Writing in the Times, Cordelia Fine justifies confirmation bias as a tool that facilitates discovery:
Scientists are not immune. In another experiment, psychologists were asked to review a paper submitted for journal publication in their field. They rated the paper’s methodology, data presentation and scientific contribution significantly more favorably when the paper happened to offer results consistent with their own theoretical stance. Identical research methods prompted a very different response in those whose scientific opinion was challenged.
This is a worry. Doesn’t the ideal of scientific reasoning call for pure, dispassionate curiosity? Doesn’t it positively shun the ego-driven desire to prevail over our critics and the prejudicial urge to support our social values (like opposition to the death penalty)?
Perhaps not. Some academics have recently suggested that a scientist’s pigheadedness and social prejudices can peacefully coexist with — and may even facilitate — the pursuit of scientific knowledge.
Fine ends by calling for scientists to “embrace their humanity,” a request that readers of this blog know I support wholeheartedly.
My friend I-Chant had a sharp comment on my recent post on hypocrisy (emphasis added):
I think the main problem is that there is an assumption that humans have ever been/can ever be “rational” actors. I think the ancient Greeks planted that in society’s ideals but there is now a mountain of evidence that suggest humans act like humans and not robots. Big surprise! This behavior which includes having emotions and sometimes letting them be more dominant than evidence isn’t wrong. It just is how we are. It’s hard to have that as a standard when it is so against our very nature. I can understand the need for it because it is a level playing field where supposedly, everyone can engage with the debate. However, it’s probably easier to find a way to accommodate people’s actual behaviors rather than set an impossible standard. The question now is, how do we have intelligent public discourse that also takes into account stakeholders’ very real emotions?
As I’ve noted before, I think we have to accept a measure of futility here. Whether we like it or not, public discourse is heavily constrained. Since we’re not allowed to say “I really like basic research and I want money for it,” we’re forced to make dubious claims along the lines of: “Basic research is the primary driver of economic growth, and thus everyone on Earth benefits with more string theory!”
Granted, public funds should serve some public benefit. It’s reasonable to ask scientists (and everyone else) to couch their lobbying in terms of the public good. But until we open some space for simple, mundane arguments, we’re stuck with the distortions, fabrications, and lies that are the hallmark of democracies everywhere.
Allow me to arrogantly close by quoting myself:
[Cancer and global warming] need to be solved, and I’m glad everyone devotes so much energy to them. But it’s quite strange that all of our arguments have to be framed by such superlatives. There’s no space to make a simpler point that in the end is probably much closer to the truth. Physicists can’t say that we focus on numerical solutions not necessarily because we believe it’s the best or only path forward, but because we enjoy that type of work. Conversely, the science studies crowd does not (as far as I know) point out that the(mild!) hypocrisy of scientists’ exaggerations is intrinsically wrong. Rather, they string together a series of tendentious links that are very hard to prove. If the benefits of basic research weren’t exaggerated, then (maybe) we’d spend more on socially relevant research, and then (again maybe) we’d make better progress on solving cancer and global warming. There are too many hypotheticals here for my comfort, and this argument is no less convoluted than the ones often made in defense of basic research.
We really shouldn’t have to justify everything in terms of majestic solutions to big problems. Many scientists simply like basic research and they should be allowed to say that. And we can disagree with scientists’ exaggerations for the rather boring grounds that the arguments are bad on their own terms and undermine honest debate. Cancer shouldn’t have to be part of the picture.
Josh Bloom in the New York Post reports on the difficult job market facing chemistry PhDs:
After earning my PhD, in chemistry, I worked in drug-discovery research for more than 20 years. Aside from being a fascinating profession, it was pretty secure — until the last decade. Then it became anything but.
Why the change? Well, it costs about $1 billion to bring a new drug to market. Blockbuster drugs that bring in multiple billions in profits, such as Lipitor, are needed to support the R&D costs of all other drugs — ones that don’t pan out, and ones that just can’t help enough people to justify the investment before the patent expires. And the patents of almost all current blockbusters are expiring about now, cutting drug companies’ revenues drastically.
Bloom ends with the bold claim: “We don’t need more scientists — not unless there are jobs for them.”
I’d like to see this type of analysis deepened and extrapolated to other fields. But as someone experiencing the difficult PhD job market, this piece hit close to home even though I wasn’t in chemistry. I’m finding that even my fancy policy experience isn’t always enough to secure a position.
I have yet to respond to the excellent comment left on my last post. In the meantime, look at…