There’s a War on Science, Too

I get it. I really do. Science is self-correcting. It’s based on rigorous methodology, and hard observable measurable data. Hypotheses are testable or not at all. Tests yield repeatable, verifiable results or the hypothesis gets junked. Therefore Science trumps all those fluff bunny humanities subjects that “anyone can study” because “they’re all opinion anyway” and don’t require the intellectual rigor of a physics degree. Also, fuck religion.

Guys. In a pure Platonic ideal realm of theory, perhaps that same realm where sky fairies dance, and unproved teapots circle the sun, and no true Scotsman evades fallacies, and everyone has unquestioning faith that all gaps will get bridged without moving the goalposts – Science (note the capital S) is rumored to work that way. As it is practiced in the real world, Science is as riddled with confirmation bias as any crazy religious belief.

Yes, I know Science isn’t supposed to dirty itself with the real world, but as something of a quasi-rationalist (meaning a humanities “fluff bunny” with formal training in legal reasoning) I know how to go where the facts lead. And the facts are that a significant number of scientific results are not reproducible, scientists do change facts to fit theories, peer review is often more riddled with politics than the proverbial French court, and that money can and does buy results. When evaluating the results of any scientific study, the first question should be, “Who funded this?” And the last question should also be, “Who funded this?” It’s also useful to ask whether the scientist has tenure and, if not, who’s on the tenure committee.

This is not news to actual scientists. Start here.  Jonathan Eisen provides several links to serious discussions of irreproducible results and confirmation bias in Science in his blog, The Tree of Life. Professor Eisen’s piece is a response to Michael Suk-Young Chwe’s opinion piece in the New York Times, Scientific Pride and Prejudice.”

Suk-Young Chwe calls attention to a 2012 Nature article by C. Glenn Begley and Lee M. Ellis that reports that they (Begley and Ellis) “were able to replicate only 6 out of 53 ‘landmark’ cancer studies.” Eisen objects to Suk-Young Chwe implying that this is somehow news, and that scientists never previously confronted these issues.

Which is why it would be helpful if certain Internet atheists would sometimes bother to distinguish between Science as it is supposed to work and Science as it actually works under the constraints of politics, funding, and the pressure of getting tenure. Those who hold to Science as the highest and best way of understanding reality might want to focus on the social and political reasons that Science – and our understanding of reality – is compromised and degraded every day. Science, and what it offers humanity when allowed to do its work unfettered, is too valuable to get handicapped by politics.

That ought to command more attention than shaming some hapless Internet commenter for holding a cherished belief they can’t “prove” to somebody else’s satisfaction. If you really want to promote scientific thinking, donate a buck to some poor schlep with a brilliant idea that could expand humanity’s knowledge base but that has no commercial application. In our corporatized, nothing matters unless you can monetize it culture, that would be a truly radical, edgy thing to do.

But I digress.

Anyway, Suk-Young Chwe, a professor of political science at UCLA, stepped in it with Eisen when he pointed out what should be obvious. That when it comes to critical thinking and recognition of one’s own tendency to confirmation bias, the humanities, and literary criticism in particular, have much to offer. Literary critics are trained to be aware of their own biases. So are lawyers, by the way. (Argue this side. Now argue the other side.)

Although Suk-Young Chwe does sound somewhat naïve to suggest that scientists aren’t also trained to be aware of their biases, by highlighting the thought process that supports literary criticism, he (perhaps unwittingly) points out that humanists and scientists should be natural allies, because we’re all harmed by a public that doesn’t get what we do.

What jumped out at me in Suk-Young Chwe’s article and Eisen’s response was a naivety on both sides regarding public perception. Here’s what I mean. Suk-Young Chwe writes that, “Despite the popular belief that anything goes in literary criticism, the field has real standards of scholarly validity.”

Eisen responds:

This is a red herring to me. I can find no evidence that their there is a popular belief that “anything goes” in literary criticism. So the author here sets a very low bar and then basically any presentation of standards is supposed to impress us.

Actually, the public, to the extent it has any idea of what literary criticism actually is, really does believe that “anything goes in literary criticism.” Eisen disagrees with this, but Eisen runs with a highly educated crowd that constitutes a poor sample group of the general population. I’ve encountered this belief my entire life, this denigrating of humanities studies as somehow fluffy at best and a kind of con game at worse. “It’s just opinion, and my opinion is as good as yours, and you can’t ‘prove’ Shakespeare was really writing about mortality in his sonnets [there’s that teapot again, thanks Russell], so everyone gets an A.” It really does exist. And it manifests itself in the current devaluing of humanities education and the people who seriously pursue it, which I’ve written about in this blog.

An idealized view of Science as somehow free of error really exists among the public, too. Again, mostly among non-Scientists who never had to compete against colleagues for grant funding or go through the tenure process.

Of course it isn’t news that the public doesn’t get what scientists and humanities scholars do. But it is news or should I say – newish, that as a culture the rift between the educated and uneducated is getting so large it resembles something out of pre-Enlightenment Europe. The public doesn’t get any of us.   Between the naïve Science groupies who deify Science (string theory’s sooo kewl, in an alternate universe I could be Bill Gates!) and who form a market group for the flashy woo-ridden stuff (time doesn’t really exist!) and the red state yahoos who don’t “believe” in evolution but haven’t presented any evidence supporting a better model, Science has its own PR problems. For a reading list of popular woo-ridden physics, go here.

To stave off the hate mail (or possibly to attract more of it, never can tell), my point is not to criticize pop physics, which would be arrogant of a non-physicist like myself to do. My point is that when there’s an obvious appetite among Science groupies for ideas that could have been copped from the Vedas, Sufism, William Blake, or any mystic strain of pretty much any religion, maybe Science and humanities ought to be shaking hands. Not because of common intellectual ground (although that certainly exists), but because both fields are only valued by the public to the extent that they pander to sensationalist tastes, and this situation isn’t healthy for the culture. (Maybe the humanities equivalent is the history groupies who think they understand the ancient world because they’ve seen some cool cgi movies with awesome fight scenes.) Some movies have a nexus of historical accuracy, just as some popular physics (I assume) has some connection with actual Science, but when the point is to attract a mass audience, it also devalues actual scholarship for that audience. Humanities has suffered from this for a long time. “Anyone can learn history from watching the Discovery Channel.” Seems Science does too.

The war on the humanities is essentially a war on critical thinking – and so of course the pure sciences are equally a target. Scientists and humanities scholars should be natural allies. What happens, though, is the kind of snarking that STEM people reserve for humanities majors, as if we’re not both targets of the toxic ignorance running through the culture like a black river of doom.

It’s difficult to fight for more funding when the red states don’t “believe” in Science. It’s impossible when scientists will backstab each other for grant money and offer dubious, irreproducible results under pressure of getting tenure, keeping their university jobs, and not having to drive a courtesy shuttle for a car dealership for a living.  Here’s what happens to scientists whose work is Nobel quality and whose funding isn’t.  In case you didn’t click, the link is to a news story about Douglas Prasher, the brilliant chemist who generously shared his work with colleagues when his research funding ran out, forcing him out of Science and eventually into driving a shuttle.   Those colleagues won the Nobel prize for chemistry a few years ago, for work that used Prasher’s research.

Science is a blood sport. So is literary criticism, by the way. Scarce resources will do that.

That is why the reproducibility movement, which is written about in a Washington Post article by Joel Achenbach called “The New Scientific Revolution” is being greeted with mixed reviews. The scientific community recognizes that the pressure to publish and the limited funding available to researchers is a huge temptation to fudge data, and that, often, experimental results cannot be reproduced. So the scientific community is getting tough. Reproducibility, which should have been a dogma of the scientific community for the last four centuries, is now a “movement.” According to Achenbach, “the leaders of the scientific community are recalibrating their requirements, pushing for the sharing of data and greater experimental transparency.” This push is taking the form of top-tier journals announcing new publication guidelines, pharmaceutical companies with large financial interests demanding more rigorous pre-clinical results, and the Center for Open Science (COS) at the University of Virginia. COS, founded by Brian Nosek, facilitates data sharing.

All good, although all stuff that Science is supposed to be doing anyway. The fact that there needs to be a self-conscious “movement” to make sure everybody in the pool really is complying with the scientific method says a lot about the sorry state of Science today. This says more:

Betsy Levy-Paluck, an associate professor of psychology and public policy at Princeton, said of the reproducibility movement, “I think it’s the future.” But there has been controversy at the laboratory level: Some researchers have complained that the reformers are going overboard.

“There are worries about there being witch hunts,” Levy-Paluck said.

And that’s the problem. In the cutthroat world of limited research grants, where Nobel-quality scientists are driven from the field for lack of funding, the reproducibility movement can easily become a witchhunt, a means to eliminate rivals by finding something, anything in their results that in some fashion can be questioned. Reproducibility is necessary, but reifying it into a “movement” is likely to have a chilling effect on innovation, and close the comfort zone of play that all thinkers need to spend time in without apology.

We humanists got ass-kicked out of that zone decades ago. As I’ve blogged elsewhere, that was partly our fault and partly the culture’s. Seems you Science guys are here now, too, for similar reasons. The culture doesn’t value the hard sciences or the humanities. Both fields are destroying themselves. I don’t know how to change these things. I’m just reading the narrative.

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