The irrationality of being rational.

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The Boyd Orr Blog is back! Hopefully with greater regularity than ever before.

Its now been over a year between posts, and it seemed like time to either put up (i.e. with my regular promises to self and other to restart the blog) or shut up – and those who were hoping for the latter, will be sorely disappointed! Many reasons for the hiatus, including the natural inertia that arises from not doing something regularly, through to the desire, as time between posts increases, to make the next one REALLY significant (a possible reason for some of the long-tailed distribution between correspondence times that has been observed in famous and ordinary people, through to realising that I was unsure about the direction that this blog should be taking – is it a personal view on science-related events, a blog meant to inform others, a blog to promote the Boyd Orr Centre, or … ? In the end I’ve decided that it perhaps doesn’t really matter too much, so long as there is some overall relevance to the scientific arena. After all, you as readers can quickly decide for yourselves if what is posted here is worth the time to read it. I would still encourage other Boyd Orr Centre members to contribute if you’ve the time – when I was blogging more regularly, there were a surprising number of views (though predictably, an awful lot of them seemed to be related to a post I did relating Star Wars Imperial Walkers to elephants).

And on to the post. Bovine TB has been in the news a lot over the last year, most recently because of a recent government strategy announcement. Badger culls have not only been continued, but rules for what is viewed as acceptable have also been relaxed. This has been supported by a seemingly innocuous statement that it is supported by the scientific evidence. Leaving aside any comment on the scientific debate itself, it is somewhat disturbing that such a blanket statement is made. Which scientists? And of course, such statements, in the face of the ongoing often vociferous debates going on in both the scientific community and in public, are a misrepresentation of the ongoing debate, refinement and synthesis that should be a defining process of science, and the scientific community itself.

Related to this, my group recently published a paper that looked at how evidence of disturbance of badger setts (from a cross-Northern Ireland survey) was related to incidence of farm breakdowns due to bovine TB. We found that (while somewhat less important than cattle herd related risk factors), a combination of sett disturbance and high badger sett density was a significant and important risk factor. In my view an interesting and useful finding, and one that broadly speaking is in line with studies in England showing that, while badger-related risk factors were important for starting outbreaks, cattle-related factors were primary factors in continuing them. It was also the subject of a rather intense peer review, which our lead author, David Wright, handled with impressive thoroughness (as he did with the entire paper – well done David). The paper received some media attention (including some good radio coverage on the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 and on BBC Scotland) and there was also a fair bit of controversy over the use of the term ‘persecution’ to describe the unauthorised and illegal activities referred to in the paper. While in no way abrogating my responsibility as senior author for the content of the paper, I must admit that I was initially uncomfortable with this usage, however one of our co-authors insisted that this was, in fact, the standard term used for such activities, and it was on this basis that I was convinced. And indeed, it would in some ways seem to be a reasonable way to describe an activity that is both illegal and for which there is no evidence that it is even creating a positive outcome. And yet even while agreeing, I was well aware how emotive such a term really is (and perhaps, at least subconsciously, seeking out controversy). Insistence on being ‘right’ even when you are aware that it is likely to provoke a response that ends up obscuring the larger, more important debate (I don’t suppose you are reading, Richard Dawkins?) would appear to be a form of irrationality that is not exactly peculiar to scientists, but one which I suspect scientists are unusually susceptible to. Including, apparently, me.

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14 comments

  1. Your penultimate sentence will provide much food for thought to many people. We can all think of multiple occasions when this has been the case in both our personnal and scientific lives. While I can understand that when this happens to us as people, there may be circumstances under which the bigger issue should prevail over the satisfaction of being acknowledged as right; as scientists we have a duty to fulfill to the society at large. Our primary duty is not fulfilled by merely doing research, but also to accept responsibility for what we do in our professional capacity by communicating our findings in a transparent and truthful way. So well done David for getting those findings out and to all of the authors for standing by your position.

    1. Thanks Flavie, and glad you agree that it is an important issue (especially considering your own experience in working with similar data on this system). Truthfulness is a much a matter of putting your point in a way that makes sense to your audience (and provokes thoughtfulness, not just reaction), as it does in having the right information content.

  2. At first sight this blog post seems to be about bovine tuberculosis. However, reading more carefully, it becomes clear the main topic is the dilemma between telling the blunt truth and coating the truth pill to be swallowed more easily by the people whose attitudes are challenged by it.
    The imperative of a scientist is to tell the truth based on the evidence, qualified by the confidence in that truth. For a politician/diplomat, the imperative is to achieve some goal to which a certain truth might be conductive or not, to have an impact on the world, and to influence people. The dilemma, in my view, comes from trying to assume the mantle of a scientist and a diplomat at the same time, which, I think, is perfectly legitimate.
    But, there is another factor worth taking into account. It is clearer what the truth is, even if not in the absolute sense, but, that we have this much confidence in a certain of conclusion. One knows what one thinks even if it later turns out to be mistaken. On the other hand, it is much more difficult to anticipate what actions and what words will lead to a desired outcome (there are many actors and the dynamics of public opinion are strongly non-linear). So, truth is the congruent option for a scientist, while not being clearly the worse option for a diplomat.
    Finally, what did you mean by the title? I do not think it is a matter of rationality. It is a matter of goals and strategies that might lead towards those goals. All can be rational. Unless you define “being rational” as telling the blunt truth and “being irrational” as “irrationality” equate with “achieving your goals while knowing what strategy will accomplish that”. Or I have misunderstood the title completely.

    1. My penultimale sentence is mangled and makes no sense. It just shows I really don’t understand the title. What do you refer to “irrationality” and “being rational” in the context of your article?

      1. (This is a reply to your comment from the 18th – I would guess that wordpress is not allowing replies beyond a certain depth). Daniel, your points of clarification are very useful but I think the issue of communication is one that you are viewing too narrowly (which is entirely my fault – in context it sounds like public communication and engagement, and while this is part of it, it is only part). Science for the sake of discovery is clearly necessary (so that communication is communication of the new) but I would, and perhaps you are not arguing with this broader point at all, science isn’t Science, without dissemination of those discoveries; the extent of that dissemination depends of course – it could be just a very small number of peers or in extremis, possibly even just one, but while I think that type of limited audience science is worthwhile and should be done there is an important question of how much? The funders and the public would rightly question what is the point of it all, if it isn’t more broadly shared and useful. So in that sense, yes, I do believe that communication is central to the scientific effort. And I entirely agree that the most rationale means of getting people to understand clearly the science will depend on the circumstance and audience – that is, after all, the point of the blog!

    2. Daniel, first of all thank you for taking the time to read this so carefully. In my view (and keeping in mind of course, that it is just my view), when you say that science should be the unvarnished truth, you are correct – at least in the scientific world. The language of science is one that should aim to be as precise as possible, and this is the sense in which I would have argued in favour of the use of the term “persecution”. If you accept that ‘unlawful harm perpretrated on an individual or group of individuals, with insufficient evidence of cause’ is persecution, then in that sense, the use of the term ‘persection’ is entirely justified and consistent with its use of the term in other contexts. And yet I would also argue that this pedantic insistence on the technical correctness of a point is insufficient, if the ultimate aim of science is to promote understanding, and that correctness gets in the way of understanding. How does it promote understanding of the scientific evidence, if the use of the words and terminology leads the audience to stop listening? How am I helping others to judge the scientific evidence for themselves, if the first words I use provokes them into an emotive response, or worse, into believing that my own opinions are tainted and unbalanced by a predisposed point of view? The world of vernacular language is one of imprecision and also nuance. Manipulating that nuance can be a tool to promote critical thinking – however in emotive, polarised debates, this is unlikely to be the case. That applies whether its the debate between ‘fundamentalist atheism’ and fundamentalist religion, or between the extremes of the badger culling debate. And that is what I mean by the irrationality of being rationale – the apparently rationality of insisting on the correctness of pedantic definitions can be entirely irrational in the larger sense, if it gets in the way of that understanding.

      1. Thanks for your reply and the explanation of what you meant by rational/irrational in this context. I also appreciate that in this explanation you qualified the “rationality” as “apparent”. I feel less resistance to “The irrationality of being apparently rational” than to the original title. I see what you meant, though, I would label neither insisting on agreed terminology nor adapting one’s language to the intended audience as “irrational”. To me both are rational and justifiable, under different assumptions and goals. But that’s a minor point.
        I think, that the slight difference in our point of view stems from the fact that I disagree with that “the ultimate aim of science is to promote understanding”. In my view, the aim of science is to obtain understanding, not necessarily promote it. Though, it may be the aim of some scientists. Distinguishing between science as a concept and action of scientists may be word play to some, but, to me, precise language (when thinking about problems, not necessarily when communicating them) helps clarify the positions and actions one might wish to take under different circumstances. However, having defended using clear and agreed upon language (i.e. words as they are defined), I agree that if someone’s goal is to promote understanding of facts, or, perhaps, achieve a certain outcome, influence someone else’s actions, then it absolutely makes sense to think about the language used, and, being inflexible in communication will be counter-productive and, to use your terms, irrational.
        In conclusion, what style of communication is (ir)rational, in my view, depends on the goals of the communicator. You appear to automatically assume (and maybe you don’t, it just seems to me that way from the text and, especially, the title of your post) the goal to be promoting understanding, solutions, actions, etc., with the emphasis on promoting, while, for me, all that is a possibility, but not a necessity of communication.

  3. An interesting dialogue and very good to see the intelligence here, but this is one reason I retreated from formal science. I feel you are playing with words as well as getting your very valid points across. While this interesting “debate” goes on, the blunt fact is that badgers – a supposedly protected and much cherished (however unscientific that is!) species – are being killed brutally in hundreds and thousands.

    Science deals all the time with Unknowns, it’s why we have probability and significance tests but we need to be pretty sure of the variables we are dealing with. Let’s accept that this debate is as grey and as black-and-white as is its main subject.

    In any civilised human court of law, we are supposed to pronounce a verdict of guilty, followed with some probably arbitrary sentence, only if the defendant is found to be guilty beyond all reasonable doubt. This is explicitly not the case here and therefore the ‘persecution’ of badgers should cease forthwith until such evidence is found. Such evidence hinges on whether we are seeing one-way or two-way transmission.

    If badgers are simply picking up contamination from pasture and revealing that in their systems, we might very well be killing the canary that is warning the miner of an impending disaster.

    1. Thank you very much for your considered comment. It is certainly food for thought but I would for my part say that the (somewhat academic) elements of science exist for a reason – there is a standard to be maintained, which is the evaluation of the scientific evidence in a dispassionate manner, and outside the realm of mathematical proof, in principle science always accepts the shades of grey but also requires that we sign up to a standard of evidence-based judgement. As fallible scientists we do not always attain that standard, but at least this standard exists. And of course, this does not mean that we do not have responsibilities as individuals and citizens, that lie beyond our scientific ones.

      1. Fair enough, I don’t think I was disagreeing with that. I think I was suggesting that while we discuss such niceties, wild creatures who have no voice and are supposedly protected by law are being slaughtered on politicised and mangled science and that this simply is wrong. I wonder if you have a view on the biological and legal aspects of my response.

      2. Thanks again – I think my view on the science is in the main post (the evidence is equivocal) and I’m not in a position to really comment professionally on the legal aspects, except to say that the legal issues, if based on the science, are equivalently equivocal (while noting that legal and scientific proof are not the same thing, I suspect).

  4. Thanks again Daniel, and very relevant – in some ways a differing view, but ultimately a very similar point that the goal of better understanding implies the need for appropriate approaches to communication.

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