Monday, 21 January 2013

Catastrophe science

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The Tribune’s audience has always liked getting their science nerd on. This article, by the delightful David Mallard, garnered a huge response when it was first published in February, 2011.

We’ve seen our fair share of human tragedy in recent times. There was the mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona that left 6 people dead and 14 injured. Closer to home, there has been major flooding in many states, with fatalities and enormous damage in parts of Queensland and Victoria. When events like this happen, there is plenty of analysis and commentary from all angles. Both tragedies have given us stories of heartbreak and heroism, of loss and endurance. But both have also given us something all too familiar — disputes about the cause of the tragedy tend to flare up into battles over who or what is to blame. Those who rushed to point fingers have faced criticism for apportioning blame, while the aftermath is still being felt. At the risk of opening myself up to that criticism, I want to highlight another problem — the lack of solid evidence to back up much of this finger-pointing.

With the Arizona shooting, the blame game quickly became partisan. Some liberal commentators promptly blamed conservative leaders, especially Sarah Palin, for inciting precisely this sort of violence with their rhetoric. They managed to do so before information about Jared Loughner made apparent the degree of paranoia and incoherence in his political views and their inconsistency with any mainstream political movement, including the Tea Party. For their part, conservative leaders were quick to characterise the shooting as the act of a lone, disturbed individual — while dismissing any notion that their political communication had any link to acts of violence.

Here in Australia, the floods have seen an outpouring of support for the victims but the blame game has simmered away as well. Some of this has been about policy and preparation but there has also been the contentious question that follows every major weather event these days: is it global warming? Some pundits and politicians were quick to point to these floods as the latest clear symptom of climate change. Others were just as quick to point to it as the latest sign that climate change is a crock. After all, weren’t lengthy droughts and bushfires evidence of climate change too?

People have lined up on both sides with bold claims about the cause of these events. Is one side right? If so, why can’t we easily dismiss the opposing argument? Although these are entirely different areas — one deals with human behaviour, the other atmospheric activity — I propose there’s a common answer to these questions and it has a lot to do with the limits of science.

Here’s how science works. Whether we’re talking about psychology or climate science, science looks to establish general rules that explain the phenomena we observe in the world. Research is how we look for these patterns — through observation and experimentation. As our research base develops, we end up with theories that explain the evidence.

So when catastrophe strikes, we should be able to use those theories to develop a clear explanation, right? And then we can all come together and blame the responsible person / group / natural phenomenon, right? Unfortunately, science doesn’t work that way. A theory gives us neat, general rules about how a limited number of things fit together. But when you’re dealing with a complex system — say, the human mind or the earth’s atmosphere — plenty of other things that aren’t part of that theory come into the mix. What’s more, theories are developed to account for the general pattern of events. 

Catastrophes are, by definition, exceptional. They don’t fit the general pattern and so it can be tough for the theory to fit them.

The whole point here is that science is great at explaining and predicting what happens in general; it’s much less straightforward to apply to the specific and the extraordinary. 

If you want to dress that up in fancier terms, then take these, courtesy of German philosopher Wilhelm Windelband. Science takes a nomothetic approach to knowledge, while explaining a catastrophic event is an idiographic challenge.

Clinicians confront this divide in their professional work. We might have solid theories about the causes, symptoms and treatment of physical and mental illnesses but how does that translate into the diagnosis, prognosis and treatment approach for the patient sitting in front of us? This is a process of judgment that requires professionally-informed speculation — and may require rethinking as more evidence about the individual case comes to light.

The same is true in other areas. Take an example from forensic psychology — there is great interest in predicting how likely it is that a criminal will reoffend, so that we can make decisions about rehabilitation programs, parole, etc. Decades of research has given us a reasonable understanding of factors that tend to be associated with reoffending. But how well can we use that understanding to make predictions about an individual case? In a paper published in the British Journal of Psychology in 2007, Canadian psychologist Stephen Hart and his colleagues argued that the margins of error for individual predictions are so great that individual risk assessment tools “should be used with great caution or not at all.” 

Other experts disagree with this view and it’s certainly arguable that an evidence-based prediction is better than the alternatives but this argument highlights that even when we know a lot about general principles, there are limits on how much we can say about specific cases.

Where does that leave us? What explanations can we offer when bad things happen? We should think about patterns and trends. For instance: Did conservative rhetoric cause the killings in Tucson? Probably not — Loughner appears to have been motivated by other factors. But a Department of Homeland Security report in 2009 warned about a rise in right-wing radical extremism and in the past two years there has been a trend of threats, vilification and vandalism directed at Democratic Party politicians. 

There is research evidence that some people, such as those who are high in a personality trait called authoritarianism, might respond aggressively toward people who their authority figures identify as opponents or enemies. And in recent years, some conservative leaders have adopted language that implies violence while fostering the view that Barack Obama and the Democratic Party are not only wrong but illegitimate. It’s plausible that the pattern of rhetoric is associated with the trend toward aggression and the potential effect of inflammatory political language should be taken seriously.

Did climate change cause the catastrophic flooding? Probably not — as far as direct environmental causes go, much expert opinion seems to be that the current strong La Niña event is crucial. But there is a continuing, long-term trend of rising average temperatures. Many experts tell us that this is associated with human greenhouse emissions and that we can expect a hotter, higher-energy climate to produce more extreme weather events. It’s plausible that human-induced climate change is associated with more frequent and severe natural disasters.

Putting things that way might not seem definitive and precise, they don’t feel cathartic or politically advantageous but it has the advantage of being based on solid evidence. And if we are going to look for explanations, surely that’s the first goal we should strive to meet.

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David Mallard

David Mallard is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology at Charles Sturt University, Bathurst, with interests in psychology and law, political psychology and research methods.

Follow him on Twitter: @tobiasziegler