Thursday, January 7, 2010

Christmas season ends, silly season resumes....

It is easy to criticize science and much harder to do it, especially if one expects more than incremental discovery. It is similarly easy to point out the human failings in any endeavor, including science, especially when it evolves to become a major part of society on which many of us must earn our daily bread.

At the same time, criticism is important as a corrective, to try to keep the ship on an honest course, at least to the best of our abilities. 'Established' entities, government, business, church, or otherwise, grow in ways that become entrenched and self-serving and need such correctives. We think that science certainly does.

A number of years ago Wisconsin's Senator William Proxmire used to present annual Golden Fleece awards to the stupidest science projects that had been funded at government expense. They were, Proximire alleged, fleecing the public. Some of this was political theater, if not demogoguery, because a study with a laughable-sounding title could actually be great science, and some of it was.

But a lot of the Golden Fleece awardees richly deserved their ridicule. Just the kinds of expense that the right-wing 'tea parties' in our current benighted land target as examples of the lack of connection between government and those who pay for it.

Some of the dumbest studies one can imagine are indeed being paid for. Our story the other day on the G-spot is an example. Self-reported surveys of twins as to whether or not they experienced the Joy of G hardly count as reliable science by almost any standard one can name. So whether or not there's a G-whiz!! experience to be had (that way), it is no laughing matter.

If a trait is not empirically defined in an objective way, or its occurrence is only subjectively identified, and so on, the conclusions hold about as much water as, well, as water. Statistics seem objective and reductionistic, but they are just empty: the p-value has little if any more reality than the G-value!

Social science research is the easiest to poke fun at because it has become a branch of statistical reductionism much as biomedical science is molecular reductionism. But social entities -- us, people -- are not identically reactive automotons the way molecules are, and social phenomena are so complex that the approach usually doesn't work. Similar conditions might elicit different responses at different times by the same people, for example, as we chase self-help and other kinds of fashions.

Some areas of social science, such as demography where the object is to count people by age, sex, address, country of origin, marital status, or even income levels can work as real science by any standard. But the behavioral, political, economic, and other social aspects of this 'science' are not so clearly science of the same sort.

As far as fleecing the public is concerned, one can argue that society is manifestly not better off socially or mentally as a result of decades of munificent social science research. People are not happier. We all seem to need our permanent personal therapist much as athletes need trainers. We're on drugs (legal or otherwise), and so on.

Most social progress, and there has been a lot of it, has been due to causes other than research: civil rights legislation is perhaps the best example. And whether those therapists who actually fix their clients' problems do so because of their scientific knowledge or because they happen to have the right intuitive stuff for helping people is highly debatable at the very least, and the latter seems at least as likely to be the most likely.

A huge fraction of social science research, including a lot of what is paid for by NIH doesn't have much to do with the 'H' (health), except that of NIH bureaucracy and university welfare programs, that encourage universities to have their faculties hustling grants rather than teaching, and everyone tailors their supposed research objectives to relate to 'health'.

But it's like picking on the helpless to go at social science in this way. That's because a healthy fraction of genetics and other areas of research, by NIH, NSF, and other agencies, too, is just as pointless and wasteful. The mother of all fleece may belong to NASA's hyping of 'life' on Mars and our desperate 'need' to send emigrants there! But the fleece barn is deep and rich, largely we argue because science has become part of the entrenched establishment, a topic we voice our views on regularly when it comes to genetics, where there's a lot of fleecing going on.

To us, the issue is not that there aren't problems and questions about nature and human life that deserve funding, and certainly this is true in genetics and molecular biology. It's not an opposition to basic research. Indeed, it's a view for basic research, rather than research promulgated on forced relevance, at high funding cost, by bigger groups, that tie up resources for years if not decades in ways that have little if any accountability for the good reason that they don't deliver the goods they promise (like, for example, the 'Healthy People' programs we opined about recently). It's a lack of terminating, scaling back, or changing directions when we know very well they aren't working as was thought. It's moving the goal posts so victory can be declared and grants can be renewed, in the same hands, for another 5 or more years.

Good science, especially good basic science, is unpredictable, mostly doesn't make major findings, and the most important findings cannot be ordered up like a ham sandwich at a deli. But whether public anger at this kind of waste will overtake the ability of vested science interests to persist, and purge its funding, is debatable: power usually manages to hold on. But if the anger does overtake, science will be the loser because the good science, the real, basic science, the science by independent-thinking investigators not bound by momentum of mega-groups or short-term careerism, will also suffer.

And if that happens then, sadly, we may never know if there's a G spot or not!


Arjun said...

As far as anger goes, I've heard some word of backlash against and mistrust for scientists in general owing to the events of "Climategate." Do you know anything about this?

Ken Weiss said...

There will always be some anger and mistrust at misrepresentation and manipulation for self-interested reasons. In the case of Climategate, the overwhelming evidence still suggests that we're in for a rough climate ride.

I think the anger at specific 'scandals' (if this actually turns out to have been one) is passing. After all, the real facts are real, and science is now a huge establishment that is heavily into the promotion and spinning game--which is done for legitimate causes such as the real climate problems we face.