Science or Scientific Authority — Which do you choose?

Below Elkhorn Rapids, River of No Return Wilderness, Salmon River, ID

I’ve been gone for the last couple of weeks, with seven days on the river, lost in the picture above. It’s been a serious psychic relief to be away from the chronic hysteria associated with COVID-19, as well as the economic uncertainty that even I, a tenured full professor, ostensibly locked in my Ivory Tower, feels. For those that know what I do — run a large design clinic where I create situations for students to interact with industry — that last sentence is a little tongue-in-cheek. Let’s just say I recognize my privilege.

One of the things that has created the furious in-group/out-group conflicts in the United States is the “Believe Science/Don’t Believe Science” meme that literally washes around every COVID-19 discussion. The discussion exists for lots of reasons, of course, but from where I sit, the primary meta-reason is that people are really arguing not so much the issue of “science”, but “scientific authority” . Science (knowing) focuses primarily on methodological lower v-Meme (Legalistic and below) knowledge structures, but occasionally (and rarely) reaches all the way up to the very top of Guiding Principles. Most people don’t practice scientific thinking in virtually all of what they do. In fact, most people are v-Meme limited in even comprehending the methodologies of algorithms, heuristics, combined heuristics and system practice that make it up. They’re looking for a soundbite in time (COVID will kill you!) rather than the far more complex picture of a temporally and spatially dependent phenomena that is highlighting basically every nook and cranny of our social milieu. Precisely because it is SO infectious, as I’ve written about before, it is ringing the societal bell on many things.

Let me give a brief example with the various knowledge structures using something very common in controls engineering, but pretty much unknown outside of it, to make my point. As a young engineering student, I took a class on control theory — what folks do that make your refrigerator stay at a setpoint, or allows a plane to fly on a given flight path from airport to airport. The mathematics are called Laplace Transforms, and their purpose is to take a hard, calculus-heavy problem of shifting accelerations and velocities and turn them into a simpler (but still, not-so-simple) problem in algebra.

Laplace transforms confound students regularly, and I was no exception. They can be algorithmically challenging to execute — we used to have tables of the things whereby we’d pull apart the governing equations of that airplane and “turn the crank” to come up with the algebraic system that we could later analyze. I used to sit in the back of the class, eyes rolling into the back of my head, wondering “who the hell thought up this shit, and how did they do it?” The answer to “who”, of course, is Pierre-Simon Laplace, a French polymath from the 19th century and true scientific revolutionary. He was, not surprisingly, multidisciplinarily accomplished and also politically powerful — a man for all seasons.

That’s who thought up all this shit. Trust me, when I was sitting there in that classroom, I didn’t have Wikipedia. But I knew that I was learning something that was beyond my ability at the time to create.

If there is some set of levels of enlightenment by which one might capture an understanding of Laplace Transforms, it might break up as follows:

  1. Laplace himself, possessing the intellect and foresight to invent the theory. (Guiding Principles Thinking)
  2. A controls engineer, judiciously applying the transforms in clever ways, integrating past experience from other control systems to design a solution for a flight control system. (Laplace himself used this stuff on astronomical motions, and may or may not have realized how it would be further developed for specific applications.) (Heuristic thinking at a minimum, Global Systemic Integration at a maximum.)
  3. A student in engineering, learning about how to apply the integral functions that make up the basics — in short “do a Laplace Transform” to solve a simplified problem in controls that an instructor could grade. (Legalistic/Algorithmic thinking, with the intent of skills mastery.)
  4. Some modestly engineering-exposed person who might have heard about Laplace Transforms and knows in general how they are used. (Authority-driven labeling.)
  5. Someone that has never heard of Laplace Transforms, and probably couldn’t care less.

I’ve labeled the five points to show how they map into our knowledge structure hierarchy. Note — all of these stages imply knowledge of Laplace Transforms. But ask any controls engineer to discriminate between the different levels, and they’ll immediately recognize the difference. If you can get them to stop laughing.

Here’s the rub — everything in 3,4, and 5 are essentially belief-based thinking. Even mastering the skills of executing a Laplace Transform is a “one meta-step” transformation. You’re not likely putting anything of your own data/experience-driven personal knowing into it — you’re turning the crank like your old, crotchety engineering professor has ordered you to do. It’s not until you’re up into the range of (2) that you get to pick and choose — and then Laplace Transforms are a tool you select out of your toolbox that enables you to reach a goal.

If there’s a short-form insight from my Laplace Transform example, it’s this. In most of society, with most of the thinking that’s done, if someone says they support Laplace Transforms, they’re likely to be doing that at points 4 and 5 — not even 3. And that’s after a class! The average v-Meme that a typical college student operates on (and universities actively promote, regardless of their ‘critical thinking’ protestations) is to be programmed with beliefs, and this level of personal development uniformly shows up not just in how they learn about Laplace Transforms, but how they learn about everything. And it’s low empathy belief-based thinking, which basically means it’s accept/reject, or most likely forgotten.

“But won’t they learn the wrong things, or learn things incorrectly unless we beat it into their heads?” That is the voice of a low v-Meme system talking. People can’t be trusted to synthesize information correctly, and they must be told. By experts. Which once again puts us back in the cage match over whether we’re really teaching science, or endorsing authority.

And that turns science from a process into just one more aspect of culture. Culture itself is a group of externally defined beliefs that are very difficult to either change or challenge. Think about the humorous debate about whether you should wear pants on a Zoom call. Your own experience of never showing your own underwear may still be superseded by ingrained thought patterns saying put on your pants in a professional setting!

And therein lies the problem. If you’re not up at Level 2 (or 1, of course!) , science, as understood by MOST PEOPLE, just becomes another set of beliefs that direct authority. It’s NOT the agency-laden process that science really is, which involves integrating everything from guiding principles down through assimilation of data to get an answer. You’re just supposed to believe Dr. Fauci.

What’s worse is you don’t even get to have a conversation with Dr. Fauci, and on a human level, digest what he thinks may be certainly known, or uncertain. You instead have to read some article on CNN, written by a reporter you don’t know, who has inherently processed any information through their level of v-Meme complexity, keyed on evolution and sophistication.

And the worst case scenario is that you may get your information all from the headline on CNN — which is almost certainly written to incite terror in your heart and confirm your own set of biases in order to click through. In short, you’re not much different from the typical Aztec citizen being told that the sun won’t rise if they don’t cut out a couple of hearts today. Or that the Cat God Bastet is most certainly pissed, and it would be good to walk softly around her altar today. Brains aren’t genetically pre-loaded with any of this knowledge, and you’re at the end of a series of low-pass v-Meme filters.

What this really means is that the general public that is being told to “believe in science” is really being asked just to believe in authority – a different authority for sure, but believe nonetheless. And that, unfortunately, puts you on the same memetic playing field as “believe in Donald Trump.” Which unfortunately, has taken us nowhere good. Because beliefs inherently are accept/reject phenomenon.

That’s why creating experiences matters so much for education. Experiences (especially shared ones) allow students to actually internalize and create their own autobiographical narratives. Without that generation of personal perspective, things just get lost in the soup anyway. Especially when the story is complicated.

Here’s the other thing — people will ground to the outside world with their own senses naturally, and create those narratives whether the authorities in charge like it or not. A great example is the British immunologist, Neil Ferguson, who predicted dramatic levels of death without a total lockdown. He was wrong. But if you read the media, the biggest complaint about Ferguson was not only was he wrong about policy predictions and death counts– he snuck out to visit his lover in spite of advice saying that this was wrong. (Yes, I intentionally linked to The Sun, because for these kinds of things, it’s too much fun!) What’s important is that you don’t see the reporter ripping his science apart, which is really the issue at hand. It’s attacking his authority — through the charge of hypocrisy.

Everyone has been told that science itself is not so much an end state, but a process. But with regards to COVID-19, that would involve immunologist after epidemiologist standing up and admitting their models were deeply flawed. That hasn’t happened, of course, because most empirical scientists are organized in Legalistic/Absolutistic hierarchies, and buried deep in their chase for status in their own right. And public admonitions of failure are not the path to a guest commentator spot on CNN. I’ve already written about the case of Michael Levitt, the Nobel Prizewinning cell biologist, who took on the COVID-19 doomsayers. His situation will continue to be in flux — he’s swimming upstream against the bunch that are resistant to a deeper, nuanced view of the pandemic. But as for me, I’ll always bet on the person that has a flexible, multi-knowledge structure approach that ALSO has a lot of post-docs. I wish I had a couple myself!

Inevitably, when these types of controversies break out, the media reports (probably correctly!) on what’s termed the “pro-science/anti-science” conflict. But what they’re really reporting on is the “pro-prevailing belief/anti-prevailing belief” aspect of the debate, which has, as I’ve also written earlier, been binned down into (at least in the U.S.) the two political parties. Don’t expect much metacognitive reflection there. It’s turned into a cage match that has very little to do with people understanding science. Neither side is really advocating for an educated population, capable of acting with agency and responsibility. Flawed as that may be, Sweden had that in spades, and our national paper, the extremely status-driven New York Times (like it or not) paper of record regularly runs pieces against the high agency approach taken by Anders Tegnall and the Swedish epidemiological community. Lots of this is buried in v-Meme conflict I write about here — but hopefully the point isn’t lost.

I could go on — but it would lift my spirits to know that people were self-aware of what they were actually debating. Real science demands an integration of scaffolded knowledge, earned in the lab, along with development of personal agency of the consumer. Anything else is really just an authority plea, and that is totally dependent on acculturation. Because if you argue that your scientific authority has been right all along through COVID, the natural grounding that most people have experienced in the pandemic would run into numerous competing interests. If you were a small business owner looking to lose your business that you worked for, that might have a pretty powerful presumptive effect toward not listening to squabbling scientists that have pretty much missed the boat (and continue to miss the boat) on what’s going on. Likewise, if you had a family member on a ventilator, or passed away during the pandemic, you’d be on Twitter sharing your truth.

I am NOT condemning, nor endorsing either side. I’m describing what’s happening. And that does not take us to the coherent action that we need during the pandemic. Instead, what it really does is take us back to lowest levels of default. Just like the bubonic plague days of the 14th century, where the final solution was just dragging the plague victims outside the city walls to die or fend for themselves.

I am invested deeply, though, as an educator in the STEM fields, in whatever “we gotta get more people to believe in science” directives come out of this. What this country certainly doesn’t need is more allegiance to blind authority. But that’s going to require more agency and empathy development across the population. And when it comes to that, it’s just been crickets.

The knowledge structures don’t lie. But to say that I’m a bit discouraged is putting it lightly. If you want real science, you don’t just get to emphasize “facts”. You’re also going to have to focus on agency and empathy. You can’t get to the higher levels of knowledge structures and responsible action without it. We must decide to prepare people’s minds. And then the whole issue of whether people “believe” or “not believe” in science will come a non-starter.

4 thoughts on “Science or Scientific Authority — Which do you choose?

  1. I’m a professor emeriti of a major university—actually 5 or 19 buy now. (I have the 10 ivies, all of UC system, U Chicago, U Az , UNM , U KC Mo and U Arkansas plus Duke , UNC and stanford and NYU. .)

    So i’m retired tho i do have a small business. we sell the COVID masks, the covid, crack cocaine, a few ar-15s and aks.
    Banks takes care of me –for my retirement. (I got 2 notices saying my retirement plan has less than 24$ in it. it should last 24 hours.)

    I also do tourist tours–we are going to Portland Oregon. see mt hood.

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  2. I really appreciate the example using Laplace. It illustrates the level of believing science, or knowledge, asks of us.

    But what I am still struggling with is the divide in the “believe science/don’t believe science” meme. You’ve shown it’s more an appeal authority on either side… but what is the motivation for an individual (or society) to place one’s trust in authority with unnamed internet trolls vs various “Dr.s?” Perhaps it’s the manifestation of some other meme that has a stronger pull? “I know what’s best for me and mine” & “bootstraps” comes to mind…

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    1. What I call scaffolding — support from information generated from the lower v-Memes that supports the larger proposition. But even understanding this is something that has to be taught.

      As an engineer, when I use the table of constants like E, the modulus of elasticity — each, an authority-driven fragment — I can count on the authority of the certified lab that generated them, knowing embedded in each fragment are a series of tests, observations, etc. Here’s the rub, though — I have to have some conceptualization of that. And that’s where we’re falling apart with the science/anti-science debate. We want quick answers, and expect a poorly educated population to just believe them. But everyone has quick answers…

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    2. The other thing we’re doing is saying “the PERSON providing the quick answers is REALLY REALLY smart” (an authority play) instead of explaining, even a bit, how they came up with the answer. Or the uncertainty.

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