Monday, May 21, 2012

Soupcon du Jour: a problem in science as a System

Science is a 'System' in our society.

Why is it that after countless dollars, we still don't know if HDL cholesterol is good for us or not, or whether drinking coffee is good for us or not, or when and how obesity is defined and/or is good or bad for us, and so many other things of this sort, including a lot of genomics baloney, that clutter up the daily press and drain your taxes?  If we still have to live by the soupcon du jour--the question we ask to day, that we have to ask again and again the way restaurants change their soups du jour, then something's wrong!

It is obvious, we think, that these epidemiological interpretations are misguided because of so many, generally minor, factors contributing to these traits, always changing, not all measured or identified, and so on, that we are just throwing money, skill, and effort at very minor questions that we cannot seem to answer, if the kind of 'answers' we think we seek even exist.  Those answers, from a science point of view, should have general predictive power, and staying power. They should not just be statistically whiz-bang descriptions (not the same as prediction!) of yesterday's events that, since they already happened, we can sample. 

We can predict how fast a rock will fall, but not how fast the risk of disease will fall or why.  That's because gravity (at this level of observation, at least) is a universal law of nature, whereas in the life and health, behavioral and social sciences we're dealing with evolution and its products, and these simply don't follow such taut laws.  We've posted many times on our view that the individual units (e.g., organisms, societies, genomes) are not uniform collections of the kind that, say, gravity or biochemistry deal with.

"If I had a hammer, I'd hammer in the morning...."
With science as a System, there is a whole infrastructure of people and resources who need their salaries, labs, psychological feeling of worth, and so on.  The System, if not its results, have to keep carrying on.  And in any case, because there really are problems to solve, one would not want to shut down the System.  When some new challenge--that really is important--came along, we'd not have the resources to address it.

But there are plenty of problems for science to face as it is, yet much of normal workaday science is essentially making up problems because, as scientists sometimes privately say "this is what I do!" whether or not it's answering questions adequately.  We can't each retrain all the time, to be qualified to address problems that really need addressing.  Or can we?

If it's a problem, is there a solution?
Maybe this is just  how human societies of our type happen to work, when 99% of us live in cities and offices rather than on farms.  We have to seem to do something to justify our very unequal claim to resources, and by which we make the other 1%-ers work hard to supply our needs (these 1%-ers).  Hierarchies need at least some patina of justification.

So, in that sense, there's no problem.  Like any other industry or System (including farming and mining), we have our members and structures and committed resources.  Most of anything individual humans do is chaff, science being no exception.  Science is certainly able to do great things on occasion, even if we can't order them up the way you order a burger at McFood and expect it delivered quickly.  And when it comes to technology (not the same as basic science), we're marvelous creatures.

But if there is a problem in that we are so inertial, incremental, and conservative in that sense, is there a solution?  A solution would be a way of directing resources much more efficiently and effectively toward scientific questions of real importance, without the ready reserve we need to address the next surprise question (environment, epidemic, war, etc.) that we may face unpredictably.  Is our army of specialists like a huge tanker that simply can't be turned around, or could we establish incentives or something that would enable more innovative and creative careers, that are safe and predictable enough that people would want to pursue them?  We have no answer.  Maybe there isn't one.  Maybe the soupcon du jour--the suspicion of the day that we can design huge studies to address til some new trivium comes along--is just how things have to be.

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