In Praise of Scientists and Scholars

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In Praise of Scientists and Scholars

How do we know what is true?

Posted on Jun 23 2017 by Martin Holladay

Most educated Americans still listen to scientists and believe in established methods of scholarly inquiry. That said, a strange side effect of our country’s recent slide into extreme political polarization has been an increase in the number of Americans who reject the conclusions of scientists and scholars.

We all know that the European Enlightenment, lasting from the late 17th century to the end of the 18th century, ushered in the modern era. As a result of this intellectual revolution, educated seekers of answers to puzzling questions have been more likely to turn to scientists, not demagogues, for guidance.

That said, resistance to the scientific approach has always been with us. (In spite of appearances to the contrary, the 1925 Scopes trial was not the last gasp of American resistance to the scientific method.) Yet the scientific method has retained the respect of educated Americans — at least until recently.

Who would have imagined that in 2017, scientists would feel so embattled that they organized nationwide protest marches to champion the scientific method?

Consultants were paid to sow doubt

I’m not going to focus on the elements of this story that have been widely covered by many journalists — for example, the role of consultants hired by oil companies to spread false information on global climate change, with the aim of injecting doubt into what was a matter of scientific consensus. The details of this well-known story are available from many sources.

After these paid consultants stoked doubts about the causes of climate change, the resulting confusion was exploited by politicians with close ties to the fossil fuel industry. This tactic — an attitude that allowed for the rejection of scientific consensus — was then adopted by Fox News, and the tactic was cynically deployed to increase the network’s ratings and to promote a group of conservative politicians.

Once these seeds had been sown, the crop was harvested by the Trump campaign in 2016. Trump, who is known to be unencumbered by any allegiance to truth, regularly makes statements that are contrary to fact. When challenged, he tars any facts that contradict his statements with a new label, “fake news.” Surprisingly, a high percentage of his political supporters now believe his version of reality.

This new suspicion of scientists and journalists is clearly worrisome for democracy. Since those who try to introduce facts into this debate are now labeled as biased against Trump, the debate is unwinnable.

There are unscientific lefties, too

Rejection of scientific consensus isn’t isolated to those on the conservative side of the aisle. Some left-leaning Americans share the same attitude: for example, those who believe, against all available evidence, that childhood vaccines cause autism.

The green building movement includes many people who are convinced that the electromagnetic fields emitted by common household wiring are making them sick, or who worry that rigid foam insulation on the exterior side of their wall sheathingMaterial, usually plywood or oriented strand board (OSB), but sometimes wooden boards, installed on the exterior of wall studs, rafters, or roof trusses; siding or roofing installed on the sheathing—sometimes over strapping to create a rainscreen. might injure their children’s health. The lack of evidence supporting these beliefs doesn’t dissuade these people very much.

In praise of scholars

Each of us should spend some time thinking about the question, “How do I determine what’s true?”

In recent months, lots of Americans (including me) have raised their voices in defense of scientists, and that’s a good thing. Improvements in public health and environmental health depend on the work of scientists.

We haven’t heard as many voices raised to defend scholars, so I’ll take this opportunity to do so. While a scientist usually conducts experiments and collects data, scholars traditionally spend their careers in libraries. Scholars research documents in hopes of discerning new truths, and then publish their findings in papers and books.

Scholars research a wide variety of topics: the evolution of the English language; the circumstances that led to World War I; the causes of inflation. Scholars provide us with an understanding of our history, our economy, our society, and our language. Like scientists, they look for clues that can help enlarge our understanding of truth. Fundamentally, what they are doing is sorting truth from falsehood. Without scholars, we’d all be at the mercy of windbag politicians who are eager to share crackpot theories that just pop into their heads.

I’ve heard young people say that it’s now possible to graduate from a four-year college without ever checking a book out of the library. Although that sounds alarming — especially to an old fogy like me — the situation isn't as worrisome as it sounds. Libraries still exist, fortunately, and scholars still visit them, even if undergraduates don’t need them.

I’m an optimist. I don’t think that our country is about to slide into a totalitarian nightmare. But as we all struggle with questions of civics — for example, What’s the best way to respond to politicians’ lies? — let’s redouble our support for our community’s scientists and scholars, those who are trying to keep truth alive.

Job-site opinions

Every day, green builders face new questions: for example, What causes frost to form on window glass? Is spray foam injurious to human health? How did this particular requirement enter the building code?

The problem of “alternative facts” is not restricted to Washington, D.C.; the problem extends to construction sites, too. The next time you hear a builder tell you, “You can't install polyethylene on the ceiling, because you need to leave a way for moisture to escape,” or “Walls have to breathe,” it might be worth consulting a reputable expert before accepting what you hear.

Whatever questions we’re struggling with, we depend on scientists and scholars to provide fact-based answers.

Martin Holladay’s previous blog: “Comfort Problems Related to Radiation.”

Click here to follow Martin Holladay on Twitter.

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  1. Martin Holladay

Jun 23, 2017 9:29 AM ET

teeny tiny quibble
by Antonio Oliver

I wouldn't totally separate scientists from scholars. A h(y)uge part of a scientist's time is spent reading/reviewing the work of other scientists (current and past). This is to validate (or disprove in some cases) one's own work (or the work of others) and to find links to other scientific phenomena or to place one's own work in the proper context/perspective. It may be hard for many to believe, but the scientific endeavor is really very modest. A colleague of mine has a sign on his door which states "innovation should expect skepticism." Only after much evidence are new truths accepted in science; this involves work being validated over and over and over.....and over again by different scientists attacking problems using different means and methods to reach consensus--as was pointed out by a blog by A. Bailes (sp) recently on this site.

Jun 23, 2017 12:28 PM ET

Response to Antonio Oliver
by Martin Holladay

You're right, of course, that most scientists are scholars -- although many scholars aren't scientists. I didn't intend to imply that the two categories couldn't overlap. (It's a little like designers and builders. The Venn diagram includes overlap.)

These days, many people are defending scientists, who feel beleaguered. Standing up for scientists is appropriate, of course. I just wanted to introduce a similar defense of scholars.

Jun 23, 2017 3:16 PM ET

What is this "book" thing of which you speak?
by Dana Dorsett

"I’ve heard young people say that it’s now possible to graduate from a four-year college without ever checking a book out of the library. "

It that the things they used to have before the Nook (and Kindle)? :-)

It's far easier and faster to look up primary sources (and analysis thereof) on the internet these days. Unless you're in the humanities and needing references & sources not yet scanned in to web-available resources, it's pretty easy to avoid the library, yet still be on top of the subject.

I'm trying to remember if I actually checked out any books from the library when getting my (math + physics) degrees decades ago, before the world wide web was invented. I'm drawing a blank. Purchased books? Absolutely! Looked up references in libraries? Occasionally, sure. But I can't clearly remember actually checking out a book from the library as part of my study. I might have, but couldn't swear to it. (I guess that 'splains my literacy problem... :-) )

Jun 23, 2017 3:26 PM ET

Response to Dana Dorsett
by Martin Holladay

Don't worry. If you wait two or three decades, my generation (and all of our antiquated ideas) will be dead, and everything will finally move swiftly into the future without us dragging you back. At that point, younger people can just use books for thermal mass.

Jun 23, 2017 4:22 PM ET

Thermal mass and...
by Dana Dorsett

... sequestered carbon!

I knew I was keeping them around for SOMETHING! :-)

Jun 23, 2017 7:28 PM ET

Thermal something...
by John Semmelhack

...and here I thought books were for burning!...except, of course, ACCA Manual D. Nothing sets the mood like Manual D.

Screen Shot 2017-06-23 at 7.27.50 PM.png

Jun 23, 2017 8:43 PM ET

Edited Jun 23, 2017 8:44 PM ET.

by Malcolm Taylor

I'm sure you could get a degree in architecture without opening a book, but you would come out knowing the how, not the why.

Jane Jacobs, Christopher Alexander, Alan de Botton, Kenneth Frampton, Lewis Mumford, Leon Krier, Italo Calvino, Murray Bookchin, Miles Glendinning, Howard Kunstler. Reading them lets you understand what you are trying to do when you design something. They place it in a larger cultural context.

Books are long because complex arguments need a lot of explanation. I can see how text books have become largely redundant, but I don't know what other form or communication could replace them for the function I described.

Jun 23, 2017 9:23 PM ET

last three questions
by Paul Eldrenkamp

Interesting choice of three sample questions towards the end:

"What causes frost to form on window glass?"
This is a question that taking a decent high school physics class would teach you how to answer.

"Is spray foam injurious to human health?"
This question has been answered and it's unequivocally "yes," given high enough levels of exposure to the active ingredients. But at lower levels of exposure, the levels to which most homeowners would be exposed, it will probably never be answered definitively. Which highlights something you don't really address in your post: bona fide scientific uncertainty. Areas where science can tell us what the risk is and quantify it are not really the problem; what causes me (and many practitioners) problems are areas where it's nearly impossible to quantify the risk, and probably always will be. There are practical and economic limitations to how effectively we can use science to answer a lot of questions we might have about what we do.

"How did this particular requirement enter the building code?"
This isn't a science question, it's a history question. So it's really one for the scholars. In his book "Water in Buildings" Bill Rose (both a scientist and a scholar) offers a fascinating history of the origins of some code requirements, and it does not reflect well on the scientific literacy of the construction field. But it's also true that there's at least as much bad history as bad science in the world, and that ten different historical researchers might come up with ten different answers to a question as apparently simple as "How did this particular requirement enter the building code?"

So one answer to your subtitle, "How do we know what is true?" is "We often don't know what's true." The trick is not to let that uncertainty degenerate into relativism or be distorted by what we want to be true.

Jun 24, 2017 5:11 AM ET

Edited Jun 26, 2017 9:31 AM ET.

Response to Paul Eldrenkamp
by Martin Holladay

I chose the three questions because they are typical of the types of questions that are posted on GBA.

I was not implying that the condensation question required a college degree; nor was I excluding questions with complicated answers; nor was I intending to exclude historians from our circle of experts. I was deliberately including questions that required the help of both scholars and scientists, and implying that, whether our questions are simple or complicated, we need to turn to the experts -- those who have studied -- for advice.

I'm glad that you were paying attention during high school physics. Maybe you should send a note of thanks to your high school teacher, if he or she is still alive. (And if you think that every window installer understands why condensation forms on window glass, you should get out more, and spend more time on job sites!)

Finally, lest any readers imagine that GBA provides simplistic answers to complicated questions, or that GBA is blinded by the misguided assumption that science can't abide uncertainty, I'd like to provide links to two articles: First, a 2011 article about reports of health problems arising from spray foam installations gone awry: Spray Foam Jobs With Lingering Odor Problems.

Second, a 2013 article reporting on William Rose's research showing that building code requirements for vapor barriers had no basis in science: Do I Need a Vapor Retarder?

Jun 24, 2017 5:34 AM ET

Response to John Semmelhack (Comment #6)
by Martin Holladay

I love the photo! I guess you were in a Friday-night mood!

Jun 26, 2017 10:30 AM ET

by Foster Lyons

I like scientists, and scholars, as much as the next guy, but, I hope there will always be a few crazies in the room to help us understand which dogmatic beliefs just ain't so:. Like the ones that helped debunk a few of histories great scientific fails:

1. Einstein's static universe
2. Cold fusion
3. Vulcan (the planet)
4. The expanding Earth
5. Ulcers are caused by stress
6. A penny dropped from the top of the Empire State building will kill you.
7. Pluto is a planet (I'm still a little fuzzy on this one)
8. Bubblegum takes 7 years to digest.

And, "we" can't even resolve the theory of relativity and quantum theory.

Keep the skepticism coming.

Jun 26, 2017 11:23 AM ET

Edited Jun 26, 2017 11:25 AM ET.

Response to Foster Lyons
by Martin Holladay

Skepticism is an inherent part of the scientific method. Every year, new data clarifies our understanding of the universe and overturns old hypotheses.

The scientific method ensures that there will be future changes to our understanding of almost everything.

Jun 27, 2017 8:28 PM ET

What scientific method?
by Kye Ford

Political or scientific debate is no longer acceptable in academia. Unless you conform to far left views your chances of being published or even allowed to enter into debate are marginal. Look at recent confrontations at Berkeley or Middlebury.

Also not so sure about scientific method anymore...if you want the big research grants you have to conform....

Martin you said, "This new suspicion of scientists and journalists is clearly worrisome for democracy. Since those who try to introduce facts into this debate are now labeled as biased against Trump, the debate is unwinnable."

Hmm suspicion of journalists...3 CNN editors forced to resign this week because they peddled purposely bogus stories about Trump and Russia. Oops!

Also CNN Supervising Producer John Bonifield caught on tape saying network hyping mostly "bullshit" Trump-Russia scandal to boost ratings.

Skepticism is at the heart of a healthy democracy, and the key to being a good builder too!

Jun 28, 2017 4:13 AM ET

Response to Kye Ford
by Martin Holladay

I applaud healthy skepticism when examining the statements of journalists. But I don't advise anyone to turn to Breitbart News as a source of knowledge. Brietbart News has proudly announced its alliance with the Alt Right, a white supremacy movement. Nuff said.

Jun 28, 2017 2:48 PM ET

by Stoney DeVille

Skepticism is ALWAYS healthy, especially for things you THINK are settled.

Whether it be of scientists, journalists, politicians, or false prophets.
The academic scientific community, the news media, and many false prophets are well deserving of the scrutiny being placed on them from ALL directions. There is an overwhelming amount of false evidence being produced to back scientific papers just so the grant money from politically motivated sources will keep coming. CNN freely admits they manufacture alternative and false facts in order to keep what viewership they have left. Every politician lies. And there are plenty of misled souls following false gods of this world thinking they are headed to salvation.

Remember, just because 99.9999999 % of the world has consensus on something does not make it true.
The truth is or is not. We only may know a part of it and are continuously seeking it.

I subscribe to this site for your building science, not your political bias.
Please stay on task.


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