Saving science?

After my discussion about Reiner Grundmann’s Nature Comment, someone made me aware of an article called saving science. It’s rather long and has already been described as the the largest (and most verbose) strawman ever. His basic argument seems to be that science isn’t self-correcting and that to save it scientists must come out of the lab and into the real world.

One immediate issue is that the author appears to have largely mixed up science and engineering and appears to be suggesting that to save science, it must become engineering. Well, that’s not really saving it, it’s changing it. As a society, if we decide that [a]bsent their real-world validation through technology, scientific truths would be mere abstractions, then we could choose to change what we support, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that this would somehow save science. Of course, I think this would be wrong; I think there is merit in fundamental science, applied science, engineering, and technology and we should be careful of assuming that the only research that has value is that which has an obvious application.

However, I have a few more fundamental issues with the article. The author is Daniel Sarewitz, Professor of Science and Society at Arizona State University. The topic of this article is – as I understand it – his research area, and yet it all seems rather sloppy. He doesn’t do – in my view – a good job of distinguishing between the different research areas and between applied and fundamental research. He also makes a number of assertions that seem poorly justified. For example:

While most of the evidence of poor scientific quality is coming from fields related to health, biomedicine, and psychology, the problems are likely to be as bad or worse in many other research areas.

On what basis does he conclude that it is likely to be as or worse in many other research areas. Does he have any real evidence for this? He also suggests that

… the system that each year generates twenty-five thousand promising new Ph.D. scientists and nearly two million new articles of mostly dubious value ….

On what basis does he conclude that the two million new articles [are] of mostly dubious value? I appreciate that there is probably a lot of poor research out there, but suggesting that they are of mostly dubious value seems a rather strong claim. There are many reasons why we undertake research, and quantifying the value of a piece of research is extremely difficult.

However, some of what he says does have merit. There are clearly some problems that we could aim to resolve. Universities are now run much more like businesses than they once were and, hence, they certainly value research that can bring in funding over that which might still be good, but won’t attract as much money. There is a definite publish or perish mentality. What we value can also incentivise behaviour that may not be ideal; we’re all expected to show that our research has impact and this pressure can lead to a tendency to over-hype results.

But let’s think about this for a moment. The author of this piece is a Professor of Science and Society who is claiming that science is self-destructing and must be saved by coming out into the real world. Could this be? Possibly, but on the other hand a Professor of Science and Society who says “there are some problems with how we conduct research, but – overall – it’s been amazingly successful and we must be careful not to fix what ain’t broke” won’t have nearly as much impact as one who claims that it’s fundamentally flawed and needs a complete overhaul.

Of course, this is clearly a complex topic, and some of what he says does have merit. I may also misunderstand some of what he was suggesting. So, if anyone has any views of their own, feel free to make them through the comments. Standard moderation/comment rules apply 🙂

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90 Responses to Saving science?

  1. While most of the evidence of poor scientific quality is coming from fields related to health, biomedicine, and psychology, the problems are likely to be as bad or worse in many other research areas.

    Aren’t these fields the among the ones that are most applied, what other fields should strive to become?

  2. Victor,
    I had thought something similar myself. It certainly possible that most of the issues are in fields that are applied and where there is a real financial incentive to get positive results. Encouraging science to become more obviously applied doesn’t seem like an obvious to address the issues.

  3. afeman says:

    Ugh, Sarewitz. He has a history of this kind of thing.

    http://rabett.blogspot.com/search?q=sarewitz

  4. afeman,
    Thanks. The name sounded familiar, so I may have come across it on Eli’s site. Gavin’s tweet seems apt.

  5. Joshua says:

    –snip–
    Science, pride of modernity, our one source of objective knowledge, is in deep trouble.
    –snip–

    Just in passing, most fundamentally… how is it determined when “science” is in trouble and at what point “science” is in need of being “saved?”

    Sometimes I just get sick of the ubiquity of the binary mentality. Does the reality that “science” is imperfect tell us that it is in trouble and needs to be saved?

    And what kind of a scientist refers to “science” as a singular, concrete entity, anyway?

    As a thought experiment… I wonder what might the discussion look like when alarmist arguments such as this meet up with cornucopian arguments such as those that come from the ecomodernist manifestoers?

  6. I wonder what might the discussion look like when alarmist arguments such as this meet up with cornucopian arguments such as those that come from the ecomodernist manifestoers?

    Such a discussion may well have taken place.

  7. Joshua says:

    ==> Such a discussion may well take ==>

    I’m worried. Can cognitive dissonance prove fatal? If so, I’d better not read his article in one sitting.

  8. Chris says:

    It’s a good illustration of two fundamental problems of social science writing which are (i) the journalistic nature of its discourse – once a particular slant is chosen it seems to be all too easy to find examples to support one’s hobby-horse and then to just keep on “piling on”!. It would be quite easy to write an equivalent “science is amazing” article, but trashing science is quite fashionable … and (ii) the tendency to exhilarating (to the author) verbosity: e.g.

    Science isn’t self-correcting; it’s self-destructing.
    Part of the problem surely has to do with the pathologies of the science system itself. Academic science, especially, has become an onanistic enterprise worthy of Swift or Kafka.

    Actually if science is anything it is (i) self-correcting and (ii) the best way to find out about the natural world. [One could argue (re ii) that maybe we’ve already found out as much as we need to know??]. I can’t find anywhere in his article where Sarewitz illustrates that science isn’t self-correcting. But surely the whole point of science is to be self-correcting and it does this quite successfully at two levels – it corrects incorrect analyses and interpretations (so long as these are important enough to be worthwhile to correct) [e.g. Lindzen and Choi’s incorrect analysis of ERBE radiative flux or Spencer and Christy’s long term misinterpretation of microwave sounding unit tropospheric temperature proxies or Wolf-Simon et al’s interpretation of incorporation of arsenic in DNA in an extremophile bacterium etc. etc. etc. etc. etc.] and it establishes deeper levels of understanding of phenomena (e.g. relativistic nature of the universe over Newtonian mechanistic view; probabilistic nature of electron distribution in atomic orbitals over plum-pudding atomic models etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. )

    Sarewitz is right about a couple of things. Probably at least 50% of stuff that’s published (probably much more) is pretty much worthless and there are far too many people “doing science”. The explosion of new journals is ludicrous bordering on farcical and 70% of these could quite happily disappear without negatively impacting scientific progress ……and see how easy it is to write stuff like this!.

  9. Willard says:

    Out of the lab, into the barrack.

  10. Kevin Boyce says:

    I have to confess to not being able to slog through that interminable load. I was going to try, but I noticed climate change in his list of places where science is off the rails. So I searched for “climate” to see if he had any examples, and found this bit of plonk-inducing claptrap:

    Mathematical models of future rates and consequences of climate change are highly sensitive to assumptions about things that are totally unpredictable (such as trends in economic growth or technological innovation), and so the models spew out endless streams of trans-scientific facts that allow for claims and counterclaims…

    In which we learn that he is (one has to imagine deliberately) misunderstanding the concept of projections. It’s not like the concept of “representative concentration pathway” is tucked away in an obscure corner of the IPCC reports. Or that “If we continue business as usual…” has never prefaced a discussion of climate change.

  11. Chris says:

    Is science “self-destructing”?

    Sarewitz says so (or maybe it was a sub-editor, though Sarewitz must have agreed to that stupid assertion.).

    There’s nothing in Sarewitz’s article that supports the assertion. So can we come up with any evidence ourselves?

    Anyone got any ideas? One might argue that some aspects of science create unintended problems, and in my opinion this is a significant concern and is one of the ways that contemporary science (conducted in perhaps a more pessimistic ambience) differs from the heady delights of post WW2 science. One example is the amazing discovery of anti-infective agents in the 1920’s through the 1980’s and the growing realization that their use has resulted in bacterial resistance that is already causing significant problems. The development of 20th and 21st century weaponry and the scientific and technological contribution to industrial development has its serious downsides (global warming anyone?) and so on… But does that equate to the “self-destruction” of science? What does Sarewitz mean by that empty phrase?????

  12. Chris,

    It’s a good illustration of two fundamental problems of social science writing which are (i) the journalistic nature of its discourse

    Yes, that struck me too. It certainly seems that there are some who seem to see their roles as observers who then editorialise about their observations. Maybe they also do rigorous research too, but this isn’t obvious.

    Kevin,

    I was going to try, but I noticed climate change in his list of places where science is off the rails.

    That put me off a little too.

    In which we learn that he is (one has to imagine deliberately) misunderstanding the concept of projections.

    Indeed. I am still amazed that some still don’t seem to understand this basic concept. That we don’t know what we will actually do with regards to future emissions, doesn’t mean we can’t use model to understand what might happen were we to follow certain possible future emission pathways.

  13. Chris,

    But does that equate to the “self-destruction” of science? What does Sarewitz mean by that empty phrase?????

    I don’t know either. It’s almost as if he thinks science has to be right in some objectively quantifiable way (i.e., develop some technology that actually does what was intended) before it has value.

  14. Chris says:

    Yes well spotted Kevin Boyce – you’ve hit upon a third (see my post at 1.31 pm) problem of (some) social science writing which is that the practicioner unfortunately doesn’t realize that his (it’s usually a “he”) complete lack of scientific understanding in a particular field should at least make him pause before pronouncing – (this might be called the “Nottingham conceit”)

  15. lerpo says:

    From the Sarewitz article” “scientific knowledge advances most rapidly, and is of most value to society, not when its course is determined by the “free play of free intellects” but when it is steered to solve problems — especially those related to technological innovation.”

    Another perspective from Neil DeGrass Ttyson: “You should never legislate what frontier gets breached next because you don’t know what’s on the other side of either of those frontiers. You have no idea, I don’t have any idea either. A colleague of mine is an expert in studying atomic nuclei. He found out that nuclei resonate with magnetic fields placed across them. He won a Nobel prize.for that discovery. Later on medical technologists said “hey wait a minute, I could make a machine out of that” and out of that came the MRI. Don’t ever tell me which direction should be researched and presume that you know the answer.that you want to have on the other side of that barrier. The history of this exercise does not bear that out.”https://youtu.be/gRdwGb_wctA?t=94

    Would we have developed the MRI sooner if we had leashed scientific creativity towards this end or was the “free play of free intellects” required to first open the frontier for the technologists?

  16. Chris says:

    Science is Fecking Amazing!

    Identification of the Boson has been established (if only had been called the Higgs bosom!)

    Developments in stem cell technology, sRNA therapeutics, CRISPR gene editing and the developing methodologies for growing stem-cell-derived organs will likely herald a new era of medical interventions.

    Novel drug-based therapies for interventions in Alzheimer’s-type neurodegenerative diseases are much further advanced than predicted even a few years ago.

    Recent developments in Electron Microscopy have allowed astonishing insight into atomic resolution structures of biological structures, especially cell membrane receptor and ion channel proteins which are new targets for drug-based therapies.

    A concerted scientific effort to establish the nature and causes of Earth climate variability, and the consequences of massively-enhanced greenhouse gas production has resulted in unprecedented insight into climate change and a strong and developing basis for informed policy-making.

    In just the last 10 years developments in wind and solar power generation will make them competitive with gas powered energy generation.

    New methods of identifying potentially-earth-like planets in distant reaches of the Universe are resulting in a steady stream of new findings.

    Novel, efficient tiny batteries…new applications in Magnetic Resonance Imaging…enhanced efficiencies in electrolysis for hydrogen generation…..development of novel microbial sources for hydrocarbon fuels…
    .
    Astonishing scientific advances across the board…..If there are hard problems we definitely want science on board to help deal with them … social scientists? Not so much… 🙂

  17. Chris says:

    lerpo

    Yup, and in case anyone thinks these were simply technological developments (they certainly were partly) they resulted in Nobel Prizes to (inter alia):

    Richard Ernst ETH Research Institute Zurich Switz
    Paul Lauterbur, Uni Illinois USA
    Peter Mansfield, Uni Nottingham UK

    Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy and Magnetic resonance Imaging are a product of fundamental scientific investigation and advance, allied with technological developments (in electronics, computation and high magnetic fields).

  18. A few years ago the Institute of Physics got a consulting firm to try and track what research lead to certain technological developments. They apparently came back after a while and said that they couldn’t. It was apparently such a complex chain that it really wasn’t possible to develop a simple link between the fundamental research and the final product.

  19. John Mashey says:

    Sarewitz runs the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes,
    at ASU. which leads with
    “Can Science Be Saved?
    In a landmark new essay, Daniel Sarewitz explodes our myths about science and how it’s supposed to work.”

    CSPO publishes books like Pielke, Jr’s The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change. That’s just one in “The RIghtful Place of Science” series. or listed on their website. You can use the former to Look Inside and at least see ToCs. I think most of the chapters are by CSPO people, although I haven’t checked carefully.

    Science on the Verge was discussed by ATTP in June.

    Note my comment on attendance at 2011 Lisbon meeting..

  20. Chris says:

    I might add re Magnetic Resonance Imaging, that this is an example of something excellent coming out of the University of Nottingham …and this might be contrasted with some rather dismal “Social Science” from this same location 🙂

    What do we consider more valuable? Proper Science leading to astonishing developments in medical diagnostics….or self-important and rather ignorant pronouncements from social scientists especially in relation to climate change and policy implications?

    interesting in relation to Sarewitz’s article…

  21. JM,
    Thanks, I’d forgotten about that link.

    Chris,
    I should probably make clear that there is also some very good social science coming out of the University of Nottingham 🙂 In fact, this is quite an interesting post from the University of Nottingham’s Making Science Public blog that mentions this very article.

  22. Willard says:

    Here’s what Daniel doesn’t get: crappiness.

    The crappier the science, the better it gets.

    Sound Science ™ does not require it corrects itself everywhere all the time. It only needs to get there, in the zone, into town (etc) once, twice, or a few times.

    Harder, faster, better, stronger:

    (Cheaper too!)

    What remains after Sound Science got there?

    You guessed it – a bunch of crap.

    Thank you.

  23. Chris says:

    ATTP I’m sure there is! (i.e. good social science research coming out Nottingham Uni)…however in the spirit of instantly-reactive, blog-o-sphere discourse one shouldn’t pass up an opportunity to highlight “academic” rubbish when this appears…

  24. Willard says:

    Crap, Chris. Get used to it.

    Brace yourselves – more crap than ever before is on the way.

  25. Willard says:

    That’s the spirit:

    Sound Science ™ – Harder, Better, Faster, Do It

    Pick Daniel if you please, I go with Shia.

  26. Chris says:

    Lerpo highlighted this from Sarewitz:

    “scientific knowledge advances most rapidly, and is of most value to society, not when its course is determined by the “free play of free intellects” but when it is steered to solve problems — especially those related to technological innovation.”

    As Lerpo’s example (of MRI) is an illustration, this (unsupported by evidence but then Sarewitz isn’t a scientist) assertion is wrong and one could come up with loads of examples – e.g. the discovery of the structure of DNA, the working out of the molecular biology of DNA replication, gene transcription and regulation and protein synthesis that underlies the entire field of modern molecular biology and molecular medicine was the product of “free play of free intellects”…Likewise the developments in nuclear spin physics that lead to NMR Spectroscopy and MRI…and on…and on…

    In fact the development of computers was to a large extent the product of the “free play of free intellects” as recounted in George Dyson’s excellent “Turings Cathedral” Penguin Books 2013, even if some of the early WW2 and post WW2 imperatives were military (improved aircraft bomb aiming; nuclear bombs)…even in 1946 von Neumann who pretty much single-handedly drove the US effort into development of computers had a major aim to develop computational models for weather prediction (as well as nuclear bombs).

    Sarewitz’s assertion is a little illogical anyway since the “free play of free intellects” is inherently played out in a context of problem solving. The question might be who decides on the problems, and science advances most efficiently when the problems are perceived to be interesting, important and solvable.

  27. Eli Rabett says:

    Really dispiriting that clowns like Sarewitz get space in Nature, and Eli has but an umble blog.

  28. You could write something for Nature, couldn’t you? 🙂

  29. Chris: “There’s nothing in Sarewitz’s article that supports the assertion.

    Did someone else read more (carefully) and found any assertion that was supported by evidence beyond some anecdote?

  30. On what basis does he conclude that the two million new articles [are] of mostly dubious value? I appreciate that there is probably a lot of poor research out there, but suggesting that they are of mostly dubious value seems a rather strong claim. There are many reasons why we undertake research, and quantifying the value of a piece of research is extremely difficult.

    I concur that this is key. If the “two million new articles of mostly dubious value” is accepted, then, whatever the criterion is being used to judge them there should be plenty of examples in any draw from nearly any common discipline. But below the point of that claim about results being “dubious”, there’s:

    In the future, the most valuable science institutions will be closely linked to the people and places whose urgent problems need to be solved; they will cultivate strong lines of accountability to those for whom solutions are important; they will incentivize scientists to care about the problems more than the production of knowledge.

    This sounds to me like Sarewitz wants Science to be Engineering. Being an engineer by training, I might be flattered, except that I know damn well that even in engineering the best new techniques, methods, and results arise not so much from deliberate optimization of some problem space but actually groping about in the dark. In fact, we’ve only recently (last 20 years) begun to master powerful optimization algorithms that do just that … The nonlinear optimization methods can stuck in local optima, and once in a while, if the object is to find a bigger optimum, y’need to take what might called a Lévy walks (to use the analogy from biology). In fact, many strategies for biological survival depend upon this kind of behavior.

    So, if Engineering needs to take “blind steps into the dark” in order to keep it vibrant, I would judge that for Science it’s all the more important to have scientists caring primarily about “the production of knowledge”. Apart from disciplined and rigorous criticism of scientific work, especially one’s own, it’s the only way of finding out both which of the things we think we know aren’t so, and things we could not previously (even) imagine. Sorry, Dr Sarewitz, if that sounds expensive and ineffective. It’s how the world works.

  31. hypergeometric,

    This sounds to me like Sarewitz wants Science to be Engineering.

    Yes, that was certainly my impression. What is he really suggesting? That scientists who do fundamental research don’t care about problems? Most of us think that it is all related in some way. We develop understanding, we are involved in developing technology that might be aimed at addressing something fundamental but that often involves the developing of new technology that could be used elsewhere, and many of us teach people who could end up doing anything. I would argue that if all research should be aimed at solving problems that are seen as urgent, we would miss out on lots of opportunities that are very difficult to predict in advance.

  32. Magma says:

    Summary review: pretentious and wrong. Sometime in the early 1990s Sarewitz made the leap from neotectonics to metascience. I don’t think it was entirely successful.

  33. Willard says:

    > Did someone else read more (carefully) and found any assertion that was supported by evidence beyond some anecdote?

    I’d settle for any kind of crap that would substantiate Daniel’s main point, i.e. that “Science is trapped in a self-destructive vortex.”

    For you know me – I like crap.

  34. lerpo says:

    Here’s Feynman on his Nobel prize that resulted from “piddling around with the wobbling plate” (probably not something a bureaucrat would have “leashed” his scientific creativity towards:

    Within a week I was in the cafeteria and some guy, fooling around, throws a plate in the air. As the plate went up in the air I saw it wobble, and I noticed the red medallion of Cornell on the plate going around. It was pretty obvious to me that the medallion went around faster than the wobbling.

    I had nothing to do, so I start to figure out the motion of the rotating plate. I discover that when the angle is very slight, the medallion rotates twice as fast as the wobble rate – two to one [Note: Feynman mis-remembers here—the factor of 2 is the other way]. It came out of a complicated equation! Then I thought, “Is there some way I can see in a more fundamental way, by looking at the forces or the dynamics, why it’s two to one?”

    I don’t remember how I did it, but I ultimately worked out what the motion of the mass particles is, and how all the accelerations balance to make it come out two to one.

    I still remember going to Hans Bethe and saying, “Hey, Hans! I noticed something interesting. Here the plate goes around so, and the reason it’s two to one is …” and I showed him the accelerations.

    He says, “Feynman, that’s pretty interesting, but what’s the importance of it? Why are you doing it?”

    “Hah!” I say. “There’s no importance whatsoever. I’m just doing it for the fun of it.” …

    …the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.

  35. Willard says:

    > Really dispiriting that clowns like Sarewitz get space in Nature, and Eli has but an umble blog.

  36. lerpo says:

    On the other hand much of the work of Gilbert Plass was funded and directed by the US Air Force and climate change is certainly a practical area of research that we could direct funding towards.

  37. Magma says:

    lerpo: That accounts for a previously unexplained phone conversation secretly recorded by the FBI.

    H. Bethe: Albert, Feynman knows about the plate. He _knows_!
    A. Einstein: Not the [inaudible] spinning wobbly[?] plate?
    H. Bethe: Yes!
    A. Einstein: Scheisse.

  38. James Denton says:

    ATTP said
    “A few years ago the Institute of Physics got a consulting firm to try and track what research lead to certain technological developments. They apparently came back after a while and said that they couldn’t. It was apparently such a complex chain that it really wasn’t possible to develop a simple link between the fundamental research and the final product.”

    That made me think of James Burke’s Connections programs –
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Connections_(TV_series)

    Perhaps if Sarewitz did some “lab” work studying Burke he might get it?

  39. MikeH says:

    Sarewitz is a Senior Fellow at The Breakthrough Institute is probably the only explanation that you need.

    http://thebreakthrough.org/archive/2010_breakthrough_senior_fello

  40. izen says:

    Premise;
    All human activity is social. It is socially determined, constrained and defined.
    Therefore social science is the science of everything.

    But, science research often seems to be independent of society, making discoveries about the material world that are not just socially embedded constructs.

    Therefore it is in error and must be corrected to be socially determined and accountable to its stakeholders.
    The call is not that science should become mere engineering, but that it becomes what social science says it ought to be. A subset of social science.

  41. izen says:

    Recently internal memos from the Royal Society have come to light…

    Mr Faraday
    It has come to our notice that you have purchased a large quantity of lead, zinc and sulphuric liquid to pursue your research into somehting called electricy. You claim this is some sort of invisible aether that travels through metal. While such esoterica may pique the curiosity of the Natural philosopher, it can have no relevence to the pressing problems of the day.
    Unless you can provide somne social justification for your reserach into this obscure branch of physics, you must desist from this pointless investigation.

    Social accountability office RS

    Dear sir
    I am still working on the lead glass that has a practical application in telescopes. The additional research I conduct into electricity may yet prove to be of practical value. I have recently created a circular mechanical motin from the passage of the electrical fluid through a wire in the prescence of a magnet. please visit my lab for a demonstartion.
    Mr Faraday

    ——-

    Mr Faraday
    Havong seen the demonstartion of electrical motion we are less convinced of its social utility. Such a weak and feeble effect, obtained under such unusual conditions seems far inferior to the clockwork motors we have and incapable of providing any solutions to the real problems we have in deriving greater power from steam. while yopur work on lead glass may have some utility, its application seems most closely linked to astronomy. This is another area that some scientists may be pursuing beyond its utility in navigation to the detriment to the usefullness of science. Please provide some reason founded in social utility for your research or desist.

    Social accountability officer RS

    ————

    The reply is missing.

    ———

    Mr Faraday.
    Your recent claims that the electrical force you are working on can by some magnetic aura, be transmitted through empty space to another wire without an intervening medium is clearly at odds with all that is known in science. Not only is your research into this electricity bereft of any social utility, it flies in the face of the certain knowledge that has proved its worth in many years of application. The social accountability office will propose the cessation of funding for your futile research and that the RS prohibits any other scientist from wasting time on this useless curiosity to prevent the reputation of science as a socially useful human pursuit being destroyed by this misplaced obsession with a trivial phenomena.

    Social accountability office. RS

  42. David B. Benson says:

    Izen — Words fail.

    Keep it up!

  43. dikranmarsupial says:

    ATTP wrote “But let’s think about this for a moment. The author of this piece is a Professor of Science and Society who is claiming that science is self-destructing and must be saved by coming out into the real world. Could this be? Possibly, but on the other hand a Professor of Science and Society who says “there are some problems with how we conduct research, but – overall – it’s been amazingly successful and we must be careful not to fix what ain’t broke” won’t have nearly as much impact as one who claims that it’s fundamentally flawed and needs a complete overhaul. “

    Nail hit squarely on the head. Individual scientists tend to get a bit carried away with their own theories; imagination is required to come up with new theories, but you also need to be able to temper that with a good amount of self-skepticism. This is why we should be wary of paying too much attention to individual (social) scientists (c.f. Wadhams) and be aware of spread of mainstream (social) scientific opinion. The problem is that the media want to sell something, and dull reality doesn’t sell as well as hyperbole.

    I have to say I am not hugely in favour of impact measures (at least not those that are often used), if it included impact on other scientists (e.g. citations perhaps, although that is not without difficulties) that would be better, but there still needs to be room for the Peter Higgs’ of the world to be able to do what they do.

  44. dikranmarsupial says:

    “scientific knowledge advances most rapidly, and is of most value to society, not when its course is determined by the “free play of free intellects” but when it is steered to solve problems — especially those related to technological innovation.”

    In other words, “when it is well funded”.

    There are exceptions of course, for example particle physics isn’t steered to solve problems, other than just discover whatever physics is there to be found. It has been well funded (e.g. CERN) and it has been successful.

  45. pete best says:

    Science does have issues, many of them but they are of its own making really. One of them was the recent anomaly with the LHC data which may have indicated a new particle and which produced numerous papers as to what it could be when it actually turned out to be, well an anomaly and not a particle at all. So maybe in some areas of physics (particles and cosmology) we have too much theory and not much else to go on. I like these subjects but in terms of real world, well yes its a bit of a mess when it comes to knowing more factually about unknowns.

    The other thing appears to be repeatability, one article I read recently especially when it comes to human experiments is that even the teams that conducted the original research cant recreate the original results and often some teams draw up the wrong conclusions and then cant repeat the experiments accurately. Sloppy Science is conducted by sloppy scientists or is the real issue with the media who things the public is obsessed with health, diet (weight) and lifestyle issues and hence any experiment results in this arena is straight into a paper with a bogus headline.

  46. Pete,

    One of them was the recent anomaly with the LHC data which may have indicated a new particle and which produced numerous papers as to what it could be when it actually turned out to be, well an anomaly and not a particle at all.

    I don’t really see this as much of an issue. Maybe a bit more circumspection would be good, but what really happened? People got excited for a while and then they worked out it was an anomaly. That’s kind of how it is meant to work.

  47. dikranmarsupial says:

    ATTP wrote “People got excited for a while and then they worked out it was an anomaly. That’s kind of how it is meant to work.”

    The media tends to get interested when people at the LHC get excited about something and are checking it out. That isn’t how it is supposed to work, ideally scientists should be able to be exited about things without the media telling everybody about it until they have checked it out, as otherwise it gives the impression there is something wrong with science, when actually it is just normal science performed competently. They seem rather less interested when I find something interesting! ;o)

  48. Marco says:

    “The other thing appears to be repeatability”

    Which brings us nicely to one example Sarewitz uses – the anecdote of Slamon regarding herceptin. Slamon may complain he did not get funding because the idea was too far outside the mainstream opinion, but that in my opinion ignores the fact that several people could originally not reproduce the finding that HER-2 was so important to cancer development. Add Genentech abandoning the development of herceptin for a while, for different reasons, and I can see why reviewers of funding proposals from Slamon would be hesitant to throw money at the concept.
    By the time the NBCC helped to speed up the development, a clinical trial had already been done. It is certainly possible that it would have been left at that one trial if the NBCC had not funded later trials, or it would have gone a lot slower (from first-in-man to approved in 6 years is very fast for a drug), but lots of prior important work that was generously funded is then ignored if that’s seen as the decisive step. For example the development of hybridoma technology, recombinant DNA technology, and oncogene identification. Without those, herceptin would never even have been imagined.

  49. pete best says:

    ATTP and Dikranmarsupial

    Its not the media that is the issue here but science blogs of the scientists themselves.

    http://backreaction.blogspot.co.uk/2016/08/the-lhc-nightmare-scenario-has-come-true.html

    Sabine runs one of the best and most illuminating blogs in science if only you can understand what she is going on about so informative is her blog.

  50. Pete,
    Not quite sure what your overall point is. Sabine makes a good point that it isn’t clear what to do next, given that there is no real evidence from the LHC for new physics. I’m not sure, however, why that is necessarily an issue, other than it makes it difficult to know what direction a field like particle physics should take.

  51. dikranmarsupial says:

    Those who read scientists blogs (including science journalists) should have known that the result was not confirmed (IIRC The BBC was fairly sensible in its coverage). I don’t see anything in that posts other than normal science (science often makes progress in leaps and bounds, rather than steady slow progress, which is perhaps where Kuhn overstates things) and between the leaps and bounds there are lacunae where little progress is apparent (but that doesn’t mean it isn’t being made). Ideally you need both “doing the same thing” (higher energies in the case of LHC?) and “doing something new”. The latter is much harder, but the obvious reply is “well think up something and do it then!”. Similar things certainly happen in my own research field. Frustrating, I would agree, but there is no fundamental problem with science there AFAICS.

    I thought the taunting of Prof. Cox at the end was a bit out of order though ;o)

  52. pete best says:

    ATTP:

    I just find her blog fascinating and I think that fundamental physics has reached a point where theorists are waiting for results to rule out certain ideas and options but if the LHC turns out to not show anything due to the energy levels not being high enough (and no earth particle accelerator can) then where next for particle physics? Sean Carrol thus states that it must be possible to move beyond empirical proof being needed to demonstrate the fundamental nature of the Universe (well that is how I interpret it anyway).

    The same thing can be said to apply to cosmology as quantum gravity is not as yet forth coming but ideas abound about it but its just not possible to show if any of it is right especially string theory as the energy levels required are orders of magnitude higher than what is possible on earth.

    So is proof needed anymore ?

  53. Pete,
    I think we always have to be wary of ideas that can’t be tested. In my view, however, that does not mean we should not consider such ideas at all. For example, we may not be able to build at Earth accelerator that has sufficient energy, but there are extremely energetic processes in the universe and maybe someone will come up with a clever way of testing a particle physics theory using some kind of astronomical observation.

    So is proof needed anymore ?

    Technically, this is only for mathematics and alcohol :-), but I do think that theories that we can’t test have little value until we have some way to test them.

  54. Well, y’know, some of what you describe is entirely because Science or, at least, scientists are trying to make their research relevant. This pressures them to get into the public media, especially when gads of money have been spent on their efforts.

    And why should the LHC blip be seen as a “failure”? Therein lies the misunderstanding of Science and of all innovation. First, experimental variability is always with us. Second, in true research you can’t engineer success, only position yourself in a place where success is more likely than otherwise.

    In a former position at a major company I served on a board which reviewed corporate applied research. Every year we’d sit there and listen to one Principal Investigator after another tout the successes of the past year. One year, out of some frustration, I remarked that there were not enough failures being presented, and that meant that either the Investigators were cooking the books, or they were not taking enough risk. This comment did not go over that well, but it highlights the attitude towards some when trying to fund Science.

    I have heard that the National Science Foundation tends to be conservative when awarding grants, so it is difficult for a new scientists to get direct funding, always needing to work on a team with a more senior scientist, one having an established track record.

  55. dikranmarsupial says:

    Pete Best – isn’t that just how science works? I still don’t see how this is a problem for science (as an approach), just reality being inconvenient.

  56. dikranmarsupial says:

    ATTP “I think we always have to be wary of ideas that can’t be tested.”

    Indeed, you need to understand the theory reasonably well before you can design a fair test for it, so you need to do some exploration first. I don’t see why the exploration should be unpublishable just because it isn’t testable at the current time. I suspect Einstein probably did a fair bit of exploration before concerning himself with testing relativity.

    “For example, we may not be able to build at Earth accelerator that has sufficient energy, but there are extremely energetic processes in the universe and maybe someone will come up with a clever way of testing a particle physics theory using some kind of astronomical observation.”

    From what I gather, there is a fair bit of exchange already between cosmology and particle physics of this nature. IIRC Alan Guth started out as a particle physicist?

    “Technically, this is only for mathematics and alcohol LOL, I’ll need to remember that one!

  57. The mathematics and alcohol comment is courtesy of Mike Mann.

  58. pete best says:

    From what I gather, there is a fair bit of exchange already between cosmology and particle physics of this nature. IIRC Alan Guth started out as a particle physicist?

    What relevance is that to what I said? Cosmology and particle physics are linked along with relativity and quantum physics.

    It is a problem for some sciences as it may have reached a plateau and to know more might not be realistic. String Theory is 30 years old but has not a single shred of proof to explain why so many people are studying it just because they all think its the best way to quantum gravity (Quantum Loop Gravity is another idea as well).

    I always mention experimental repeatability which appears to be an issue as well as lots of sciences appear to have this issue which was written about recently saying that there are issues with the issue of finding your original results to some degree. This appears to be a fundamental requirement of science as well. Being able to demonstrate that your findings are robust and if derived from experiments then repeatable. Anyone remember cold fusion which was refuted precisely for this reason

  59. What relevance is that to what I said? Cosmology and particle physics are linked along with relativity and quantum physics.

    The point was more that there may be things that we can’t test by building equipment here on Earth, but that we could test by observing astronomical phenomena elsewhere in the universe. I was simply suggesting that we shouldn’t simply throw out ideas simply because we don’t know how to test them yet. On the other hand, there may be some (and string theory may indeed suffer from this) that there is no hope of testing.

  60. dikranmarsupial says:

    Pete Best “What relevance is that to what I said?” if you look you will find I was responding to something that ATTP wrote, I wrote it in a separate comment beginning “ATTP” to show I was responding to ATTP.

    “It is a problem for some sciences as it may have reached a plateau”

    That is still not a problem for science as an approach, which was the topic under discussion AFAICS.

    “Anyone remember cold fusion which was refuted precisely for this reason”

    yes, science worked pretty well in its self-correcting capacity.

  61. dikranmarsupial says:

    ATTP “The point was more that there may be things that we can’t test by building equipment here on Earth, but that we could test by observing astronomical phenomena elsewhere in the universe. ”

    IIRC Popperian falsifiability only requires that the theory is capable of being falsified in principle, not that it could be done immediately (i.e. we have the technology to perform the test immediately and we don’t need to wait for observations of the future).

  62. “The other thing appears to be repeatability, one article I read recently especially when it comes to human experiments is that even the teams that conducted the original research cant recreate the original results and often some teams draw up the wrong conclusions and then cant repeat the experiments accurately. Sloppy Science is conducted by sloppy scientists or is the real issue with the media who things the public is obsessed with health, diet (weight) and lifestyle issues and hence any experiment results in this arena is straight into a paper with a bogus headline.”

    It might be fun when the literature section of The New Yorker would write a special issue on literature in the bottom half rather than the top.

    Next step when the games industry funds journalists to continually write such articles about degenerate art.

    Bad science will not go away. Partially it is even necessary. If you are not allowed to make mistakes, you will never do something interesting new.

    A more interesting question is whether science gets ahead, or whether its efficiency could be improved. But Sarewitz stubbornly refuses the entire too long article to show any evidence; just a litany of anecdotes.

  63. Magma says:

    Daniel Sarewitz has published an important essay entitled Saving Science, published in The New Atlantis. The article is a tour de force, and I definitely recommend that you read the entire thing. The article is lengthy (approaching 14,000 words), but it is very readable.

    Guess who? Come on, guess. You’ll nev–
    Everyone: Judith Curry?

  64. izen says:

    There is a problem with citing bio-medical research with its known faults, failures and frauds and asserting that this pattern is likely to be a common feature of all scientific research. There is an extensive literature describing the flaws in bio-medical research and some convincing explanations for the cause of these problems.
    The solution proposed by Sarewitz, making science socially relevant by directing research towards specif problem solving and ensuring funding is directed by pragmatic choice by social stakeholders rather than an old-pal ivory tower of government grants, is the very process implicated in the problems found in bio-medical research.

    Specific focus on a narrow problem has led to research for a treatment of the symptoms rather than finding a prevention of the cause. Pragmatic economic choices have made much pharmacological research focus on the problem of discovering a new drug that is sufficiently similar to an existing treatment to have the same metabolic effect, but sufficiently dissimilar in its formulation, manufacture or treatment regime to be patented with the attended benefits of exclusivity and licencing.
    ‘Pure’ research, from which bio-medical advances like herceptin emerged are invariably funded by governments. Practical development of such ideas is only funded by pragmatic shareholders when the opportunity for economic gain is well established.

    It is tempting to transplant this sociological enthusiasm for problem focused science responsive to a pragmatic social vision, along with the Breakthough Institute’s enthusiasm for directed funding for technological adaption back a hundred years.

    I suspect they would have strongly approved of the major chemicals company of the day focusing its research on two significant problems of the time. The poor efficiency of gasoline fuels and the danger of refrigident liquids. Perhaps they would have celebrated the scientist who solved both problems with tetraethyl lead for increasing the octane rating of fuel and CFC’s as a safe liquid for refrigeration.

    Perhaps sociology might be better employed in examining why it took over 40 years for these two mistakes to be rectified. And what role industrial funding of science research delayed the acceptance of the need to abandon these products. That might have more utility, and bring more social benefit than claiming that most science is useless and it must be re-organised on the very lines that cause the problems in its best example of scientific malfunction.

    When a theoretician, philosopher or sociologist claims to have identified a significant flaw that de-legitimises current scientific knowledge, it rarely requires much digging to find they are the outer glove of a controlling hand with financial interests in maintaining the status quo.

  65. izen,
    This was exactly my impression

    The solution proposed by Sarewitz, making science socially relevant by directing research towards specif problem solving and ensuring funding is directed by pragmatic choice by social stakeholders rather than an old-pal ivory tower of government grants, is the very process implicated in the problems found in bio-medical research.

  66. Observer says:

    pete, the study of quantum cosmology and quantum gravity has moved into condensed matter and cold atom physics with spectacular and useful (in fact guaranteed) results at far less cost. It’s only the HEP community and the string theory community that hasn’t caught onto that yet. They will.

  67. guthrie says:

    Izen – yes, that’s it. Too often scientists and science in general get blamed for things which are societal issues, as if hte scientists are supposed to be able to magically understand, better than any sociologists etc, what effects their ideas will have in the wider world.

  68. Russell Seitz says:

    How odd a Sarewitz opinion piece should appear in Nature so soon after Bishop Hill went AWOL..
    Could they be related , or entangled at the quantum level?

  69. Pingback: It’s so important to be disinterested in science | Symptoms Of The Universe

  70. pete best says:

    pete, the study of quantum cosmology and quantum gravity has moved into condensed matter and cold atom physics with spectacular and useful (in fact guaranteed) results at far less cost. It’s only the HEP community and the string theory community that hasn’t caught onto that yet. They will.

    Cite any examples as from what I can see its still all about strings and loop quantum gravity still?

  71. Observer says:

    pete, it’s going to be very difficult to study something that starts at the electroweak scale and runs all the way up through many orders of magnitude to the Planck scale, gravitational collapse and the black holes. unless some kind of quantum criticality is involved. Right now it’s all about the Higgs mechanism and axion physics, and condensed matter physics and cold atom physics are the only way to study these concepts when confronted with a particle desert above the TeV scale.

    If you or anyone else knows of a better way to study the unknown and inaccessible in the present era of budget constraints, there are many condensed matter physicists who would love to hear about it, but they already have their hands full with this new physics paradigm and it’s revealing emergent phenomena that would be impossible to predict any other way – applicable and exploitable new phenomena at a rate that is almost impossible to comprehend by any one person.

    See, for instance, arxiv.org/abs/1607.01460 or doi:10.1038/nature17943

    A physicist nowadays can do great physics and save the planet at the same time, and it’s all super fun and interesting even if you EXCLUDE gravitation. Unfortunately the results thus far seem to indicate that gravitation is intimately involved with QFT theory at a fundamental level.

    What’s not to like about that? This might even save string theory from itself. Or at least point it into a new more specific topological direction.

  72. pete best says:

    Oh I thought singularities were the issue, well avoiding them anyway.

  73. Observer says:

    Quantum criticality is a singularity of sorts – a low energy singularity that is not catastrophic and is amenable to study. What they reveal can be applied to gravitational singularities, which from preliminary condensed matter physics results appear not to be singularities at all. So I take a different view than cosmologists and high energy physicists. This is not the end of physics but rather the beginning of physics. The point I am trying to make is that low energy physics recapitulates high energy physics, with the added extra benefits that it produces practical and useful results – which appear to be eminently suitable for solving the current carbon problem.

    It appears now that life itself originated via carbon dioxide reduction through charge transfer.

    That’s your answer right there.

  74. izen says:

    The magnets powering the LHC at Cern generate around 10 Tesla.
    Bet they would like some this strong !

    http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a577350.pdf

  75. pete best says:

    cosmologists don’t think singularities exist either. In purely classical relativity they can but not when quantum physics is taken into account they cant but its proving it either way that is the issue. After all the t=0 origin of the universe and black holes are where its to be resolved. I did read about what you are suggesting so lets see if it all pans out as you are suggesting.

    I am not sure where your connection with low CO2 energy comes from as all I am seeing is wind turbines and CSP/Solar as real alternatives to fossil fuels are fusion is a dream (still) and fission is way too expensive presently. Any ideas ?

  76. Russell says:

    The very long ( 14,000,000 words !) form of Sarewitz’s Nature op-ed appears in the Summer 2016 issue of The New Atlantis , ” published by the Center for the Study of Technology and Society in partnership with the Ethics and Public Policy Center.”, lately colonized by, no groans from the Grauns, please, The Templeton Foundation.

  77. Russell says:

    It only reads like 14,000,000 words.

    It’s a svelte 14,000, references included.

  78. izen says:

    @-Russel
    “lately colonized by, no groans from the Grauns, please, The Templeton Foundation.”

    No groans, I don’t know what a ‘Graun’ is, but it is satisfying to have confirmed that there is the usual sort of puppeteer behind this nonsense. –

    “the foundation is a longstanding donor to conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute. And while its founder preferred eternal questions to worldly politics, the son who has succeeded him, John Templeton Jr.—Jack—is a conservative Evangelical who spends his personal time and money opposing gay marriage and defending the Iraq War.” (skepdic)

  79. Willard says:

    “Graun” may shorten “Grauniad” and refer to leftists in general, as opposed to old-skool old money bow ties, say.

  80. BBD says:

    izen

    The UK newspaper The Guardian once had a well-deserved reputation for crap typesetting. Hence ‘Grauniad’ and Graun. As you almost certainly know, its readership typically leans to the left, politically.

  81. Eli Rabett says:

    Templeton is more into stuff like sciency religion.

  82. Steven Mosher says:

    is science still going to hell?

    or did you guys save it?

  83. Joshua says:

    Anders –

    Just in passing…as much as I hate to, I have to acknowledge that you have regained your lead in our contest to be the worst person in the climate-o-sphere:

    http://www.hi-izuru.org/wp_blog/2016/08/how-small-an-effect-do-adjustments-have/#comment-10683

  84. Joshua,
    Interesting, someone I don’t think I’ve ever encountered thinks my behaviour is appalling. On the other hand, I’ve been over on cliscep where apparently I deserve to be called a pr**k, and their poor behaviour is my fault (at least, I think that’s what was suggested) so maybe JonA has a point? 😉

  85. JonA clearly doesn’t get out much, or is totally cr0cked; Eli and Sou are far more obnoxious than you are. 🙂

  86. their poor behaviour is my fault

    So they are not US Republicans, the party of personal responsibility?

    Children.

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  88. Pingback: The pressures to guide science - ScienceMetrics.orgScienceMetrics.org

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