Emerging diseases, energy policy, transport, conservation and, yes, climate change and vaccination — almost every sphere of government requires at least some familiarity with science. Especially given that most science funding is still disbursed by politicians on behalf of the public.
The problem is that science, if done properly, rarely comes up with the sound-bite certainties and expedient spin that politicians demand — nor the ability to say one thing while meaning something quite different. So perhaps it is not so surprising that the latest brave attempt by a politician to grapple with science involves the quantum world, where it is possible for something to be both true and false at the same time.The backbone of science, and of right-thinking generally, is statistics. Yet, a disheartening story in the Financial Times a few days ago, to which my older son, John, sent me a link, reminds us that even here in the 21st century, where we all live longer and better lives because of statistics and the scientific discoveries they support, there are a lot of people, especially in politics, who choose to ignore real numbers, either out of ignorance or, more dangerously, because they either want to subvert the truth or don't care about it. Here are the highlights of that story:
Thirty years ago, the Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt published an essay in an obscure academic journal, Raritan. The essay’s title was “On Bullshit”. (Much later, it was republished as a slim volume that became a bestseller.) Frankfurt was on a quest to understand the meaning of bullshit — what was it, how did it differ from lies, and why was there so much of it about?
Frankfurt concluded that the difference between the liar and the bullshitter was that the liar cared about the truth — cared so much that he wanted to obscure it — while the bullshitter did not. The bullshitter, said Frankfurt, was indifferent to whether the statements he uttered were true or not. “He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”
Statistical bullshit is a special case of bullshit in general, and it appears to be on the rise. This is partly because social media — a natural vector for statements made purely for effect — are also on the rise. On Instagram and Twitter we like to share attention-grabbing graphics, surprising headlines and figures that resonate with how we already see the world. Unfortunately, very few claims are eye-catching, surprising or emotionally resonant because they are true and fair. Statistical bullshit spreads easily these days; all it takes is a click.
Bullshit corrodes the very idea that the truth is out there, waiting to be discovered by a careful mind. It undermines the notion that the truth matters. As Harry Frankfurt himself wrote, the bullshitter “does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”So, in our pursuit of truth (the essence of science, but it applies to everything), the choice is not between "lies, damn lies, and statistics," it is really between science and bullshit.