Monday, November 30, 2009

Water, water everywhere, ... for Astronauts to drink

Once upon a time science was about understanding our world. Alas, now it's another marketing ploy. We see this in genetics, and we are not the only ones who have noticed the phenomenon. Any finding is immediately turned into a genetic-counseling-for-sale event, or a plea for more grant money.

But heck, let's change tunes (and sciences) for at least a moment. NASA recently announced that their Moon bomb discovered 'copious' amounts of water, a whopping dozen 2-gallon buckets (i.e., about a small bathtub's worth), and one ebullient project scientist said "We practically tasted it with the impact." Unfortunately, even in the first stories about this, what the taste was, was the taste of money.

The stories basically focused quickly around the importance of this frozen-mircotub as the salvation of future Lunarnauts, NASA's next Gimme project, not on the legitimately scientifically interesting reasons for the water, the actual amounts, how it got to where it is, etc.

We're in a bottom-line society, where lobbying and advertising are indistinguishable from real work, and the scientists involved know this very well. Much about the events, and the excitement, is staged lobbying.

In genetics and, perhaps especially in biomedical research, the same is true: a prevailing ethic is that of lobbying. "Grantsmanship" is taught early on in graduate students' academic careers. That means how to strategize. It is routinely said, often glowingly or even gloatingly, by senior investigators that they apply for grants to do what they've already done (but not yet published), so they know they can later claim success.

This is lying! It is but the tip of the iceberg of questionable science ethics. Dissembling and over-stating is par for the course. But so what? As anthropologists we can say, truthfully, that this is simply how our particular culture manages its dispensing of research funds (public through government grants, or privately through investment decisions). Whether anyone likes it or not, all cultures have their ways, almost always not entirely in synch with their supposed rules and ethics, and if the system functions, then as long as its nature generally understood among the practitioners, which in this case it is, well, that's life!

But it is legitimate to ask, if scientists are trained from the graduate school crib to mislead, where does one draw the line? Even if the line of actual data forgery is very rarely crossed, how much waste in the system is due to these practices, that are at best dissembling? Under competitive pressure, and when a project addresses the vested interests of a funder (e.g., a drug company or biotech equipment maker, or a faculty member seeking grants, salary, or tenure), how much are we misled? It's a fair question: even if this is our 'system', it is always in order to try to make it live up to its nominal claims (in this case, that science is ruthlessly objective honesty).

People always complain about the state of society, and a century from now we (well, somebody then) will look back and say, almost certainly, that recent decades have been the most scientifically productive of knowledge of any time in history, human foibles and personal vanities notwithstanding. We'll know who won the lobbying tournaments, and we'll know the science that resulted. We'll know how many entrepreneurs left little footprint, and how many were truly major contributors. But that's no excuse to look the other way. And it doesn't mean resources and thinking can't be put to better uses for society at large.

But lest we be accused simply of undue cynicism, failing simply to recognize that culture is as culture does, we note that while the Moon landings of the distant past brought us major societal advances (as NASA repeatedly tells us), they mainly consisted of Teflon and Tang. Personally, while we do occasionally cook with Teflon pans, we prefer actual orange juice to robotic orange juice (probably, that makes us some kind of food weirdos).

But we can at least, and without reservation, rejoice in the fact that future astronauts will not have to take their Tang dry. Now there's progress!


Anonymous said...

the fallacy of science, eh?

Ken Weiss said...

I wouldn't call it a fallacy. I would say that science is about the empirical world, but part of that is the sociocultural world in which it takes place.

Arjun said...

Would you go so far then as to say that science represents but one way of knowing about the world? That other branches(say, philosophy, religion) have some valid input as well?

Ken Weiss said...

It depends on what 'valid' means. Or whether one can assume that, in some senses at least, the 'real' world does exist as an objective phenomenon at least in principle, whether we can know it or not.

It's obvious that many cultures do fine in the world without western science, so the answer to your first question is certainly 'yes'. However, 'knowing about the world' in that context does not just mean knowing why salt forms crystals. In the sense that we can still usefully talk about sunrise and sunset, our explanations need not always be the best that science, as a way of knowing, has to offer.

Of course Feyerabend was the most radical in this area, and I'm sure many current philosophers of science have similarly relativeistic views.

Anne Buchanan said...

Also, Arjun, scientific illiteracy is rampant in the US, and elsewhere. People with little real scientific understanding manage to get through their lives just fine. Evolutionarily, that's perfectly valid too.