How science dies

Nietzsche famously wrote:

“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”

This quote is often used as an example of Nietzsche’s nihilism but it is much more complicated. These words are actually spoken by a madman in Nietzsche’s book The Gay Science. According to philosopher Simon Critchley, the quote is meant to be a descriptive rather than a normative statement. What Nietzshe was getting at is that Christianity is a religion that values provable truth and as a result of this truth seeking, science arose. Science in turn generated skepticism of revealed truth and the concept of God. Thus, the end of Christianity was built into Christianity.

Borrowing from this analysis, science may also have have a built-in mechanism for its own doom. An excellent article in this month’s Technology Review describes the concept of epistemic dependence, where science and technology is so complicated now that no single person can understand all of it. In my own work, I could not reproduce a single experiment of my collaborators. Our collaborations work because we trust each other. I don’t really know how scientists identify new species of insects, or how paleontologists can tell what species a bone fragment belongs to, or all the details of the proof of the Poincare conjecture. However, I do understand how science and math works and trust that the results are based on those methods.

But what about people who are not trained in science? If you tell them that the universe was formed 14 billion years ago in a Big Bang and that 99% of all the stuff in the universe is completely invisible, why would they believe you. Why is that more believable then the earth being formed six thousand years ago in seven days? In both cases, knowledge is transferred to them from an authority. Sure you can say because of science, we live longer, have refrigerators, cell phones, and Netflix so we should believe scientists. On the other hand, a charismatic conman could tell them that they have those things because they were gifted from super advanced aliens. Depending on the sales job and one’s priors, it is not clear to me which would be more convincing.

So perhaps we need more science education? Well, in half a century of focus on science education, science literacy is not really very high in the general public. I doubt many people could explain how a refrigerator works much less the second law of thermodynamics and forget about quantum mechanics. Arthur C. Clarke’s third law that “All sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” is more applicable then ever. While it is true that science has delivered on producing better stuff it does not necessarily make us more fulfilled or happier. I can easily see a future where a large fragment of the population simply turns away from science with full knowledge of what they are doing. That would be the good outcome. The bad one is that people start to turn against science and scientists because someone has convinced them that all of their problems (and none of the good stuff) are due to science and scientists. They would then go and destroy the world as we know it without really intending to. I can see this happening too.

5 thoughts on “How science dies

  1. Hey Carson, thanks for the post. Great Carl Sagan book called the Demon Haunted World that eloquently describes the slide toward a new dark age because of scientific illiteracy. Certainly the recent election aftermath shows how many suckers of the type you mention surround us. They believe the con man rather than the previous sources of factual authority. There was a quote I saw from a book on the decline of democracy in the Weimar Republic to the effect that people decided to believe the lies because they were “emotionally necessary,” meaning the truth was too painful to bear. It’s the same feeling that leads people to all sorts of conspiracy theories, that the truth is messy and complex and therefore repellant to minds that are conditioned to crave simple explanations. I think most of us may be more and more conditioned in just that way as Twitter is the format for the discussions of the day.

    As you say, you don’t need the same knowledge of your colleagues to cooperate. You just need trust — but you also need a well-honed bullshit detector. The Trumpers truly believe they are the ones being saavy you by not believing the ‘mainstream media’ by which I think they include science as well (they’re all in on the climate hoax you know).

    Malignant liars, credulous rubes, opportunistic profiteers, faltering trust, infotainment overload, enervating and focus-fracturing stress from economic and climate pressures, and throw in a pandemic and the loneliness of quarantine. How the heck do you untie that knot!? Sometimes it seems like the NYTimes and a few precarious redoubts of reason are all that stand between us and Trumpism forever. And even they have the woke mobs forming an opposite front against them and declaring war on a whole other class of inconvenient truths.

    Some kind of great awakening needs to happen, but how? Maybe our best hope is for a new monastic class to carry the flame forward until better times when stupidity can be instantly cured by neuralink.

    You’re doing your part with this blog — thanks!

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  2. @Chris I don’t see any way to fix it. I think we just need to make people’s lives better and hope for the best. Medical professionals are saving people’s lives right now who don’t even believe they are even sick.

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  3. This is well written.

    There is a related discussion on the AAAS forum today on ‘the direction of science’—- an emeretus prof wrote that she is dropping her AAAS membership because the AAAS president said scientists something like scientists should try to write without technical language so non-experts can understand it. Her view was experts need technical language. basically to communicate the details, otherwise you can’t do science. (I may link to this post there which I assume is ok.)

    My view is there should sort of be 2 forms—-technical , and ‘popular’ or ‘science writing’. I view some writings by Feynman, Ulam, Edward Harrison (cosmology), Danzig (number) . Monod, Sagan, many biologists , Gleick (chaos—with some innacuracies) , Phillip Ball (physics—also some innacuracies) , as good examples of the latter.

    I think V I Arnold (KAM theorem) also wrote an essay ‘endorsing’ use of pop books in math/science as an introduction, and lamented what he saw in French education as an over emphasis on the ‘shut up and calculate’ approach. PWA Anderson in his essay ‘more is different’ wrote that one person in his field speaking on ‘fundamental questions in physics’ said there were none in condensed matter physics—it was all about making electronic devices. (I’m sort of coming to the view that there is no fundamental physics or science—or rather all of is Questions about large prime numbers are no less fundamental than ones about small ones. .)

    I’d say my limited formal interactions with science were somewhat heavily geared to the idea of ‘publish or perish’ and ‘get a result a company can use’. — and this research was health related (immunology, drug development—though i was doing low level modeling) , but my view was alot of these health problems are preventable so the effort was partly a misallocation of resources. (“This math model won’t solve addiction or related problems—it would be better to teach the model so people have other things to do besides hang out.But modeling may be another addiction that doesn’t work for everyone.)

    While i’m impressed by the rapid work on COVID, i think its association with obesity, poverty and other social things (the ‘socioeconomic health gradient’) shows these are partly social issues which can’t be solved in labs.

    e.g. https;//arxiv.org/abs/q-bio/0312011 –by R Wallace, etc. Wallace has a newer book on ‘computational psychiatry ‘ which i havent read. I think alot of psychiatric/mental health problems (probably not all) are also social in origin–eg people usually just dont pick up a virus for PTSD, and same is likely true for alot of depression and addiction.
    (I once emailed Wallace and he said his approach was not very well received so he just sort of works mostly alone and he had no suggestions for further study.)

    One issue with science is it sort of fuels consumer culture and inequality. Science mag had a ‘careers’ article about people who had to find work outside of academic science—one person who studied math planned to do health research but went into hedge fund management (ie investing). (I’ve heard 85-90% of scientific research proposals are denied funding.) US taxpayers could find 220G to treat me for a mild case of pneumonia (which turned into a 6 week hosptial stay in the ICU when i caught sepsis in the hospital) but i haven’t been able to make that much my entire life. (The pneumonia was preventible —its one reason i avoid ‘political activist events’. I did go to the Trump rally as a ‘tourist’–sort of like going to the zoo to see the wildife.
    Like a zoo, the possibly dangerous ‘proud boys’ were surrounded by alot of police so no more dangerous to me than seeing a lion in a zoo.

    The ‘opiate epidemic’ —oxycontin, fentanyl, etc.—- to some extent is due to commercialization of science. Its often alot easier to get hold of those than to study science or other things, or do arts, or study anything else. I’d say the same about identity theft, hacking, advertizing on FB, etc. Alot of technical skill is applied to propoganda and fraud. Trump has many lawyers working for him–and many people on his staff have ‘prestigious credentials’.

    Many jobs and lifestyles are part of ‘the unexamined life’.

    I Include casinos, gambling, alot of sports culture, mass media, etc. –though all of these have scientific aspects though usually not much for the ‘consumer’. Trump’s original fortune came from ‘real estate’—likely many of his of his tenants could not afford much education and the free education they did get was low quality. .

    Its interesting that CSI (Committee for skeptical inquiry) holds their conference in Las Vegas and features people like Briane Greene (caltech physics), R Dawkins, Pinker, S Harris . etc. ‘Science and gambling unite’–an interfaith meeting.

    And sometimes ‘the examined life’ means commiting to some dogma whether at the ‘expert’ level or ‘popular’ one. (I sometimes participate in book discussions on science with a mix of laypeople and some scientists —-often the books chosen sort of present one view (eg S Pinker, or certain dominant theories in physics) and people don’t look at the alternative views—or if they do sometimes dismiss them out of hand . For example in biology anything that mentions ‘group’ or ‘multilevel selection’ is just viewed as some idea that was disproven in 1960s. Same is true of anything that deals with self-organizing systems, entropy, etc.—these are just viewed as only applicable to a small part of physics. (One such discussion is led by an MIT grad who had worked in software and AI, was on economics and I was told ‘entropy’ and nonlinear dynamics had nothing to do with that field , even though some of the creators of mathematical economics had studied under Willard Gibbs. This person now endorses some form of ‘religious humanism’ which he calls ‘transcendental naturalism’. He’s also a fan of S Pinker –who along with Chomsky—has many critics in the linguistic and social psychology world.)

    I prefer checking out the various views–hence i look at alot of ‘dissident science’. Luc Montaignier and Guiseppe Vitiello of ‘water memory’, Penrose’s views on consciousness, etc.

    i just heard of another one : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subhash_Kak . he has many interesting papers (his ones on quantum computing i think are seen as legit) and supposedly is a fundamentalist hindu nationalist–and sort of claims quantum theory was derived in vedic literature many centuries ago. F Tipler (who like Feynman studied under J Wheeler) is the christian equivalent.

    I do wonder what it would be like if there was a sort of ‘scientific culture’ where it would be as easy to discuss science as it is to go to a bar or cafe and watch CNN or sports or muzack videos on a wide screen noisy tv or hear some piped in pop muzack–also brought to you by science–lots of technology involved while drinking 6$ beers + tip. .

    Most people cannot be professional athletes (tho many more try than succeed) —there are also quite a few ‘amateur physicists’. But many people still can be some sort of sports expert and even have their local game. There are many amateur political analysts and pundits (especailly in election season) . Many tend to be somewhat dogmatic, don’t ‘factcheck’, and even some ‘factcheckers’ are dogmatic or biased.

    Alot of people i am in contact with are into ‘permaculture’, ‘community gardening’, etc. These are not real alternatives to ‘big ag’ , Whole Foods, or Safeway at present and may never be, but they keep a few people afloat . Its sort of like an ‘endangered species’. Most have little, no, or unknown socioeconomic value, but they still survive on the margin.

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  4. I’ll tell you how science dies – it gets killed off by judgmental people like everyone above, that insist they are the enlightened ones and look down upon others over such nonsense as political ideology, while ignoring failure and misconduct within the scientific community. There is an extreme lack of knowledge in how to communicate with others and a complete unwillingness to communicate with those holding contrary positions.

    Scientists will be what kills science.

    Let me touch on one of the topics mentioned above.

    Politics –
    I sit in the middle. I am no fan of the Republican Party, but seeing how the scientific community and academia are so heavily leaning left, I will steer my comments thusly.

    The US govt has produced a multitude of failures since WWII. Both parties are responsible. While there are many things to criticize regarding Trump, at the heart of his support is a frustration with the status quo in govt. We used to see the exact same thing on the left. Yet, I don’t see any scientifically minded people pointing that out, or castigating those individuals the way they do Trump supporters. This bias is wide spread in science and nearly universal in academia. It’s not healthy, and any person going down that road loses credibility. If you are so fragile that you are unwilling to engage with others in discourse, despite apparent disagreements, why should anyone believe you will rigorously and properly conduct data analysis, or research design?

    Again as someone in the middle watching both sides, I can assure you all that you are losing respect among the American population. And if you’re wondering, I’m a scientist. What you do with your biased approach to political discourse affects me, as I am a part of this community. And the politicization of science is abhorrent. To see people like the former head of the EPA say there is no room for debate on climate change was one of the lowest moments I’ve ever seen in the nexus between politics and science. Since when do we as a community forbid others from questioning scientific work? And not a single left-leaning person I know bothered to criticize such a statement. Disgusting.

    Something you should know and understand is that other citizens, non-scientists, can read. They can download papers from Pubmed, Google Scholar, and other sources, and they can interrogate the science and the arguments presented. I realize this is a shock, but many of them are Trump supporters. I have seen truck drivers cite papers from Pubmed indicating there is no benefit to mask wearing, for example. And those papers do indeed reach that conclusion. These truck drivers are maligned by others, are told they don’t know the science etc, yet the ones screaming at them don’t even know Pubmed exists. I have then watched people claiming to be scientists and scientifically minded do the same and assail truck drivers, without even attempting to argue the substance of the matter. When you go down that road, you have not only lost the argument, you lost the opportunity to teach people some things, and you have discredited the scientific community.

    Most scientifically minded individuals are good at fact-finding, critical thinking, and digesting new material. If the scientific and academic communities would have bothered to engage with others, such as Trump supporters, we would never have seen the emergence of the Qanon movement. This movement saddened me a great deal. Most of those people were so frustrated with corruption and inefficiency they saw on both the right and the left, they were ripe for manipulation.

    For over a year I dove head first into that community, trying to talk to them and educate them. I went to the largest sites on the internet where they met and talked. I provided excerpts from manuals, manuscripts, court decisions, and other items to help show them that many of the things they said had no foundation in truth.

    The size of that movement has probably been overestimated. However, I was literally the lone voice of reason among a large group of Qanon people. Where were all of you, patting yourselves on the back at some faculty meeting? Convincing your colleagues you are full of virtue? You talk about being smarter, doing good things for people until they see the light, and similar self-aggrandizing nonsense. The battlefield has been sitting in front of you this whole time. And all of you just retreat to your safe spaces, hurl insults, and play no role at all in demonstrating the wisdom of a scientific approach. Do you really think you’re winning arguments by talking down to others? Do you know anything about rapport? Does it ever occur to you that showing respect for others costs you nothing?

    Your refusal to engage others as you engage your colleagues is hurting science. It is destroying the credibility of science. When you do that, you destroy my credibility and everyone else in a research department or listed on the author line in a manuscript and so forth. And there is an absurd infatuation with avoiding the discussion about failures. Climate predictions, for instance, are just grossly inaccurate going back to 1970. Instead of acknowledging how difficult that field is, and owning up to failure and the need to re-frame perspectives, there is a lock-step assault on anyone that questions the current models or the current predictions. Finally, there is wholesale refusal to address misconduct, particularly when it is politically aligned. Jonathan Gruber admitted to being dishonest in his work in order to get support for ObamaCare. Dr. Fauci has admitted to being dishonest in some of his comments to the public about covid. These are not forgivable transgressions, yet the scientific community has never said a word or called for accountability for these individuals.

    If you are worried about what will happen in our society if there is a break down along social strata or political ideologies, how much worse do you think it gets if half or more of our population abandons its confidence in the scientific community, or decides the community is so biased that its words cannot be trusted to any degree on any matter? We have before us a golden opportunity to demonstrate the worth of science and scientific thinking. Attitudes like those I see above are going to destroy that opportunity and the community.

    Science dies when scientists no longer behave scientifically. I ask that you undertake a study in the philosophy of science and abandon your biases. And I leave you with this, taken from a handout from a Stanford class on the philosophy of science: “Philosophy of science has historically been met with mixed response from the scientific community. Though scientists often contribute to the field, many prominent scientists have felt that the practical effect on their work is limited; a popular quote attributed to physicist Richard Feynman goes, “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.” In response, some philosophers (e.g. Craig Callender) have suggested that ornithological knowledge would be of great benefit to birds, were it possible for them to possess it.” The difference here, of course, is that we all have the ability to possess this knowledge and integrate it into our behavior.

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  5. Thanks for your comments Tom. I presume you are addressing the general “you” like the French “on” rather than me directly. If you read through my blog posts, you’ll find that I’m rather agnostic if a little negative on the superiority of science or scientists. I do take delight in mathematical concepts but do not cast aspersions on anyone (which is mostly everyone else) if they do not. I am not a techno-optimist nor do I believe or subscribe to the concept of “follow the science”. To me science is just a world view, to which I only partially subscribe.

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