11 August 2010

The story of real science

Bruce Charlton has published what he calls an "mini-e-booklet": http://thestoryofscience.blogspot.com/

I think he is saying, in greater detail and at much more length, and with the point of view of an insider, what I was saying in the last few days: that science has declined, because science has become an industry which no longer allows for the extraordinary honesty that real science requires.

This is the problem of science today – it has been bloated by decades of exponential growth into a bureaucratically dominated heavy industry soviet factory characterized by vastly inefficient mass production of shoddy goods. And it is trundling along, hour by hour, day by day; masses of people going to work, doing things, saying things, writing things…

Science is hopelessly and utterly un-reformable while it continues to be so big, continues to grow-and-grow, and continues uselessly to churn out ever-more of its sub-standard and unwanted goods.

Switch it off: stop making the defective glasses: now...

There are some very general arguments he makes which I have been meaning to spell out for a while. He suggests that the peak of science was in the mid-20th century, and it was a transitional state.

this transitional state of classic science was an early phase of professional science, which came between what might be called medieval science and modern science (which is not real science at all - but merely a generic bureaucratic organization which happened to have evolved from classic science). But classic science was never a steady state, and never reproduced itself; but was continually evolving by increasing growth, specialization and professionalization/ bureaucratization.

I think such transitional phases occur in different fields quite frequently. Part of my disillusionment with libertarianism is that it is an attempt to recapture a transitional state in government that was never sustainable - the state where a new class is taking over power and opens up freedom for everybody because it has not yet thrown off its self-identification as an underdog that benefits from freedom.

The failure of science is also an aspect of the widely-recognised but ill-understood problem of trying too hard: some things can only be achieved by trying to do something else.

The scientists of the past, like the individuals making up the governments of the past, were privileged. They ruled or researched not in order that they optimise some output, but because they could - they had reached positions of genuine personal responsibility, and had to make their own judgement.

If these "very general arguments" sound rather woolly, do not adjust your set. That's why I haven't published on them already - nevertheless, I bring them up now because they're bugging me and I think Charlton's writing is relevant to them.

Back to the specifics, Part 3 quotes an earlier post of Charlton's that chimes very closely with what I was saying yesterday:

Charlton BG. Are you an honest scientist? Truthfulness in science should be an iron law, not a vague aspiration. Medical Hypotheses. 2009; Volume 73: 633-635

Summary

Anyone who has been a scientist for more than a couple of decades will realize that there has been a progressive and pervasive decline in the honesty of scientific communications. Yet real science simply must be an arena where truth is the rule; or else the activity simply stops being science and becomes something else: Zombie science. Although all humans ought to be truthful at all times; science is the one area of social functioning in which truth is the primary value, and truthfulness the core evaluation. Truth-telling and truth-seeking should not, therefore, be regarded as unattainable aspirations for scientists, but as iron laws, continually and universally operative. Yet such is the endemic state of corruption that an insistence on truthfulness in science seems perverse, aggressive, dangerous, or simply utopian.

Indeed.

There are points I disagree with: Charlton tells the orthodox story of Lysenko - he was a gangster, he brought politics and political arguments into science. As I said yesterday, that lacks the understanding that he believed he was not the first to do so, that he believed he was only trying to correct the political influence that had already occurred. We are distracted by the fact that Lysenko's enemies were not merely removed from influence, but actually imprisoned - that is incidental, just part of the difference between Stalin's Russia and our world. The dissenting scientist today is as much an enemy of the state as Vavilov was, the only difference is that our establishment is secure enough to leave its enemies at large, while Stalin wasn't.

The reason I insist on this is that the orthodox story makes the problem seem too easy: don't allow monsters like Lysenko, keep politicians out of science. It isn't that easy - the politics that matters is the "office politics" of science itself, not the real politics of the government.

Charlton does not suggest a solution like mine of yesterday - de-emphasising the quest for originality in favour of more checking and reproduction - but it's clearly a prerequisite for the sort of changes he does advocate. To restore the primacy of truth to science a necessary step would be to ensure that only truth-seekers were recruited to the key scientific positions, and to exclude from leadership those who are untruthful or exhibit insufficient devotion to the pursuit of truth. Obviously, before you can do that you have to have a way to find out who is truthful and who isn't - you have to check.

Certainly there needs to be a slowing-down of science - Charlton and I are as one on that.

There's another point that Charlton gets close to: Real achievement in science requires a great deal of luck - the thing you are looking for has to really be there. However, when someone is in a career, it is unjust to value them by whether they are lucky. That is one of main forces that has driven a wedge between the practice of science and any real product - every research project has to produce something publishable (failing incompetence by the scientists), whereas in reality most research of the most valuable kind finds nothing, producing only a few jackpots for the lucky. The only solutions within the structure of science as bureaucracy is to either know what you are going to find in advance (which is useless), or publish results which are in fact devoid of real content, drowning any real results in the noise. This is largely achieved by abuse of statistics - something I thought I'd addressed in relation to economics, but I can't find. Perhaps I'll post something later.

2 comments:

bgc said...

Thanks for covering this - and for the attentive and thoughtful summaries.

I don't think we disagree on Lysenkoism - I was focusing on the phenomenon, not the person.

It is not a matter of the motivations or honesty of the people involved, but of the relationship between politics and science, and the enforcement mechanisms being used on scientists.

Having sampled some of the hatred against Peter Duesberg, it is clear that we are very close to actual Lysenkoism - in other words to imprisoning scientists for having the 'wrong' views (and therefore, so the argument goes, potentially causing harm if people believe the 'wrong' views.) Another example in the UK is Andrew Wakefield.

If they are wrong it is not due to egregious fraud - by the current standards of science they are *at least* no worse in their research conduct than the majority of other scientists.

The deep question is not whether people like Duesberg and Wakefield are *really* right or wrong; but the mechanisms by which their 'wrongness' (and, it is said, their incompetence, dishonesty and/or wickedness) has been established, and the way they are first demonized and subjected to mob attack, then punished, for being 'wrong'.


I was interested by your earlier post on fMRI - essentially all this research is either wrong or grossly misleading in the way it is presented (*), yet nobody has been punished for this, or for fraudulently mis-appropriating billions (?trillions) of dollars.


* It was 15 years ago that a friend reported to me a private conversation with the UK's top functional brain imaging researcher in which he candidly admitted, just after giving a plenary lecture on the subject, that what he had been saying was rubbish - and I have heard similar admissions from other leading researchers, who do it simply in order to get grants/ publications/ prestige/ promotion etc.**

At a time when everything I was writing got published in prominent journals I was unable to find a place to publish a critique of 'functional brain imaging' and the same thing happened to some colleages (whose other papers regularly got into Nature, Science, PNAS etc).

It was then I first began to realize the power of the peer review cartel...


** (They say they would much rather do other types of research, but that would be career suicide.)

bgc said...

Would you send me an e-mail? I would like to know a bit more about your work.