Science, nerds and reductionism



At some point 10-15 years ago, Romanians increasingly became aware of a problem: summer heatwaves were spiking, especially in big cities, and causing systematic health issues, while the national weather service kept reporting "normal temperatures for this time of the year". The reason soon turned up: they were still measuring like they had for a century and a half, with instruments tucked away in a wooden box, well-aerated, perched two meters above the ground, shadowed by trees in a park on the edge of town...

Needless to say, most people weren't there. They were walking downtown, on hot asphalt, among tall concrete buildings and intense car traffic. With their heads much closer to the ground, I might add.

That's the problem with trying to be "objective", you see.

"Anecdotes are not data," chant science nerds. Much like politicians talk about "the common good of the nation", or "the needs of the many", while somehow none of us ever seem to be included in the many that comprise the nation. Somehow, we're all perpetually making sacrifices in the name of an abstract state of wellness that applies to no-one in particular.

Except, of course, for the few con artists who've been selling us this snake oil. There, I said it.

The explanation for this apparent conundrum is of course that averages don't exist. Populations are made of individuals. And subjective experiences matter. Ever heard of anxiety attacks? They're a genuine medical condition that requires attention. Even though it's, wait for it, purely in your head!

Gee, ya think people are... dunno... real?!

Weather scientists have since learned to account for the experience of ordinary people going about their business in realistic conditions, unlike a walk in the garden of a rich landowner from the 19th century doing science as a hobby. While other experts still treat us like walking numbers, then shrug when decision-makers use that as an excuse for increasingly inhumane measures. "We're just the experts," they say. "We only advise."

Oh yeah? Who's been complaining for decades about not being listened to?

Scientists, take responsibility. And nerds, get a clue. Numbers without context have no meaning. Be careful what you measure, why and how.


Tags: science, education, politics