Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Blinding Us With Science

I know, it's Fox News, (via Denninger) but I also know a little about peer reviewing documents.  I peer review software designs all the time as well as having mine peer reviewed.  If an engineer follows the standard format and takes an understandable approach, designs are usually approved.

I've watched probably a grand total of ten minutes of the show "Big Bang Theory" which plays physicist and other geek stereotypes for laughs.  These are stereotypes because they have a bit of truth to them, but the average scientist is not a genius.  He or she is a worker whose IQ is within a standard deviation of the average, on the right, obviously, or they'd never get through grad school.  They are generally disciplined, motivated, intelligent individuals.  They tend to know a lot about a fairly narrow field of endeavor.  That's were the stereotypes come in.

There are physicists of various stripes and mathematicians who have a wide range of interests and are under the extreme right hand tail of the bell curve.  But there are also CEOs, rodeo cowboys, and used car salesmen up there. 

This brings us to the real point.  Intelligence and integrity do not always correlate well.  A person can be quite intelligent and have no moral grounding whatsoever.  Does the name "Bill Clinton" ring any bells?   Clinton is a bright man.  He has the morals of stray dog. 

Scientists who publish papers in peer-reviewed journals and do research in various fields are going to have above average intelligence.  There's no guarantee that they have above average morals or ethics.  They want, like most of us, to receive credit and to be compensated for their work.  Many want to advance in their fields.  Some are dedicated to a cause, to solving some problem for the good of humanity.  Most are dedicated to keeping their jobs and paychecks and doing well for themselves. 

How do I know this?  I know human nature.  I like my job because I find the work interesting and challenging.  I used to joke that I would write code even if they didn't pay me -- and I probably would, but it would be different code under different circumstances. 

In academic fields, published research brings in money from the government and from foundations.  The sources of the money expect it to fund more research and more publication.  So, one, as they say, publishes, or perishes for want of funds.  What does a person do if the results aren't conclusive or don't look too impressive or are perhaps not what one's patrons would like to see?  One finagles, jiggles the test tube, so to speak. 

Science is great.  It will insist that it is self-correcting and self-policing.  That's probably true in the long run.  In the shorter term, vested interests, professional reputations, and personal ambitions often take precedence over the truth. 

A good scientist is always skeptical, especially of his own results.  We should be science skeptics, too.


  1. It's all so corrupt, this academic/government research "system". I'm thinking back 30 years ago to my Master's thesis. It was a Forest Service grant and it was simply a statistical model applied to some tree data. Not really science. But the professor hustled the grant and got a grad student and everyone came out ahead -except for a tiny bite out of the taxpayer.

    I don't see how this can be sustained, but I was thinking that 30 years ago.

  2. That's a good point. It's not sustainable, but there's always the last guy in line hoping it will last until it's his turn.

    I'm fed up with all the high priestly sanctimony that comes from "research". The Pope has spoken Ex Cathedra. But it's really about some jerk getting tenure or whatever.