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Brian Cox and Robin Ince: Politicians must not elevate mere opinion over science

Climate science is just one area that has become controversial for primarily non-scientific reasons. Controversies like this risk undermining confidence in the very idea of science.

The story of the past hundred years is one of unparalleled human advances, medically, technologically and intellectually. The foundation for these changes is the scientific method. In every room in your house, there are innovations that in 1912 would have been considered on the cusp of magic. The problem with a hundred years of unabated progress, however, is that its continual nature has made us blasé. We expect immediate hot water, 200 channels of television 24 hours a day, and the ability to speak directly to anyone anywhere in the world any time via an orbiting network of spacecraft. Any less is tantamount to penury. Where once the arrival of a television in a street or the availability of international flight would have been greeted with excitement and awe, and the desire to understand how those innovations came into being, it is now expected that every three months you’ll be queuing outside the Apple store for a new wafer-thin slab of brushed metal, blithely unaware that watching a movie in the palm of your hand has been made possible only through improbable and hard-won leaps in the understanding of the quantum behaviour of electrons in silicon.

With each new generation, the memory of appallingly high child mortality rates, tuberculosis and vast slums grows fainter and fainter. As the past becomes hazy, we start to believe that there can be no other sort of world. We become nonchalant about vaccines, to the point of seeing them as a lifestyle choice akin to a decision to eat only organically farmed fruit, because we attend fewer and fewer funerals of those who died too young. The technology and advances in knowledge that cosset us have removed, to a large extent, the need to use our ingenuity and to think rationally. Believing complete drivel was once selected against; now it gets you an expert slot on daytime TV.

Against this rather depressing introductory backdrop, however, there are faint glimmers of hope, because science, rational think-ing and evidence-based policy-making are enjoying a revival. Part of the evidence for this statement can be found on the pages of a certain type of newspaper, where the idea that there may be an adjudicator above opinion is treated as an affront to the ideology of the columnist. The adjudicator in question is nature, the universe beyond the Notting Hill basement kitchen, and the wonderful thing about nature is that opinions can be tested against it. The key to science is in this simple statement from the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Richard Feynman, who once remarked: “It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is – if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong.”

The assertion is surely uncontroversial, but implementing it can be prohibitively difficult, primarily because it demands that everything be subordinate to evidence. Accepting this is fraught with cultural difficulty, because authority in general rests with grandees, gods, or more usually some inseparable combination of the two. Even in a secular democracy, a fundamental tenet of the system is that politicians are elected to reflect and act upon the opinions of the people, or are at least given temporary authority by the people to act upon their own. Science is a framework with only one absolute: all opinions, theories and “laws” are open to revision in the face of evidence. It should not be seen or presented, therefore, as a body of inviolate knowledge against which policy should be judged; the effect of this would be to replace one priesthood with another. Rather, science is a process, a series of structures that allow us, in as unbiased a way as possible, to test our assertions against Nature.

Let us take the politically controversial issue of climate change as an example. Climate scientists make measurements of observable properties of our planet, such as sea surface temperatures and the area of Arctic sea ice. Over many years, these measurements have formed a large data set. The only grounds for arguing with the data would be specific technical issues with the measurements themselves. One could assert that the satellites measuring sea temperatures were not calibrated correctly, or that there was a methodological error in the measurement of the area of the sea ice. Such criticisms are relatively rare. A more common criticism is of the interpretation of the data using computer models.

All models are, by nature, an approximation to reality. But they are the best we can do, given our current understanding and the power of our computers. The important words here are “the best we can do”. There is no other way of predicting the probability of weather in the future. The only legitimate criticisms would be of specific issues with specific models, or of specific inferences drawn from them. It would certainly be wrong to assert that the ensemble of climate models from various research groups around the world encompassed all possible uncertainties about the future, but it is not logical to attack climate science as a whole, because to do so is to attack scientific method.

The loud criticism of climate science is motivated in the main not by technical objections, but by the difficult political choices with which it confronts us. This is important, because there must be a place where science stops and politics begins, and this border is an extremely complex and uncomfortable one. Science can’t tell us what to do about our changing climate. It can only inform us that it is changing (this is a statement based on data) and tell us the most probable reasons for this given the current state of our understanding. For a given policy response, it can also tell us how likely that response is to be effective, to the best of our understanding. The choice of policy response itself is not a purely scientific question, however, because it necessarily has moral, geopolitical and economic components.

Climate science is one of a series of areas that, for primarily non-scientific reasons, has become controversial; and these controversies risk undermining confidence in the very idea of science. Others are the use of genetically modified crops, vaccination policy and even (God help us) the teaching of evolution in schools. These socio-political-religious controversies risk damaging public confidence in science, partly because of the tactics employed by their advocates, which, if unchecked, will have grave consequences because we live in a society dominated by science. People who rail against science risk becoming disenfranchised, because many of the most important decisions we face as a society have a scientific component. And the larger and more vocal the disenfranchised minority, the less likely we are to make decisions based on the best available evidence and understanding.

Science is the framework within which we reach conclusions about the natural world. These conclusions are always preliminary, always open to revision, but they are the best we can do. It is not logical to challenge the findings of science unless there are specific, evidence-based reasons for doing so. Elected politicians are free to disregard its findings and recommendations. Indeed, there may be good reasons for doing so. But they must understand in detail what they are disregarding, and be prepared to explain with precision why they chose to do so. It is not acceptable to see science as one among many acceptable “views”. Science is the only way we have of exploring nature, and nature exists outside of human structures.

We live in exciting times; our access to knowledge has never been greater, but this also means that humbug and charlatanism are able to creep into our lives with greater ease. We cannot afford to sit back and enjoy the achievements of previous generations, and decide that we are no longer obliged to continue the scientific exploration of nature. Fortunately for us, Michael Faraday was not dazzled by the convenience of gaslight. We must not use our comparative comfort and luxury to elevate opinion above science or, even worse, to argue that scientific progress is no longer desirable or necessary. It would be a gross mistake to assume, for the first time in human history, that there are no great discoveries left to make.

Robin Ince is a writer and comedian. Brian Cox is a broadcaster and professor of physics at the University of Manchester. You can buy their guest edited issue of the New Statesman in shops until Thursday 3 January, or purchase a print or digital version here

Brian Cox is a broadcaster and professor of physics at the University of Manchester. Robin Ince is a writer and comedian. Together, they guest-edited the Christmas 2012 issue of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Brian Cox and Robin Ince guest edit

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.