TL;DR -> The word “science” is being used in so many contexts as to be very bad for the application of real science. Scientists have themselves to blame for this. They need to create better standards of communication both internally and externally if they want their profession to retain the rightful luster it deserves.
I love science, when the word means the use of Bayesian models to come up with new and observable reproducible patterns of behavior. I am deeply intrigued by science, when the word means the groups of people and political processes used to do this model creation. And I hate science, when the word means something used as a club to beat up people you simply disagree with.
That’s the problem: the word “science” can be used in all of those contexts, and it’s never clear exactly which one a person is using. Sometimes it looks like it just means “anything a scientist is saying.”
Listening to some pedantic columnists (you know who you are), people out in the real world are a bunch of babbling idiots, swigging down cheap beer and going to tractor pulls while thinking that science is just a bunch of hogwash for nerds. Usually the explanation is that they got this way because of a poor public education system and a media that promotes conflict over truth.
It’s not unusual in school to hear this religion of science put another way, science is the beautiful application of reason and logic that slowly and inexorably moves from ignorance to truth.
First, there are things that are known and predictable out to 3 or 4 sigmas. I don’t think anybody believes these things are wishy-washy. But then there are scientists who are experts in one area who go off the deep end picking up little pieces of theory here and there and speculating ad naseum. I don’t think you need to be a kuckle-dragger to tell to see that there is a vast difference.
This kind of pseudo-scientific slime is everywhere. Pick up about any book in the “science” section and you’ll read some of the wildest speculation: what happened 50 thousand years ago to bring about domestication of animals, how the human sex drive evolved, where all the dark matter has gone to, or how it is that conservatives have different brains than liberals.
Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with such speculation. In fact, it’s required for science to progress. What I’m concerned about is that the average scientific layman reader — the person who assumes they are just as up-to-date on scientific matters as possible — has no freaking idea where the real science leaves off and where the bullshit begins. One minute the scientists is talking about Carbon-14 dating of stoneware. The next minute he’s talking about tool use in prehistoric societies. Then he mentions inbreeding with neanderthals. Each of these topics has a greatly different aspect of speculation versus reproducible science, but the reader is left to judge the entire essay by what, exactly? Popularity of the scientist? His or her own political opinions and how they agree with those of the scientist? The number of papers published? The name of the publication it appears in? Phase of the moon?
Whatever it is, it has nothing to do with the eventual veracity of the statements made. But I’m not sure Mr. Smarter-than-thou reading it has any clue about that. And it’s an ethical slip that scientists need to stop making.
Once again, don’t get me wrong: I love pseudo-science. Proudly sitting on my shelf is the latest edition of “Secrets of Antigravity Propulsion” I get it down when I need an interesting diversion and laugh. I’m not saying it’s false, and I’m not saying it’s true. In fact, that’s what makes it so much fun to me: while we may have very good guesses about how true it is, we don’t know. As much as we want certainty, there are things we simply do not know. Non-reproducible phenomenon, such as some atmospheric things commonly called UFOs, could be anything. We’ll be speculating about this stuff for centuries. Fun stuff.
And yes, I’ll watch a good UFO show — although they are hard to come by anymore. Probably the best over the last few years was one the History Channel did on commercial pilot sightings. Trained professionals with lots of time in the air seeing unusual things that are cross-checked by ground radar? Very interesting. Fun material for speculation.
But I know these things are wishy-washy. I know that this is all so much BS. My problem is that when I run into statements from scientists that are just as flimsy — perhaps in a less spectacular arena — it’s not so clear.
Take evolutionary psychology, the idea that aspects of our personality exist because natural selection made them the best fit for previous environments which might not exist any more. Great idea — you can certainly hear the music and hum along — but at the end of the day you can make the argument that everything about personalities are evolutionary in nature. ADHD? Useful for surviving in the jungle. Adultery? Useful as a gene transfer mechanism. And so on. You can just throw darts at a dartboard of human behavior and pull some kind of theory out of the air for why evolution made it that way.
Not exactly much of a science. Personally I like Elvis sightings a bit better. Much more entertaining.
How about Anthropology? A fine field of science if there ever was one. Except it’s reached the point where it has deconstructed itself. Anthropologists are unable to make firm comparisons between cultures, thereby reducing everything they are doing to either observation or complete speculation (and sometimes politically-biased speculation at that). Come now, if you can’t compare things, where is the science? I’d argue that private property rights are a critical part of human cultural evolution — that there is a great ditch which is crossed when the private property rights of the individual are recognized. But I don’t think such an opinion is very popular among Anthropologists. Perhaps so. Beats me. It’s their mess. They should clean it up.
The flowering of this idiocy, of course, is when people have strong political or personal opinions and want science to tell them that other people with different opinions are idiots. That way they can appropriately look down on them. I was reading a great article in Mother Jones the other day about homosexuality, science, and politics. The tl;dr version is this: it’s not as simple as “I was born that way” or “It’s all a choice”. For some it might not be a choice. For others it might be perfectly fine to change sexual preferences because, well, just because. Sexuality is fluid. The idea that you’re gay or straight and were born that way and must be that way for life is an artifact of political discourse over the past century or so. But both sides want to use “science” to bolster their side and attack the other. Science, ever so flexible, becomes a big stick to hit the other guy with.
There are many other topics like this. Pick your favorite. The social sciences are full of various ideas that have consensus that are of unknown truthfulness. Economists use all sorts of complex mathematical equations to beat each other up — more and more in public forums, sadly — instead of trying to reach useful conclusions. Got a pet cause? Get you some scientists who are willing to be advocates. The truth doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you are the ones standing for science and the other guys are not.
Average Joe Sixpack is not an idiot, no matter what the surveys may show. He’s aware of this at an instinctual level and for him, it all becomes just so much noise. Show him a new cell phone that uses some tech: then he’ll be a believer. It’s a wonderfully pragmatic approach. Don’t talk. Show me. Show me something that is immediately observable. It’s not his job nor should he care about the fine differences in certainty between inflationary theory and certainty that the Higgs-Boson particle has been found. The ironically tragic part of all of this is that it’s not Joe Sixpack who is harmed by this mess: it’s the guy who loves science and reads as much about it as he can. The guy that can make the biggest difference in a democracy. He’s the real victim. Joe is already using a heuristic that’s imminently practical and workable.
Science needs a new set of ethics. It needs to be clear when reporting medical studies what types of methods were used, what was brought into the study a priori, the sample size, and how it was reviewed. All the data must be open. Scientists should be clear when they are speaking on matters of reproducible science — such as the absorption spectrum of CO2, the Greenhouse principle, the fact that man changes his environment, and black-body physics — and when they are totally speculating, like predicting the global temperature in 100 years. These are different types of information. (I hate to use global warming, but it’s in vogue.)
If scientists want to be considered in the same boat as the guys who think aliens built the pyramids, then fine, they should keep going the way they are going. But I doubt that. So I would encourage, no beg, scientists to adopt much stricter standards of disseminating information. Scientists should love science first. They should not be public advocates for any cause. It’s a conflict of interest. They should only perform open and reproducible experiments. They should encourage criticism. They should reject herd mentality and stop playing the game of trying to publish papers with the least amount of controversial material in them. Peer review should mean something. And the public — of any persuasion — should be brought into the creation and review process as much as humanly possible. Scientists may not like this; it’s a totally new way of doing things. But it’s critically needed.
In addition to the comments and links provided in the article, one of our readers (Lee Killough) sent in some suggested reading. I can’t vouch for any of these, but the list looks interesting. I thought it was worth including. Here it is, along with his summaries. Looks like great resources for further investigation. Thanks Lee!
Scientism and Values: A compendium of economists’ and philosphers’ take on the misapplication of science to questions of value, like conflating means and ends. Just because science shows the most efficient means towards certain ends, does not mean it has any special moral authority towards those ends. Mises.org has put the pdf online, but I have a hardcopy. Murray Rothbard was one of the contributors. I did not read all the comments but I noticed property rights were mentioned, so this book is essential reading.[PDF]
The Mismeasure of Desire: A legally-minded philosopher questions essentialist assumptions of gay genes and critically analyzes some important “gay research”. I pointed you to a radio interview he gave, but the book is available too. Whether homosexuality is a choice, is a separate question from its legal protection, but the two are often conflated. [Yes, and as the linked article above clearly indicated, this use science as a weapon has no impact at all on how we should treat each other. Different subject entirely.]
Against Method: Physicist Paul Feyerabend questions the arbitraryness of the scientific method. This book shook the foundations of science, around the same time as Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. [Kuhn's book is considered by many to be one of the most important books about how science is practiced written in the last 100 years.]
Who Rules In Science: A moderate in the philosphy of science debates tries to get to the bottom of the debate and proposes realism as an alternative to the extremes in the debate. The Sokal Hoax and other controversies are mentioned.
The End of Science: Horgan surveys a lot of problems in science and concludes pessimistically that it can never have all the answers, despite the confidence of some of its outspoken proponents. (He later wrote a book which expands this idea further into neuroscience/psychiatry.)If you've read this far and you're interested in Agile, you should take my No-frills Agile Tune-up Email Course, and follow me on Twitter.