Sunday, October 12, 2008

Science III

If you took the time and read the previous posts, you may wonder why the science bar is set so high. You may also wonder how many "scientists" really practice science as defined here. To wit, I used to joke that any discipline with "science" in its name was not scientific at all. Like political science, social science, computer science, brain science, etc. I stopped telling that joke because I found people tend to react rather violently and fail to see the point. Given the status (and money involved) of science in our society, people do not like to be told their work is not "scientific." Add to that that the majority of the population equates science and truth and you can see why this joke is like saying "I have a bomb" in the airport.

Fine, but what about having the bar set high? Why is that necessary? It is because people are very easily fooled. I say people, because it is a characteristic of all people, regardless of their intelligence, upbringing, social status, etc. All people are easily fooled and they are experts at fooling themselves. Everyone has ideas, things they learned or experienced, prejudices, opinions, fears, that are based on spurious associations, hearsay, peer pressure, personal experience (often misinterpreted) etc. Scientists are no different from any other person in this respect. They are just as likely to be religious, believe in the afterlife, be afraid of ghosts, as anyone else.

Second, many people have an agenda. Some have a very active and explicit agenda, but even those who don't often have to prove something to the world. They are motivated to prove something to themselves and to others. They are driven to make a point or simply to be right about something. Such biases are even more explicit when it comes to behavior, nutrition, health, performance, etc. The more it affects people's daily lives, the stronger the biases are. Most people can be pretty neutral about gravity, but when it comes to what food is good for you, hardly anyone is without a preset opinion.

Third, there is a lot of money at stake, and money has an agenda. Once again this is more applicable to health, medicine, and nutrition than to abstract things in the physical world. Modern science is especially dependent on money and money does not come free. It exerts a noticeable influence at all levels. From the types of research that is "fundable," i.e. a couple of decades ago you could not propose any research that would imply or might find differences between the genders, to the findings of such research, i.e. many people tried to suppress the work on helicobacter and stomach ulcers; to the endless ongoing research into side-effects of birth control pills, circumcision and sexually transmitted disease, etc. that is doubtlessly motivated to prove and support a certain point of view.

Fourth, science is based on and requires open communication and free exchange of information. That does not sit well with those who aim to gain an advantage, as is true from the military all the way down to the sports competitor. One might even argue the lay person looking for health info is trying to get an edge. But conducting science in secrecy is not really possible. I know you will quickly point out all the secret government research, including the Manhattan project. When doing so it is easy to forget that the Manhattan project was mostly about engineering, not science. Once again, many will quickly take issue with this claim, not because they know it to be true or not, but because they view science as more prestigious than engineering. Or because they don't want to be known as engineers (yes folks there is a pecking order here).

Much of what goes under the label science is nothing but engineering, or empirical discovery. Guess what, there is nothing wrong with that. Science is not the only way to discover truths about nature. If anything, science is definitely the slowest (and from a practical perspective) the most inefficient way to discover new things. Many, taking a serious look at the "war on cancer" have come to that conclusion. And they are right. There is not really a scientific way to find a cure for a disease. You can do a lot of science about organisms, diseases, etc. but that is a very round-about and long process. Penicillin for example was not discovered in a scientific experiment. It was confirmed in a scientific experiment, but it was discovered by accident. And that is the way most discoveries are made.

If you want to find something new, better not do science. Better poke around, look around, and do so without any prejudice or forethought. Better think crazy thoughts and do things people wouldn't do. That is how discoveries are made. By pushing the envelope and questioning the obvious.

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