Sunday, December 20, 2009

(Real) Science IS political, sorry to disillusion you

There is the big "climate gate" hoo-haw in the media right now. Reporters are acting surprised that some leading scientists were caught manipulating scientific literature to silence skeptics and dissenters. They convinced peers to knock skeptics' articles, journals to reject skeptics' papers, remove peers from paper review committees if they passed skeptics' papers, and even shut down journals that published dissenting views. Maybe even fudged their data.

Hey! Science is supposed to be awesome. It always eventually gets it right. Real science is about reproducible experiments and validated results. Actually, no, it is political. Like most other human endeavors.

  • Galileo and other historical scientists were shut down by their community. Granted, their scientific peers were not basing their views on empirical data. But many modern scientists still base their views on what they've been taught, not what they've measured. This is understandable, you have to stand on the shoulders of giants to have time to make advances.
  • Views are often validated by currently understood standards. If you plot the published speed of light against the year of publication, you will see sequences of flat spots where a value is almost identical to what was previously "measured". And then there is a jump; followed by another flat period of many years. Is this because they were using the same equipment and experimental procedure? Or because anyone that tried to publish a different "answer" was considered a skeptic and shut down? Again, this is understandable. Humans tend to try to be consistent, and not be antisocial and go against the crowd. It requires extra diligence to disprove a well respected master in their field. Like the great Einstein when quantum physics popped up. (Wait! Maybe God changes the real speed of light periodically as a joke!)
  • Scientists are funded. Based on whether they get published or referenced. Or if they agree with the "sponsoring" corporation. So the system manipulates them into agreeing with the crowd. But the underbelly of the scientific community is less pretty than what we might have thought of as this kind of indirect pressure.
  • Journals are funded. If the larger community of scientists don't subscribe to that journal offers, or schools or corporations pull their funding (or advertising!), a venue of dissent/questioning dies.
  • I've seen public "attacks" during a presentation of research. In the form of a "question". Being honest, these questions are self-aggrandizing. E.g. "what makes you think that you are right when I have already published the opposite". It can embarrass a young scientist and discourage them from disagreeing in the future. Only the thick-skinned "crazies" keep at it. Like Tesla.
  • I've been on paper review committees where papers are summarily discarded. There are so many that only one or two of the reviewers are assigned to read a given paper before the meeting. If they didn't understand it, or disagreed with the findings (based on their own experience/bias), it can get tossed very quickly. There are a lot to get through. Even when it is "marginal", the shepherding process can be taxing, discouraging a reviewer from volunteering. After all, they are contributing their expertise, but don't get their name on the paper. (Suggestion: maybe they should. If they pass something that proves incorrect, they lose points. As an incentive to get it right. Or would that discourage participation?). For "workshops" (not full Journals) an author's name is sometimes on the paper being reviewed, so their reputation is considered.
  • As science get more "fine", some experiments cannot be reproduced except on the original equipment or by the original experts. Think CERN and supercolliders. (Or cold fusion?) Who has another billion dollars just to *reproduce* a result? Unless the larger community thinks a result is hogwash and feels motivated to pool their resources and dump on the results. So who is going to disagree? It almost sounds like a religion at that point.

I bet you've done the same things. Maybe at work. Tried to shut down "the competition". Competing for attention, or a raise, or recognition... You know what would be better? Listen to those that disagree and make sure they know you have heard them. They are trying to make the best decisions they can given their background. No one tries to make dumb decisions. If they are wrong, I'm sure they would appreciate learning something they don't know. Or, maybe they have something to teach you.

Imagine! Learning something from someone that disagrees with you and you find irritating. A dissenter. A skeptic. Seems like those that shut down dissent are not just closed minded, but unwilling to learn. Such a scientist should be embarrassed for themselves. Isn't IDEAL science supposed to be about discovery? Too bad that in reality there is so little ideal science, and so much science influenced by the politics of "real-life science".

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