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Archive for January, 2011

Why can’t we just say what we think about basic research?

January 28, 2011 5 comments

The second important flaw in the usual antithesis is that these two widespread and ancient modes of thinking about science, pure versus applied, have tended to displace and derogate a third way that combines aspects of the two. This third mode now deserves the attention of researchers and policymakers.—Holton and Sonnert

These two sentences capture for me what is wrong with much writing on basic research. This long-suffering third-mode, displaced and derogated by researchers and policymakers alike, was in fact advanced by Thomas Jefferson when he funded the Lewis and Clark expedition. Holton and Sonnert were surely after aware of this fact because they discussed it shortly after the passage above. Their catchy phrase for such work–Jeffersonian science–is even in the essay’s title.  Holton and Sonnert also acknowledge that defense and health science funding are “dramatic and successful examples” of Jeffersonian science. So what then are they saying? That even though the U.S. funded Jeffersonian science in the past, funds it today, and will fund it in the future…policymakers are still unaware of it?

And what did Lewis Branscomb mean when he insisted we should not “settle for a [basic/applied research] dichotomy” because Jeffersonian research is a “central element of a new model?” Branscomb too was surely aware that Jeffersonian research is not new and has existed since the times of, well, Jefferson. And how about Roger Pielke Jr.’s call for a “new understanding of how science serves national needs” and research that reflects the “broader scope of considerations relevant to practical problems.” Roger must also know that the U.S. has been doing as such for two hundred years now.

This lack of specificity carried over to their policy recommendations, and I was left wondering what exactly they wanted. Is it that we should spend less on basic and applied work but more on Jeffersonian? Or should we increase the amount spent on Jeffersonian while keeping the rest constant? Or perhaps basic and applied work should be mostly eliminated in favor of Jeffersonian?

I don’t mean to be too critical. I thoroughly enjoyed Lewis Branscomb’s talk at the 2010 AAAS annual meeting. I look forward to reading Holton’s “Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought.” And Roger Pielke has deeply influenced my thinking on science policy and politics. I continue to visit his blog every day. But I think in this case they weren’t as clear as they could have been.

From what I can tell, Branscomb et al. simply think Jeffersonian research is more meaningful and important than basic research and they want scientists to think so too. But for some reason they can’t just come out and say that. When it comes to this topic, being direct and to the point appears to be difficult. I think we can all learn from Jane Lubchenco’s 1998 address to AAAS:  “Urgent and unprecedented environmental and social changes challenge scientists to define a new social contract. This contract represents a commitment on the part of all scientists to devote their energies and talents to the most pressing problems of the day, in proportion to their importance, in exchange for public funding.” While I may not agree with her, at least I know what she thinks.

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Science of science measurement

January 25, 2011 Leave a comment

I should have linked to this earlier, but here’s the webcast and white papers from a 2-day NSF workshop on the science of science measurement. Rush Holt’s remarks on Friday are particularly good–they start at the 35-minute mark here and run for ~40 minutes. In the question and answer session, he refers to early research on the return on investments from science as “sketchy.” Methinks it was quite amusing.

Categories: Economics

The fallacy of attribution

January 22, 2011 5 comments

I think, on some level, when we marvel at how the world has become more egalitarian, we think about King and Lincoln. But do we think about that changes relationship to, say, Louis Pasteur or Henry Ford? How much of our march toward humanism is really technological, a shift from a slavery of human, to a mastery of nature? What were the effects of, say, Koch’s work on tuberculosis on how we came to see ourselves in relation to each other? Was the retreat of death a boon for humanism? Was it a bane for religion? Laundry used to be a heavy-duty chore, mostly performed by women. When washing became automated, how did that effect women’s notions of self? How did it influence feminism? Is humanism a luxury, afforded by individual longevity? —TNC

As any good STS aficionado, my first instinct was to point out that humanism itself was partially responsible for the retreat of death. Human progress is far too often cleanly and directly attributed to the advance of science. Because of science and technology, human beings conquered abject deprivation. Because of science humans now live longer, fuller lives. But of course the story is not so simple. At least for the retreat of death, social reformers played a non-trivial role. There’s even some supporting research on this.

Also typical for STS aficionados (myself included) is the tendency to take this analysis too far. To downplay the the very real benefits science has wrought. To marginalize the importance of rationality and (as problematic as the term may be) scientific thinking. In a sharp follow-up comment abk1985 suggests I did so, and notes that “humanistic agendas [were not] pursued in a void.” The drive to improve sanitation in poor immigrant communities hinged on intelligent medical guessing and enlightened self-interest as well as an honest desire to help the less fortunate.

For better and for worse, facts about the world do affect our moral intuition. Though at times humanism did stand on its own terms, it’s often not possible to isolate it as the driving motivation. It makes no sense to say that early 20th century reformers were motivated 33% by altruism, 33% by self-interest, and 33% by science. For some, a latent desire to address poverty was surely buttressed by data that indicated epidemics in certain communities often spilled over to everyone. All of our actions are imbued with such motivational complexity.

And so while it may be interesting to argue over a beer, and while I’m sure many academics will study it, TNC’s “how much” questions are ultimately not helpful. Even attempting to determine how much of human progress can be attributed to science, or to humanism, or to the rule of law, obscures more than it illuminates. The arc of human history cannot, even in principle, be decomposed and deconstructed like this. Science and technology have always been there and have always played a role. At times they were very important and at others not so much. And that’s pretty much all we can say about that.

Categories: Society, STS

The importance of sound bites, Ctd.

January 17, 2011 2 comments

For yet another reason why Ta-Nehisi Coates is my favorite blogger, here he is echoing my call for better sound-bites:

To be, all at once, accurate, concise and emotive strikes me as a difficult task, and I agree with Chomsky that it’s especially difficult when you’re going against the grain. That said, I’m not convinced that it’s a challenge which academics and intellectuals should avoid, or even have the luxury of avoiding. Surely concision, favors the simple and conventional, but this is as true in writing as it is talking on cable news. The problem is that intellectuals are (hopefully) trained to write. They aren’t trained to talk.

As difficult as it may be, those of us trying to convey a more nuanced picture of science have to wrestle with this challenge.  Lehrer and Freedman’s work, while important, need to be complemented with concise, clear statements.  Without them, our message will not be very effective.

Categories: Public Discourse

The dangers of creationism

January 13, 2011 3 comments

To continue with creationism, here’s Michael Pearl:

It is one thing to reject Creationism and ID; it is another thing to have good reasons for rejecting Creationism and ID and to express those reasons well, and it is yet an altogether different matter to veritably trumpet that Creationism and ID are great dangers either in and of themselves or because of consequences that will follow uncontrollably from these notions – hence, threats to be fought by any means necessary.

There certainly seems to have been a lot of alarms trumpeted, but it is not blatantly obvious just what is the danger posed by Creationism and ID.

As I noted almost a year ago, there’s an ironic lack of evidence in our arguments against creationism.  At some point we’re going to have to response to Pearl.

Categories: Intelligent Design

Maybe the scientific method just isn’t that powerful

January 11, 2011 12 comments

But now all sorts of well-established, multiply confirmed findings have started to look increasingly uncertain. It’s as if our facts were losing their truth: claims that have been enshrined in textbooks are suddenly unprovable. This phenomenon doesn’t yet have an official name, but it’s occurring across a wide range of fields, from psychology to ecology. In the field of medicine, the phenomenon seems extremely widespread, affecting not only antipsychotics but also therapies ranging from cardiac stents to Vitamin E and antidepressants: Davis has a forthcoming analysis demonstrating that the efficacy of antidepressants has gone down as much as threefold in recent decades.–Jonah Lehrer

Lehrer’s recent article on the decline effect, where initially strong and robust results shrink over time, has caused quite a stir (see hereherehere, and here).  It’s similar to Freedman’s Atlantic profile of Ioannidis in that it identifies some allegedly deep problems in the structure of science.

As both Lehrer and Freedman note, the fight for funding, the bias against null results, the drive for more publications, a desire for personal glory, and conflicts of interest all make the practice of science quite a bit different from how it’s usually portrayed.  Both, however, also note that there may be something fundamentally amiss here.  These relatively straightforward explanations only go so far.  It appears we can’t quite determine what’s really going on, and Lehrer’s subtitle asks: “Is there something wrong with the scientific method?”

I think it’s important to remember that the scientific method (TSM) was first used to solve what are, conceptually at least, fairly simple questions.  Planetary motion, as beautiful, intricate and awe-inspiring it may be, is solved by high-school students every day before lunch recess.  After all, it’s just giant balls circling each other.  Even quantum mechanics and relativity can be described almost perfectly with existing mathematics, and it’s usually first taught to college sophomores.  Penicillin was discovered in a petri dish, where we can reliably control most variables.  And so on.

None of this is meant to diminish Newton, Einstein and Fleming, or to trivialize their accomplishments.  They were geniuses, and we are forever indebted to them.  But it appears to me that what we consider the canonical scientific accomplishments were often fairly discrete questions.  If you can effectively use mathematics (as you can in much of physics), or if you can control all the relevant variables (physics, molecular biology), the problem is tractable.  But determining the effect of Vitamin E on public health is a different beast altogether.  After all, what we call health is really a combination of traditional medical science, economic status, level of stress, culture, pollution, and who knows what else.  TSM may never be able to disentangle all these effects regardless of how many perfect, unbiased studies we run.  From Freedman’s article:

But even if a study managed to highlight a genuine health connection to some nutrient, you’re unlikely to benefit much from taking more of it, because we consume thousands of nutrients that act together as a sort of network, and changing intake of just one of them is bound to cause ripples throughout the network that are far too complex for these studies to detect, and that may be as likely to harm you as help you.

And so asking what’s wrong with TSM kind of misses the point.  There’s nothing really wrong with it.  It’s that TSM, this crowning achievement of human intellect, the best tool ever developed to investigate the natural world, may just not be as powerful as we want it to be. Even if we disclose conflicts of interest, release all collected data (not just the pretty ones), publish more null results, and quadruple funding, some problems will be beyond our reach. There are ultimately some things in heaven and earth not dreamt of in our philosophies.

Categories: Philosophy, Society

The futility of improving democratic discourse

January 8, 2011 1 comment

I’ve spent a lot of time with my head in the 19th century, and one thing that is immediately clear is that real argument has not replaced vicious name-calling, if only because viscous name-calling has generally been the order of the day in American politics, and perhaps in democracies the world-over. —Ta-Nehisi Coates

To vicious name-calling I would add cherry-picking and politicizing science, which also also appear to be permanent features of democracies the world-over.  In my more idealistic moments (and I have many of them), I like to think that scientists can help improve public discourse by isolating the facts and letting politicians fight over politics.  But in practice, we are ourselves often guilty of the distortions and exaggerations we decry in others.  A careful reading of the evidence does not, after all, support the unbridled self-celebration of either science or research.  It’s not surprising that professional politicians behave similarly.

None of this means we shouldn’t try to make better use of science in politics.  It does mean, however, we should acknowledge that name-calling and cherry-picking may be inevitable.  And thus any improvements will probably be small and only at the margins.  As unsatisfying as this outcome is, it’s price we pay for living in a democracy.