In yesterday’s posting (Oct. 29, 2009), I started to dissect a comment from Bruce Alberts’ (keynote speaker) speech at the Canadian Science Policy Conference that’s taking place this week in Toronto (find link to conference in yesterday’s posting). He suggested that more scientists should be double-trained, e.g. as scientist-journalists; scientist-lawyers; etc. He also pointed to China as a shining example of how scientists and engineers can be integrated into the government bureaucracy and their use of scientific methods to run their departments.
Speaking as someone who is fascinated by science, I am taken aback. Science and scientists have done some wonderful things but they’ve also created some awful problems. The scientific method in and of itself is not perfect and it cannot be applied to all of life’s problems. Let’s take for example, economics. That’s considered a science and given the current state of the world economy, it would seem that this science has failed. The former head of the US Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, admitted that in all his figurings he failed to take into account human nature. That’s a problem in economics–all those beautiful algorithms don’t include behaviour as a factor.
Even sciences that study behaviour, social sciences, have a far from perfect understanding of human behaviour. Marketers who draw heavily from the social sciences have yet to find the perfect formula for selling products.
As for China appointing a world-renown molecular biologist (Chen Zhu) as their Minister of Health, I hope he does well but it won’t be because he has applied the techniques and managements skills he’s used successfully in laboratories. In medicine, any clinician will tell you that there’s a big difference between the results from research done in a laboratory (and in controlled human clinical trials) and the outcome when that research is applied to a general population. As for management skills, directing people who have similar training is a lot easier than directing people who have wildly dissimilar educational backgrounds and perspectives. (Professional vocabularies can provide some distinct challenges.)
I guess it’s the lack of humility in the parts of the speech Rob Annan (Don’t leave Canada behind blog) has posted that troubles me. (I’ve been to these types of conferences and have observed this lack on previous occasions and with different speakers.)
As for scientists becoming double-trained, that’s not unreasonable but I think it should go the other way as well. I think science and scientists have something to learn from society. What Alberts is describing is an unequal relationship, where one form of knowledge and thought process is privileged over another.
I’ll get started on Day 2 of this conference (Preston Manning was one of the keynote speakers) on Monday, Nov. 2, 2009.