Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Republican War on Science and David Bloor's Symmetry Principle

In Knowledge and Social Imagery, his manifesto for the Strong Program in the sociology of science, David Bloor lays out his four principles for the discipline of Science Studies.  One of these is the Symmetry principle which he expresses as follows:
[The Strong Program] would be symmetrical in its style of explanation.  The same types of cause would explain, say, true and false beliefs.
There is a certain aesthetic reasonableness to this principle that I like very much: after all why should there be different explanations of true and false beliefs?  And the principle itself is intended to oppose the traditional conception of scientific knowledge: that true beliefs need no explanation, but false beliefs do.  The explanation of false beliefs is usually distorting factors like personal beliefs, commitments and ideology.

But I've always found it hard to explain the utility of the symmetry principle to others.  What's the use of it? is usually the question.  And I must admit it was always hard to explain its utility outside the field.  As a principle in understanding any kind of knowledge (including scientific knowledge), the symmetry principle has always seemed to me an indispensable tool.  What it could be used for -- outside of the sociology of knowledge --  I couldn't really say. 

Well, until today, that is.

I've been reading Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway.  The book is a meticulously researched piece of political journalism.  The story is galvanizing, if a little wearying in its repetitiveness: how a handful of scientists, financed by corporations, helped to create doubt about the scientific consensus on topics like the risks of smoking and acid rain to the ozone hole and global warming, leading to considerable delay in the enactment of regulatory policies (and for global warming, no policies at all).  It's astonishing how the same names of the same scientists keep popping up in every debate: these guys really were deep-pocketed merchants of doubt.  They had a clear objective which they shared with the rest of the American conservative movement: to oppose any possible Government regulations on corporations as well as dismantle the already existing ones. 

So far so good.  Unfortunately, despite all the wonderful data that the authors have combed through, the story the authors tell is frustratingly traditional and asymmetric.  It's true that the road to the regulation of tobacco (and now it seems global warming) was long and arduous and disturbing.  But the road to regulation for acid rain and the ozone hole was arguably much shorter.  We were able to regulate the emissions of sulfur and CFCs despite the doubts created by the right-wing machine using both straight-forward bans and cap-and-trade mechanisms.  Why were regulators quick to respond in these cases but not in the others despite the right-wing noise machine?  The authors, it seems to me, don't think it is especially relevant.  For instance on page 124, they say:
The combined results of the Ozone Trends Panel and the field expeditions caused the Montreal Protocol to be renegotiated. The results also convinced the industry that their products really were doing harm, and opposition began to fade. CFCs would now be regulated based on what had already happened, not on what might happen in the future. Because the chemicals had lifetimes measured in decades, there was no longer any doubt that more damage would happen.  [My emphasis]
But didn't they spend the previous three chapters describing how industry leaders almost never accept scientific findings when they go against their own interests (e.g. Big Tobacco on the risks of smoking)?   So why should the industry be convinced in this case?  It seems to me that the authors don't really care.  When scientific findings lead to the appropriate regulations, it's because they were true.  When they don't, it's because of the right-wing doubting machine and its near-fanatical free market ideology.

This is where the symmetry principle would have been useful.  If we assume that there is one process that leads from scientific findings to the appropriate regulations, then the same process holds irrespective of whether said regulation was enacted or not.  (It's not as if the doubting thomases didn't start beating their drums during the ozone hole controversy, it's just that they were not successful in blocking regulation.)  So knowing what we did right in the ozone hole and acid rain case will arguably be important for us if we want to enact global warming regulation.

I don't mean to suggest that if the authors did treat these cases symmetrically, we would know what to do to enact emissions reductions in the US.  No.  And it's possible that the difference is just that the right-wing machine threw less money at these problems where we were able to enact regulation.  Or maybe because of the consequences of acid rain or ozone depletion were so close to home (skin cancer, etc.) whereas the consequences of global warming are strikingly diffuse (what exactly does it mean for average temperatures to rise by 2 degrees?), the American public was just more supportive of regulation in these cases.  But whatever it is, it would be useful to treat the cases of successful regulation and delayed (or impossible) regulation symmetrically.

The Symmetry principle is often derided for its relativism towards science.  Here is one case where it could be used (although in a political economic analysis) for science, and not against it.

[I don't mean to hit on the book, I think it's rich and very detailed and a rich source of data for anyone who wants to understand the political economy of scientific findings and their relation to regulation.  I highly recommend it.]

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