Monday, June 25, 2012

The sky is falling! (or not)

Now, here's a question prompted by an op/ed piece in the Sunday NYTimes: would chimps throwing darts at a dartboard predict a person's risk of disease as well as any GWAS results to date?  The op/ed piece is about the recent uproar in the political science world that arose when the US House of Representatives in May passed an amendment to a bill that would eliminate National Science Foundation funding for political science research.

The writer of the op/ed piece, Jacqueline Stevens, a professor of political science at Northwestern, says that her doomsaying colleagues will disapprove of her saying so, but that for once she agrees with this Republican initiative, even if it's motive is anti-intellectualism rather than any real understanding of the issue.  As she says, political science is spectacularly unable to predict major world events, and chimps throwing darts do just about as well, and millions and millions of dollars have been wasted on meaningless research.
...the government — disproportionately — supports research that is amenable to statistical analyses and models even though everyone knows the clean equations mask messy realities that contrived data sets and assumptions don’t, and can’t, capture.
That is, NSF rewards simplistic views of the world, and politically motivated views at that.  Or, said in terms we often use about genetics, political science has become a reductionist field, reducing complex events to single determining variables.  With no predictive power.  Stevens writes, "Many of today’s peer-reviewed studies offer trivial confirmations of the obvious and policy documents filled with egregious, dangerous errors."

And of course this doesn't apply to political science alone, even if Washington politicians are targeting just that field. It's true of economics, psychology, sociology, any aspect of social science that is reductionist and attempts to predict future events based on simple models. Economists and social scientists -- note the label -- aspire to being scientific.  If that meant careful factual analysis and proper data collection rather than views based on ideology, one might agree that there is something scientific about these fields.

But it has become a kind of dictum that one needs big mathematical or statistical models, computer data bases, and formal mathematical theories to be scientific.  Too often, if not typically, one either works with 'toy' models that are so stripped of detail as to be useless to the real world (despite the rationale that they tell us about the real world and where to look for effects), or they are so intricate that they snow people into believing that this is science because its arcane.

The humanities, religions, politics, and other areas of human endeavor have similar traits, but in this case we're talking largely about the kinds of social science that is done in universities, which are supposed to be about seeking truth rather than smoke-screening.  We doubt anyone can seriously argue that society is better off overall in terms of its psychological or social health than it was before the age of big research grants that are now the life blood of universities, and how social scientists justify their status and keep their jobs (teaching some, if and when they really have to).

Of course, while we think social sciences really do deserve all of this kind of critique, which is coming not from us but from their own ranks, MT readers will know that we certainly believe that genetics and medical sciences are somewhat comparable.  So, in fact, is physics with its mega-colliders, hype about life on alpha-centauri, and strings. Big science now is about building empires devoted to particular research strategies, exotic and impressively complex, despite knowing very well that they will not deliver what we promise. And the track record, overall, supports this. Research empires and establishments are made that work a certain technology or worldview, and they then are like oil takers, slow to change direction because they depend on continuity.  It's not really an evil so much as the normal way humans behave, especially when we do make at least some progress with societal benefit (perhaps much moreso, or more stably and accumulative in genetics than in social sciences), when we need to earn a living.

Research funding cuts or reform including some type of accountability for real results, not just CVs padded with long lists of publications might help.  Of course, the problems we want to solve in social and physical sciences alike are difficult so the failure to find easy answers isn't the issue. It's the failure to own up, the knowingly false promises, the need for grant continuity, and the amount of wasted public resources that's the problem.

Stevens offers this solution:
To shield research from disciplinary biases of the moment, the government should finance scholars through a lottery: anyone with a political science Ph.D. and a defensible budget could apply for grants at different financing levels. And of course government needs to finance graduate student studies and thorough demographic, political and economic data collection. I look forward to seeing what happens to my discipline and politics more generally once we stop mistaking probability studies and statistical significance for knowledge.
In any field, social or biological or physical, there are valuable kinds of data to collect. Census data, data on incomes, age and sex related aspects of well-being, and so on. And there are unsolved problems that ought to be soluble if we focus on them. What those more focused questions are in polysci, sociology, psychology, education, and economics is not for us to say. 

But in genetics, these involve traits that really are genetic in the usual, meaningful sense of the term. Huntington's disease, sickle cell anemia, muscular dystrophy and many others are examples: we know the responsible gene, even if other genes may contribute in minor ways. Genetic technologies should be able to do something about those disorders. It's where the funding should go.

Tomorrow, we'll comment on a related issue, the determination of behavioral scientists to prove that behavior is genetically determined and simple -- and that they will find the genes.

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