Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Confessions of a Contrarian

If you care about some area of human life, and you look at it closely, it probably won't take you long to become a contrarian about it: to know it is to see its weaknesses.  Our fallibilities as a species are everywhere to be found. We could just accept that and motor along, or we can recognize, react, and resist!  Unfortunately, the older you get and perhaps the more secure (so you can afford to criticize), the more flaws you may see and the more you may wish to try to change them.

That often means criticizing, in part because better ways of doing things may not be obvious, thus suggesting positive changes not so easy.  Of course, established parts of society resist change.  The 'in's' usually want to protect their privilege, resources, and status quo.  The young may not see the issues or may be intimidated by the structures because it's risky to critique them (making it harder to get jobs, grants, etc.).  Resistance is difficult and often doesn't work.

But if you've read much of what we have to say here on MT, you know that I, at least, feel that pointing out problems is important, despite the obstacles.  Change often means mass, and often grass-roots, resistance.  But first, it requires recognition of the problems and that often in turn requires repetition.  If something is worth saying, and it's something people don't want to hear because it may threaten comfortable business-as-usual, it's worth repeating.  I do that sort of repetition here, but usually in the context of reasons for my view and/or thoughts about how to change things.

Some may see this as contrarian.  To that, I must plead guilty.

We here are not the only ones to note what is going on in terms of funding, careers in science, hyperbole in science reporting, PhDs without jobs or careers, but lots of debt, well into their 30's, the huge locked-in funding system of well-heeled, locked-in un-killable projects, universities hungry for more graduate students even though this mainly is for their own bragging rights (since the students aren't getting jobs), and so on.  These are real problems worth crabbing about.

Also, the inertia of science is such that, at present, we are ever-increasing the size and duration of projects that essentially just do the same thing as has been done for years before, with only minor tweaks in technology and major increases in scale, as if scale is a good substitute for thought--indeed, it's often presented that way, in the common implicit or even sometimes explicit boasting about hypothesis-free science.

Albert Einstein is often credited (falsely, apparently) with defining insanity as continuing to do the same thing and hoping the result will be different.   Even showing deep flaws in what is going on is often presented as a reason for doing even more of the same--for example, the commentary and article by Lek et al. in the 18 August issue of Nature.  Similar points can be made about the highly publicized issues of statistical inference that we've posted about before.  Nobody wants to, or perhaps knows how to, or dares to say that what we're doing is continuing along a path of wishful-thinking. Science is an Establishment that is naturally inertial and resists change.  But I believe the problems need to be pointed out.

Wendell Berry; Wikipedia (photo by By Guy Mendes

It may take a contrarian to assert this point of view.  Doing so may be in vain, but it isn't pointless and repetition does not make it false.  Our concern here on MT is about science and its position in society (I can be contrarian about other things, too!).  I try to be responsible in presenting my view, and to explain and to justify it. I am afraid I don't do it with eloquence.  But the poet-contrarian Wendell Berry, whom I have had the privilege of meeting a few times, does, having expressed contrariness quite well, as you can see on the OnBeing blogsite, and here's their link to Wendell reading it himself.  The poem begins, "I am done with apologies. If contrariness is my/inheritance and destiny, so be it. If it is my mission/to go in at exits and come out at entrances, so be it."  I won't complain if you leave here to go read the rest.


Anonymous said...

An astute contarians performs a useful societal function, even if it is evident at the time only to fellow contrarians.

I think SETI is worthless. If there are civilizations out there capable of contacting us, we need do nothing to hear from them.

As for these multi-million/billion, long-term, multi-lab big research programs creating through vast data sets, mapping, associations (often but not always of biological phenomena with -ome neologisms), I think they herald a new era of science. Call it Big Data, Posthuman Science, or even Post-Science; doesn't matter. There are major scientists approvingly hailing the death of hypothesis testing. Just massive number crunching, endless observation and pattern recognition at a speed, scale, and kind no human or even group of humans can do. An endless fishing expedition. One potential problem is that if machines are generating data and analyses, perhaps only machines will 'understand' it.

Ken Weiss said...

Of course, I agree. Machines will always catch some 'fish', but don't suffer the tragedy if they're wrong, the way biomedical 'fish' may lead to ineffective or dangerous treatment, or forestall better understanding. One problem is that without good causal theory, you have little or no way to know what's right and what's wrong, or how right or wrong they are, or whether the error level even matters.

Bragging about giving up hypothesis-driven science was many investigators' rationale (excuse?) for securing very costly, too-big-to-terminate projects, deferring any actual analysis for years, and then saying they need even more, longer-term data, etc. etc. It's a viable strategy in our computer-enamored, vested-interest system. Massive number crunching just 'seems' right, and focused hypothesis-based science archaic, from this point of view. The leading people doing this know very well what they are doing.

I am not knowledgeable enough to know how strong a signal a plane of Little Green People would have to send for us to detect it, and how encoded it would have to be for us to realize that it was an encoded signal of some sort. We've written many times (e.g., our recent LGP post) on the silliness of hints that we'll go there some time and shake hands (or fight) with them....

Saying this makes one a 'contrarian', because calling it 'truth-telling' is too dangerous. It would force people to think more deeply, and that's really difficult to do. And even more difficult to get a salary doing, in our current system of science.

Anonymous said...

I'm reminded of this billion Euro boondoggle that was actually scaled back when it failed to deliver: 'brain in a box'. Turns out modeling some aspects of the brain is a far cry from simulating a brain. (Theory might have helped with that, and dare I even say philosophy as well.)

Ken Weiss said...

It would seem to be important to understand how brain 'wiring' works, if it is consistent enough to even ask such a question that way. We know that there are functional regions that seem reasonably conserved among individuals--but that can remap during life--but how much we'll learn from the proposed sorts of brain neural maps is at most problematic.

I know several neuroscientists who say that the 'connectome' kinds of projects are Big-Science me-too boondoggles, using up a lot of public money that could be spent on more focused projects. One (who shall remain anonymous!) told us once that the Connectome project was obvious bunkum but that to get funding one needed to join up with it. This is a very common phenomenon ('we know it's bunk but we can't say so and have to be part of it'), and a kind of deep dishonesty in science as practiced today.

It will take a lot of resistance and protest, with some leaders from the top and a lot of un- or underemployed neuroscientists or students to turn this huge inertial system in some different direction. Showing the wastefulness and repetitive under-performance, which happens weekly it seems, makes no real difference, at least not yet.

Ken Weiss said...

To those who say that if one constantly repeats a criticism one just dulls and drives away the audience, then what about those who constantly repeat their boasts, exaggerations, and overstatements? People listen to that! It's because it makes them think doing the same thing that's being repeatedly exaggerated will be rewarded (with attention, publication, grants promotion). And, in our time and perhaps generally, it's true. But that doesn't mean that voicing criticism should cease because occasionally somebody will listen and perhaps that will lead him/her to think of something better to do. Then they get a Nobel Prize or a Macarthur etc.