Category Archives: Mathematics

Science And Policy

Words of wisdom from Daniel Sarewitz:

Whatever science you’re doing on a post-normal problem, it is always going to be incomplete, and it is always going to be subject to revision, and highly uncertain. It can be viewed from numerous scientific perspectives. So multiple scientific studies can come up with multiple results, so it leads to a profusion of truths that can be mobilized on behalf of different sets of values. Values and facts can pair up with each other in different ways.

One example I love is how everyone talks about how there’s a consensus on GMOs. Well there is consensus around a narrow part of the GMO issue, like there is a consensus around a narrow part of climate change. But the real problems have to do with the ‚what could be done?‘ questions. So for GMOs for example, when people say there is a consensus, what they mean is ‚we know they’re not a health risk‘. So I’ll accept it on health risk, I don’t have a problem with it. But then you say, ‚and we know that they’ll be an essential part of the economic future of Africa‘. Well, maybe that’s true — whose model are you using? What kind of data have you used to generate that? What are your assumptions? I mean anything dealing with projections of the future and claims about how the world is going to look, in a multi-variate, open system, are going to be subject to different people coming up with different claims and conclusions. And that’s exactly what happens.

And when you bring science into the political debate, you have to pick and choose which science you want to use. You have to match that with particular priorities about what policy problems you want to solve. I think science is really important, I think we want to be factual, I think we want to have a grip on reality and I think science can help us do that. But for problems where there are so many paths forward, so many competing values, the systems themselves are so complicated, I don’t think science is a privileged part of the solution.

…The post-normal science idea really does challenge the notion of science as a unitary thing that tells us what to do, PNS really says that we have to think of science in a different way in these contested contexts, and I don’t think most scientists want to go there. The deficit model puts them in charge: “we communicate the facts, you listen and take action.” So if the problem isn’t solved it’s not science’s problem. This is a self-serving superstition that the scientific community generally holds. And superstitions are hard to destabilize.

Over on Twitter, I’ve been having arguments with people about the proposed cut at the EPA, in which the budget for “protecting the climate,” is reduced to “only” $29M.

What in the hell does “protecting the climate” even mean?


wonders why NASA is considering crewing the first flight of SLS/Orion:

In a statement at the beginning of the Feb. 23 meeting of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), chairwoman Patricia Sanders said that if NASA decides to put a crew on the first SLS/Orion launch, Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), it must demonstrate that there is a good reason to accept the higher risks associated with doing so.

“We strongly advise that NASA carefully and cautiously weigh the value proposition for flying crew on EM-1,” she said. “NASA should provide a compelling rationale in terms of benefits gained for accepting additional risk, and fully and transparently acknowledge the tradeoffs being made before deviating from the approach for certifying the Orion/SLS vehicle for manned spaceflight.”

“If the benefits warrant the assumption of additional risk,” she added, “we expect NASA to clearly and openly articulate their decision-making process and rationale.”

The point of my book was not that NASA should simply be more accepting of risk, or be reckless, but balance the risk against the reward. In my opinion, accelerating commercial crew would be worth the risk, to end our dependence on Russia, and increase the productivity of the ISS. Redoing Apollo 8 half a century after the original as a political stunt would not.

[Update a little before 1 PM EST]

NASA is about to have a news conference, probably in response.

[Update post conference]

It was the Bills Gerstenmaier and Hill. Gerst is always deadpan, but one had the impression that he’s not enthusiastic. They’re doing a feasibility study because the White House asked, and won’t be making any recommendations, just describing would it would take in terms of changes in schedule and budget. They just want to see “if they can fly crew sooner.” They expect to have some answers in a month or so (presumably as part of the input for FY2018 budget request). I wish the White House would ask them if they could fly crew sooner on Dragon and Starliner. That would be worth doing.

I can’t believe I just typed the words “FY 2018 budget request.” Makes me feel old.

[Update a few minutes later]

[Update a few minutes later]

Here‘s Keith Cowing’s story.

[Early afternoon update]

And here‘s Eric Berger’s take.

[Update a while later]

And Joel Achenbach’s.

I’d note that the reason they would only have two crew is probably a) to reduce the number of losses if it doesn’t go well and b) more margin in the (primitive?) life support.

[Saturday-afternoon update]

Amy Shira Teitel (like me) thinks that this makes no sense.

Climate Models

are flawed. That’s putting it mildly:

Professor Curry said: “It’s not just the fact that climate simulations are tuned that is problematic. It may well be that it is impossible to make long-term predictions about the climate – it’s a chaotic system after all. If that’s the case, then we are probably trying to redesign the global economy for nothing”.

I’ve been saying that’s likely the case for years. I’ll look forward to reading her paper.