No Time For Certainty

Alan J. Scott

It has been said that a person with one wristwatch always knows what time it is. A person with two is never quite certain. The person with two watches is tormented if each displays a different time. A passerby asking for the time of day will induce a semi-painful mental dissonance.

Most science and public policy issues resemble the two-watch scenario. More generally, we inhabit a world with uncertainty, inaccuracy, and imprecision. This inexactness stretches into all realms of our existence—science, politics, public policy, religion, social interactions, news media, environment, economy, and so on. Yet, many are beckoned and drawn toward the over-simplicity and overconfidence found in consciously choosing to wear one watch. Bertrand Russell hits the bull’s-eye saying, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves and wiser people so full of doubts” (Russell n.d.).

In this world, it is possible for both watches, when wearing two, to be inaccurate—and in some cases purposely distorted. Consider the scandal engulfing Volkswagen. The company introduced software into eleven million vehicles that was designed to cheat emissions tests (Davenport 2016), and a team of engineers and researchers from West Virginia University discovered the deception (Ross 2016).

This team refused to wear just one watch. They could have simply accepted the measurements made by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on tailpipe emissions, but they instead decided to perform independent measurements both in the lab and on the road. Reproducibility is a hallmark of science, which means other watches should show roughly the same time but didn’t in this case.

It was reported (Open Science Collaboration 2015) in August of 2015 that a group of 270 researchers, known as the “Open Science Collaboration,” tried to replicate 100 social and cognitive studies published in top, peer-reviewed psychology journals. Only about one-third to one-half of the original findings was observed in the replicated studies. Metaphorically, more than half of the watches—in this large collection—have never really functioned properly.

In 2013, a scientific study (Hart et al. 2013) was conducted that provided “…the first clear and simply measurable evidence for the influence of geomagnetic field variations on mammal behavior.” They found that dogs preferentially align with the Earth’s magnetic field when defecating.

It can be argued that such conclusions are synonymous with wearing only one watch. There could be a host of confounding variables along with inaccurate measurements leading to an incorrect interpretation of the statistics or significance (SkeptVet 2014). Nevertheless, it is enchanting to know that some creatures can sense and utilize the Earth’s magnetic field.

Even scientists are tempted to wear just one watch—sometimes for nefarious reasons. The journal Nature reported (Callaway 2015) in August of 2015 that a leading scientific publisher suddenly retracted sixty-four articles in ten journals because of author improprieties in gaming the peer-review system. About 365 scientific papers get retracted every year, and about two percent of scientists admit to monkeying with their data in improper ways (Marcus and Oransky 2015). Nonetheless, this finding should be kept in perspective, since millions of articles are published every year.

In the world of politics, leaders aren’t wearing enough watches. They are selling simple solutions to complex problems with a lot of uncertainties and, all too often, making factually incorrect statements. A visit to Politifact.com and FactCheck.org will sour most pride and optimism toward our leaders.

Scientists may be at fault, at least partially, for a large portion of the U.S. population having distrust of government and casually dismissing scientific claims and concerns – particularly involving climate change. It is possible that this stems from the perception that science and technology are, in some way, contributing to their economic anxieties.

This population often views scientific voices urging action on environmental concerns as costing jobs. And some have argued that mechanization has placed a net downward pressure on average wages (Brynjolfsson and Mcafee 2011). Technology, combined with reduced labor costs for equally skilled workers, are also driving jobs out of the country.

To elaborate upon the economic connection, consider the work done by economic researchers Josh Bivens and Lawrence Mishel from the Economic Policy Institute (Bivens and Mishel 2015). They examined economic productivity with worker compensation from 1948 to the present.

Productivity, driven in large part by scientific and technological advances, steadily rose about 3.6 percent per year. From 1948 to 1973, average worker salaries also rose by about the same percent (adjusted for inflation). Around 1973, average worker salaries decoupled from the rising productivity. They remained stagnant or flat. All the gains in productivity went to an explosion in CEO salaries and corporate stock profits, which amplifies inequality.

Physicist Michael Lubell makes the argument that scientists bear some responsibility for today’s political discontent. He states “The danger for the science community is that disillusioned voters could begin to direct their ire at the progenitors of the technological changes they see as harming them” (Lubell 2015).

New York Times columnist David Brooks reinforces these anxieties of impotence by saying, “The fact is, for all the problems we may have with Wall Street or Washington, our biggest problems are systemic—the disruptions caused by technological progress and globalization, mass migration….There’s no all-controlling Wizard of Oz to slay” (Brooks 2016). This may explain much of the disfigurement of political discourse and polarization.

Yet one should be guarded against oversimplifications in this one-watch worldview of a rational voter. Neuroscience and psychology (Cooper 2015; Laber-Warren 2012) point to emotions as the source of many voting decisions, with logic and reason being twisted into a dissonance-reducing, predilection-based afterthought reinforced and echoed by social media self-organization and preferred news outlets. In this sense, misdirected teleological intuitions about the source of our emotions could be fueling voter behavior.

Pharmaceutical corporations often wear one watch that is purposely distorted to misinform consumers and optimize profits. Just in the past seven years, over $13 billion in fines have been levied by the U.S. Department of Justice against eleven of the biggest pharmaceutical companies (Groeger 2014). These companies have knowingly engaged in deception and fraud.

Philosophically speaking, we should embrace the idea of wearing more than one watch. Skepticism and doubt can serve us well in trying to make sense of the world. Some organizations have codified wearing two watches by forming what are called red teams. These are teams of people tasked with playing devil’s advocate. The U.S. Army uses red teams to penetrate defenses and find weaknesses in ground combat and cybersecurity (Satyanarayana 2015). Google and Microsoft utilize such teams to find and fix vulnerabilities (Claburn 2012; Field 2014).

When it comes to religion, people should also initiate red teams to play devil’s advocate in rooting out superstition and dogma. Thomas Jefferson urged his nephew Peter Carr in 1787 to “Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear” (Jefferson 1787).

Improprieties—wearing purposely distorted watches—lurk everywhere. Intelligence information on U.S. progress in its fight against ISIL, or Daesh, were likely cooked (Apuzzo et al. 2015) harking back to Westmoreland’s Vietnam assessments.

In 2016, Goldman Sachs agreed to a $5 billion settlement for deceptions associated with securities. A host of different banking and investment entities have been fined $40 billion by federal prosecutors and regulators for deceptions in recent years (Goldstein 2016). Wearing purposely distorted watches is an industry.

The book Merchants of Doubt (Oreskes and Conway 2011; Scott 2015) summarizes such exploits where corporations use shady experts-for-hire to foment and interject scientific doubt where there is no doubt—or very little. Improprieties and flimflam dot the cultural landscape. We’ve got corruption in soccer organizations (Reuters 2016), state-sponsored doping of Olympic athletes in Russia (Futterman et al. 2015), and professional tennis matches being fixed (Cox 2016).

Socially, a “hands-up, don’t shoot” mantra blossomed—spurred by a narrative of police abuse in the case regarding Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri—that was contrary to the physical evidence, though this is not to argue police abuse isn’t a problem (Department of Justice 2015). There is dark money flooding into politics since the Citizens United Supreme Court decision (Childress 2015). The U.S. government has regulations to register cars and drones but not guns. And so it goes.

Globally, corruption is a serious problem. Petter Matthews, executive director of the NGO (non-governmental organization) Engineers Against Poverty, states that between 10 and 30 percent of worldwide construction project costs get funneled-off into corruption such as bribery. About $17.5 trillion is expected to be lost to corruption by the year 2030 (Matthews 2016).

One report (Kottasova 2014) indicates that the most corrupt industries, from most to lesser, are: (1) extraction of natural resources (such as oil and mining), (2) construction, and (3) transportation. Transparency in checking and recalibrating the timepieces of others is all about integrity, justice, fairness, and democracy.

In the past three years, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed 220 actions against consumer fraud, resulting in $1.7 billion in penalties and consumer redress (Rich 2015). One can say the FTC helps keep corporate wristwatches properly calibrated when companies push them out of calibration. Recently, the FTC forced Lumosity—a “brain-training” software company—into a $2 million settlement (Federal Trade Commission 2016) for unfounded and unwarranted advertising claims that its product reduces cognitive impairment associated with various health conditions, including Alzheimer’s and dementia. The company falsely claimed that scientific studies proved the benefits.

This push to wear more than one watch is not about time but instead about the propensity for self-delusion. It is about the need for continuous reflection done with intellectual honesty and humility that seeks multiple, reproducible, and calibrated measurements. Only then will information graduate into facts onto which public policies can be built with informed reasoning as demanded by an enlightened citizenry. Science teaches us to detest the uncompromising, self-aggrandizing simpleton orthodoxy of always knowing the exact time by wantonly wearing only one watch.


References

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Alan J. Scott

Alan Scott is a professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie, Wisconsin, 54751. He is the author of the book Addicted to Placebos: Understanding Science and Society (Lulu, Inc. publisher). He received his PhD in 1995 from Kent State University in experimental nuclear physics.


It has been said that a person with one wristwatch always knows what time it is. A person with two is never quite certain. The person with two watches is tormented if each displays a different time. A passerby asking for the time of day will induce a semi-painful mental dissonance. Most science and public …

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