What science is, redux

Great bit about the politics of scientific research in Things we thought we knew by Mona Charen:

A rule of thumb among biomedical venture capitalists, The Economist reports, is that half of published research cannot be replicated. A 2013 study by Amgen found that of 53 “landmark” cancer studies, only six could be replicated.

The pressure to publish is intense among academic researchers, yet scientific journals prefer newsworthy findings to refutations of older studies. A reported one third of scientists confesses to knowing of a colleague who cherry-picked data or excluded “inconvenient” facts to tart up his or her research. Grants often flow to politically sexy topics like global warming, and scientific dissenters from orthodoxy suffer some of the same social and professional ostracism as heretics of an earlier time. The heart of the scientific method is disproof. Skepticism then, not unflagging belief in any particular theory of climate change, is the mark of the truly enlightened mind.

This is one of those topics the journalistic coverage of which is so poor, so ill-informed, so (scientifically) illiterate, and so agenda-driven that it really grinds my gears.  Some greatest hits:

Science vs. scientific institutions

(S)kepticism not so much towards science as towards scientific institutions, which are often run by non-scientists and for politically motivated reasons.

What science is

Not all facts are plain, unfortunately, and scientists are subject to the same temptations as the rest of us. Given a mass of very approximate data that can be made to fit different interpretations, and given further the offer of a fat research grant from some U.N. agency or left-wing foundation, on the understanding that the interpretation likely to inspire further such grants will be the one that best accords with fashionable political dogmas, scientists prove to be as corruptible and capable of self-delusion as any absinthe-swilling Eloi…

Scott Walter in the Galileo Code quotes Robert Nisbet (1914-1996), author of Prejudices: A Philosophical Dictionary:

Probably more scientists have been adversely affected – estopped altogether from a given line of research, guided, shaped, propelled, decelerated, forced into nonpublication, secrecy, turned down for funds or promotion, and barred from access to laboratory space or archives – because of defiance of conventional wisdom in America since World War II . . . than existed in the whole of the world in Galileo’s day.

Early on, Nisbet adds, Galileo told his friend Kepler that he was censoring himself for “fear not of ecclesiastical but of scientific-scholarly opinion.” As Galileo’s views became known, the first public protests arose from “jealous and apprehensive university professors,” not from clerical quarters. When Galileo’s friend Pope Urban VIII reluctantly allowed a trial by the Inquisition (headed by another Galileo supporter), the great man’s nemesis was no churchman but a fellow scientist…

Still, Galileo’s experience shows that a society needs two things to enjoy the freedom to seek scientific knowledge: an intellectual environment that permits at least some unconventional thinking and a financial environment in which resources aren’t monopolized by the same elites who patrol scientific orthodoxy.

“Institutional competition” and the diversity of funding streams that permit it, Nisbet concludes, not “the fabled distinterestedness of the titans in science,” is what usually rescues maverick thinkers from the “hostile herd.”


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