliefs. And second, if the commenter were correct then I should never read another comment from that individual, as he has admitted that is unable to think rationally. It’s like when an economist tells me that he can’t understand why people leave tips at a restaurant that they never plan to revisit. I think to myself, “I’ll never trust that guy.”
I’d encourage people to think a bit harder about the question of “bias”. How do we recognize it in others? How do we recognize it in ourselves? Am I special? I don’t believe the answers are as simple as lots of people assume.
PS. Speaking of unconscious bias, check out this amazing video.