Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Not even trying: the corruption of real science - now available online


My 2012 mini-book Not even trying: the corruption of real science is now available online.




Ben Nye said...

I found this book to be highly interesting. It expanded my thinking on inductive/deductive reasoning. Specifically that modern science and knowledge is based largely on inductive reasoning. "ab uno disce omnes" - from one, learn all.

Arakawa said...

"ab uno disce omnes" - from one, learn all.

From what I've seen, a more common maxim goes something like:

"If we can measure it, we can... wait, what are we trying to accomplish, again?"

Gnecht said...

This reminds me of a Reuters article:


When pharmaceutical companies try to build on medical research, sometimes they end up sounding almost like you, Dr. Charlton.

Arakawa said...

... and another (actual, all too common) turn of phrase that I encountered yet again just today, dripping with barely-noticeable mendacity:

"This is a very exciting piece of research."

pwyll said...

Since you place the peak of "real science" at 1950, you may be interested in the book "Tuxedo Park", particularly how it details the postwar transition in America from largely privately-funded science done by amateurs to largely publicly-funded science done by "official scientists". It fingers Vannevar Bush, in particular, as being responsible, but it's also apparent that many of the private patrons of scientific research were fully in favor of increased public funding - perhaps because they failed to forsee the consequences. Link here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0684872889

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

John Ziman… was probably the first to distinguish real science from what nowadays calls itself science but is not

Ziman was maybe one of the first to identify the present-day symptoms of the disease from an inside position as a scientist, but he was certainly not the first to distinguish real from false science.

Maritain published in 1910 an essay on modern science and reason (La Science moderne et la Raison) describing how unscrupulous or mediocre scientists were destroying science. He was also speaking as an insider, since he had a doctorate in biology (in Germany) as well as in philosophy (in Paris) and knew personally a large number of intellectuals in various disciplines.

I think C.S. Lewis comment ‘What do they teach in these schools’ and related texts had the same purpose. If you don’t believe truth exists, or is knowable, and if you are not educated in truth (generally speaking, in liberal arts), then science is impossible.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SDR - What Ziman did was to describe what modern science has become - as I write later in the book:

"This profound shift within science was described tellingly in Real Science by the late John Ziman (1925-2005) (from whom I took the sub-title of this book). Ziman was a British physicist of great distinction as well as a philosopher and sociologist of science, and on the advisory board of Medical Hypotheseswhen I was editor. Ziman termed the transformation in science during his lifetime a change from ‘academic science’ to ‘post-academic science’. Academic science is what I call ‘real’ science; post-academic science is what I call ‘professional research’.


In Ziman’s description, post-academic’ discourse is implicitly framed such that questions of truth have lost their meaning. It is a type of Big Science – focused on the organization and funding of projects. Real Science memorably describes the transformation in the fine texture of a successful scientist’s life, the day to day activities. The old style ‘academic’ or real scientist does science – tries to discover, theorise and describe the truth about reality. But the typical day of a modern, professional-researching post-academic ‘scientist’ is non-overlappingly distinct from this. It is, in essence, the life of a bureaucrat, of a manager – combining personnel administration and project organizing with public relations, arranging for publication, fund-raising, publicity and presentations."


Maritain was too early in the sense that real science (e.g. Einstein) was probably at its peak when he wrote. But of course the dangers were already there. And soon became apparent - I credit Chargaff as maybe the first first rate insider scientist clearly to understand the problem:


Chargaff on the loss of human pace and scale in science

Referring to his first twelve years at Columbia University, USA, Erwin Chargaff (1905-2002) said:

“The more than sixty regular papers published during that period dealt with a very wide field of biochemistry, as it was then understood; and a few of them may even have contributed a little to the advance of science, which, at that time, was still slow, i.e., it had human proportions... Nevertheless, when I look back on what I did during those twelve years, there come to mind the words ascribed to St. Thomas Aquinas: Omnia quae scripsi paleae mihi videntur. All he had written seemed to him as chaff. “When I was young, I was required – and it was easy – to go back to the origins of our science. The bibliographies of chemical and biological papers often included reference to work done forty or fifty years earlier. One felt oneself part of a gently growing tradition, growing at a rate that the human mind could encompass, vanishing at a rate it could apprehend. “Now, however, in our miserable scientific mass society, nearly all discoveries are born dead; papers are tokens in a power game, evanescent reflections on the screen of a spectator sport, new items that do not outlive the day on which they appeared. Our sciences have become forcing houses for a market that in reality does not exist, creating, with the concomitant complete break in tradition, a truly Babylonian confusion of mind and language. “Nowadays, scientific tradition hardly reaches back for more than three or four years. The proscenium looks the same as before, but the scenery keeps on changing as in a fever dream; no sooner is one backdrop in place than it is replaced by an entirely different one. The only thing that experience can now teach is that it has become worthless. “One could ask whether a fund of knowledge, such as a scientific discipline, can exist without a living tradition. In any event, in many areas of science which I am able to survey, this tradition has disappeared. It is, hence, no exaggeration and no coquettish humility if I conclude that the work we did thirty or forty years ago – with all the engagement that honest effort could provide – is dead and gone.”

Erwin Chargaff – Heraclitean Fire, 1978.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

Maritain was not too early. The trend was already clear to an insider, more so because he was a Catholic convert and a philosopher. It was obvious to Chargaff less than a generation later in the U.S., and I think America was not yet ahead of Europe at the time.

dearieme said...

years ago I heard some disobliging remarks about Pippard
which would be compatible with his being a sceptic about modern Science. have you come across much about his views, Bruce?

P.S. Here's an example: he believed that it was possible for a scientific field to be overpopulated, or underpopulated, and had practical measures for these states.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SDR - Fair point. The first person to spot an adverse will always be 'too early'! - even when it is too late to stop it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - I don't know much about Pippard, although I used to be friendly with his daughter who played clarinet in the Gilbert and Sullivan productions when I was a student. But there were still plenty of uncorrupt leading scientists from his generation - however, they did not hold the line on honesty and truth seeking.

Rowena said...

"Credit is given for the mere act of a ‘peer reviewed’ publication regardless of whether the stuff is true and useful - or false and harmful...The vast bulk of published work is...dishonest...or else incompetent in the worst sense - the sense that the researchers lack knowledge, experience and even interest in the problems which they are pretending to solve."

That is so true. I recently exposed a shocking case of dangerously bad, incorrect and misleading "science" in the peer-reviewed literature that could, and almost certainly already has, cost human lives. See the first two publications listed at http://anu.academia.edu/RowenaBall/.

In fact this is a truly horrible business, and it involves many of the grimmest diseases of science: dishonesty, incompetence, ignorance, citation rings, you name it. When I came across these particular examples of bad published science the first thing I did was email all the authors - separately - for whom email addresses were given, very politely and even cordially explaining the problem with their work and inviting them to join me in publishing a corrected analysis. Not one of them replied.