Friday, 28 May 2010

Motivation - the key to science?

While wanting to know the truth does not mean that you will find it; on the other hand, if scientists are not even *trying* to discover the truth - then the truth will not be discovered.

That is the current situation.

'Truth' can be defined as 'underlying reality’. Science is not the only way of discovering truth (for example, philosophy is also about discovering truth - science being in its origin a sub-class of philosophy) - but unless an activity is trying to discover underlying reality, then it certainly cannot be science.

But what motivates someone to want to discover the truth about something?

The great scientists are all very strongly motivated to ‘want to know’ – and this drives them to put in great efforts, and keeps them at their task for decades, in many instances. Why they should be interested in one thing rather than another remains a mystery – but what is clear is that this interest cannot be dictated but arises from within.

Crick commented that you should research that which you gossip about, Watson commented that you should avoid subjects which bore you - - their point being that science is so difficult, that when motivation is deficient then problems will not get solved. Motivation needs all the help it can get.

Seth Roberts, in his superb new article (which happened to be the last paper I accepted for publication in Medical Hypotheses before I was sacked) makes the important point that one motivation to discover something useful in medicine is when you yourself suffer from a problem -

Seth does self-experimentation on problems which he suffers - such as early morning awakening, or putting on too much weight (he is most famous for the Shangri-La diet). He has made several probable breakthroughs working alone and over a relatively short period; and one of the reasons is probably that he really wanted answers, and was not satisfied with answers unless they really made a significant difference.

By contrast, 95 percent (at least!) of professional scientists are not interested in the truth but are doing science for quite other reasons to do with 'career' - things like money, status, security, sociability, lifestyle, fame, to attract women or whatever.

The assumption in modern science is that professional researchers should properly be motivated by career incentives such as appointments, pay and promotion – and not by their intrinsic interest in a problem – certainly not by having a personal stake in finding an answer – such a being a sufferer. Indeed, such factors are portrayed as introducing bias/ damaging impartiality. The modern scientist is supposed to be a docile and obedient bureaucrat – switching ‘interests’ and tasks as required by the changing (or unchanging) imperatives of funding, the fashions of research and the orders of his master.

What determines a modern scientist’s choice of topic, of problem? Essentially it is peer review – the modern scientist is supposed to do whatever work that the cartel of peer-review-dominating scientists decide he should do.

This will almost certainly involve working as a team member for one or more of the peer review cartel scientists; doing some kind of allocated micro-specialized task of no meaning or intrinsic interest – but one which contributes to the overall project being managed by the peer review cartel member. Of course the funders and grant awarders have the major role in what science gets done, but nowadays the allocation of funding has long since been captured by the peer review cartel.

Most importantly, the peer review cartel has captured the ability to define success in solving scientific problems: they simply agree that the problem has been solved! Since peer review is now regarded as the gold standard of science, if the peer review cartel announces that a problem has been solved, then that problem has been solved.

(This is euphemistically termed hype or spin.)

To what does the modern scientist aspire? He aspires to become a member of the peer review cartel. In other words, he aspires to become a bureaucrat, a manager, a ‘politician’.

Is the peer review cartel member a scientist as well? Sometimes (not always) he used-to be – but the answer is essentially: no. Because being a modern high level bureaucrat, manager or politician is incompatible with truthfulness, and dishonesty is incompatible with science.

The good news is that when real science is restored (lets be optimistic!) then its practitioners will again be motivated to discover true and useful things – because science will no longer be a career it will be colonized almost-exclusively by those with a genuine interest in finding real world answers.