Why I Hate Science

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!

Brief description:

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.)

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41 thoughts on “Why I Hate Science

  1. Coda

    Thanks for writing this, it’s a very unique perspective on something that needed to be said. I hope a lot of people come across this article.

  2. John

    Is the “gene transfer”/adultery example you mention a real example or made up for illustrative purposes? If it’s real, can you cite it? I’m not educated in biology: Does “gene transfer” have some abstruse technical meaning in this context, or does it just mean that if you have kids with somebody the children each get half your genes?

  3. Keith

    Your grasp of science is disappointing. You are speaking as one obviously ignorant about science, who instead of acknowledging that it is you who doesn’t understand the most basic scientific concepts, basically just gets all emotional and has a tanrum because you don’t like that objectivity puts the lie to your rather ignorant political views.
    In other words, for people like you, reality just hurts.
    Also, straw man arguments don’t persuade. You reason from a few dubious examples. Try learning some logic first, then maybe science will make some sense to you. Reasoning from emotion just makes you look silly.

  4. DanielBMarkham

    Thanks for the comment.
    If you had any substance to your argument, aside from saying I’m reasoning from emotion, have poor political views, and look silly, I’d be happy to engage you.
    As you may know, each of these observations is an effort to attack my character instead of my thesis. You are making broad statements about me personally instead of the essay. I’m not saying you’re totally ad hominem — there’s a bit of truth here as I’ve had to gloss over quite a bit for the essay and rants have a high emotional tone — but not a lot of it.
    Thanks again. I know you felt moved enough to comment, and I appreciate your taking the time. If you’d like to ask specific questions or form an argument that attacks my thesis, I’d love to hear it.

  5. Steve

    “I love science, when the word means the use of Bayesian models to come up with new and observable reproducible patterns of behavior.”
    Me too! This is why I love this scientific peer-reviewed paper about the thermetic explosive residue found in the World Trade Center dust after 9/11.
    Though this subject is admittedly tenderly emotional, many educated people seemingly cannot separate logical, reproducible facts from pure emotion.

  6. Bones

    What you are really asking for is for the things we read to be statistically significant.
    You want an essay or book or paper to be broken down into statements that say “This fact is x% statistically correct” and “fact B is only z% correct”. Maybe one day we can have Watson judge this for us.
    Today we have to look at journals, see the cited sources and evaluate for ourselves the weight of each fact used. References drive these papers but usually are built from new works that require a lot of digging to be vetted. The journals are supposed to do that for us. A recursive task much better suited for a computer(like Watson) if you ask me. From what I can tell, they actually do a good job discerning the factual papers from the truthiness papers.
    However, the public does not read journals. They barely read scientific papers found on the web for free. They read the books you are referring to that undermine scientific authority and fact finding because they are making a quick buck with speculation.
    Regrettably, journals are a paywall that stands between the poor but above average person and the free flow of knowledge. A bigger wall for average people is the desire to actually know the facts from the speculation. This is why our news networks rely on speculation and fear-mongering today instead of facts to get ratings and viewership. Reality is boring to most people.
    People want to be fooled. People want to be terrorized by the news. People want to be free from thought. Freedom of choice? Try freedom from choice. The problem to me is mostly that science and scientists don’t make decisions for and in the interest of the populace, media does via politics.

  7. DanielBMarkham

    Wow Bones,
    Just when I was thinking that most of the comments were going to be a bit on the banal side, along came your response. Outstanding.
    I don’t think we have to choose between the current system and some futuristic Watson-based system, although I admit the picture you paint is tempting. Both the philosophy of science and Epistemology teach us that there are general concepts — grades or ratings if you will — that can be applied here. Statistically significant is certainly one of them, as clear identification of a priori and a posteriori knowledge. I’ll leave that for future columns, but I appreciate your thoughts. It might be worth my pursuing some more.
    As far as having scientists make decisions, I’ve kicked that around for years and finally have reached the opposite conclusion. If there were an asteroid heading towards Earth and scientists couldn’t convince the population of the danger? I’d say let them all fry. We’re better off in a democracy where the will of the governed is paramount than we are in one where the philosophers rule, Plato be damned.
    Great food for thought. The paywall problem is especially pernicious. One commenter emailed me offline and asked “why blame scientists? why not blame the media too?” The problem here is that scientists are the source of all of this. The media can be counted on to create conflict and exaggerate whatever they are reporting. It seems to me that the job of scientists is to adapt to the current media situation and up their game, not simply sit on the sidelines and complain about the culture.

  8. Marshall Quander

    > “It seems to me that the job of scientists is to adapt to the current media situation and up their game, not simply sit on the sidelines and complain about the culture.”
    This is the part I really disagree with. This is like claiming that celebrities are at fault for sensationalism in tabloids.
    I don’t think there’s anything that scientists can do to improve the media situation short of starting a new career in journalism, and I don’t assign them any blame at all for how the reporting comes out. When I have observed stories being written based on input from scientists, mathematicians, and other experts, I’ve seen nothing but accurate & measured information go into journalists’ ears and come out as trash. There are some media outlets that care about rigor and precision, and some that could not give a hoot, and I don’t think that experts’ behavior influences which is which.

  9. DanielBMarkham

    Hey Marshall,
    I believe you are using the word “science” to mean the advancement of knowledge, and you’re right. But science also means the social process whereby people approve and fund research, and in that sense I completely disagree.
    Over the last 35 years or so, we’ve seen the rise of a new creature, the celebrity scientist. This is the guy who becomes the “front man” for a field of science, responsible for making it accessible to the average man. He (or she) is not advancing science. He’s advancing public perception of the value of science. This has permanently changed the way those inside of science communicate to the outside world, like it or not. Why? Because in a democracy, perception matters. A lot.
    The people problem of science has changed, whether the underlying theory has stayed the same or not. That’s just reality.

  10. Bones

    Daniel I wanted to expand on what I was saying about decision making.
    This article speaks for how leadership differs from USA compared with China.
    The Chinese run what I would call the first completely scientific dictatorship. Regardless of what we call their government, how well it has served their leaders and their people is a hot debate at the moment.
    They really aren’t convincing their people of anything. They don’t have to.
    note: I’m not advocating we adopt such a model, this is merely an observation. And potentially a horribly misguided one at that.

  11. Neil

    “I’d argue that private property rights are a critical part of human cultural evolution”
    Does anybody else hate it when niche bloggers overstep their field of knowledge and self immolate with ignorant comments like this? I sure do.
    You really haven’t studied a lot of about cultures, have you? Sure, private property rights have now been established as an integral part of Industrialiazed / Inudstrializing nations. From Cambodia to the Congo, seems everybody everywhere is trying to get paid baby.
    But you do realise that this is not because of some inherently superior social system involving property ownership, right? You do realise that there was a period in history called “Colonialism”, in which former empires (now constituting many of the OECD nations) brutally imposed their way of life on people who had radically different systems of exchange. Take for example the Australian Aborigine, who lived for 40,000 years with no system of private ownership. Yeah, not a very long time I guess .. when you consider Sumeria / civilisation dawned .. I dunno .. 5000 BC. How then are the relevantly recent import of property rights so “critical”, if we are talking evolutionary timelines?
    Regardless of all that, your statement blows because it assumes that, even today, a “world human society” exists, and that every people across every nation are culturally evolving together in one harmonious bell curve. I’m sorry, but unless you are planning on flying an Apple helicopter over the Amazon to drop Ipads upon the uncontacted tribes, then your pan-human ravings will remain exactly that.
    Full disclosure: I’m not an anthropologist. But the magnitude of your ignorance will make me an anthro-apologist if I ever encounter one of the stars from your much cherished UFO television programs.

  12. DanielBMarkham

    Dang Neil,
    I’m not going to argue anthropology with you. You are correct, I am no expert.
    But that’s why I included the link. Go get the book, read it, then make up your own mind. Don’t feel that because you’ve told off some random blogger that your intellectual position is assured. It is not. All I did was recap what I’ve remembered that real experts have discussed. I’ll be the first to tell you it’s probably half-assed, glossed-over, and tenuous.
    It’s also not germane as a counter-argument. Picking apart one detail of a five or six item list does not a refutation make. Sorry.
    Thanks for the comment. It was very well constructed. I could feel your passion, and I’m happy you care about this stuff. I do as well. It’s an important subject.

  13. Paul Kelly

    See Karl Popper, and what he has to say about the epistemological status of scientific theories. There’s a well developed discipline of the philosophy of science which tries to establish “what is science” and “what is not science”. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to be terribly well-known, and rarely taught to the practitioners of science.

  14. Arved Sandstrom

    I guess my first and main question is, what are you trying to fix here? For example, are you hoping for a more informed electorate in the United States, or in Western-style democracies? You make some recommendations, Daniel, but it is not clear to me as to what problem(s) you are hoping to address.
    My posed example clearly indicates what I think one problem is: a badly-informed and biased voter base. This base is completely comprised of “Joe Sixpacks”, because that’s a hat everyone wears at one point or another. And “voting” has a larger meaning: it’s almost any decision with an impact, whether casting a ballot for a candidate in an election, or deciding how many children to have, or what to buy from a store.
    You say that Joe Sixpack (read: any of us) is not an idiot. That’s usually true. And you say that Joe Sixpack uses pragmatic and workable approaches to assessing information. Well, yes and no: what all of us do, without fail, is filter information in a very biased way. Information is classified as irrelevant and is discarded, or as being supportive of existing beliefs and hence a fact, or as being contradictory of existing beliefs and hence wrong. Rarely do any of us do our job in comparing sources, questioning sources, or thinking. By and large we expect to be spoonfed, and because it’s a serious PITA to be spoonfed complex, vague and possibly conflicting information, we tend to cherrypick the sources that we are spoonfed from.
    Tell me if I am wrong, but you are describing an information producer problem. Myself, I think there is much more of an information consumer problem. The ultimate problem – ill-informed citizens – may be the same, but the cause is not.

  15. fsy

    “Thanks for the comment. It was very well constructed. I could feel your passion, and I’m happy you care about this stuff. I do as well. It’s an important subject.”
    That’s one of the most polite responses to a comment I’ve read on the blogosphere.
    (You can delete this; I just felt the need to say it.)

  16. DanielBMarkham

    What am I trying to fix?
    There’s a feedback loop, as everybody acknowledges, between scientists, the media, and the general public. Science authors who write books with 10% solid science and 90% speculation don’t do so in the interest of advancing knowledge; they do so to sell books.
    Everybody wants to focus on the general public’s role in this loop, but I believe this focus is exactly backwards. Given higher standards for information tagging and better ethical standards to handle conflicts of interest, I think the problem will subside to some degree. If nothing more, the onus for the problem will rest more on the media and less on scientists, which I think is a good thing.
    I also think that by solving this problem at the practice-of-science level we increase the efficiency of the system to allocate funds for research, although this is a much longer case to make and I didn’t go into it here.

  17. DanielBMarkham

    From today’s headlines:

    A federal wildlife biologist whose observation in 2004 of presumably drowned polar bears in the Arctic helped to galvanize the global warming movement has been placed on administrative leave and is being investigated for scientific misconduct, possibly over the veracity of that article.
    Charles Monnett, an Anchorage-based scientist with the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, or BOEMRE, was told July 18 that he was being put on leave, pending results of an investigation into “integrity issues.” But he has not yet been informed by the inspector general’s office of specific charges or questions related to the scientific integrity of his work, said Jeff
    Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
    On Thursday, Ruch’s watchdog group plans to file a complaint with the agency on Monnett’s behalf, asserting that Obama administration officials have “actively persecuted” him in violation of policy intended to protect scientists from political interference.

    I’m not going into another rant, but I’ll just say I’m sorry the topic is Global Warming yet again — this is a much bigger issue than that. I hope the gentleman is found innocent of any wrongdoing, and I deeply hope that federal officials aren’t going to get intimidated by outside interest groups with agendas, environmental or not. We need scientists who are non-political, and having political groups come in with lawyers blazing when there is an accusation of wrongdoing does not accomplish that. It accomplishes just the opposite, sadly. You don’t get to stick “environmental” on the name of your group and get a free pass from scrutiny.
    No matter how you slice it, no matter how worthy the cause, scientists just can’t be advocates, no matter how important the cause. It just doesn’t work. We need to wake up and smell the coffee here, folks.

  18. Steve Jones

    You have raised valid points. The practice of science (and the public funding of it) has been corrupted by political objectives. The corruption extends to refereed journals where reviewers spike papers that challenge empirically their preferred (and well-funded) position.
    The key, of course, is funding, especially public funding. Governments have a vested interest in getting the right results from research in global warming. Academic bureaucracies housed in public universities and public school systems have a vested interest in silencing challenges to conventional models of evolution.
    The same principal applies to both science and politics – if you want to understand what’s going on, follow the money. Ultimately, the money is Joe Sixpack’s. Joe has every right to hold both politicians and scientists accountable for their BS.

  19. austin

    i dont think science has any requirement to help educate the layman. for people who like reading about science and want to separate the wheat from the chaff, we have peer reviewed journals.
    i dont like the abuse of science by politicians (especially evolution and global warming) and there is a clear PR problem there, but i dont think we need to distract scientists from DOING SCIENCE to improve their public opinion. it would be an endless ongoing procedure that would take time from people who have MUCH better things to do.
    the fault has been hit on a few times in the comments: The People dont like reality. they find it boring. they like fantasy, fiction, drama, they dont want to be educated they want to be entertained.
    you can include all the citations and clarifications they will skip the explanations and wont check the citations. then someone can put up some BS article, give an explanation section with a bunch of big words, give citations that lead no where and it seems the same to most people are a proper article with explanations and citations. they lack the training or desire to differentiate a true article from BS and there is no way to dress it up that this wont still be true.

  20. polemistes

    I solidarize with this comment. The problem under discussion is a very complex one as it concerns the acquisition of knowledge in general, so it is a philosophical problem. And the solution proposed by Popper is quite appealing to me as a physicist. Roughly, it demands that any statement which pretends to be scientific should be accompanied by a description of an observation or of an experiment which would disprove it. For example, if somebody states _today_ that in next 100 years the average temperature will rise, say, 10 degrees, then this person should also say which experiments and/or observations made also _today_ would overthrow this statement.

  21. Steve

    Um, I must have missed something… but you didn’t prove a thing, except perhaps ignorance, despite invoking QED.
    You said “Show me. Show me something that is immediately observable.” That’s exactly what I did! So now explain to me, if you think there are serious, observable and provable flaws with the thermite paper, what are they?
    If you cannot do this, you have acted like the very bullshit “ideologue” which you purport to despise. Instead, I invite you to read the paper carefully with an open mind. It is not a waste of your time, I promise!! I welcome a discussion based in fact.

  22. Russian scientist

    First, apologies for my English – am russian.
    I agree that problem exists but I do not really understand what author is trying to fix. To me it looks like not a worldwide problem, but more like a problem of “Western Science” or the “Western Democracy”, if you will.
    Being a scientist myself I don’t have any problem distinguishing the “real” science from “popular” science. When you say “Scientists have themselves to blame for this.” – do you actually realize that there is no Union of Scientist, right? There always will be a popular or “celebrity” scientists, who will be forming the public perception and there always be people like G. Perelman, who do not communicate with media at all but they actually advance the science. Hardcore scientists in general have poor communication skills – they are too self-focused.
    Also to me some of the problems you state can be described by a word “ochlocracy”. The western democracy has degraded to ochlocracy long time ago and the problem you described in this article is just a small portion of it. When Joe Sixpack (if I understand the meaning of this correctly) decides what scientists have to do and defines the directions of research – this is ochlocracy. And obviously in such situation the scientist who cannot do anything serious but only publish books with sensational bullshit will get the funding, simply because they talk louder, they use simple words and they are entertaining at the end of the day.
    How to fix it? Do you really need to fix it? Let the “celebrity scientists” publish bullshit for mob to entertain it and let government support the fundamental science. And if you hate science – it is your problem as you cannot really tell where the true science starts. Get to arxiv.org and get the true science for free, but don’t expect too much entertaining and easy stuff.

  23. Alfetta159

    This is why I hate technology.
    Notice what is in the Technology section of the newspaper? New version of the iPhone. That’s not technology, that’s advertising.
    Did someone say that they were using a new technology; specifically SQL Server 2008 vs. the old technology, SQL Server 2005?
    Or how about some of those high-tech(nology) companies from the silicon valley, you know, Netflix and eBay?
    What happened to the word technique?

  24. Eddy Vluggen

    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
    Aw, very clear; they’re using a scientific approach, or coming up with results that have been validated using a scientific approach (based on tests that any other peer can verify)
    You’re confused with marketing. Yes, there’s an entire trade dedicated to obscuring meaning. That’s what you’re encountering when you stumble over the word “scientific” without any further explanation.

  25. PG

    There are really two “sciences”. One is the hard science that works under strict Popper logic: those things for which there is a fallibility test. “I claim that an airfoil of this design will provide this lift and this drag”. That claim is testable, and that test could fail. Ohms law, Relativity, QED are all in that category. They are all “true” to and only to the degree that their predictions match the test results to a given precision within a given range. Newton was “true”, as long as you didn’t go too fast, which works for most people.
    The soft sciences are those things that can not be tested. Unfortunately,in this category there is no way to differentiate the legitimate models from the pure hokum. Equally unfortunate is that most of life falls into the soft science category. “I claim that you are anxious because of suppressed unconscious desires.” “I claim that neanderthals sang songs.” “I claim that cutting taxes will raise revenue.” “I claim that there are 11 hidden dimensions to the universe rolled up in little strings”. “I claim that aliens control our brains.” Some of these may be “true”, but none of them can be tested for fallibility. Some of these are pure outright charlatanism, and are designed deliberately so that they can not be tested. Some of these are simply dealing with very large messy issues that prevent themselves from being tested.
    You need predictive models even for the large messy things in life. There is no point having the weatherman say everyday “Beats me what is going to happen tomorrow”. But there is no way around the fact that the competing models for the large messy things come down to a personality contest. And it is a personality contest that does not exclude the flagrantly incompetent.
    At issue is the fact that life is essentially a bet. Popper’s requirement for a fallibility test is what make the hard science bets quantifiable. “I bet this cannon ball/ voltage / electron, cruise ship will hit X position at T time +/- this degree 90% of the time”. That is a bet you can win with a know frequency, and be sure of making money on. “I think talking will help your depression, that it will rain tomorrow at 3:00 PM, that the raising taxes is the best thing to do now, and that you can forget about UFO’s controlling your life.” Those are bets that you simply make. It is helpful to see how many people are making the same bet. The only problem, as Socrates and the passengers on the Titanic pointed out, the majority opinion is not always right. For that matter, neither is the minority opinion.

  26. DMac

    While i found this article a thought provoking read, i do take issue with it being the fault of ‘scientists’. To get into journals major work, research and backing up of their claims is done as well as the whole peer review process. It is when the media picks up the results that they become infused with the journalists interpretation – be that intentionally or not- which is then relayed to the layperson. The main issue is with how people infer from what they are given.
    Even in the artical you presented in the comments:
    “…and is being investigated for scientific misconduct, possibly over the veracity of that article.”
    that ‘possibly’ will generally be glazed over and in future layperson conversation the scientist will be guilty for lying about climate change.
    Basically I believe that it is science reporting by journalists that is at fault in most cases.
    ( I havent really read any books on science apart from my textbooks, so I cant judge anything on that point, only on articals read in the paper and online )

  27. David Swan

    Well said. This diatribe does _nothing_ to further the discussion regarding Science (FACTS) vs. Emotions (FEELINGS).

  28. Shawn

    I think the whole post was incredibly articulate and measured. Actively engaging the commenter could have become a hypocrisy undermining everything he’d just said.
    Yet I was still struck by the humility of the reply. I think it’s truly worth noting as a model to emulate when you don’t feel you’re being heard.

  29. lwj

    I have to disagree. Yes everyone has a bias in the way they filter information. But I don’t see that as the real problem. There is no feasible way for me to separate science from political rhetoric wrapped in pseudo-science. I wish I had time to come up with a good example but I do not. So I will use a very bad example, global warming (bad because people are just to impassioned about it.) Scientific information is released about it all the time but, how can I filter it when details, what data was used and how was it used, it not available? In many cases wikileaks appears to be the best resource for information. This is unacceptable. In general, if there are models or experiments that support a particular theory they should be accessible to the community at large. Instead these things are hidden in the cathedrals of the scientific communities because the unwashed may misinterpret the findings.
    So, yes, there is a problem with the way science is reported. And yes, there are issues with the way scientific information is consumed. However, in this Internet age there is no reason that scientists should allow the media to play the gatekeeper. And especially in cases where public monies are use to generate information, the methods and data should be public as well.

  30. Rishi

    I think we can have a bit of “freedom of speech” and “right to do what you like” thing here.
    Let us take the scenario of a scientist who genuinely likes science, the thrill and all that but doesn’t want to get public about it. He really enjoys what he doing and that is the reason he chose it in the first place rather then being a reporter or something. He doesn’t like that kind of research. Do we ask him to be responsible and report correctly to us all what exactly his breakthroughs are? He doesn’t want to. he just wants to get on with it. And so when a guy like the “the celebrity scientist” comes along as a friend and tells us something with the a lot of “art work” and “design” we cant blame the original guy right? And we cant blame science either. But for it we wouldn’t even be using this. Isn’t it an abstract thing to hate? We invented science. Let’s hate guys who are giving it a bad name. That would be more like it.

  31. Nick

    My interpretation of your article is that scientists should act like scientists. The essence of science is the scientific method, where a testable hypothesis is stated with all of the information needed to reproduce the experiment. If everyone else who performs the experiment cannot achieve the same results, it’s not science.
    A hypothesis about anything (such as UFOs, global warming, God) that is not testable is not science, and scientists and others should not pretend that it is. Of course, just because a hypothesis (UFOs, global warming, God) is not testable does not mean that it is not true; it just means that it should not be framed as science.

  32. Dave

    Really enjoyed this blog post. Great fun reading it.
    Just a side note, Michel Foucault would argue that all truth claims, including the classification of one type of science being “real science” are simply power plays. So where you are complaining about people using “semi science” to browbeat others into submission, you in fact (one could argue) are using a truth claim about science as a power play against them.
    Not that I’m a structuralist, but it’s worth thinking about. This recent article from the NYT is also very enlightening on this front: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/15/arts/people-argue-just-to-win-scholars-assert.html?_r=2&hp

  33. David

    I think the problem is in the way science is taught in schools. Kids (in the UK at least, where I live) are taught about gravity, plant life, the periodic table and so on – a host of scientific concepts. But I can’t recall them being taught why these concepts constitute science.
    I think it would be worth the time taken from teaching other aspects of science if a few months could be devoted to exploring what science actually is. Teach some of the various theories that have existed over the millenia to explain the movement of the planets – which ones were scientific and which ones weren’t? Just because a theory has been falsified now, does that mean it wasn’t scientific to begin with – or that it isn’t now? Present children with examples of astrology, and ask whether it can be viewed scientifically, and how it could be falsified. Show how our understanding of gravity has changed, and consider whether Newton’s theory of gravity is valid science even though we have a theory that makes more accurate predictions.
    I don’t think many young people have any idea about these questions, or even what they would mean. They basically grow up thinking ‘science’ means ‘whatever you’re told in a science lesson, see in a science book, etc.’ and that there is a bijective relationship between what is ‘science’ and what is true.

  34. Don Kirkland

    Daniel, thanks for your article it was great and right on target. I have a related thought on which I would like to get your comments: My theory is that all facts/knowledge/truth reside in a dogma that supports it. It is easy to think of religion as a dogma, but I have come to believe that every human on the planet has a personal dogma that makes up his definition of reality and scientist are no exception. Each individual participates in multiple dogmas such as his work dogma, his friend dogma, his wife dogma etc. etc. Almost everyone knows not to speak to his boss, wife or friend about something that is counter to their dogma. Scientists are no different. When a “fact” clashes with the dogma it is easier to reject the fact than to rework the dogma. It took over 50 years for plate tectonics to catch on.

  35. Anonymous

    Science is not a bed subject it is very interesting and find the new facts. Every things have two side one good and bad. If you see the good side of the science it is good form you. Once try to understand this.

  36. Anon

    Science is not something apart from humanity, its just another thing that people do, subject to human foibles and bias even when offered up as cold, hard, objective “fact”. In other words, people do science, nature/universe does something else. Science is a human process, at best a description of what nature and the universe may be doing.


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