Of lawyers and scientists
MIT must balance its science and advocacy more carefully
There are two methods by which mankind searches for the truth.
The first, which is dominant at this Institute, is the scientific method. Researchers pose questions, hypothesize answers to those questions, gather empirical evidence on the validity (or invalidity) of a hypothesis, and then revise their hypotheses to achieve as great a consistency as possible with the collected evidence.
The second method, which is dominant outside the confines of a university or laboratory, is the adversarial method. A pair of advocates stands before an audience and pleads the merits of two contradictory possibilities. The case that the audience finds the most compelling is taken as fact, and its rival is discarded.
It is tempting, as scientists, to dismiss the second method entirely. “Leave the debates to lawyers and politicians,” one might say, “and let MIT concern itself only with the science.”
The problem with an MIT that absolves itself of any advocative role is that human beings do not naturally reason with the scientific method. Almost everywhere in our lives we apply the adversarial method, picking and choosing between explanations purely based on their immediate plausibility. If MIT does not speak with a clear voice on scientific facts, it risks not being heard at all.
Much as it is with news organizations, a great deal of the value added by a scientific institution is not in its generation of information, but in the interpretation of that information for lay audiences and policy makers. It’s not enough to analyze core samples from the arctic ice shelf — what do those samples suggest for the intensity of global warming? Somewhere along the line, the results of the scientific method need to venture out into the adversarial arena and take a stand; someone needs to fight for science’s agenda.
For some extreme cases, there is little conflict between advancing a conclusion to the general public and performing unbiased research. Case in point: from July 20 to July 22, the MIT Media Lab is hosting a convention on Facilitated Communication (FC). FC is the idea that severely autistic people are capable of communicating with the outside world, and need only a facilitator to support their hands while they type at a keyboard. The concept has been long-discredited, with numerous studies showing that any positive results have been the result of either outright fraud or unconscious direction by the facilitators. FC is the equivalent of believing that Ouija boards allow us to communicate with ghosts.
Proponents of FC hope to use MIT’s good reputation to lend credit to their pseudoscience, and MIT shouldn’t let them. From the naive perspective of the scientific method, it shouldn’t matter whether or not FC proponents have a conference — if there is no scientific validity to the idea of FC, then it doesn’t matter how many conferences are held; the hypothesis will still be discarded. But realistically, giving FC practitioners a forum with which to spread their malarkey comes at a great cost. By failing to clearly denounce pseudoscience, MIT is inviting millions of dollars to be wasted in needless research and treatment attempts, and it is harming autistic patients, who could otherwise receive useful treatment.
Of course, an MIT that embraces advocacy is not without its headaches. After throwing out the homeopaths and astrologists, what is MIT to do in the gray areas? How is MIT to come down on a professor such as Richard Lindzen, an excellent and thorough scientist, but whose research succors those who believe climate change to be a wholesale fabrication by a shadowy conspiracy of academics? Overly zealous advocacy invites the same tragedy that befell the University of East Anglia, which, while not committing fraud, lost its reputation as an honest broker of scientific information, when computer servers containing thousands of research documents and emails were released in 2009. Worse, advocacy can mean advocacy of the wrong conclusion — if MIT draws a conclusion too early, it could stifle dissent and undermine the quality of its research.
Striking a balance between the focused message needed by the adversarial method and the open mind that is needed by the scientific method is a difficult and nuanced task. But as the upcoming facilitated communication convention demonstrates, MIT can do better. The decentralized, ad hoc way in which MIT crafts its message to the public has watered down the Institute’s influence and prevented it from coherently advocating in the policy arena. At a minimum, we should not be allowing pseudoscientists to use the Institute as a backdrop for their propaganda.