Thursday, April 18, 2013

I went to Manchester and all I got you is this blog post

In which I sum up my QED conference experience, and also rant about the lack of social science experts on the panel about experts.

I am back from the QED conference in Manchester. Awesome, awesome conference, enjoyed every speaker, out of superlatives for the Saturday evening entertainment. The panels I found especially interesting, as they were more about the community. Some of them had to do with community and grassroots activity, but also simply because they work more like real-life conversation.

The organization was meticulous. I don’t think I had ever been in an event of this size where everything started and ended on time… Being on the volunteer team got me a mention in the back of the program and a blue T-shirt, but no work to do, with everything so well planned and organized.

I do have one rant about the content, which is what the rest of this post is about.

There was the “is science the new religion” debate, which turned out to be about science and politics. It was really the only panel with someone from “the outside”, journalist Brendan O’Neill. He debated with physicists Jeff Forshaw and Helen Czerski, and comedian Robin Ince. As Vicky puts it, “it quite quickly deteriorated into an exasperated and highly entertaining bun-fight between” O’Neill and Ince. Ince blogged about the exchange, O’Neill published his “speech” and allegedly said that “QEDcon was like a crazy cult”.

So, there was a contrarian journalist, whose politics in almost any question are reversed to that of almost any other person in the room. It was a good show. O’neill was the ultimate bad guy, Ince was fantastically enraged. The QED crowd got to be called consensus zealots on Twitter, which is utterly satisfying. 

Ironically though, for a panel about expertise, there was no expert on science and policy. The whole thing crowd-pleasing, but not thought-provoking.

The place of experts in a democracy is a balancing act. Ince writes that it is a good thing that “heart surgeons seem to have the monopoly of placing hands in a chest cavity”. Obviously. But surgeons are generally thought of as being keener than other doctors on opening people up. So people are advised to also consult a cardiologist. And ultimately in our modern enlightened medicine, the decision remains with the patient.

The question is then who gets to decide the jurisdiction of the experts. Since this is a social question, social science experts should be the ones deciding!

Yeah, that was a circular argument. In practice there’s constant negotiation in society over who gets to influence decisions. I think it would be safe to assume that most groups of people tend to prefer to be as influential as they can. Sometimes because they are Bond-style villains aspiring for world domination for its own sake, but more often because they sincerely believe they know how to do things best. The heart surgeon really does think a scalpel is the right solution for your heart problem.
Now, I am not an expert on these things and I can only provide swiping generalisations. But there are people who study how this works, sociologists of science, science and society scholars and so on. For a serious conversation about these questions you should talk to them.

Unlike Brendan O’Neill, these are people who care about evidence. They think hard and systematically about these questions. I think people in QED would value that.

(BTW, the little I know about the subject comes mostly from Alice Bell’s blog “through the looking glass”. Follow her. The Guardian’s new Political Science blog is probably also good, but I haven’t been following it closely enough)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A good example of how to go about asking people about inequality

I wrote here about a sensationalist and mostly irrelevant paper about inequality in the US. That paper attempted to detach the term “inequality” from any concrete meaning it might have in people’s lives, which I claimed that this was ridiculous, as people only form meaningful opinions about things that are grounded in their realities.

Anyway, a good soul sent me a link to Patrick Sachweh’s paper, The moral economy of inequality. It has less colorful charts and more meaningful questions. Here’s the abstract:
This article asks how ordinary people in Germany perceive and legitimize economic disparities in an era of rising income inequality. Based on in-depth qualitative interviews with respondents from higher and lower social classes, the paper reconstructs the ‘moral economy’ that underlies popular views of inequality. While respondents agree with abstract inegalitarian principles—i.e. income differentiation
based on merit—they are concerned with specific instances of inequality, especially poverty and wealth. These are criticized because they are seen to imply intolerable deviations, both upwards and downwards, from a way of living presumed as universal, thereby fostering a segregation of life-worlds and social disintegration. Thus, perceptions of injustice do not seem to be based on the existence of income inequality as such, but rather on the view that economic
disparities threaten the social bond.
Significantly, the literature review show that it has been known to science since the 1970’s that people have multi-faceted and ambivalent opinions about inequality – that don’t lend themselves easily to surveying of the type Norton & Ariely did. People generally accept the notion of inequality based on merit, but
as Huber and Form (1973) have shown, such consensus on the dominant ideology is greatest when its main tenets are put in general terms. It is noticeably reduced when more concrete statements (e.g. about existing opportunities for rich and poor people) are presented.”
And later:
Hochschild’s research illustrates that people are torn between different and partly conflicting values and principles when thinking about inequality (Hochschild, 1979, 1981). While differentiating norms prevail in the economy, egalitarian norms are supported in social relations and the polity.”

Tuesday, January 8, 2013


I registered today to a conspiracies unconference. I don’t know much about the event yet (and may ultimately be unable to attend), but I probably wouldn’t have registered at all if not for the attractively named book Nasa/Trek: Popular Science and Sex in America by Constance Penley. Penley’s basic observation is that interest in science, science fiction, and some of what we call pseudo-science are all fundamentally the same sentiment. She calls it “the yearning to get a personal grip on that seemingly distant realm” of science and technology.

In a way Carl Sagan said a very similar thing in the opening of The Demon-Haunted World, which Penley quotes. He writes about a cab driver who wanted to ask him about science – by which he turned out to mean Nostradamus, Atlantis, and aliens in Air Force freezers. As Sagan told him there was no evidence for all that, his enthusiasm turned into glum. Sagan writes that the cabby was “well-spoken, intelligent, curious”, that he “had a natural appetite for the wonders of the Universe”, and that he was “widely read” – about this fringe stuff.

Sagan’s point is to lament the blending of science and nonscience. But let’s put that a side for a moment. What’s interesting for Penley, and now for me, is this guy’s deep curiosity about the world.

A science fan’s curiosity.

Why is this helpful?

For one, it helps me understand some “becoming a skeptic” stories in which people mention how previously they were into fringe stuff. For example this Guardian piece by Neil Denny (the man behind my favourite podcast!), in which he describes how he had been interested “weird phenomena” like Bigfoot and UFOs. Then he had a revelation (his word) – incidentally, reading The Demon-Haunted World – and this morphed into obsessive reading of popular science. (Neil also writes about the science fiction he read, before and presumably after, and remember how Penley thinks sci-fi is part of the same mix).

I am also reminded of an DisinfoCast, a conspiracy theories podcast. I once listened to an episode about ancient Egypt and star constellations and stuff. It wasn’t difficult to find faults in the argumentation, but I did feel a vaguely familiar vibe, reminiscent of skeptical podcasts. Something about the curiosity for stuff that is not necessarily relevant to the here and now, and the “truth against lies and distortion” theme.

I don’t mean to say that their conspiracy theories are true, just that there’s something in the form factor that reminds me of organised skepticism.

But then the next question has to be – if interest in science, pseudo-science, and science fiction are basically the same, why are some people into one combination of them and not the other? And how comes some people “convert” and others don’t? Do “conversions” always go in the same directions?

In a more personal reflection, I think I probably find the whole idea surprising (and illuminating) because for me science has always been what the teach you at school. On the other hand, my curiosity about science is way less deep and personal than that of some other people, and there may be a causation here, though I am not sure in which way it runs.