The rambling and randomness is mine; the profundity belongs to others. First off, big props to Rob Annan at Don’t leave Canada behind for his kickbutt analysis of the long form census outrage (first mentioned in my July 20, 2010 posting). As for why the decision to suspend mandatory long form census completion matters so much (from Rob’s July 26, 2010 posting),
… The long form census is the best data we have in this country, and is essential to understanding our society. But relying on data encourages – indeed, should necessitate – evidence-based decision making. But data can be inconvenient, and may contradict our assumptions (just ask any disappointed graduate student). Instead of changing assumptions, epistemological populism encourages our prejudices and assumes that the data is wrong – we can just believe our guts. And that allows a government to do whatever it feels is right.
As a modern democracy, we must expect better from the government. We should be beyond governing by hunch and feel. Science policy works in two directions. This blog is mostly about policy for science, but science for policy is also essential. Ignoring the data when crafting policy is unconscionable. Eliminating the data altogether is unforgivable.
Very briefly, epistemological populism is a theory of knowledge where data and expert advice are rejected in favour of general beliefs and feelings ascribed to either the whole populace or a significant portion of it. There’s a much better definition in Rob’s posting along with a whole lot more.
As a collection of societies sharing this planet, all countries have an obligation to be as thoughtful in their deliberations as possible and this decision to cancel Canada’s mandatory long form censustaking does not fall in that category.
On a somewhat parallel track, although the focus is decision-making with regard to science and technology, Richard Jones at Soft Machines in his July 7, 2010 posting notes,
The reality is that there are very many places in which decisions and choices are made about the directions of science and technology. These include the implicit decisions made by the (international) scientific community, as a result of which the fashionable and timely topics of the day acquire momentum, much more explicit choices made by funding agencies in what areas they attach funding priority to, as well as preferences expressed by a variety of actors in the private sector, whether those are the beliefs that inform investment decisions by venture capitalists or the strategic decisions made by multinational companies. It’s obvious that these decisions are not always informed by perfect information and rationality – they will blend informed but necessarily fallible judgements about how the future might unfold with sectional interests, and will be underpinned by ideology. [emphases mine]
Jones goes on to discuss public engagement and its role in the science and technology decision-making process,
… the big outstanding question is how the rest of the population can have some influence. Of course, research councils are aware of the broader societal contexts that surround the research they fund; and the scientists and industry people providing advice will be asked to incorporate these broader issues in their thinking. The danger is that these people are not well equipped to make some judgements. In a phrase of Arie Rip, it’s likely that they will be using “folk social science” – a set of preconceptions and prejudices, unsupported by evidence, about what the wider population thinks about science and technology (one very common example of this in the UK is the proposition that one can gauge probable public reactions to science by reading the Daily Mail [UK newspaper]). [emphases mine]
I find it amusing that Jones includes scientists in his list of groups possibly practicing “folk social science” and, perhaps, it could be said that they too are practicing epistemological populism. Later in the posting he describes a public engagement exercise that yielded some unexpected results,
The outcome of the public engagement provided rich insights that in some cases surprised the expert advisors. [emphasis mine] These insights included both specific commentaries on the proposed areas of research that were being considered (such as the use of nanotechnology enabled surfaces to control pathogens) and a more general filter – the idea that a key issue in deciding people’s response to a proposed technology was the degree to which it gave or took away control and empowerment from the individual. Of course, people were concerned about issues of risk and regulation, but the form of the engagement was such that much broader questions than the simple question “is it safe” were discussed.
(Jones’ discussion about science, decision-making, and public engagement is more far ranging and nuanced that I’ve been able to represent here, so I encourage you to read his posting.)
For a completely different perspective on the importance of data, I found David Bruggeman’s (Pasco Phronesis) July 26, 2010 commentary on citizen science and politics quite illuminating,
According to Greenwire (via The New York Times and SEFORA), [James] Moran [chair of US House of Representatives Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee] characterized a number of efforts as civic activism, including (at least by implication) programs that supported elementary schools collecting water samples from nearby sources and testing for pollution. [emphasis mine] While much of what Moran discussed could be considered activism – getting the message out campaigns for pollution and climate change on par with anti-smoking or HIV prevention efforts – I’m not as sanguine about describing a neighborhood research project as political activity.
David suggests, by implication, an interesting conundrum (which he answers for himself in the posting).
Here’s the conundrum as I understand it, f a neighbourhood research project can be described as political activity then, can all science research be described as such? I think the answer is yes and that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. As flawed as it is, this is the scientific process. We gather data and refine our understanding as best we can. This holds true for the census, for public engagement, and for citizen science.