Can Science really part the clouds?

This post is a response to a productive discussion on the blog Evidenceintopractice (EiP) in the last couple of days. The original can be found here.

Climate Change is a really important topic – and a really complicated one. Science is trying to identify what is really happening in the atmosphere – but that is not enough to prevent sceptics such as the former Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson vociferously expressing their reservations. Provocatively writing on the leader page of today’s Independent on Sunday under the caption Don’t let balance get in the way of the Truth, Katy Guest complains that Lawson is being given too much airtime, saying that if 99% of scientists agree on something, the reason is probably that they are right. Lawson, on the other hand, typically counters that “99% of scientists” normally means 99% of climate change scientists – who might be considered to have a vested interest – and that wider science is by no means so unanimous. Who is right? It is almost impossible, especially as a lay-person, to know. Taken in terms of their own logic, both sides might be seen to have a plausible case, and as for what the Truth is, as I said, who knows?

Seen in scientific terms, the issue ought to be clear-cut. Either climate change is happening or it isn’t – there is no other option. If it is happening, then either it is being exacerbated by humans or it isn’t. But that is where things start to get complicated. In utterly rational terms, one might argue that it really doesn’t matter. Climate is continually changing as a result of natural variation; even rapid change can occur due to the effects of volcanic activity and other epochal mega-events. It only matters to us because of its implications for human existence – and at that point, we cross a Rubicon from the realm of scientific objectivity to that of subjective interpretation.

At that point, the clear waters of  our best research efforts into climate science are instantly muddied by matters of opinion, vested interest and individual philosophy. Since we are human, it cannot be otherwise. Quite apart from the desirability of continued human existence itself being a subjective matter (try asking, if you could, all those species whose extinction we have caused what they thought about it), there is nothing more than a probability-judgment that humans are causing the change. If nothing  else, the ‘yes’ camp is balanced by those who argue that it is a sign of hubris to think that humans are significant enough to cause climate change – and it is indeed curious that the issue emerged pretty much at the time when the previous bogeyman – the Cold War – ended. The theory that mankind ‘needs’ something to worry about is not, in my view particularly far-fetched.

It is also very likely that those on both sides of the argument have significant vested interests to protect that colour their conclusions. The scandal caused by leaked emails from the Climate Change Unit at the University of East Anglia some years ago suggests that scientists are not immune. So much for objectivity. God has yet to descend from on high and give us a Great Big Tick and say, “Yep, humanity, you screwed up!” And in this instance, self-assessment is frankly proving useless and peer-assessment not a lot better.

But whatever you conclude, the practical truth is that it still remains impossible to determine whether any one unusual ‘weather event’ is a product of climate change or not. Even given of the data and computing power we have, the planetary climate  is just too complicated a system (and its timescale too huge) for us to be able to say with the necessary resolution what caused what. Even when local events do seem to echo larger patterns, causality is by no means clear.

So even if we eventually confirm beyond a shadow of doubt what much science seems to be telling us, there will, I suggest, still be very little chance that we will understand precisely why any single event happened. At best, Science will give us a general framework but no more. It may be able to tell us what we could do at a macro-scale to tackle the problem, but it is very unlikely to be able to tell us what to do to manage any specific matter. In that sense, our understanding of the climate is still rudimentary – and is likely to remain so, simply because the climate is such a complex system that accurately predicting its behaviours down to a local scale is too immense a task – especially when one remembers just how many localities there are to be dealt with. In other words, we are dealing with a system whose causal density is so high as to make predicting it at a useful resolution effectively impossible.

I have used this analogy because EiP cited it as an example of how Science can tell us useful things about complicated issues. (S)he is probably right – so long as one retains a suitable level of resolution, but it is of only limited use at the scale at which we really need to intervene. I hope the parallel with education is clear.

EiP also argues that scientific evidence is not an event but an accumulation of probability. This seems very reasonable, as does the claim that the give-away for pseudo-science is its often-exaggerated claims. In this sense, we might be able to use research evidence in education to insulate ourselves against all of the cargo-cult stuff to which we are regularly subjected.  Well, it’s a nice idea, and it would indeed be great if it worked. But if science struggles to prove anything at a really useful scale, then it is always going to struggle to disprove it too. That’s not to say that we might not dismiss things where the evidence well and truly stacks up to the contrary – but as in Lawson’s case, that is not going to stop people arguing the opposite, sometimes with some force. And as Einstein (I think) in effect said, it only takes one experiment to disprove a Law.

Thinking is really difficult. Somewhere out there, we know there is (probably) an objective Truth – but finding it is another matter. Just recently, I was involved in something of a disagreement over – shall we say – the future direction of a creative venture. I had a position that in all honesty was in significant part a matter of personal preference, albeit derived from knowledge and reasoning. That said, as a critical thinker, I always attempt to set  mere bias aside and arrive at a more tenable view by means of reasoning and scrutiny of evidence. So my actual view ended up as a cocktail of instinct and reason that was nonetheless inadequate to win the argument, for all that my position was well-supported. My opponent was (I assume) doing something similar, but coming to very different conclusions about the same situation. That said, when I proposed a compromise based on balanced scrutiny of the hard evidence, very little was forthcoming from the other side, and certainly nothing that persuaded me to change my stance. Regrettably, the issue was not resolved by reason but by gut feeling – and this was all amongst educated, thinking people.

I mention this because I think it is very important in relation to what education is ‘for’. EiP seems relatively content to accept that in the current climate, the maximisation of exam results is an acceptable benchmark against which to measure what works. I disagree – and I believe I am living evidence that the relationship between exam results, the acquisition of a well-functioning intellect and living a fulfilled life is not strong. You can read that whatever way you choose!

I also suspect that science is unlikely ever to give us sufficient insight into the human brain ever to be able to explain the specific processes going on in any one of the seven billion-odd brains on this planet, each of which consists of countless billions of neurones, let alone the connective permutations possible between them. In fact, it didn’t even prove more than very generally helpful in the very specific, localised dispute I outlined above. In that sense, I think this is an even bigger problem than climate change.

So far as I can tell, EiP maintains a high level of intellectual rigour and the blog contains much of interest and use – and there is evidence from other plaudits to suggest that I am not alone in thinking that. But that is not to say that his/her assumptions are always correct. So to summarise my reservations:

1. To deploy science/research/evidence in education with any rigour requires a top-down macro-approach, normally of some size. This means that the results will similarly be based on generalised findings rather than specific circumstances.

2. (As I repeatedly say) educational impact is only meaningful at the individual level. When we are trying to learn something, if we fail, knowing that 95% of others succeeded is of little help.

3. As with climatic events, the confidence levels that science can achieve are nowhere near sufficient to provide us with any useful insight for specific circumstances. At best they can give us a general overview of what tends to be the case – so a general framework in which to operate, useful but not sufficient.

4. What tends to be the case generally and what obtains in any specific circumstance can be wildly different, so generalisations are easily rendered redundant.

5. Since we do not have perfect knowledge, and cannot therefore anticipate the future, we can never be certain in advance whether we are encountering a typical or atypical circumstance. Therefore, despite the science, we are effectively reduced once again to trial and error – hopefully using techniques that may be generally known to help (not ‘work’). To quote Einstein again, when asked about his working methods, he is reputed to have replied, “I grope”.

6. It is not in any case possible to determine ‘what works’ unless you can both agree on criteria and then measure them. As many are now saying, the best we have for learning is proxy measures – and as my creative disagreement above shows, there is no guarantee they will be of much use when applied to the intractable situations of real life with which education is presumably ultimately meant to assist. People just aren’t like that.

7. Even if we could arrive at a situation where we knew with 100% certainty ‘what works’ in education, what are the moral implications of this? Do we really want to create a situation where we are effectively the instruments of mind-control, in which the individual recipient has no sovereignty?  Do we really wish to take on the moral responsibilities that this would confer? This might prove comforting for head teachers facing Ofsted inspectors or teachers being observed – but if it were to come to pass, I would not be able to sleep at night. I would have thought History gives us enough warnings to realise that attempting scientific control of the people’s thought-processes is not a Good Thing.

Maybe, as EiP suggests,  I am being too pessimistic about the potential of science – it has certainly moved us far over the past few thousand years – though not largely in the behavioural domain. I am not against Science trying to show us things that might help us to teach and learn better – but the search for either perfect learning or a vaccine against educational doggerel is, I fear going to prove to be in vain. The task is simply to big for us, at least any time soon – and in any case, it will remain overwhelmingly subjective. Wishing for something is  no guarantee it can be done – and I am hardly the first to counsel “Be careful what you wish for”.

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