The Changing Face of Science

H/T Bishop Hill for a thoughtful essay on the state of modern science: CLIMATE SCIENCE: OPINIONS, BALONEY AND BLOGGERS by David Whitehouse:

The fact is that the internet is changing science and the debate about climate science is a good example of it. You can be a professor of anything these days but there will be someone out there in cyberspace who is smarter, better at statistics and computing, and has more time to focus on key problems. Someone who will ask for the raw data and mercilessly pick away at it, pointing out mistakes that before would have gone unnoticed. This might be uncomfortable for some, but it is undoubtedly good for science that cares nothing for personal feelings. The baloney detection kit is in ten thousand parts and is on the internet. Science needs to find a way to encompass this new reality.

Science has benefited from this. The so-called hockey stick graph showing global temperatures unchanging for over a thousand years and then an almost exponential recent rise – a graph that for years was an icon of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and hugely politically influential – was shown to be wrong by a blogger not by an academic climate scientist or by a journalist. There are other examples.

In the past the paper on the hockey stick would have been published in a journal after peer-review and stored in a library. But peer-review is not infallible, very many papers published in peer-reviewed journals turn out to be flawed. Access to the paper would be difficult for non-scientists. You could get a photocopy of the paper, but where is the data? How could it be checked? Scientists were forced into silos with the public forced to accept the conclusions of the priesthood with no way to check. False avenues in science took years and decades to correct, if at all. With the internet I suspect that the story of transposons, bacterial ulcers, continental drift, and smoking and cancer would have been different.

Because of the Internet and the demand for free access to scientific data (that is after all paid for by the taxpayer) science is becoming more open. It is the bloggers who are science’s new auditors. Many do not like it and have a cultural difficulty in accepting that the times are a changing. But as the new generations take over science will become more participatory and more appreciated.

All scientific conclusions are open to revision, especially those of climate science. Only today that revision is no longer exclusively in the hands of the scientific priesthood, or in the overvalued opinions of those on TV. Richard Feynman, once said, “It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is – if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong.” He and Carl Sagan would have loved these times. They would be looking at the data, and writing blogs.

I agree with all of this. The blogger who blew the whistle on the Hockey Stick was Steve McIntyre, who is (I believe) a retired mining engineer.

With the internet I too suspect that the story of smoking and cancer would have been different (and heart-warming to read that here). What we are fed these days, in climate science and tobacco science (and probably a great deal more ‘sciences’) are the dogmas of a priesthood. And, to my mind, their dogmas are mostly baloney.

But I’d go further than David Whitehouse. He seems to cast the internet and the blogs principally in the role of critics of existing ‘priestly’ science. But why not have the blogosphere produce new science, and let the university ‘priesthood’ provide the criticism? I increasingly think that this is the only way to do good, new science.

Because all the great scientists (as far as I can see) were just interested individuals following their noses. Isaac Newton wasn’t hired by Trinity College, Cambridge, to ‘do research’ into anything. He was a professor of mathematics, but hardly anyone ever went to his lectures, so he had plenty of time to study whatever interested him, which happened to include optics, mechanics, and the motion of the planets. Same with Charles Darwin. Nobody asked him to come up with a theory of evolution. It was what interested him, and he was rich enough to be able pursue his interest unmolested. And then again nobody asked Albert Einstein to come up with the theory of relativity. He figured it out in his free time when he was working in a patent office in Switzerland.

If the same three people had been working full time as researchers in universities or research establishments these days, they wouldn’t have been allowed to go swanning off looking at the motion of planets, or the development of plants and animals, or the behaviour of light.

“No, Mr Newton, you may not study the motion of planets! You’re supposed to be designing an improved bathtub. And no, Mr Darwin, you may not go out collecting plants and insects on company time! You’re supposed to be developing a new line of cheese-flavoured runner beans. And, you, Mr Einstein, must stop gazing out the window at passing  trains!”

I know the problem. When I was a university researcher, looking at heat flow in buildings, and designing bits of electronics and writing computer programmes, for most of the time I was actually much more interested in something else – and used to return to the university at night to write computer programmes to look at what I was interested in. Back then computers had yet to become super-cheap, and I couldn’t afford my own. I was doing the university-required research by day, and pursuing my own investigations at night (often in complete darkness but for the glowing green computer screen).

I’m always interested in one idea or other. For the past 9 months I’ve been intermittently developing ideas about how cells might grow and divide. I’ve got the time, and the mathematical skills, and several computers, and the wonderful resource of the internet. But I’m not part of the university priesthood any more. And anyway, they probably shoot smokers like me on sight in universities these days.

But I see no reason why a great deal of research – except the kind that needs huge telescopes or particle accelerators – can’t be conducted in the way that Newton and Darwin and Einstein were doing it. Why does there have to be a university priesthood? Back then, they were just a bunch of people who thought and did experiments (in Einstein’s case, thought-experiments), and carried on correspondences with other like-minded people, following their noses, pursuing their hunches. Lots of people have computers these days. Most have access to the internet. There’s nothing to stop anyone who is interested in something, and has enough free time, to look into almost anything.

Because this is what is no longer happening. Our universities are full up with people who will only ever get to do any research once they have demonstrated their complete orthodoxy, by passing dozens of examinations. More or less by definition, once they actually start doing research of any sort, they will almost certatinly be ‘true believers’ in the current orthodoxies in their fields. And if, by chance, they’re not, they won’t be allowed to do anything they’re not being paid to do. And so we have rigid dogma being reproduced everywhere – in climate science, in tobacco science, and probably everywhere else as well.

And worse, we have all these self-important ‘experts’ peddling their various dogmas without facing any real criticism in the media or in parliament or anywhere else. Because they really are a priesthood, and they have a very, very high opinion of themselves.

So I think that Whitehouse may be right. If Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman were around today, they’d be writing blogs. And doing science the way it should be done.

About Frank Davis

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6 Responses to The Changing Face of Science

  1. Edgar says:

    There may be a lot more independent investigators around than you seem to think, Frank. Perhaps because of past experience with the orthodoxy, they might not be so keen on promoting themselves. In any case, there is nothing sacrosanct about publishing new knowledge. Science is not a human right; it is the product of a human being’s work. If I make a mahogony box, I do not have to share it with the world.

    • Frank Davis says:

      Science is not a human right; it is the product of a human being’s work. If I make a mahogony box, I do not have to share it with the world.

      What have ‘rights’ got to do with it?

      And I can’t see that something can be science if it is not shared with the world, but is instead kept privately hidden away. In my view science is essentially a public discourse, to which people bring their various insights or guesses or hypotheses, to be subjected to criticism, and to be accepted or rejected. Someone may have what they believe to be (and may actually be) a penetrating insight into some matter or other, but if that insight never passes their lips, it cannot be regarded as science in the sense that Newton et al. did science. It’s just a personal vision or dream which will die with the person who dreamt it, and be of no consequence whatsoever.

  2. GaryK30 says:

    “just interested individuals following their noses.”

    Such as: Ben Franklin, the Wright bros., Edison, Bell, Gates, and Gatling.

    Poor Dr. Gatling, he was so horrified by the horrors of war that he invented an automatic weapon that he thought would end wars because of it’s deadliness.

    Talk about the Law of Un-intended Consequences!!!

  3. Carl Sagan was a hero to many people who cared about science. He was often referred to on Open University. He had charisma and integrity.
    Merry Christmas Frank and a very Happy New Year.

    If you haven’t got fed up with plain packs yet, then here are two I designed earlier.

  4. Tony says:

    Way off topic but:
    I saw a film called ‘Bertie and Elizabeth’ on TV last night. Bertie was, of course, King George V1 of England. Turns out he was a heavy smoker of cigarettes. He also contracted lung cancer although it seems he actually died of coronary thrombosis in February 1952 at the age of 56.
    It occurs to me that such a high profile case of lung cancer would have provided a big boost to the post war anti-smoking people.

  5. As you know, I’m not convinced by the Theory of Evolution, and neither are you in its most popular format. As I wrote on Dawkins’ Facebook page yesterday,

    “it’s not too late for you to admit that the Theory of Evolution was made plausible off the back of Uniformitarianism, which we know is false, because catastrophic events have taken place and do best explain many geographical features on the Earth. The T of E is based on a false, non-scientific, long ages philosophy. Further, discoveries since the time of Darwin prove that even the most “simple” life is far more complex than he could possibly have imagined. He also worried that the lack of transitional creatures in the fossil record was a major problem to his theory. The transitional fossils you would expect to find simply have not turned up, and millions of samples later, we can be assured, never will.

    “The Theory of Evolution is a dead duck. It’s a 19th century guess based on primitive observations, on the back of an 18th century false philosophy. We have a wonderful Creator who deserves all the credit. It’s not too late for you to admit this and try to undo all the damage you have caused.”

    The eminent troublemaker probably never read it and I don’t hang around to see what his little piranha followers have to say, as they invariably issue nothing but insults and totally ignore my scientific and philosophical arguments.

    The problem these days is that ‘scientists’ are politicians and social engineers in white coats. And like politicians, manage to fool people who say the things they want to hear.

    We have returned to the age of quackery and snake oil salesmen.

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