Thursday, February 12, 2009

Restoring Science

Many who work in research implicitly agree that the truth will set you free. And in one way or another this has driven a lot of us to science. But it's counterintuitive - the truth being thought to be objective and all - that the truth is so different depending on who's asking for it.

What then are we to make of Obama’s repeated desire to “restore science to its rightful place”? Josh Witten (over at Scientific Blogging) wrote a stimulating piece in which he contrasted a recent finding from efforts in federal Chinese science with Obama’s treatment of science. The former employed data on social disturbances, which was generously – almost surprisingly – released by the Chinese government. Looking at 51,000 social disturbances in 2007, sociologists were able to find patterns in the disturbances, which allowed them to successfully predict future ones.

Witten brings up the poignant question, to what end?. Would they use it for good in order to prevent civil unrest? Or would they use it to suppress their billion-plus citizens?

This concern, although hypothetical, is certainly valid for a government with such a corrupt history as China’s. In contrast, our government’s corruption - although not as oppressive as China’s and much smaller in degree - is more implicit and hidden. It's decentralized, just like the structure of the government - hidden away in an infinite amount of special interests, which collectively serve to chip away at the general interest. Indeed, to what end? is the question that we must ask about our own government’s science as well.

Conflicts of Interest

If economics has taught us anything, it’s that people respond to incentives. Almost anyone these days would be quick to point that out when discussing privately funded research. And over the past decade, scientists and academics have become sensitive about their own sources of funding. Scientific conflicts of interest these days are thought to arise mostly from private funding, in the form of corporations hiding negative findings so that they can profit at the public's expense.

But what about publicly funded research? Certainly it still abides by these same incentives, only they’re coming from the government. Hidden agendas in public research are not as explicit – there’s no CEO or central board pulling the strings – but this can make them all the more dangerous.

For instance, you can be certain that environmental scientists who have thought hard about global warming, and don't believe that it's man made, aren't going to receive much in the way of public funding, particularly under Obama’s new administration.

Or what about medical researchers who disagree with the CDC? Many claim that studies on the links between vaccines and autism are marred by confirmation bias - namely their conclusions are simply attributed to the objectives of the authors rather than to good science. Furthermore, vaccines are widely supported by public health officials who are associated with the government. Why would they fund any researchers who genuinely wanted to assess the negative effects of vaccines, when they not only disagree with them, but have everything to lose should their hypotheses be supported?

Every scientist has a unique perspective on the world, but how can we be assured that committees of them who disseminate funding aren't forcing their views onto others? If a researcher concludes in a study that government intervention in his field is ineffective, how is he going to be funded in the future?

A concrete example I recall is from a Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) researcher I once heard. To give a brief background, the CDC & NIH combined have espoused the view that CFS is no different from depression, although this has produced little in the way of useful research. The researcher was of the opinion that CFS wasn't very related to depression, and he wanted to run a well-devised study comparing different patients' etiologies. The study was eventually funded by the NIH - and his hypotheses were supported - but only he said, because after his grant application was rejected a few times, he re-focused it as if the study was meant to show that CFS was the same as depression, which was more in line with the opinions of the lead researchers at the NIH. It was a funny little anecdote when he told it, but then in all seriousness he said he would probably never receive NIH funding again.

The Doublespeak of Special Interests

Many people in the scientific community are joyful about Obama’s promises to science. And with good reason, because this gives them renewed vigor, along with added job security. But Obama’s vows to the scientific community are at best your average appeal to another special interest and at worst a hint at a more centrally planned scientific future. The web of the conflicts of interest portrayed above are not unique to science. They arise whenever the government overreaches into any special interest area.

Take the phrase “restore science to its rightful place”, and replace the word science with any other political buzzword: religion, agriculture, education, national highways, mail delivery, broadcast television. In this context, the statement’s meaning slowly becomes hollow to ears jaded from meaningless political promises. It does imply that money will be taken from other areas for the sake of science, but that’s about it.

But society thrives on science, where would we be without it? is the retort coming from a few people at Scientific Blogging, and I think it's the feeling generally shared by the scientific community. Once again, however, this argument rings hollow when you consider how many people have said that exact same thing – but for everything in addition to and on top of science, usually covering fields that they work in. Just the other day I heard a reporter say that federal mail service is integral in a democracy, as if to imply that we’d fall apart without it. This is essentially the same argument being espoused by the scientific community for more public science.

Any rigorous argument in favor of more public funds for science has to go beyond its import to society, and cover why it's more important than other specific areas that the government funds. Lobbyists and politicians, of course, act as if you can spend money on everything at once. When that power is abused society as a whole feels the ramifications, either directly through taxes or indirectly through poor monetary policy. Imagine for one moment that the government, just like a person or corporation, really did have a limited budged. Sure it would be necessary to spend money on some things, but why science and not some other thing?

The answer very well might be to spend on science, but it needs to be answered ahead of time and in this format (eg, in terms of opportunity costs). It can't just be assumed that the benefits outweigh the costs because science is good - or even because it's really super good. In the event that science is not the best thing to spend money on, then society as a whole loses (and at the expense of well-paid scientists). Even if all of those funds lead to very fruitful discoveries later, it doesn't automatically prove that they were still worth it, or that they were better than other investments. You would think that such fans of objectivity as scientists would embrace objective assessments like cost-benefit analysis. And they often do, but not always when it comes to their own work.

Well they're already cutting us the check, so why complain?

Academics and scientists feel they have an enlightened view of the world, and in a sense I agree. That's why it bothers me all the more that somehow many of them fail to see that the dirty politics and doublespeak of special interests applies to their discipline as well.

Free-market economist Milton Friedman argued that special interests tear apart the moral fabric of society. They're particularly dangerous because of the covert nature of their corruption: They don't lead to an outright abuse of power, but they create the incentives for many smaller ones. Take from the individual examples above - the scientist who is skeptical about man-made global warming, the doctor who wants to thoroughly assess vaccines, or the CFS researcher who disagreed with the NIH - none of these examples alone attests to the extent to which government funds can harm science. You have to look at the combined effect of such individual missteps, across every field affected, and multiplied over time. The overall picture is not unlike communism in its waste, inefficiencies, moral decay, and potential for corruption, the only difference being that the process is slower and more subtle - but nonetheless real - in regards to special interests.

Even with its extra funding, what is science’s rightful place anyway? Is it just to be well-funded? What does this place look like? Will we shuffle our focus in science - alternative energy for a while, then say obesity - just like 5-year plans in Soviet Russia? Obama strikes me as confident and intelligent, but there's a subtle Orwellian tinge to his promise, if only because science is so important and can be used for so many different ends. Unfortunately this is the last question people seem to ask of Obama’s promise - to "restore science to its rightful place", alright, but to what end?


Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1) Essay: Elevating Science, Elevating Democracy(New York Times), 01/26/2009, MashGet; (2) "We need a president who believes in science.", 03/21/2008, Snil Garg; (3) Crowd Policing, 08/12/2006, by Dom Dada; (4) Poster from the 2006 documentary about global warming, An Inconvenient Truth; (5) USPS Logo; (6) Rockefeller Research Building: Example of a building constructed over a highway, 01/01/2008, by Zachary Korb; (7) Berlin Wall, 03/20/2006, by David Hunter; (8) 柏林墙 - The Berlin Wall - Berliner Mauer, 11/12/2007, by siyu. Sphere: Related Content


  1. This is an interesting perspective on political use of language.
    I would say that the rightful place of science is in the home and in the school, in the college and in the university, on the workshop floor and in the street, in the hairdresser's shop and in the bar.
    Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day.
    Show a man how to fish and he will exhaust the natural stocks.
    But when every person on the planet has at least a BSc degree, who then will starve?

  2. Hey Patrick thanks for the comment & thoughts.

    It's funny b/c I often get the impression that academia considers "applied science" to be a dirty word. But as you hint at, "applied science" may be more pure than, well, "pure" (or "basic") science.

    I grew up surrounded by issues of Consumer Reports, as my father has every issue for the past few decades. The magazine's not perfect, but I've long thought that they offer a sound model for science's "proper place", by providing trustworthy & applicable info in such an easy to understand format. They're analytic, but only to a degree, & even tho they're conducting science, it's all completely intuitive, not mind-boggling in the least. They realize not only the import of not bogging down the reader's time, but also his autonomy & independence to make an informed decision for himself.

    Building on the fishing analogy, they're already presuming some degree of competence in the fisherman, but are giving him the most updated tips on how to improve his game. Too often prescriptive/gov't science takes the fisherman by the hand as if he were a child & forces him to use a technique that, averaged across some large sample, appears to be the most useful. & while such applied science as is found in CR might not touch life's deeper mysteries, it's refreshingly absent from some of science's worst superficialities. You'd never see, say, a culturally sensitive socio-economic model for how middle-aged Asian-American females should go about picking out a mid-range laptop.

  3. refreshingly absent from some of science's worst superficialities. You'd never see, say, a culturally sensitive socio-economic model for how middle-aged Asian-American females should go about picking out a mid-range laptop.

    Very witty observation.
    But what you said about technological 'improvements' in fishing - that has just about wiped out the cod in the North Sea and off the Grand Banks within my lifetime - and I wonder how much of that protein got dumped overboard, left to rot in warehouses, used as fertiliser etc.

    A true scientist can predict that overfishing leads to starvation - and then propose a better way of feeding our populations.

  4. Thanks for your take. As you probably know I'm wary of environmentalism, but I'm open to learning more.

    Couldn't we apply technology to the fish population? Just as lumber companies plant trees?

    Going back to the agricultural revolution, we have a long of history of applying technology to not only gather food sources, but also to create them.

    Getting perhaps at the heart of environmentalism: I get the impression that it rests on a sense that Malthus & Ehrlich were essentially right, but mankind was saved by this or that technological advance. As if we just happened to be lucky, or we just missed this bullet this time, but we might be sorry next.

    My concern however is that this account is a reversal of cause & effect. That is to say, technological advances have enabled mankind to expand; not the other way around (ie, advances occurred b/c mankind had expanded so far). Consequently, food-wise, the human population should almost always be sustainable. Furthermore, there are in-built mechanisms to check or fuel population growth (eg, poorer countries tend to have more children of whom fewer survive).

    Global warming of course is a different issue. Admittedly I know less of it, but am equally skeptical. It seems to stem from a similar uneasy feeling that we can't just keep going on progressing. That something has to give. & it's going to be the environment.

    I can perhaps sympathize with the feeling, but by itself it's not sufficient for action. Take for instance landfills across the US - which was another environmentalist issue, & like all of them stemmed from the same distrust of human progress. It's clear that if you look at the rate we're filling landfills, there will be a time in the future when we have no more space. But when will that time come? In 50 years? 100? 200,000? Currently we're really not running out of landfill space. Clearly there is some point at which the rate is so infinitesimally small that it's not really a problem. But the debate - when it sprung up in the 90's - seemed less focused on the rate, & more focused on the intuition that it'll fill up sometime. The rate - not if, but when - I'd say is key, like the Goldilocks function (see

    Obviously these objections aren't at all couched in science, but just in my own suppositions about what's fueling these concerns. Having more of a grasp on the science, what's your take? Particularly perhaps considering the Goldilocks function? eg, it's not enough to merely say that it's a problem or it's a risk factor. But it needs to be specified, how much?

  5. Kerrjak: I just read your new comment, at past 3 am UK time. I need to re-read and then think some more. I'll (almost) literally sleep on it and come back with the energy to write something sensible - I hope. :)


  6. I've thought over this blog and comments.

    The bottom line I see here is:
    1 -what are the 'true' foundations of knowledge?
    2 -can those foundations lead to ethical enlightenment?

    In all realms of knowledge except for one tiny corner, knowledge is built on this foundation: an effect is caused, and an effect follows cause. If my observation of a chain of causality fits your observation of the same, or another chain of causality, then we have a common frame of reference and can agree. This is how our ancestors knew when best to plant crops.

    The only alternative to that universal truth is to hide in a corner, deny the causality and argue that causality can never be known, except in so far as a "higher power" caused the effect.

    I used lower case 'h' because I was simply NOT referring to a Universal Power, as perhaps revealed by inspired Writings.

    From an understanding of Writings one can derive much of wisdom, ethics and solace.

    But anyone who approaches the Writings with a mindset - a mind set in concrete - that these Writings are 100% true eye-witness accounts down to the last dot and comma is deluded.

    If there was ever a single point beyond time when everything was designed in an instant then it follows in logic that there can NOT have been an observer, q.e.d.

    The founders of answering_geneticists, as I prefer to call them, subscribe to the hide in a corner mode of thinking. They call it apologetics. I have posted elsewhere about their ludicrously self-contradictory pseudphilosophy.

    Back to the creationists - scientists debate on ethics. The creationists claim that scientists must be biased due to grant funding, even though the ethics of science means that such funding is public knowledge.

    Contrast answering_geneticists. They are a registered charity with a declared income. Since they claim that any human-published fact is unacceptable as evidence of truth, I would give them a taste of their own medicine.

    I deny that their financial records conform to the legal or theological notion of 'truth' and invite the IRS to look into this, as an entirely unbiased observer.

  7. Hey Patrick, thanks for the thoughtful comments - both here & all around - it's certainly refreshing for me to see other people's ideas up here.

    Adding to your thoughts above, I've long suspected that there's an important distinction btwn science that describes the world & science that informs policy or action (the latter I've took to calling prescriptive science). The distinction can sometimes be blurry, but it seems like the more descriptive side of science maybe its stronger suit. It's a little like the more common distinction btwn applied & basic science, but not quite.

    Take the Consumer Reports model of science, which is purely descriptive. What I like particularly about the magazine is that they're never just like, "So in the end you should definitely buy this model." That would be prescriptive. Their work is more nuanced than that. They can tell you what consumers liked about this or that model; & they can tell you which models had which qualities, such that, if you're going for this or that feature, you might want to draw your attention to these particular models.

    The CR model answers questions that are useful &, more important, answerable. It's ethics-free, but findings can certainly be used to inform ethics. For instance, they once concluded about low energy/water washing machines found that consumers liked them less & that it forced them to do more washes. Shortly afterward, the gov't was thinking about, or had just, mandated these models.

    There's often a push to use descriptive science for prescriptive purposes. The reasoning would be like, "our studies showed that Macintosh preformed the best, so everyone should buy them". Even tho the shortcomings of this type of inference are obvious, our system for scientific advancement encourages it. Hence a medical researcher will get more funding if he can tie his area to an epidemic, & even more if he can propose how to cure it.

    I suspect that the underlying problem is in how these incentives move science, & reinforce more bad science than good. That is to say, of course, some scientists will always err by judging their research as absolute, rather than as an approximation of true knowledge. But currently the system heavily favors this type of wrongheaded approach.

    On the evolution/creationist front, Darwin's studies were unquestionably descriptive; while there's a strong prescriptive element in how creationists use their arguments to dictate morality. Likewise, many people have tried to project a prescriptive element upon evolution. In addition to the common complaint that belief of evolution is immoral, a few have tried "use" evolutionary science to their advantage.

    My favorite example of the latter is the actions of Jeff Skilling, former Enron CEO, who for years ran performance reviews of every Enron employee about twice a year. At the end each meeting, the worst performing 15% of employees were fired & replaced! During Enron's success, Skilling hailed this as a revolutionary management technique, in part inspired by Dawkins' Selfish Gene. However the practice created a dog-eat-dog work environment, as it selected for those employees who were able to buddy-buddy w/their superiors, & were able to sign lucrative contracts which, despite the $ they brought in in the present, were infeasible for Enron to carry out in the long term. Of course, that wasn't all that was wrong w/the company, but if you could go back in time & change 1 alterable thing about the company, those review boards might be your best bet.

  8. I think I'll pick up some of this in my own blog. ( It's not plagiarism, honest! :)

    Re: your last remark about Enron's workforce strategy. Have you ever seen the movie "Glengarry Glenross"? It is a good demonstration of the fundamentally flawed 'sell more = good business' model.


  9. "I think I'll pick up some of this in my own blog. ( It's not plagiarism, honest! :)"

    By all means, if ideas lacked feet then what would be the point?

    I enjoyed Glengarry Glenross, smart movie w/great acting.


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