Saturday, August 4, 2012

How Science Works

This blog post is one of those which takes work so has been a long time in the  writing.  It grew from a scolding I got for referring to the Global Warming RELIGION of the Luddites of the Looney Left.  It was NOT a religion, it was science based and I ought to know how science works.  I do, in fact, know "how science works" which is why I am and will remain sceptical of the arguments of both the alarmists and the deniers.  I do not have to chose between Luther and Pope Leo X.  Maybe I am an Erasmist?

Anyway, I will save the climate religion for another time and deal with the workings of scientific research.  Qualifications, you ask?  I have done scientific research; I have sat on boards that have funded scientific research and I have been a life long intermediary between scientific researchers and end users.  So I know a little and can be corrected on much.

The modern scientific method is a result of combining the methodology of two men, Rene Descartes and Francis Bacon; a very nice summary of which can be found here. (Note: One ought not to study Philosophy before studying Latin as one runs the danger of getting Descartes before the Horace.  But I digress).

Scientists tend to work in one of three locations: private industry, universities and research institutes of all sizes, shapes and forms of governance.  Scientists in the  latter two may have more room for determining their research subjects than those in private industry and certainly have more leeway to publish their results.

Research takes money.  A great deal of money.  There are two kinds of money - hard money and soft money.  Hard money is money that is in the budget year after year and usually covers things like buildings, laboratories and related overhead, salaries of key scientists.  Soft money is related to research grants which must be applied for to some funding agency, usually on a competitive basis.  Key scientists write grant applications which if successful pay for actual research projects including other scientists, special equipment and the cash costs of doing the research project. 

Research funds are "highly constrained" for cash and successful scientists are those who can write successful applications; those that appeal to the priorities of the funding agency's decision makers.  If one is applying to the Drug Enforcement Agency for money to do marijuana research, one does not title it "Determination of the benefits of smoking marijuana post coitus on male recovery time". 

  Scientific research is controlled financially and politically far more than most people realize.  They are NOT free to pursue knowledge for knowledge sake.  And if their results do not fit the agenda of the funding agency you can be certain they will not get funding from that source again.  The scientist who got funding from the DEA to "Investigate the DANGERS of smoking marijuana etc." and publishes a paper concluding that in fact marijuana is the greatest thing since Viagra will never get again funding from either the DEA or Big Pharma, trust me.

So research is driven by money; money is driven by priorities; priorities are driven by ideology.

Research results must be repeatable.  Therefore a publishable research paper must describe in sufficient detail how the research was done so that someone else can repeat it if desired or at least have no doubt as to how the results were arrived at and conclusions drawn.  Thus the importance of peer-review prior to publishing. 

A good scientist is a born sceptic.  A good scientist will look at a research paper and blow it full of holes, pointing out all the things that weren't done, weren't accounted for , were overemphasized relative to the data, etc.  The paper will be sent back for rewriting, eventually accepted and published.  Or possibly rejected as poor science.

Research scientists are judged on the number of papers that are published AND on the number of times those papers are referenced by other scientists.  So choosing a journal to publish in is critical.  Does the research fit the theme of the journal?  If there are several journals to choose from, which one has the best reputation and is the most widely read?  Who is the editor?

The editor holds the scientist's future in his hands as it is the editor who sends the paper for peer review and decides who are the peers who will review.  So if the scientist who decides to publish the marijuana paper sends it to a journal whose editor is a graduate of Pat Roberston's University, they will find their paper sent for peer review to scientists who hold with the Pat Robertson worldview and that paper will be rejected as bad science.  And if ALL the good (reputable, well read) journals are edited by Pat Robertson think-alikes, that scientist ain't gettin' published nowhere nohow!

Most non-scientists have never read a journal.  Unless you have trouble sleeping, I wouldn't recommend it either.  They bring a whole new meaning to boring.  Most of us get our scientific information after it has been filtered.  Direct from the scientist is great (conferences, magazines, internet sites) or from the mainstream media (the dreaded MSM) or from the alternative media which tends to be either Looney Left or Religious Right.  The journalists are NOT specialists in the science in question so they can't ask the good questions and they ARE interested in sensationalizing what ever it is, so they take a minor point and blow it up for all it is worth..

So we have to trust third, fourth and fifth hand sources of scientific information without ever seeing the original work or most likely without ever seeing any critiques of the original work.  So we blindly accept as "science" whatever agrees with our already preconceived notions and reject anything that does not.  If you are one of the Anti-Food Luddites and you see an article announcing that coffee/pizza/Big Macs  are bad for you, you seize on it for all you are worth, while I ignore that article and wait for next week's announcement that says coffee/pizza/Big Macs are good for you.

The distance between science and politics is very very thin.  And anything that is the slightest controversial becomes instantly politicized, not necessarily by the scientists but by those of us reading about it third, fourth and fifth hand.

Here is a quote I pulled off the net a while back and for the life of me cannot find it again.  I am guessing it is from comments on an article or articles but Google didn't help me at all. 

Maybe, but by its nature, science and research are highly dependent on soft money and highly constrained R&D programs. In other words, the field of science is far more politically and financially controlled than non-scientists realize.

Also, though highly regrettable, the average person is utterly incapable of comprehending the scientist. The scientist makes a lifetime career of learning, investigating and testing a thing (idea) where most laymen have never concentrated more than a few minutes of real effort.
Lastly, the question of how and why things work is not a moral issue. Like with a gun, morality is defined by what people do with it, and not inherently by the thing itself.

Science is not an individual endeavour, it never was, but in the age of big science, it is overwhelmingly directed by society in general, NOT individual interest and search for truth.  Money goes to areas that increase power or make money, and scientists can find jobs in these areas.   They do what the system directs them to do.  The result of their research depends more on the amount of money invested than on individual scientist.  Overall, scientists absolutely can and should know who decides what they're working on and why, because it is trivial and visible to them all the time. 

Scientists are exactly the same kind of people as anyone else, apart from a tiny (and awesome) minority.  They have the same motivations, the same cognitive dissonances, the same thirst for money as "normal" people.  And while science in abstract theory is a "noble pursuit", and was a noble pursuit for Giordano Bruno and Galileo, working in Los Alamos is in no way noble.  Working as a Monsanto scientist is not noble.  Working as a psychologist for some big marketing firm, designing ways to manipulate children, is not noble.  Working as an anthropologist for the Army to "map" "human terrain" is very, very far from noble.  And this is the kind of stuff a lot of (probably most) scientists are working on: stuff that's very closely related to actual concrete power interests, not on abstract search for truth. They can know what their research will lead to but they pretend they don't. They're smart of course - but intelligence is very useful in building protective mental barriers and managing cognitive dissonance.

As you said, scientists are people just like the rest of us.

There really isn't any difference between knowledge and belief. Anyone holding tightly to a belief, will believe that it is knowledge.

People lack knowledge today and can be convinced of anything. The earth is 5000 years old, nuclear power is safe, fracking is not destroying fresh water tables, etc... Next will come bad omens, superstitions and witch burning. People in the Dark Ages wondered who built Roman ruins - aliens maybe. People were afraid of the dark. We still live "The Enlightenment" but it's getting dimmer as the masses get dumber.

Lots of interesting metaphor here, but it's probably not that people are blind or deluded but merely ignorant. Ever since facts went out of fashion, people have stopped knowing what to believe. They half-believe in the supernatural, half-believe in the fictitious values of TV and movies, half-believe in the news, half-believe in the virtue of human beings. They know nothing beyond whether they feel good, and they are confirmed in their self-absorption by every message they take in, whether in the form of advertising, television, pedagogy or prayer. Ignorance of such magnitude has destroyed stronger cultures than ours.


  1. "It grew from a scolding I got for referring to the Global Warming RELIGION of the Luddites of the Looney Left."

    I'm confused by the above and how it fits with the following sentence. Was it you who referred to those who think that global warming is real as being leftist, religious, Luddities? From the rest of your essay, I should rather think you would one of those "Luddites," and I don't think of you as a person who engages in name-calling, so maybe I'm just not reading this right.

    "There really isn't any difference between knowledge and belief."

    Going by your next sentence, I'm assuming that you were speaking subjectively. After all, there are people who believe that all beliefs are no more than opinions and therefore real knowledge is not possible, but I don't take it for a moment that you are one of them.

    1. You read it right. There is the Left and then there are the Luddites of the Looney Left with whom I am fed up to here.

  2. The bigger problem is getting des carts before da horse. Does not work well.

    As someone who is not a scientist, but works on giving appropriate ethical review to scientific work, I concur with your findings, BF. I never cease to be both amazed and confounded by the processes involved.

    So I tend to be a bit cautious about any political pronouncements related to science.

    1. It takes less than one nano-second for a scientific announcement to become political. Positions become entrenched and vigorously defended. Trying to sort truth and scientific fact out of all the propaganda is the hard part.
      If it is an official government position, my thumb rule is that it is likely a lie. On the other hand the Luddites of the Looney Left have never let truth or fact stand in the way of their ideology either.

  3. That was a very useful blog post! Thank you!

  4. The following comment is from a real scientist, the son of a friend of mine. He raises some very good points which I will address, along with all the stuff I thought of last night, in my next post. Anything related to climate science/religion (eg Muller's road to Damascus) I will save to deal with in further posts.

    There's a lot more too it than this, in my opinion.

    First, journal articles are a part of a broad scientific discussion. A single publication on a very important topic is rarely regarded as proof positive. Plus, the influence of the editors is not nearly so
    strong in the big picture. For example, solid phase DNA synthesis, the quintessential method for making artificial DNA using chemistry and one of the most important inventions of the 20th century (it makes all
    modern biochemical work possible), was originally published in the relatively low-ranked chemistry journal Tetrahedron Letters. With time, the truth and the most important findings always find their way
    to the top. This one was not ignored!!

    Second, I think that Al has underestimated the positive effect of the huge ego that many scientists possess. Widespread recognition as a scientist comes from uncovering paradigm-shifting truths that withstand intense scrutiny and the test of time. Virtually no
    scientist could resist the fame that comes from such a discovery, even if their funding source doesn't like it.

    Although it's not really a discovery, a great example can be seen in the recent results of Berkeley Prof Richard Muller. Prof Muller is a physicist and former climate change skeptic who was generously funded in part by conservative climate change skeptics to lead a team in reviewing statistical methods used for climate change analysis across large numbers of data sets.

    Certainly to the consternation of his funding sources, Prof Muller has concluded that the climate change data meets widely accepted statistical thresholds meaning that it is exceedingly probable that the earth is warming and that humans are the cause. See this BBC article:

    Just like with the recent "discovery" of the Higgs Boson, the certainty of knowledge may best be expressed in statistical probabilities, because virtually nothing can really be known "for sure". When all available data indicates that a "truth" is exceedingly likely, then it makes sense to make policy decisions using the best
    available information at the time, recognizing that it can't be absolutely sure.

    Dick Cheney once said, referring to military threats, that we must prepare for unlikely but potentially catastrophic events as if they were an absolutely certainty. Climate change is a *likely* phenomenon
    with a very significant chance of having enormous and detrimental impacts on the lives of future generations. Shouldn't we take the same precautions?

    The great thing with science is that the truth always wins out in the end. Yes there can be political roadblocks and an unpopular opinion may receive less monetary investment, but someone out there always
    wants to be the one to really reveal the truth and back it up with incontrovertible evidence.

    One more thing. There is a very important difference between knowledge and belief. With knowledge, you can often use statistics to measure the likelihood that the knowledge is true. (Ok, the statistics entail their own uncertainty, but at least there is a definitive way to
    quantify how likely something is to be the truth.) Belief doesn't have that.

    1. I didn't get into scientists massive egos and the lengths they will go to in order to defend their conclusions but in the italics at the bottom of the post, it is sort of hinted at. As to Muller, only one of his sources was disappointed in his results. He is now the darling of the Alarmists and will have more research money than he can spend in future. It was a good move.

      Science is not a democratic occupation. As Einstein remarked, it only takes one. Truth wins in the end and in several hundred years we will know for sure. In the mean time the longer you can keep the dissenter unfunded and unpublished, the longer you can polish your ego.

      Climate change is far more than likely, it is all around us. The precautions we need to take are learning to adapt, not wasting time trying to assign blame.

      As to belief and knowledge, everyone knows the difference. But we ALL are guilty of assigning "knowledge" to our beliefs and we are all capable of quoting "chapter and verse" to back it up.

  5. I either need another cup of coffee or I am going to go back to my motto of late "What if the hokey pokey is really what it is all about"...

    1. You have the right attitude. It is all bullshit.

  6. Truth chances with time. One thing we do know is that the world population is doubling approximately every forty years. To think that exponential population growth would not have an effect on the environment (exponential increases in demand, exponential increase in pollution and exponential increase in consumption of natural resources) defies common logic.
    the Ol'Buzzard

    1. The population growth you reference has not only an effect on environment and consumption of natural resources but also on the need to produce and distribute food. The Anti-Food and Anti-Modern Agriculture Luddites of the Looney Left that want us to go back to methodologies of 200 years ago or even 75 years ago seem to forget that we have several billion more mouths to feed than we did then and that calls for different technologies than were used back then if we want to be sustainable at the new rates of production. the absolute ignorance displayed in the articles in the Leftish internet media about food and agriculture is quite amazing.

  7. I see we're thinking along the same lines this morning. My post was more about moral compass. You are correct when you say "abstract search for truth". It seems todays' science comes with strings attached. I try to be objective when seeking the truth. I think that's why I'm still alive while many coworkers are not.

    I tend to hold high the findings when several hundred scientists come to the same conclusions. You can after all and for the right price get an opinion that supports your own. To slap a seal of approval on it from the scientific community is another matter. I have seen that in my own industry with corporate profit as a deciding factor. Nothing like putting profits before safety. But that is the reality I've faced in the last 10 years. You can't list something as safe when it's been a hazard for hundreds of years and yet they have done just that, all in the name of profits.

    1. Of course, science comes with strings attached because it costs money and pay the piper, call the tune. A scientist may or may not even have a choice of who pays.

      "I tend to hold high the findings when several hundred scientists come to the same conclusions". No, you just think you do, as long as their conclusions agree with your already formed opinions. The vast majority of scientists have no problem with GMOs, and modern farming methodology and technology and all that goes with it.

      Large corporations have no moral compass other than maximizing profit which is good as it efficiently allocates resources. Where we go wrong is allowing these companies to rent seek, which is economist talk for getting something for nothing. Many if not all of the giant corporations, from banks or Microsoft on down, owe most of their growth and profits to the ability to rent seek: favourable legislation/regulation; lax enforcement of existing; ability to establish monopolies etc.

      I'm not sure how you can fix that in America, given that constitution you are saddled with which is particularity amenable to corporate rent seeking.

  8. I wish they taught less about the science we know and more about how we came to know it. The method is what makes science science.


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