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Why Scientists Should Have a Greater Voice On Global Security 167

Posted by Soulskill
from the because-they-might-control-the-volcanoes dept.
Lasrick writes "Physicist Lawrence Krauss has a great piece in the NY Times today about the lack of influence scientists wield on global security issues, to the world's detriment. He writes, 'To our great peril, the scientific community has had little success in recent years influencing policy on global security. Perhaps this is because the best scientists today are not directly responsible for the very weapons that threaten our safety, and are therefore no longer the high priests of destruction, to be consulted as oracles as they were after World War II. The problems scientists confront today are actually much harder than they were at the dawn of the nuclear age, and their successes more heartily earned. This is why it is so distressing that even Stephen Hawking, perhaps the world’s most famous living scientist, gets more attention for his views on space aliens than his views on nuclear weapons. Scientists' voices are crucial in the debates over the global challenges of climate change, nuclear proliferation and the potential creation of new and deadly pathogens. But unlike in the past, their voices aren't being heard.'"
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Why Scientists Should Have a Greater Voice On Global Security

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  • by gstoddart (321705) on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @02:50PM (#42607609) Homepage

    An increasing number of politicans will only listen to the scienticians if what they're saying supports the conclusions they've already arrived at.

    They're not interested in facts, just their own ideology.

  • 3 problems (Score:5, Insightful)

    by banbeans (122547) on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @02:51PM (#42607625)

    To much politics in science today to trust them with decisions.
    There is a lot of junk out there being passed off as science.
    Many scientists are available for sale to the highest bidder.

    This has caused a loss of trust in the scientific community by the general public and the leadership.

  • by DickBreath (207180) on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @02:55PM (#42607675) Homepage
    Scientists promote Godless evil ideas such as global warming, evolution and birth control. They also seem to think you should believe something based on the evidence for it, sound methodology, and peer review. If every idea had to be scrutinized thusly, do you realize how difficult it would be to get every new idea about aliens and conspiracies onto talk radio? Then how would we are to be learning about these important topics?

    --
    Necessity is the mother of invention. Greed is the mother of patents.
  • by jimmifett (2434568) on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @02:56PM (#42607689)

    As I recall, the only time anyone listened is when a bunch of awesome-sauce physicists warned that the nazis were working on atomic weapons research. Obviously, we couldn't let a mineshaft gap of that size exist, so we had to beat them to it.

    Much more instances of ignoring, like agent orange for example.

    Unless you're telling about a really neat new way to stick it to the enemy, or an asteroid will kill us allin 6 months unless we send Bruce Willis and Ben Afleck to nuke it (because blowing shit up is effing awesome), you're just not that interesting.

    More like a nagging wife:

    Blah blah good of humanity blah blah anti-matter reactor blah blah free energy blah blah big bada boom blah blah... wait, did you say big effing explosions? Annihilation of matter, particularly ENEMY matter? You have my attention sirs, please proceed...

  • by Millennium (2451) on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @03:01PM (#42607743) Homepage

    It has been a long time since anyone existed who could only call himself (or herself) a "scientist." The term is now a generic way to refer to people whose actual work is in any of a staggering number of highly specialized fields. There is some acknowledgment of this in TFA, which states (correctly) that many of today's greatest scientific minds don't work directly in the fields related to the things that affect our security. To use the article's own example, Stephen Hawking is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist: he doesn't work on nuclear weapons.

    But for a given question, what grounds are there to privilege the viewpoints of those whose expertise is not in a field of direct relevance to that question? On questions concerning nuclear weapons, for example, why should Stephen Hawking's viewpoint be held as equivalent to a nuclear physicist's viewpoint? For that matter, why should his viewpoint be held as superior to the viewpoint of anyone else who is not a nuclear physicist?

  • by DickBreath (207180) on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @03:04PM (#42607783) Homepage
    If Scientists ran the world, then there wouldn't be paywalled scientific papers, and a bright young guy wouldn't need to be prosecuted for the horrific crime of excessive downloading of information freely available to him on a network that was also freely available to him.

    --
    Necessity is the mother of invention. Greed is the mother of patents.
  • by Hentes (2461350) on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @03:04PM (#42607785)

    I am co-chairman of the board of sponsors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which has supported the call for a world free of nuclear weapons — a vision backed by major foreign policy figures in both parties. But ideological biases have become so ingrained in Washington that scientific realities are subordinated to political intransigence.

    The BAS is the perfect example that scientific knowledge doesn't translate to political insight. They've been crying wolf for 60 years, and are now surprised why nobody is listening to them anymore? If science really has lost influence, it's because of people like these guys who hide behind science and call everyone 'anti-science' who disagrees with them.

  • In their fields (Score:3, Insightful)

    by CarsonChittom (2025388) on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @03:07PM (#42607819) Homepage

    In all honesty, why should we care about Stephen Hawking's views on nuclear weapons? I mean, sure, if there were a weapon that harnessed the destructive power of black holes, definitely Hawking would be on the list of people to consult. But on stuff that isn't his—or more generally, any individual scientist's field? Why is that desirable?

    In any case, Krauss is barking up the wrong tree. The solution to nuclear proliferation is not for scientists to have some greater voice. It's for scientists to convince the populace that nuclear proliferation is an issue worth bothering about. So far, they have failed.

  • by PPalmgren (1009823) on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @03:09PM (#42607831)

    Scientists are specialized brains who devote a significant majority of their life and time to one discipline or sub-discipline. A specialist is good for explaining how something works in layman's terms, a generalist is better at integrating this information into other specalist's explanations to mesh out something that works. A scientific council with general recommendations and upper/lower bounds to possible solutions? Great. A scientist deciding the solution outright? No sir.

  • Scientists (Score:5, Insightful)

    by phantomfive (622387) on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @03:18PM (#42607977) Journal
    Scientists don't have a good track record on setting policy. They tend to get too focused on their own little area and end up making bad decisions. And that doesn't even take into consideration what can happen when the wrong scientist gets in control, if you remember the Russian horrors of Lysenkoism.

    Any time you create a process whereby people can acquire power, that process will be abused. Remember the fighting between Oppenheimer and Teller? It can get much, much worse than that.

    If scientists have more power than average people, then everyone will rush to redefine themselves as scientists, like this guy [slashdot.org]. Instead of marketers, we'll have "social researchers." Instead of accountants we'll have "capital flow researchers." And I'm not going to stay out of the game, I'll definitely be a computer scientist, not a programmer. Soon the term "scientist" will lose its meaning.

    If scientists want to affect policy in a democratic society, they need to get better at explaining. Albert Einstein reportedly said, "You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother." It may sound excessive, but remember that's what Feynman did with advanced theoretical physics. You can do it. Of course, in a democratic society, if everyone collectively wants to shoot themselves in the foot, there's not always much you can do about it.
  • by Amorymeltzer (1213818) on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @03:25PM (#42608051)

    Perhaps that indicates a problem with politics rather than scientists.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @03:26PM (#42608057)

    They're not interested in facts, just their own ideology.

    Criticizing politicians for having an ideology is absurd. Political questions are not like engineering questions - 'how much should we spend on bridges' is not at all the same category of question as 'estimate the ultimate load-bearing capacity of this bridge'. Political issues require consideration of things like the underlying values of society, legitimacy of decision-making and economic priorities, none of which have a single 'right' or even an 'approximately right' answer. Stephen Hawking is not a nuclear weapons specialist (although I dare say he knows more than 99% of the population) so why should his views on nuclear weapons be particularly important given that many of the questions involved are about fairness, desire for security and economic constraints? When deciding whether Truman's decision to drop the A bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was appropriate, how useful is it to understand the technical difference between the two types of bombs used?

    Of course, many politicians ignore the facts on subjects like Global Climate Change, and that can't be approved of. But I also groan when I read scientific experts move from explaining the facts about a subject to advocacy of their preferred course of action without differentiating the statements.

  • Re:3 problems (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Amorymeltzer (1213818) on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @03:30PM (#42608105)

    - Science is too political to be trusted with decisions, leave it to those who are entirely political
    - The signal-to-noise ratio, while significantly higher than current political rhetoric, is less than one.
    - Not every scientist can be bought.

    FTFY.

    Okay, snark aside, at a time when Congress ranks below cockroaches [publicpolicypolling.com] are you truly suggesting this wouldn't improve the situation? Your points are, in a sense, all valid, but we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. An improvement is just that, and need not be perfection.

  • by Hatta (162192) on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @03:36PM (#42608191) Journal

    their tests for success and advancement are radically different than those in the political space

    This is exactly why they are supremely qualified to work on policy. Scientists and politicans have different tests for success because only scientists are concerned about truth and effectiveness. Politicians are concerned about getting reelected and doing favors for their cronies. It is actually politicians who are hoplessly unqualified to work on policy.

  • by kenh (9056) on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @03:56PM (#42608469) Homepage Journal

    "Scientists' voices are crucial in the debates over the global challenges of climate change, nuclear proliferation and the potential creation of new and deadly pathogens. But unlike in the past, their voices aren't being heard.'"

    Four years ago a candidate for President promised to "restore science to it's rightful place" [american.com] - why hasn't it happened? He got elected (and re-elected) to office on that pormise (among others)?

  • by Hatta (162192) on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @04:13PM (#42608715) Journal

    Effectiveness being a weasel word. Effective based on what criteria?

    Obviously those criteria should be set out in the law itself. Every law should have a goal, and specify a way for evaluating progress towards that goal.

  • by Hatta (162192) on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @04:41PM (#42609137) Journal

    Why is compromising with people who are demonstrably wrong a desirable feature?

  • by c0lo (1497653) on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @05:49PM (#42610151)

    But for a given question, what grounds are there to privilege the viewpoints of those whose expertise is not in a field of direct relevance to that question?

    The capacity to apply critical thinking? Which probably leads to conclusion of "I don't know enough" - if the scientist attempting this is outside the area of expertise required - but nevertheless will show what other things need to be known to reach a conclusion.
    BTW, critical thinking is something that most of the politicians don't show/use in their exercise.

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