December 21st, 2010
In my second or third year of graduate school, I went through a period of depression of several months after realizing that the Ivory Tower was pretty dirty, even in a field of pure research like astronomy. I was starting to see how politics and power interfered with my ideal of how science, especially a fundamental physical science without a lot of immediate application, should work.
Still, I wasn’t a totally biased moron like some of the sociologists around that time arguing that science was a social activity and that social forces determined its conclusions (see “science wars“). There’s a reality out there, and no matter the prestige or authority of a scientific figure, if their position is falsified by experiment, science rolls over them. They might fight it, but it happens sooner or later. There are way too many sociologists who don’t actually do science themselves, even when they call themselves social scientists. Maybe it’s because they really don’t believe that there are objective right answers and that it’s all sort of a big game. Like I said, morons.
I did have a big transition to go through, however, as I came to realize that there was a hell of a lot more that we didn’t know than we did know. I mean, we have thousands of textbooks and journals filled with scientific knowledge. It’s hard to realize that there remain millions left to write when you can’t see them. I made that transition and I find it ridiculously easy now to think of new experiments and observations worth doing to fill some of the gaps in our knowledge. I’m creative, and like doing this a lot more than I like doing the work itself, unfortunately. Luckily I have students and post-docs these days to help.
But I digress. Let me get back to my more recent challenges to my “faith” in science. Make no mistake: science is not a religion. It is a methodology that works to produce new, reliable knowledge. I’m just concerned now that it doesn’t work as well in practice as I always thought it did. I am only reassured by the notion, which I want to make very clear, is that as flawed as it might be, every other method is worse. Kind of like democracy or our court system.
I’ve been reading a little less science fiction the past few years, and a little more non-fiction. Let me list a few of the books and what I’ve learned from them about how science outside my cozy little area tends to be a lot more biased and wrong a large fraction of the time. Maybe I should have been less scornful of the sociologists in the science wars.
The Invisible Gorilla. This is basically a book about how humans deceive themselves, covering a range of illusions many are not aware of. The title comes from an experiment demonstrating that many concentrating people won’t even notice when a gorilla runs through the middle of a basketball game they’re watching. They cover a lot of ground in the book and I had a better idea of the staggering hurdles in doing good experiments in human psychology and communicating the results fairly to the public. I highly recommend this book. (Disclaimer, I’m friends with one of the authors, Dan Simons, and might be guilty of the illusion of objectivity even though everyone else thinks this is a great book, too.)
Wrong. This book is more to the point, and quantitatively explores just how wrong “experts” are has chapters devoted to science and journalism. In some fields like economics, apparently almost every paper is wrong. The author, David Freedman, emphasizes he’d still prefer to go with the science when it’s available. It’s still less likely to be wrong than other methods, and can often be checked or falsified. He does provide some rules for figuring out what advice/findings are probably more reliable than others. Also highly recommended.
The Black Swan. Nassim Taleb writes from an economics background and actually predicted the 2008 financial crisis. He makes some great points about the difficulty of predicting extremely rare events than no one really has any expertise about. He makes the point that fields like astronomy do have experts while economics doesn’t — at least if you determine expertise by correctness about what’s going on. Yes, this is a good one to read, too.
Packaging Boyhood. This is the book critical of superheroes I destroyed a few months ago (a version of my rant is on the amazon link as a review there). I recommend you stay far from this stinker, unless you want an example of the kind of things discussed in The Invisible Gorilla and Wrong. It’s just a piece of crap that has little resemblance to science, but got wide media coverage as scientific evidence saying that superheroes were bad for boys. Yes, this is the work of social “scientists.”
Sex at Dawn. This is a book about a particular aspect of evolutionary psychology, prehistoric sexuality. The case is made that for most of our history as a species, men and women both had multiple sexual partners and enjoyed the situation very much. It’s a strong case, actually, supported with various forms of evidence and a lot more than ‘a just so story” as evolutionary psychology critics would say. Now, about 10-15 years ago I read a book called The Moral Animal that reviewed mainstream evolutionary psychological thinking, and on sexuality it featured the competing strategies of men and women in pair-bonds, both looking to cheat for personal advantage. That book made a lot of sense to me at the time, but Sex at Dawn makes a better case. But I wonder, is it wrong, too?
Good Calories, Bad Calories. I’ve let myself get overweight again. I have lost weight in the past by exercise and low-carb diets. The Food Pyramid introduced around the time I was a kid stresses carbs and limits fats, and most Americans are overweight or obese, and heading toward diabetes and early death. Reading the opening chapters of this book is reminiscent of Wrong, and how a combination of scientists and reporters basically screwed a couple of generations out of good health. I also read The Paleo Solution and recommend that if you’ve got weight/health issues. I know this is hard stuff to figure out, but it isn’t as hard as it seems from what’s happened.
My conclusion is that outside of the physical sciences, there are few real experts and too many examples of misapplication of scientific findings, especially where money or politics is involved.
Still, science wins out in the end because there are right and wrong answers, and even so flawed it is better than guessing or wishful thinking. All this reading has chanced how I think about my world view and the host of “scientific findings” I’ve assimilated to form that view.
Anyone got some other cases where we’ve been misled seriously? “Global warming is a hoax” maybe, but that’s Fox News and oil companies, not the scientists (seriously). There are some popular feminist myths out there that are full of it, politically motivated (e.g., the wage gap, often used to motivate pro-female legislation and bolster the case for overwhelming sexism, vanishes when you correct for job choice and experience, and also the myth that false rape accusations are exceedingly rare). Michio Kaku and some left-wing environmentalists made up a bunch of bull about the dangers of plutonium on the Cassini mission. I can probably think of others given time, but it is sort of disheartening that there’s so much “knowledge” floating around based on what scientists, experts, and journalists are saying, when so much is pure crap.
OK, I have some more reading to do…