Thursday, April 1, 2010

When truisms become Revelations

Science, and its handmaiden technology, have a grip on western industrialized society. It is one of our deepest religions. Politicians on all sides of the spectrum like to emboss their views with the blessings of some Research. Professor Sez bulletins litter the news-waves every day.

Usually, it is recent research because we have little reverence for past knowledge. And often, what we know already from many kinds of perfectly respectable evidence, somehow becomes true if a scientist using high technology has a similar finding.

Examples include the stunning fact that the 4000 year old Greenlander, whose genome was sequenced from DNA obtained from his dark, arctic-style hair, had....dark arctic-style hair. And in the hottest means of seeing into your true nature, some GWAS findings show that a person with a particular disease has a mutation known to affect that disease, and that had already been discovered by some other means. And the hottest means of seeing what you're really thinking, fMRI (brain scans), shows many things about behavior, language, and the like that social and other behavioral science already knew from various kinds of evidence. Not to mention the daily Hot Items like this stunning dietary finding that we may be able to become addicted to fatty foods.

Together, a commentator about this on a recent BBC Analysis program, described this phenomenon as truisms becoming revelation.

It's only natural that in this Age of Braggadocio we draw attention to our wisdom, rectitude, insight, and unique talents of discovery. It's part of our market society and our grant and promotion regime. We did not used to be so tilted towards self-claims, but partly that's because science didn't used to be so bourgeois and careerist a profession. Maybe it's good that ordinary people like most of us, rather than just the wealthy or aristocratic can actually have a chance to do science, but it's too bad we can't keep the bragging under control. Of course, politicians will use whatever tactic they can to promote their views, and perhaps that's their job.

The problem with these claims of Revelation is that it raises the temperature without raising the substance. It leads to fads and frenzies, even within science. It's part and parcel of the selling machine that we use to get grants or sell products (like fMRI testing to the police for lie or murder detection, or 'personalized genomic' health predictions). It moves the herd of scientific sheep, and their media, funding, and other followers, but while there is always some genuine new knowledge involved, the flow of resources distracts from work that could actually be more novel, innovative, or insightful.

After all, finding another way to show that something is true that we already knew is not a major contribution. Why is a DNA sequence or an fMRI blip more 'real' or more trustworthy than the kinds of evidence we already had? Only if our molecular-scale finding is more fundamental. But in recent posts on causation, we argued that this is a kind of tunneling through more complete truths, and the latter are what we really want to understand.

Technology can achieve amazing things, but it can also be a distraction or can be used in ways that are basically just playing around rather than facing the really challenging aspects of understanding complex aspects of Nature.

Another thing is that most of the march of technology, like the kinds described above, have the intent to peer into more and more individual, personal characteristics. Whether the science is actually good, or better than what we already knew, it can be assumed to be so by the state or other entities (like insurance companies, employers, schools, etc) and hence to encroach steadily into personal space and privacy. Intrusive abuse of individuals by large organizations is nothing new at all. But that doesn't mean we should acquiesce as the encroachment marches steadily on (or inward).


John said...

So brilliant, I had to send the URL to all and sundry (the latter probably objecting to the label, but still).

You keep writing pithy pieces like this and you will have to collect them in a volume of essays. Indeed, ...

Again, this is one of best things you have written on this blog. Thank you.

Ken Weiss said...

Of course we greatly appreciate this kind of feedback. We certainly hope to stimulate thought, for those who know of the blog and who care to think about what is going on these days, as well as the narrow daily box we all have to work in.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Ken and Anne, I thank you as well.

There are other issues too... accolades from higher-ups when your research splashes around the internet (and these things are included in tenure and promotion portfolios at some places!). And of course, scientists are workign within a larger phenomenon: this mesmerizing cultural imperative that everyone get famous.

Ken Weiss said...

I totally agree. That's why in a broader and perhaps more profound sense, this is an anthropological phenomenon--a cultural anthropological phenomenon. It is partly about science and the technological, reductionist approach that can indeed solve certain important kinds of problem.

But it's at least as much due to the way our culture now operates. Culture is largely about the apportionment of symbolic and material resources. Each culture has its own way. An aristocracy, for example, hands resources out permanently to a small fraction of families. Their symbolic sense of self-worth comes with their first teething ring. They need to pose and posture to each other, perhaps, but they often want to lay low relative to popular culture, because that just draws attention to their unfair wealth. Religion and acceptance of the status quo keep these people in their place.

In our middle-class society, you are what you earn. If market fundamentalism with open competition reigns, you have to do the promotion to secure your place. You want display traits (job titles, public visibility, and so on) and you need money to establish your importance.

This may oversimplify things, but it's an important component of what we're like these days.

Whether there is a stable, fairer system who can say? Science might be different in such a system, but it may be just as tribal and blinkered, in its own way. Who knows?