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How much oil is it? A challenge for science

Written by Sherwin, published on June 18, 2010

I am a huge fan of science. I even believe in objectivity. Not absolute objectivity, mind you. But I believe in kinds and degrees of objectivity – dimensions of objectivity, if you will. For example, if someone makes a claim to knowing something, and another person is able to reproduce this something in the lab or corroborate it somehow, that means that this claim is more objective than a claim that no one could corroborate. If the claim is predictive, well heck, that’s a really important sort of objectivity.

Another kind of objectivity is related to the knowledge garnering process. I am referring here to the process by which we get knowledge. It’s no surprise that people who are more, shall we say, invested in the conclusions of a discovery process, are more likely to skew the results of that process.

Another kind of objectivity is related to the integrity and particular disinterestedness of the person making claims. So if I’ve been asked to count the pencils in your office, the number I arrive at is probably not controversial… unless I sell pencils.

Okay, so this isn’t rocket science. Everyone gets this. Moms get this. Dads get this. Kids get this. Don’t ask sales people if they like the product. Don’t expect an objective analysis from GM about Toyota. We trust people in certain contexts, given their expertise and investments in those context.

Ah, there’s a sticky point.

The folks that have the expertise in some contexts are also often the people with the biggest investments. This is because science is expensive. Science is, more and more, the slave of industry. It can be hard to find experts at arms length from critical issues. It’s even harder when industry hacks, industry front groups, and industry lobbyists are challenging and marginalizing the views of other experts. The tobacco lobby and the global warming denial industry are both excellent examples of how powerful this can be.

Latest estimates from scientists studying the disaster for the US government suggest 160-380 million litres (42-100 million US gallons) of oil have already entered the Gulf. Most experts believe there is more oil gushing into the sea in an hour than officials originally said was spilling in an entire day. — guardian.co.uk, Helen Pidd and agencies, Friday 11 June 2010 10.07 BST

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