January/February 2001


Should geophysicists (such as the typical readers of this column) be expected to feel any kind of professional responsibility, beyond the (fully legitimate) interests of themselves and their employers, to society at large? While all must seek their own answers to this, I would like to use this question as a starting point for some reflections on the role of science in general in society and on our societal roles as professional geophysicists.

The times when science could enjoy a pivotal and more or less unquestioned role in society are over, and no regrets should be felt in that respect. However, it is disturbing when some scientists now prefer not to admit openly their indebtedness, in the best rational tradition, to the Enlightenment. There is a dragon on the loose, and who dares to go against it? It appears under many disguises, one of the most common of which is postmodernism. It can change both color and shape depending on the situation, and recently we have seen and felt its fire during the so-called "science war." As the rumor goes, this Zeitgeist was revived (there is a medieval link here, too) as a reaction to the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle after the First World War.

Is this not just some weird philosophical nerdism? Unfortunately, our monster is not that innocent. The essence of the problem is that we scientists are confronted with people, some of whom are intellectuals with considerable recognition, who vigorously subscribe to the principle of epistemological relativism (also called Cole Porter's law: Anything goes), claiming that scientific results essentially are achieved through a process of "social construction" (although they still trust their cellular phones). Moreover, they even import undigested language and concepts from the natural sciences (in particular physics and mathematics) into the humanities, producing "texts" which often are close to being complete nonsense. This is all well known by many, but for those less familiar with these discussions I would like to refer to two books central to the discussion: Gross and Levitt's Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science and Sokal and Brichmont's Intellectual Impostures: Postmodern Philosophers' Abuse of Science. The latter includes Sokal's famous parodic hoax in which he published a hilarious and deliberately nonsensical paper entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" in the postmodern journal Social Text (Andrew Ross, editor). While the Sokal "affair" in the eyes of many effectively disrobed much of postmodernism, we should certainly also take note of those who try to mediate between scientists and postmodernists, such as N. David Mermin (writing in Physics Today).

Most of the (often overdone) reactions to the (in)famous postmodern deconstructionists (including formidable names such as Baudrillard, Derrida, Feyerabend, and Latour) have been, especially in the U.S., concerned primarily with the academic world and its internal discourses. If that were all to the discussion, I would not be concerned with it and I would not have mentioned it here. Still, I am concerned, first of all because I see this raid on a rationally based science (really there is no other science) and, in fact, on rationality at large in a wider context. Essentially, science has for several decades now been under considerable pressure from many sides, including not only part of academia but also the people at large. To a large extent, this is fair, just, deserved, and useful, but it is often also unjust and counterproductive and therefore alarming. Science is being held responsible for everything from global warming and El Niño effects to globalization and dot-com problems, and there often seems to be a poor understanding of the fact that our civilization is solidly founded on the very same science that is being criticized.

At their essence the criticisms are often indiscriminate, not appreciating that the way from black to white goes through a grayscale. The critical attitudes and feelings are ever so often nourished and encouraged by an intellectual elite who do not appreciate that positivism, for example, means very different things depending on the field of application, while often it is considered more or less synonymous with scientism. Another related and also commonly misunderstood concept is that of reductionism, but here I only refer the reader to a brilliant discussion of this topic in Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker (p. 13). Paradoxically, the critics of science often fall victims themselves to what they accuse others of, namely invoking gross simplifications through a binary way of thinking. Occam's razor is an important principle, but it is useful only when a simple explanation is not less likely than a more complex one.

My impression is that the problems related to an increasingly negative attitude toward science, or at least undercurrents in that direction, are greater in some European countries than in the U.S. In my own country (Norway) the problems are apparent on many levels, two of which are very close to most of us: recruitment to science and science funding. A trend seen for many years now is that young students more and more often tend to exclude science from their programs, with potentially serious long-term effects for our society. I have even heard students say that when they do this it is reflecting a value decision on their part. These are otherwise sound and rational people, but they just avoid science because it gives them negative associations. Science funding policies are in a similarly serious situation. As a country with more than a 20% budget surplus at present and large investments abroad it cannot possibly be for economic reasons that Norway still is far below the European (OECD) average in what is spent on scientific research. My claim is that when the general public has developed this negative attitude toward science, it is in part because they have had important intellectual assistance, including from much of the "progressive" press. Essentially, the country is strongly influenced by a distressing anti-intellectual coalition between contemporary (intellectual!) relativists, closet fundamentalists of various colors, and political populists whose perspectives in life rarely go much beyond their own pockets. While this may be good for gasoline prices and nursing homes, it is bad news for science.

Often these misconceptions about science are rooted in a poor understanding of how science works. Simply stated, what is often not comprehended (sometimes deliberately, I am afraid, rather than just out of ignorance) is that while in the empirical sciences nothing is known "for sure", lots of things are nevertheless known "almost for sure" and more and more is becoming known beyond any reasonable doubt (Popperian falsification schemes are usually of little help here). A useful example of this is the way in which Thomas Kuhn's paradigm theories have been (mis)used in support of epistemological relativism. One example often referred to here is from our own field, namely plate tectonics. This may rightly be termed a scientific revolution, but it was definitely not any paradigm shift. The new ideas were built more solidly on Charles Lyell's uniformitarianism from the early 19th century (in turn built on James Hutton) than they were built on Alfred Wegener's global puzzle. In fact, it is hard to see how Charles Darwin could have developed his ideas of biological evolution without his detailed knowledge of Lyell's Principles of Geology, which provided the gradualism Darwin needed. Other Kuhnian examples can be similarly taken apart. As scientists we are all standing on each others' shoulders (and not only those of the giants), albeit this is complicated by the fact that the evolution of science has similarities to that of biology in that it does not have a built-in direction and often develops irregularly.

The main point here is that science works, and that most scientists know very well how to make it work, with two of the most important means being by inductive inferences and consensus-building processes. The first of these implies going from the observed to the unobserved, or from data to knowledge, which admittedly is a path full of stumbling blocks, and the latter is also treacherous in that a consensus sometimes builds protective walls around itself that may be hard to penetrate with new scientific ideas (which is Kuhn in a moderate version). Eventually, however, science will prevail if allowed the necessary freedom.

Our project should therefore be to try to make the point (vis-à-vis voters and politicians alike) that we scientists still have a good case for our work. Since we cannot all fight dragons (maybe we should leave that to the physicists?), one possible way to start could be through some critical reflections on our own profession. There are two fields that come to my mind in that respect, earthquake hazard mitigation and seismological verification.

It is highly enigmatic that damage and loss from earthquakes keep increasing, not only steadily but also steeply. In fact, losses due to earthquakes during the last five decades have been assessed at $1, $19, $53, $80, and $209 billion U.S. (1999 equivalents), respectively (courtesy of Munich Re). The paradox here lies in the fact that this has happened at the same time that our knowledge about how to protect ourselves and our built environment against earthquakes has been improving at about the same rate. Surely, we all know the arguments about increasing vulnerability, in particular in developing countries, but this does not excuse us, as the foremost experts on this problem, from a certain responsibility. My mother-in-law used to ask when a killer quake struck, "Why doesn't anyone do anything?" One possible place to start, and at an individual level, could be that when we go to developing countries (where the casualty-to-damage ratio is at a maximum) to conduct our profession, we go there with a somewhat wider perspective than primarily to promote our own scientific careers. An important point here is that effective mitigation efforts are not dependent on having to wait for "development" in the Third World countries to catch up to that of most industrialized countries. There are, in fact, many useful low-cost measures that can be taken in order to reduce earthquake losses in developing countries. Often we also hear that we should "wait for the predictions", but in that respect I would like to note (Robert Geller can speak for himself) that there are few fields which can match earthquake prediction research in combining overpromises with underdeliveries. Admittedly, lots of good science has come out of such research, but for the authorities this has often been a cheap (in both meanings of the word) alternative to more solid mitigation efforts. Common questions from the press are "Why was it missed?" and "When will one be able to predict?", and our best answer is that "We know enough about the hazards, we know how to reduce the risks and the losses, please allow us to use our knowledge."

In the 1970's, when Hal Thirlaway coined and discussed the concept of forensic seismology, it was not uncommon to claim that the possible inadequacies within nuclear test monitoring would be balanced by the risks involved in being caught in clandestine testing in the case of a test ban. Fortunately, however, at that time it was already well recognized that the monitoring means were in fact far from sufficient, resulting in large-scale seismological research efforts (especially on the U.S. side) which have provided seismology with major advancements far outside the field of verification research. After twenty years of negotiations in Geneva and a signed treaty (ratified or not), the detection, location, and identification thresholds are still there, but now they are better known, understood, and accepted by (almost) all parties.

The forensics are essentially the same, however, and thereby also the ethical fine-line balancing act required by the seismologist when called on as an expert to the court room, now in Vienna. Admittedly we are, in this capacity, primarily advisors to our respective governments, but foremost we are scientists sharing with colleagues in other countries a responsibility, under the rules of a science which we know works. In order to brace ourselves against this Hippocratic-like burden we need first of all to conduct our science the way in which we know it works most efficiently, based first and foremost on openness with respect to both results and, not the least, data. To be trustworthy in this respect should imply a willingness to share one's own data in parallel with expecting access to others' data.

Our science is small, and the consensus-building processes and the peer-based checks and balances which are so important within any science need, in order to be efficient and productive, to be supported by a critical mass of scientists, which can only be reached through a high level of international cooperation. It should be our duty to make this very clear to all parties, including our respective authorities.

Admittedly, the challenges outlined in the above may appear a bit overwhelming. Still, some reflections may not hurt, and some are better than none. What I do know for sure is that whenever anything is being done, it is always because an idea at some point in time came to the mind of some individual person. T. S. Eliot once wrote: "Where is the Life we have lost in living? / where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? / where is the knowledge we have lost in information?" It is still allowed to strive.

Hilmar Bungum
Kjeller, Norway

To send a letter to the editor regarding this opinion or to write your own opinion, contact Editor John Ebel by email or telephone him at (617) 552-8300.

Posted: 21 January 2001